Blake’s biblical paintings for Thomas Butts

I shall be making a presentation about my new book,  Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, to the Blake Society this Wednesday (17 February). The following is an extract from the book which references some of the paintings I’ll be discussing on Wednesday.

The starting commission [for Thomas Butts] was a series of fifty-three paintings illustrating the Bible, the majority of which were completed in 1799 although some were painted when the Blakes were in Felpham. For these works, Butts paid more than £400. Of the series, only thirty remain of which seven deal with subjects from the Old Testament, and the remainder from the New Testament. The medium for these paintings was tempera, water-based pigments bound with gum or glue, and they were intended as “cabinet paintings”, smaller pieces that could be hung on the walls of the Butts’ residence. When composing his paintings, Blake applied the pigment in multiple layers, often reinforcing outlines with black ink and glazing the finished work with glue. The editors of the Blake Archive say that Blake may have been trying to create “jewel-like paintings”, as he later described them in his Descriptive Catalogue as “enamels” and “precious stones” (E531). A number of the temperas were also painted on copper, further enhancing their jewel-like nature. Unfortunately, the medium was unstable as the different layers expanded and contracted at different rates – leading to cracking – while the carpenters glue used by Blake frequently dulled and browned over time. 

 

Despite these problems with Blake’s medium, some of the paintings in the series that have survived demonstrate his astonishing imagination when dealing with biblical subjects. Naomi Billingsley is correct to point out that we should be careful of ascribing too clear an understanding of the series as earlier critics, such as David Bindman and Mary Lynn Johnson have done. While the temptation is to treat these as some kind of narrative journey demonstrating Blake’s understanding of the role of Christ, we simply no longer have the complete sequence of paintings and such a story “may not have been intended by Blake in the original scheme.” Rather, over a period of four years, these were biblical subjects that appealed to both Blake and Butts, although the fact that five of the extant paintings are larger than the rest (around 30 by 50 cm rather than 27 x 38 cm) and all illustrate the life of Christ indicate that these were intended as a series.  

 

The paintings as a whole do not need to be seen as explaining a consistent Christology, but there are clear innovations that mark these out as separate to Blake’s contemporaries. In his depiction of The Nativity, for example, Jesus springs from Mary in an entirely unrealistic but wholly inspirational fashion, a glowing ideal who leaps towards the outstretched hands of Mary’s sister, Elizabeth. Likewise, as Billingsley demonstrates with comparisons to contemporary art works such as J. M. W. Turner’s Holy Family (1803), Blake’s images renounce any form of naturalism: they are intended to inspire the viewer to consider the nature of Christ rather than to seek out the historical Jesus. Two very striking images are from Old Testament subjects. The first, Eve Tempted by the Serpent, is another image painted on copper, and while it also uses tempera with glue or gum binder as well as pen and ink outlines, the use of gold highlights make this image shine. This would be a technique that Blake would use several times – most notably with the coloured copy of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion – to make his art works shine in a literal act of illumination. Blake’s study of the subject is also unique – and one that he would return to several times throughout his career. Eve, naked, stands full-frontal to the viewer with no shame or modesty, befitting entirely her status before the fall: she is an example of the human form divine that will be lost when mankind seeks to cover up its glorious nakedness. Adam is asleep next to her – the last time that man will sleep in such an innocent state – and the serpent coils alongside her body, for all the world appearing more like a wingless dragon than the typical snake of Christian art. The scene is dark and foreboding, prefiguring the collapse of the world that will take place, yet because Blake is deliberately capturing Eve in her innocence, the overall effect is startling: as she reaches up for the apple, which we cannot see, she seems fully confident. It would be tempting to see her as revelling in the act of taking the forbidden fruit, but I think this is to misinterpret the scene: Eve does not yet know sin – the expression on her face is calm and peaceful, more like representations of the Buddha than the accusatory depictions of the fallen woman who “Brought Death into the World, and all our woe / With loss of Eden” (Paradise Lost, I.1-2). We are presented with mankind at the final moment before the Fall, and this picture for me inspires incredible sadness at what will be lost. 

 

Another image in the series continues ththeme of the fall in an even more disturbing way: Abraham and Isaac shows the two figures standing between an altar prepared with wood to burn a sacrifice and a thicket where a ram is caught, illustrating Genesis 22.13: “And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.” Blake, however, has done something very disturbing in his rendition of this line – as Billingsley observes, the clothed Abraham is a passive figure looking up towards heaven in sorrow for the act he is about to commit, while it is Isaac, naked and dynamic, who sees the ram that will substitute for him in an act of sacrifice. Abraham in his long robe with arms outstretched, a curved knife held in one hand, is reminiscent of Blake’s depictions of the druids, and his pose makes him similar to Urizen in America a Prophecy. Rather than passive, he may even be seen to be impassive, implacable in the face of the demands of human sacrifice. Isaac, by contrast, is innocent and unafraid: as Billingsley correctly points out, it is his childlike perception that sees more clearly the way to reconcile god and man as opposed to the false religion followed by his father.

The talk will take place at 8pm (UK time) on Zoom. It is free and all are welcome, but the Blake Society asks for visitors to register in advance via this link.

Blakespotting, January 2021

2021 began with a suitable Blakean bang (rather than a whimper) with a New Year’s Eve performance by Patti Smith, streamed at Picadilly Circus as part of a month-long takeover organised by the digital platform CIRCA. Included in her performances throughout the month were recitals of “The Divine Image” and “The Tyger”, as well as 2021: A New Year inspired by her “Blakean Year” poem.

While Smith’s words were a bright spot in what has been a dark beginning to the year, one of the best presents for Blake scholars to begin the new year was the announcement by the Blake Archive that they were making available a digital edition of Poetical Sketches, the collection of juvenilia and early work that Blake produced between c. 1769 and 1777, and which was published with the support of John Flaxman and the circle attached to Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet. While those who supported its publication (along with Blake, it seems) did not appear to hold the volume in especially high regard, it has since the time of Gilchrist at least been recognised as an important contribution to the development of what would become known as Romanticism. The digital edition itself is available at http://www.blakearchive.org/work/bb128, and additional news of the development of that addition (from the copy owned by Charles Tulk) can be found at https://blog.blakearchive.org/2021/01/14/publication-blakes-poetical-sketches/.

January saw the second issue of a new comic launched at the end of 2020. Written by Paul Grist (whose previous work includes Judge Dredd), with art by Grist, Andrea di Vito and R. B. Silva, The Union tells of a team of super heroes gathered from all over the UK and led by Britannia. When disaster strikes in the form of a foreign invasion, that team is pushed to their limits in this satire on Brexit. The Blake connection is, of course – as Bleeding Cool News points out – the inevitable reference to the hymn Jerusalem. Other comic news included a review of G. E. Gallas’s excellent work, The Poet and the Flea (originally published in 2016) in Comicsbeat.

While film references to Blake have taken a hit as the medium (like theatre, concerts and exhibitions) finds a new way to deal with the aftermath of the COVID pandemic, his appeal to writers continues to be in evidence. Thus John Higgs, whose William Blake vs The World is due out in May, spoke to The Quietus about the esoteric history of Eddie the Head, the mascot of Iron Maiden whose lead singer Bruce Dickinson has long been a Blake fan.

In other news, actor, musician, member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and lifelong Blake aficionado, Kris Krostofferson, announced his retirement at the age of 85. As a reminder of his love for the Romantic poet, Best Classic Bands reminded readers of his assertion in the Ken Burns’ documentary, Country Music, that Blake’s poetry “is telling you that you’ll be miserable if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do.”

 

Blake Bites: short videos on William Blake

With the release of Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake, published by Reaktion Books on 15 March, 2021, I’m starting to make a number of short videos based on the text of that book.

Titled “Blake Bites”, each of these is a short (3-4) minute video that focuses on a particular poem or art work by Blake. The first two are now live and can be viewed on my YouTube channel, Zoavision. In this case, they deal with “The Ancient of Days” and “The Tyger”, and you can watch them both below.

I intend to make new videos on a weekly or fortnightly basis, so please do consider subscribing to the channel.

Phaze Theory: Live at Balabam

As the tumultuous year that was 2020 comes finally to an end, this is an opportunity to return to a pleasurable task that I had meant to undertake just as the first COVID-related lockdown was taking hold. In April, the art-rock group, Phaze Theory, had released an album and concert video, Live at Balabam, which brought together their love of esoterica, W. B. Yeats and William Blake.

Based in London, the group was founded in 2014 by Christopher Barrett (on tuba), Tal Janes (guitar) and Marco Quarantotto (drums), and released their first album, Phaze Theory, in 2017. While that album owed more to Yeats (with tracks that included “Song of the Wandering Aengus” and “Dialogue of Self and Soul”) it also included an astonishing burst of Blakeana in the form of “The Angel”, in which Barrett’s ominous blasts create a disturbing vortex from which bursts Janes’ jazz guitar and Ray Jones wonderful vocals. It was exciting, dynamic and truly beautiful.

A year later, the group – now joined by singer Irini Arabatzi – had gathered at the Balabam music venue in Tottenham, an event which would be recorded as their new album. Again comprising a mixture of occultural-inspired songs, some of which Phaze Theory had already played at other clubs such as the Vortex and Bird’s Nest, this album brings together a wider selection of Blake’s songs, most notably The Little Girl Lost and The Little Girl Found, as well as How Sweet I Roam’d from the Poetical Sketches (and for the inclusion of which I might have been partially responsible…)

The live album begins with a somewhat more laid-back, slightly melancholy feel on “Into the Twilight” which perfectly matches the mournful sense of Yeats’s poem from The Wind Among the Reeds, with Arabatzi’s vocals perfectly complementing the mellow harmonies of the three musicians. By contrast, “The Little Girl Lost” marks a significant transition towards the art-occult forms that the band like to explore, using free jazz forms to break away from tonal chord progressions and instead evoke Blake’s Song of Experience as a mysterious search of the soul among caverns deep and beasts of prey. Its companion piece, “The Little Girl Found”, focusses on Janes’s guitar and Arabatzi’s voice to create a harmonious resolution – Lyra returned to her parents as the soul returns to its home.

“The Little Girl Found” is beautiful, but my personal soft spot remains “How Sweet I Roam’d”. Published in Blake’s first collection, Poetical Sketches, in 1784, it is one of his most perfectly lyrical songs and has been frequently been set to music, beginning with Henry Balfour Gardner in 1895 and most famously by The Fugs on the 1970 album, Golden Filth. Although it has been a popular poem for different musicians and groups, Phaze Theory make the song entirely their own – a mystical, dreamy vision of a lost Spring in which melodious voice and instruments hover within harmonies while lilting away into slight dissonances that match perfectly the underlying discord of Blake’s original poem (and, it must be said, which segue perfectly into the next track, Mohini Chatterjee).

Phaze Theory have been described as a combination of Miles Davies, Led Zeppelin and William Blake (which very much underestimates the importance of Yeats at least). Live at Balabam certainly shows them as inheritors of Blake’s musical mantle – and is a reminder of happier times for live performances and a hope that it will not be too much longer before we can see them again.

You can hear Live at Balabam on Spotify and support them by downloading from their web site. Some of the live recordings from the concert can be seen on YouTube.

Dmitri Smirnov: 1948-2020

Along with a number of people, I have been extremely saddened to hear the recent news of the death of Dmitri Smirnov, the Russian-born composer whose love for Blake was such that he became a committed Anglophile and spent most of his career creating stunning and innovative compositions that set a multitude of Blake’s works to music.

Having contracted COVID-19, he passed away on Thursday, 9 April, leaving behind his wife – herself a great composer of note – and their children, Alissa and Philip. I had been in correspondence a few times with him because of our shared love for Blake, and there follows a piece I wrote on him as part of a wider essay dealing with the musical reception of Blake in Europe:

When Fitch was compiling his original catalogue in the late eighties, however, he noted that Soviet-bloc nations had yet to discover Blake, with two startling exceptions (1989, xxiv). Elena Firsovas (b. 1950) Proritzanye (Augury) is an impressive large-scale symphony composed in 1987-88, but it is the work of her husband, Dmitrii Smirnov (b. 1948), which demonstrates one of the deepest and most impressive engagements with Blake among the works of any composer. Born in 1948 in Minsk, Smirnov studied with Nikolai Sidelnikov, Edison Denisov and Yury Kholopov at the Moscow Conservatoire, as well as being influenced by Philip Herschkowitz, who introduced him to the serialism of Anton Webern, which Smirnov would combine with Franco-Russian sensualism (Smirnov no date). One of the most important Russian modernist composers, and one of the founders of the Association for Contemporary Music in Moscow in 1990, he and his wife moved to England in 1991.

The influence of Blake on Smirnov cannot be understated, beginning with his piece for soprano, flute, viola and harp, The Seasons, based on the four poems from Poetical Sketches,  first performed in Moscow in 1980 and then arranged as a symphony, performed by the Latvian Symphony Orchestra in 1981 (F1148, F1144). Thus began a decade during which Smirnov returned to Blake again and again, demonstrating a deep knowledge of Blakes works (which he often translated into Russian),4 whether occasional pieces such as To the Muses (included in the 1982 Ballada for Saxophone and Piano) or much more extensive pieces like the operas, Tiriel (1983-85, F1154), which premiered in Freiburg im Breisgau in 1989, and Lamentations of Thel (1985-86, F1146), performed in the same year at the Almeida Festival in London.

The 1980s represented a particularly intense period for Smirnov’s engagement with Blake (although by no means encompassing all his compositions at that time, which also drew upon writers as diverse as Shakespeare, Pushkin and Pasternak), and after his move to England he continued to draw inspiration from Blake, increasingly drawing upon the paintings which were now more readily available to him, as in his series of four Blake Pictures (The Moonlight Story, Jacob’s Ladder, Abel, and The River of Life), composed between 1988 and 1992. His performances in England were enthusiastically received, with Stephen Pettitt praising the premiere of JacobLadder for The Times in 1991. Although Blakes influence has been less prevalent on Smirnovs work in the twenty-first century, he continues to be an important source, for example in the Blake Sonata No. 6, performed in London and Cambridge in 2015.  A number of Smirnovs works were also included in the 2011 programme held to celebrate Blakes birthday at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow, as part of the William Blake and British Visionary Art exhibition.

Review: John Higgs – William Blake Now

During my near thirty years of studying Blake, there have been plenty of books and articles that I have been sent which cross the normal boundaries of academia and publishing and are also given as an act of friendship. I have a strong suspicion that this is something that is more common in Blake studies than elsewhere, but it is something that I felt very strongly upon reading John Higgs’ William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever.

This slender non-fiction title, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, is not an academic text at all (and I mean that neither as a slight to William Blake Now, nor as a stab at my own profession). One thing that has always intrigued me about Blake is how he appeals to thoughtful readers outside academia: of course, this is also true of a number of writers and artists – Jane Austen is a contemporary of Blake who has a vibrant afterlife beyond the university – but Blake is one of those who has never been owned by the hirelings such as myself who populate universities. In this short book, Higgs provides nine essays – a series of brief spots of time (or, better, moments in each day that Satan cannot find) that are placed at angles to each other, like the surfaces of a gemstone. They form a wonderfully personal and frequently polemical consideration of Blake’s value to our contemporary times, that future age to which he called in works such as Milton a Poem.

That personal response is evident in the opening chapter, which brilliantly paints the occasion of the unveiling of Blake’s new grave – a stone commissioned by the Blake Society to mark the newly discovered spot where Blake’s body lay. Delighting in the sight of celebrities mingling with the hoi-polloi (as, indeed, it should be), Higgs remarks the Romantic’s unusual ability “to reach across society” (p.3) before focussing on his relationship with the English Beat writer, Brian Barritt, who stimulated his interest in Blake. Standing before Blake’s grave, Higgs has a revelation or vision, that he sees the golden thread that connects the engraver, writer and artist to our own age. For him, it is clear that the Beats form an important strand in that thread, bound through in the next chapter when he discusses the influence of Blake on Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and Patti Smith. There has been a huge amount of interest in Blake and the Age of Aquarius in recent years – not least Linda Freedman’s William Blake and the Myth of America and Stephen Eisenman’s edited collection William Blake and the Age of Aquarius. Higgs clearly feels this connection strongly, but this is his entry point, the doorway to Blake’s influence: as he wrily remarks – “The 1960s were a long time ago… We are in a very different world now.” (p.15)

The relevance of Blake to now emerges in the following two essays. In some respects, the first of these – entitled, simply, “London” – is the most important. The Song of Experience is famously one of the most profound poems ever written on the city, and Higgs’s personal reflections on that poem lead him into a discussion of Englishness and national identity in which, amidst the divided Britain of Brexit, both remain and leave may be contraries of a personal character: “if you don’t have love for your home and neighbours, then any proclamation of love for those further away is suspect… if you condemn groups of strangers far away, then how true is your love for your home and neighbours really?” (pp.22-3) It is an optimistic vision of a division too often defined by rancour, but in the end both contraries must learn that opposition is true friendship if this island is ever to be more than a disunited kingdom.

The following chapter, “Blake Now”, is one for my blushes as my own observations on the froth of Blakespotting (a favourite activity of mine) form the basis for a multiplicity of scattered references to the poet and artist in computer games, films and social media. For Higgs, such sightings are rarely more than superficial: for my part, I delight in such superficiality as well as the deep struggles with Blake’s meaning, but this is one of those points where it feels I am reading (and mentally conversing with) an old friend, making the book a very personal delight. The following two chapters, as with so much of the book, are very personal and insightful considerations on the topics of understanding Blake and remembering him. The former returns once more to Blake’s grave, and the words of Bruce Dickinson as an example that “understanding Blake is not knowledge that you possess but an activity that you undertake” (p.34). The notion of a Blakean praxis or activity is one that is not pursued enough: after thirty years of studying Blake, I am never entirely sure that I understand the strange and wonderful visions that he wrote, engraved and painted, but I feel most profoundly that from those studies I have joyfully learned the error that comes when “you see with, not through, the eye”.

“On Being Remembered” dealswith the vagaries of reception and influence, particularly through the works of artists such as Tracey Emin who invoked Blake in her 2017 retrospective. Certainly his influence is much more wide-reaching than that of much more famous contemporaries, perhaps precisely because he is so difficult to possess as knowledge rather than practice. As a primary artist of imagination, the subject of the following essay, Blake has led many writers, artists and filmmakers to pursue their own vision – to create their own systems rather than be enslaved by others – and Higgs ends his collection with a wonderfully idiosyncratic reflection of a visionary experience of his own on Primrose Hill. It is London that perhaps resonates most with him; certainly it is the poem he returns to, tracing the protests of Extinction Rebellion and the opening of the London Olympics to the vision of London that appeared in Songs of Experience. Blake, perhaps more than anyone, with his profound insights into perception, art, spirituality and politics, “has prepared us for the world we find ourselves in.” (69)

John Higgs, William Blake Now: Why He Matters More Than Ever, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2019. 79pp. £5.99.

 

The Prophet of Lanark: Alasdair Gray and William Blake

The news today of the death of Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer and artist most famous for experimental novels such as Lanark and Poor Things, is cause for reflection on a trailblazer in Scottish fiction who once described William Blake as his “favourite artist and author”.

Born in Glasgow in 1934, Gray turned to the novels which would make him most famous relatively late in his career, having previously worked on scriptwriting and painting. Lanark: A Life in Four Books, was published in 1981 when Gray was 46, to be followed by his erotic reworking of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the book 1982, Janine, three years later. Lanark, for me still the most striking of his works for very personal and idiosyncratic reasons, won him various awards and led Anthony Burgess to call him the “best Scottish novelist since Walter Scott”. Scott’s contemporary, William Blake, was much nearer to Gray’s ambitions not least in that both of them sought to combine image and word in a kind of illuminated book.

Lanark follows the journey of a young man, the eponymous hero of the book, who arrives in a strange version of Glasgow, Unthank, which owes more than a little to Dante’s visions of Inferno (as with Blake, Gray was working on a version of The Divine Comedy at the time of his death). Falling in with a group of young men and women, Lanark begins to feel alienated and to suffer from a disease whcih turns his skin into dragon hide. Between the story of Lanark in Unthank, Gray then tells the tale of a precocious man, Duncan Thaw, born into wartime Glasgow who suffers obsessive visions and eventually commits suicide.

Thaw and Lanark are linked in some way (as Thaw suffers from eczema, so Lanark is covered in dragonhide), and it may be that Unthank is a kind of hell in which Thaw finds himself after his death. While the journey through Unthank owes much to Dante, it is Blake who is perhaps the artist in whom Thaw is most interested, citing him at many instances throughout the novel. At the beginning of Chatpter 19, “Mrs. Thaw Disappears”, for example, we are told:

Thaw opened his diary and wrote:

“Love seeketh not itself to please Nor for itself hath any care But for another gives its ease and builds a Heaven in Hell’s despair.” So sung a little Clod of Clay trodden by the cattle’s feet, but a Pebble of the brook warbled out these metres meet. “Love seeketh only Self to please, to bind another to Its delight, Joys in another’s loss of ease, and builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.”

Blake doesn’t choose, he shows both sorts of love, and life would be easy if women were clods and men were pebbles. Maybe most of them are but I’m a gravelly mixture. My pebble feelings are for June Haig, no, not real June Haig, an imaginary June Haig in a world without sympathy or conscience. My feelings for Kate Caldwell are cloddish, I want to please and delight her, I want her to think me clever and fascinating. (p.190)

Blake runs as rich seam throughout Lanark. Thaw spends a lot of his time at the Mitchell Library, looking at facsimiles of the Romantic’s illuminated books, indicating the influence of Blake and Beardsley – the two most important artists for Thaw – and he tells his father that he wants “to write a modern Divine Comedy with illustrations in the style of William Blake” (p.204). This alone suggests strongly that Unthank is a vision of the underworld after Dante (with a little of Milton and Bunyan thrown in as well), but that it is the Romantic poet rather than Virgil who is the guide to understanding this fantastical novel. Another key are the references to that incredibly Blakean novel, The Horse’s Mouth, by Joyce Cary: Gray cites Gulley Jimson, the Blake-quoting artist-protagonist of Cary’s book, in his Epilogue, clearly drawing on the Anglo-Irish writer as a precursor to his own experimental fiction.

The comment regarding Blake being Gray’s favourite artist came from an interview with The Scotsman in 2014, given at the time of publication of his collection of essays and occasional pieces, Of Me and Others. In it, Gray tells the interviewer, Susan Mansfield:

William Blake, my favourite artist and author, was used to people admiring his work saying: ‘Ah, it would never have been as great as this if you hadn’t suffered all these tribulations.’ And he said: ‘I’d have produced a lot more if I’d not suffered these tribulations.’

While admiring the strange and extraordinary in Blake’s work, then, Gray had little time for the stereotype of the suffering Romantic artist. Burgess was wrong to compare him to Walter Scott: aside from a shared interest in Scottish nationalism, Gray had little in common with his fellow countryman and mentions him only briefly in passing – as something to be endured in school. Scott was, in the end, too Tory for Gray, and his enduring interest in socialism made William Blake a much better fit.

Gray did indeed have much to say about the issues of Scottish nationalism as well as the ideals of socialism. Throughout Lanark, Thaw and his contemporaries discuss the possibilities of a Scottish parliament as well as ironic asides to the relative failures of the Scottish Arts Council to support an arts proper to the north of the border. Yet this is no appeal to jingoism – indeed, he is critical of the Scottish arts scene in general as well as declaiming against “Scottish chauvinism” more generally. In contrast to the more traditional romanticism of Scott, this seems to have been something that Gray has picked up from Blake: Albion is Blake’s vision of his homeland where he was born, but it is as much a perfidious as glorious country. Like Blake, Gray wished to use novels such as Lanark as a means to restore his country to their greater arts.

Blakespotting: The Divine Essence of Things – Nick Cave and William Blake

In a response to a question on his fan site, The Red Hand Files, earlier this year, Nick Cave listed Blake as one of his favourite poets – alongside Stevie Smith, W. B. Yeats, Emily Dickinson and a dozen others, describing them as the “poets whose company I consistently enjoy” (a phrase that may, either consciously or unconsciously, echo Blake’s comment in the album of the antiquary William Upcott as “one who is very much delighted with being in good Company”).

The connection between the two visionaries is hardly a new one. Indeed, by the early 2000s comparisons between Cave and Blake had become something of a stereotype. The Guardian called him “Ted Bundy with a William Blake obsession” (not, as it transpires, intended as a compliment in a fairly snippy review of the album Nocturama – admittedly not his best work), while Eric Carr, writing for Pitchfork, could throw away a smart jibe that until 1997 “the Nick Cave Songbook read like a set of William Blake Mad Libs filled in by undertakers, jilted lovers and John Wayne Gacy, with a few American folk covers thrown in for variety”. The psycho Blake/Cave comparison was a lazy, edgy meme for journalists who wished to portray themselves as literate without too much effort, although there were others who realised that the front man of the Bad Seeds was becoming a very different kind of person to the heroin-addicted figure who had destroyed his relationship with P. J. Harvey in the 90s. In a very good article for Salon in 2004, Thomas Bartlett only invoked Blake tangentially – to portray Cave as “A true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” – but the article overall treated the singer’s religious beliefs with much greater respect than was usually the case. A thoughtful tone was likewise struck by Russell Porter in The Beat Happening magazine (2008), who described Cave as writing with “a lyrical tone that owes as much to the visions of William Blake as it does to the street savvy tempo of William Chandler and Dashiel Hammet”.

Bartlett had made an astute observation that very few music journalists commented on Cave and religion. Almost certainly, this was due to supposedly secular reputation of pop music, which was commonly assumed to be fully of the devil’s party despite the well-known beliefs of figures as diverse as Prince, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. As well as regularly invoking biblical motifs in his songs and his 1989 novel And the Ass Saw the Angel, Cave spoke explicitly about his relationship to Christianity in a programme for BBC 3 Religious Services in 1996. Entitled “The Flesh Made Word”, the transcript and Cave’s recording is available at NickCave.it.

The piece, lasting some seventeen minutes, provides a fairly detailed, autobiographical account of Cave’s relationship not merely with his Anglican upbringing but, more pointedly, how his father’s desire to inculcate a love of literature in his son was also a kind of spiritual ecstasy, an elevation from the mundane to the “divine essence of things”: “although he would have laughed at this notion, what my father was finding in his beloved literature was God.” Unlike his father, this pursuit of God was something that Cave began to pursue explicitly, taking an interest in relgious art against the desires of his instructors who thought he should be interested in more contemporary forms. The deity that first appealed to the young singer was the retributive creator and destroyer of the Old Testament, making him “a conduit for a God that spoke in a language written in bile and puke.” While he was happy with this for a while, it was eventually through the gospels – lovingly evoked by Cave as “four wonderful prose poems” – that Cave returned to the Jesus of his childhood. This was around the period that, in Berlin, he began to write And the Ass Saw the Angel: Jesus still spoke all too often in the language of the father to the singer at this point, but Cave also began to recognise the importance of an imagination that was explicitly Christian:

What Christ shows us here is that the creative imagination has the power to combat all enemies, that we are protected by the flow of our own inspiration. Clearly what Jesus most despised, what he really railed against time and time again, were the forces that represented the established order of things, symbolized by the scribes and Pharisees, those dull, small-minded scholars of religious law who dogged his every move. Christ saw them as enemies of the imagination, who actively blocked the spiritual flight of the people, and kept them bogged down with theological nitpicking, intellectualism, and law. What was Christ’s great bugbear, and what has sat like dung in the doorway of the Christian church ever since, was the Pharisees’ preoccupation with the law in preference to the logos. Said St. Paul to the Corinthians: “The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” So how can one be elevated spiritually, if they are loaded up with the chains of religious jurisprudence? How can the imagination be told how to behave? How can inspiration, or for that matter God, be moral?

Cave only invokes Blake once in this piece: “To loosely paraphrase William Blake: I myself did nothing; I just pointed a damning finger and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.” This is, indeed, a very loose paraphrase, taking its inspiration from plate 3 of Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion: “We who dwell on Earth can do nothing of ourselves, every thing is conducted by Spirits, no less than Digestion or Sleep.” (E145) Cave invokes Shakespeare, Nabokov and Dostoevsky, but aside from the Bible it is only Blake he cites, and his chosen source is, frankly, astonishing: while various critics have noted the singer’s allusions to Blake’s lyrics – entirely understandable in a song writer – none have, to my knowledge, drawn attention to his familiarity with the difficult, late prophetic books. For me, the fact that Cave does not merely invoke Jerusalem but does so playfully suggests a possible familiarity that goes far beyond that of almost any other popular musician.

It is in the later prophetic books, I would argue, that Cave would discover ideas from Blake, most notably around the rejection of the Moral Law, that seem to have shaped his attitudes to the creative imagination. For Blake, “The Imagination is not a State: it is the Human Existence itself” (E132), and against this very existence itself the poet placed the dead letter of the law, which Albion recognises in his fallen state:

O Human Imagination O Divine Body I have Crucified
I have turned my back upon thee into the Wastes of Moral Law:
There Babylon is builded in the Waste, founded in Human desolation. (E169)

Zoe Alderton has written about this programme in “Nick Cave: A Journey from the Anglican God to the Creative Christ“, observing the profoundly literary route through which the singer approaches spirituality. While noting the paraphrase of Blake, she fails to recognise the significance of it however: that Cave appears to believe so profoundly that faith is bound up with imagination owes much, I would argue, to the earlier poet who wrote in All Religions are One that spirituality is itself the Poetic Genius. What is more, as the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and a Bible of hell that retold an infernal account of Genesis via The Book of Urizen, Blake is a profoundly appealing artist to anyone seeking to understand a post-secular world while also avoiding the gins and traps of religion. Blake was a prophet and, like most prophets, he was without honour in his own country which worshipped instead the God of this world.

Of those writers who have noted Cave’s lyric indebtedness to Blake, Karen Welberry in an essay “Nick Cave and the Australian Language of Laughter” (in the collection Cultural Seeds, edited by Tanya Dalziell and Karen Welberry) pointed out that “The Hammer Song” emulates Blake’s “Infant Sorrow” from Songs of Experience, echoing the line “My mother groand! My father wept / Into the dangerous world I leapt” in the opening stanza which ends: “My father raged and raged / And my mother wept”. She also observed that Blake read the poem on a BBC TV programme, Poetry Nation, in 1994 (p.54). John H. Baker offers some excellent insights into the use of Blake in Cave’s verse, whether echoes in the Bad Seeds’ debut album, From Her to Eternity, to the revelation that Christ was an artist which was Blake’s vision of Jesus (in his edited collection, The Art of Nick Cave). The most profound lyrical connection to the earlier poet is to be found in the 1990 track, “A Weeping Song”. It was David Fallon, in his “Blakean Notes in 1990s Pop Music”, who first pointed out that the song, included on the album The Good Son, was a contrary from Songs of Experience to match “Laughing Song” in Innocence, going on to repeat Wellberry’s observations on “The Hammer Song” and adding further allusions in Murder Ballads. Certainly in the 1990s, William Blake seems to have been very much on Nick Cave’s mind. (In Blake 2.0, edited by Steve Clark, Tristanne Connolly and Jason Whittaker, p.250.)

I would go further than Fallon to consider just how important the connection between “A Weeping Song” and Blake is. Cave does not merely allude to the earlier Romantic – which, as has been demonstrated here, is a repeated feature of the singer’s work. No: nearly 200 years after the publication of the original, Nick Cave decided to write another song of experience. This, for me, represents one of the most astonishing acts of imagination in the field of musical reception of Blake. Again and again the poet is set to music or even adapted more allusively by various performers, but to extend one of Blake’s most popular collections demonstrates a level of love and admiration that goes far beyond anything else encountered musically. The connection is also one that demonstrates Cave’s understanding of the deceptive simplicity of the earlier writer, whereby simple repetitions operate both musically and thematically to create a doorway to eternity via the simplest language of children.

Where Blake writes:

When the painted birds laugh in the shade
Where our table with cherries and nuts is spread
Come live & be merry and join with me,
To sing the sweet chorus of Ha, Ha, He. (E11)

Cave responds:

This is a weeping song
A song in which to weep
While all the men and women sleep
This is a weeping song
But I won’t be weeping long

As with Blake’s Songs, the spare economy of these words is allusive rather than diminutive, part of two different worlds – innocence and experience – where the simplicity of childhood vision sees a world beyond everyday normality. This is one of the means by which poetry can elevate us into visions of eternity.

Which leads, ultimately, to Cave’s most recent album, Ghosteen. I am fully aware that, like a witchfinder general, I am often keen to sniff out Blake wherever I can find him. This article is not intended as a review of Ghosteen, which I am still very much slowly coming to understand, but as I have demonstrated the singer-songwriter’s interest in William Blake is both very longstanding and far from superficial. At least one reviewer, Elizabeth Aubrey for the NME, has drawn attention to the echoes of William Blake in lines such as “It isn’t any fun to be standing here alone with nowhere to be / With a man mad with grief and on each side a thief / and everybody hanging from a tree” from the song “Sun Forest”. Such echoes are certainly there, and the musical style of the album continues that of its haunting predecessor, Skeleton Tree, the first album released after the tragic death of his son. The song that electrified me was “Fireflies”, which opens:

Jesus lying in his mother’s arms
Is a photon released from a dying star
We move through the forest at night
The sky is full of momentary light
And everything we need is just too far
We are photons released from a dying star
We are fireflies a child has trapped in a jar
And everything is distant as the stars
I am here and you are where you are

The image invoked here – Jesus as photon from a dying star – is perhaps something closer to a piece that John Berryman (another of Cave’s favourite poems) might write, and yet in the line “We are the fireflies a child has trapped in a jar” I cannot help but hear another lyric by William Blake, “The Fly”:

Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?

For I dance
And drink & sing:
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.

In the hands of another poet, this would be nihilism, and in the hands of another singer “Fireflies” would be an equally empty vision of death. Yet for Cave – guided by, I would argue, William Blake as much as those “wonderful prose poems” of the New Testament – what we come to in Ghosteen is that post-secular quest for a world of eternity, one that owes nothing to the religion of stocks and stones and everything to the creative imagination.

Review: William Blake, Tate Britain

As the director of Tate Britain, Alex Farquharson, observes in the catalogue accompanying the new Blake show, although there have been a number of very well-received exhibitions of Blake’s work in the twenty-first century, such as those in Paris (2009), Moscow (2011) and the Ashmolean, Oxford (2014), it is through four major exhibitions since 1913 – the last having taken place in 2000 – that the Tate at Millbank has established “a very special relationship with this most idiosyncratic and distinctive of artists” (William Blake,  p.6). This latest show, titled simply “William Blake”, is the largest and most comprehensive ever to be held, presenting a huge variety of Blake’s works (over 350 of them) in a largely chronological order via a series of galleries. Its overall ambition is to shift the emphasis of Blake’s work from being perceived almost entirely as that of a printmaker to that of a visual artist of much wider abilities. Tracking Blake’s progress across his lifetime, the works are then grouped in a series of five “rooms” that also organise the collection thematically according to the format or period of the artist’s life.

The first of the five rooms is called “Blake Be an Artist!”, drawing this unusual instruction from an account recorded by Henry Crabb Robinson, in which Blake related how a spirit told him: “Blake, be an artist and nothing else.” While the overall flow of the exhibition is largely chronological, this first room begins not with the young Blake’s apprenticeship to the engraver James Basire, but rather his enrollment at the Royal Academy in 1779. This is certainly to pre-empt the shift that the entire show is attempting to make, to transform Blake from being perceived almost entirely as a printmaker to an important visual artist who is also a master engraver. As the authors of the catalogue explain, “whatever use he made practically of the facilities [at the Academy], there is no doubt that this was a turning point in his life and his art.” (p.25) It was at the Academy that Blake made the pivot into the art world of the eighteenth century as a designer and originator of art rather than remaining a craftsman employed to reproduce the works of others, coming to the attention of significant players such as Henry Fuseli and John Flaxman.

Before entering the terracotta-red space of Blake’s first expressions as an artist, the visitor faces a single blue-green wall upon which is set “Albion Rose” (previously known as “Glad Day” after Gilchrist’s description of the painting in his 1863 Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotis). This colour-printed etching – a difficult procedure that was only rarely used in the eighteenth century – was made around 1793 and hand coloured by Blake during one of the most revolutionary phases of his life. Much reproduced, it depicts the giant Albion, a key figure in Blake’s mythology, standing in a pose similar to Da Vinci’s depiction of the Vitruvian Man. Along with “The Ghost of a Flea”, “Newton” or “The Ancient of Days”, it is one of his most famous images and, as Myrone and Concannon observe, has been subject to much speculative scholarship over a century and a half. While resisting the temptation to attempt to explain too much of my own opinions as to its meaning (upon which I speculated a great deal in my first book, William Blake and the Myths of Britain back in 1999), my allusion to Da Vinci is significant: the Vitruvian Man was meant to display the essential proportions of the ideal human body, and Blake’s Albion is also intended as a universal figure, his idiosyncratic everyman. To select this as the very first image that visitors to the exhibition encounter offers an important frame for the subsequent rooms, marking Blake as an artist who is both British and universal in his aspirations.

In the two areas dedicated to “Blake Be an Artist”, the works include a number of his drawings as well as watercolours of biblical subjects, such as those illustrating the story of Joseph and his brethren, and ends with the series of ink and watercolour washes for his unpublished poem, Tiriel. This section was generally fascinating for me in terms of demonstrating the development of Blake as an artist in the 1770s and 1780s, but I wonder how it must have appeared to visitors unfamiliar with his work. Very simply: William Blake was not a particularly good painter before the 1790s, and while his combination of mannerist, gothic and neo-classical techniques in his earliest work is fascinating to the art historian and student of Blake, there is very little in the way of star attractions to compel the eye of the viewer, with two exceptions (one of which is not even by Blake). The first of these is a gigantic book of engravings from the Shakespeare Gallery commissioned by John Boydell in the 1780s, opened to Richard Earlom’s reproduction of Fuseli’s depiction of Lear casting out Cordelia. Blake was tangentially involved with the Boydell project, having been commissioned to produce an engraving of the gloomy finale of Romeo and Juliet after a painting by John Opie, but his limited involvement was telling: while no means an outsider to the London art scene, Blake was never central to it. The second image, this time by Blake, is a particularly wonderful image also drawn from Shakespeare: “Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing” is a delicate watercolour that shows Blake’s emerging talent as a colourist but also, after the stiff, column-like patriarchs of his early biblical illustrations and the drawings for Tiriel, also shows his ability to bring dynamism to his figures. It is tempting to view Tiriel as something of a dead end, both visually and poetically for Blake (and I am being deliberately harsh here): Blake is not so much neoclassical in his art at this point as archaic but without the grandeur of the pre-Hellenic sculpture that he would invoke later in his career. Similarly, his imitation of Shakespeare’s tragedies – particularly Lear – is rigid and wooden rather than majestic: we are witnessing the formation of an artist who remains, at this stage, largely derivative in his work. As such, it is a true pleasure that the first Room of the exhibition ends with a dance to match the joyful posture of “Albion Rose”.

Upon the two visits I made when the general public were present, the distinction between Room 1 and Room 2 – “Making Prints, Making a Living” – was vivid and immediate. The first room contained a significant number of visitors, many of whom I suspect were already politely curious about Blake but perhaps wondering what all the fuss about. On both occasions, however, the second room was packed – and with good reason. This returns to the theme of many an earlier exhibtion: Blake the printmaker. Although Blake’s output could vary in terms of its qualities, he was without doubt one of the great artisans of his time. This is immediately evident in some of the commercial work that he produced, such as the reproduction of Hogarth’s painting of the climax of The Beggar’s Opera, an intaglio engraving that would have taken a great deal of time to complete and is exquisite in its detail. Similarly, his work on Thomas Stothard’s The Fall of Rosamund is meticulous – although, ironically, the technical perfection of these pieces makes them somewhat forgetable: Blake was a great engraver, but then the commercial print industry in eighteenth-century London meant that there were plenty of other very good engravers. Ironically, it is where a certain crude vitality comes through, as in his engravings for John Gabriel Stedman’s The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, that his commercial work becomes memorable. Blake’s depictions of the torture of rebel slaves are some of the most troubling images to emerge from the period that, unsurprisingly, continued to be used in abolitionist texts throughout the nineteenth century.

Important as the commercial work is – the curators rightly observe that “reproductive engraving… was the backbone of his working life” (p.52) – it is the presence of the illuminated books that attracted the interest of most visitors. An exceptional feature of the current exhibition is the number of illuminated books that are present as bound books: while, like everyone, I am used to printed facsimiles in this format, I have become used to seeing Blake’s originals as separate prints over the years. Obviously, this means that the books themselves tend to be fixed at a very limited number of pages on display, but the range present in a single case show the sheer variety of the format of the book at a glance, from the tiny emblem books The Gates of Paradise to the large folio edition of Europe A Prophecy. To demonstrate the variety of Blake’s designs within a text, there are selections of Songs of Innocence and of Experience displayed very eye-catchingly on plinths (a feature which attracted the attention of every visitor I spoke to at Tate) and, along the walls of one space, a complete set of America a Prophecy, allowing viewers to compare the designs from plate to plate within a single edition and also to compare coloured printed versions to monochrome plates and, indeed, a bound copy of the book.

The third room, “Patronage and Independence”, shares some of the innovative display features of its predecessor, with large plinths set up to break up the presentation of individual plates, with others then set up around the walls. Divided into three sections, this part of the exhibition concentrates on two incredibly important figures in William Blake’s life – Thomas Butts, the civil servant who was the patron for many years during Blake’s life, and William Hayley, the well-connected poet established in Felpham, Sussex, who drove Blake to distraction but also provided him with much-needed support when the artist was tried for sedition in 1804. Upon entering this particular space, I was immediately struck by what, for me, was one of the cleverest arrangements in the entire exhibition – the placement of two of the Red Dragon paintings alongside “Satan in his Original Glory”. While all of the Red Dragon paintings, which take their inspiration from the Book of Revelation, tend to be reproduced together, the appearance of Satan as beautiful, prefallen angel, reminds us that Lucifer, the most perfect of God’s creations, would also become the great beast and that his pride was as much a source of spiritual ugliness. (One of the most amusing conversations overheard at the exhibition involved this painting, when a member of the public asserted that the curators must have labelled the painting incorrectly as Satan could not be this beautiful.)

The first two sections, dominated largely by the biblical paintings for Butts, as well as the illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost and a separate gallery for the magnificent large colour prints, easily dominate the viewer’s eye and demonstrate how, in contrast to much of the non-engraved work of the 1770s and 1780s, by the mid-1790s Blake had become a truly original artist with his own specific visual language and style. Strictly speaking, “Newton”, “Nebuchadnezzar” and the other large colour prints that were produced between 1795 and 1805 (and several of which were purchased by Butts) are prints rather than paintings, but this is nitpicking over Blake’s status as a visual artist. These works are among those pieces that establish him easily as one of the greatest British artists ever, indeed, an artist whose work can be compared to the Renaissance or northern European masters. Alongside these, the translucent watercolours for Paradise Lost are an astonishing boon (particularly as I am always surprised when I see the originals just how small they are – something about their spiritual allusions seems to indicate that they have been shrunk in reproduction from what must be more massive paintings, and yet the reverse is true). By this period, following his return from Felpham in particular, Blake had settled into a mature style which combined the grace of neoclassical art with a solemn formality that he associated with the art of the Middle East. This combination had been a feature of the “patriarchal” vision that Blake had experimented with from the beginning, but by the time of his large colour prints and the illustrations to Milton, there was a mastery of the classical human figure that is at once both deeply familiar from the long tradition of western art and somehow profoundly strange, as though the cherubim and seraphim of ancient Mesopotamia are being brought to life before our eyes.

In contrast to the work done for Butts (to which must be added the delightful watercolours for Thomas Gray’s poetry, commissioned by the artist John Flaxman as a gift for his wife, Anne), the art from the Felpham period is generally less rich, although two particular items stand out. The first of these, which was immensely gratifying to see, is a number of the heads of the poets that were painted by Blake to appear in William Hayley’s library. Although Hayley’s house no longer survives, we know from contemporary accounts that they were displayed high on the walls around his library, and the curators have made the wise decision to place Blake’s works similarly high up, leading them to dominate the viewer’s gaze when they enter this part of the gallery. Another important work is “The Vision of the Last Judgement” which was painted for the remarkable Elizabeth Ilive, the patron of the arts and polymath who became the wife of George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont. In contrast to the recent exhibition at Petworth House, the home of Egremont, “The Vision” is slighlty overwhelmed by such a rich collection of Blakean artefacts but is still one of the great treasures of Blake’s career, a coherent vision of eternity that, in my opinion, surpasses Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in terms of its conception and intellectual coherence even if not in terms of scale and grandeur. For me, this has always been a painting that appears to capture the essence of an eastern mandela rather than the rigid hierarchies of Western Christian art.

Room 4, “Independence and Despair”, contains the most innovative part of the exhibition which, unfortunately, was also one of the least successful for me. Dealing with the period following the return of Catherine and William from Felpham, the first image to catch the viewer’s eye is the large oil portrait by Thomas Phillips, commissioned in 1807 to accompany an ambitious project, Blake’s illustrations to a large volume of Robert Blair’s poem, The Grave. Included alongside the Phillips portrait is a copy of the white line engraving that Blake showed to the book’s publisher, Robert Cromek, a striking but highly idiosyncratic image that led Cromek to pull the lucrative engraving work from Blake and, instead, hire another artisan, Louis Schiavonetti, to reproduce Blake’s designs. Throughout the nineteenth century, The Grave was the work for which Blake was best known prior to the publication of Gilchrist’s biography, and my own unpopular opinion is that, in terms of his immediate posthumous reception, Schiavonetti and Cromek did Blake a favour even as they reduced his already straitened circumstances further. Blake’s own engravings would have been bold, modern to the point of futuristic but, rather like his astonishing print of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims (perhaps the first work of modern art to attempt to emulate medieval styles and typies), would have been utterly baffling to contemporaries. Thomas Stothard’s more fluid and naturalistic rendition of the Chaucer pilgrims is immediately recognisable as suitable for contemporary tastes – and much, much less memorable than Blake’s. It was, in the end, Stothard who made the money while to Blake would be reserved posthumous fame.

The work with Cromek is presented in a fairly standard format, although there are nice touches such as the fact that printed copies of The Grave are lined up to draw the viewer’s eye to the originals as they hang on the wall. Beyond this, however, the curators have tried something very bold: in 1809, Blake held his only one-man show, above his brother’s shop in Broad Street. As such, for the exhibition a room has been constructed to house paintings from that exhibition, to try and give a sense of the feel of how it must have appeared to visitors. Martin Myrone, who has written extensively about the failed exhibition and the accompanying Descriptive Catalogue, includes very thoughtful considerations as to what Blake was trying to achieve and its contemporary reception, but it does not really work as it stands. The main problem is that, as much of Blake’s work from this period is very sensitive to light, the room within a gallery is simply too dark to see the works properly. Tate has engaged in an extremely interesting concept, to digitally restore Blake’s spiritual portraits for Nelson and Pitt (which have darkened over time), projecting images of how they would originally appear over the originals. Unfortunately, this “restoration” cannot be left on permanently, meaning it is very hit and miss as to whether you will actually be able to see them (they only appeared for me on the third visit to the exhibition). Finally, with regard to the reconstruction itself, the fact that the curators are unable to restore the missing painting of “The Ancient Britons”, perhaps Blake’s most amibitious work ever, as well as the fact that another centrepiece – “Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims” – are also outside the room make it less successful than it should have been. Beyond the room, there is a large, full-wall projection of how Blake’s “frescos” could appear if transferred to full size in settings such as the parish church of St James, itself a very interesting idea, as well as close up screens of the texture and restoration of the damaged tempera paintings which, I must be honest, I felt was a waste of good gallery space.

This critical comment arises from the fact that “William Blake” ends very much on a high. In 1818, Blake began a series of friendships, starting with the artist John Linnell, that would transform the final decade of his life and lead to a truly remarkable artistic renaissance. It is from this period that we have his illustrations to Dante and to Job, his most monumental illuminated book, Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion, and a series of astonishing pieces of art including his woodcuts to Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil’s Georgics and “The Ghost of a Flea”. These final years saw Blake produce a series of astonishing pieces that would surpass that of most artists in terms of originality and execution, and after a largely empty room (very few visitors to the exhibition paused in the digital projection space) it felt frustrating to have these magnificent works cramped into one space. For example, on my first visit, I missed the fact that Blake’s illustrations to The Book of Job were present: they exist, as bound books (which is wonderful to see), but the opportunity to have selections of them displayed separately on the wall, such as the images of Leviathan and Behemoth, or the morning stars singing at the creation of the world, would have immediately drawn attention to one of the most perfect examples of Blake’s intaglio style. Similarly, while the curators did not wish to reproduce the entire 100 plates of Jerusalem in the exhibition, restricting themselves to the first 25 plates of Book 1, this was perhaps the only element where the 2000 show surpassed that of 2019. That said, it was wonderful to see the illustrations to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress on display, a series that is rarely shown.

And it is this observation that is more important than my critical comments. “William Blake” is not perfect – but then the perfect exhibition of William Blake’s works perhaps only exists in heaven. The most striking factor of this show is that it is so comprehensive; indeed, I suspect that for many visitors it must be overwhelming. Over the space of two days, I made three separate visits to the exhibition and, guided by decades of knowledge about Blake and his works, I still realise that this review remains a series of initial impressions that will be further refracted by subsequent visits. For example, I am very conscious of the fact that I have said very little about Catherine Blake in this review: much has been made by the curators and indeed media reports of her contribution, and indeed I was writing about this (along with Shirley Dent) after the 2000 show. And yet… even after three visits it is hard to make out that contribution aside from a portrait or two and a few comments in accompanying notes. In part, that is because of the success of the show: it truly demonstrates the range and variety of her husband’s art.

There are flaws, then, in the execution of the aspirations of Tate, and yet this show is truly astonishing. It is, quite simply, the best exhibition of Blake’s work that I have seen in my lifetime, and that appreciation has only grown with each visit. For the first, I was very lucky to be part of a private view (hence the early images showing largely empty rooms), but actually my subsequent visits as a member of the general public were, if anything, even more illuminating. Yes, it is frustrating not to be able to look at everything in the first rooms because of people lining up to stare at everything – yet this is itself the point. William Blake is remarkably popular. At one moment, I made a detour through the Clore gallery which houses the remarkable Turner collection. This was by no means empty, but it is Blake who – if only for a short time – commands attention. A particular joy for me after the 2000 show was how it stimulated renewed interest in Blake among artists, writers, directors and composers. I believe that the success of this show, recreating Blake as a great artist, will do the same for the next generation of those for whom imagination is the life.

William Blake is on show at Tate Britain, 11 September 2019-2 February 2020. Admission £18 standard adult (members free, reductions available). The exhibition catalogue, also titled William Blake, is available for £25 paperback, £40 hardback, written by Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon.