Seen in My Visions

Seen in My Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures. William Blake (edited by Martin Myrone).
London: Tate Publishing, 2009. pp. 128. £12.99. ISBN: 978 1 85437 863 7.

Published to accompany the exhibition at Tate Britain last year that recreated Blake’s private show of 1809, this small, elegant book presents Blake’s once neglected Descriptive Catalogue with quiet, understated authority. Much of this, of course, is due to the great change in status that Blake’s work has undergone since his death, yet the collection of colour plates presented here, along with the Catalogue itself and Martin Myrone’s introduction and notes, provides Blake’s one-man show with a cultural significance that would have astonished the Romantic artist’s contemporaries.

Seen in My Visions is divided into four sections: Myrone’s introduction and a bibliographical note is followed by the Descriptive Catalogue itself as well as the paintings that were included in the Tate 2009 exhibition. The volume concludes with a glossary of art terms used by Myrone and Blake. Myrone’s essay, “The grand Style of Art restored”, is concise but extremely informative, providing within its few pages a surprisingly comprehensive (and comprehensible) account of the contexts of the fine art scene as it existed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Myrone’s main concern is the institutional practice of the Royal Academy, designed as a showcase to promote contemporary British artists and one that very quickly prompted opposition that resulted in alternative one-man shows, beginning with Nathaniel Hone’s exhibition in 1775. Leading artists such as Gainsborough, Barry and Fuseli sought alternatives to the hegemony of the Academy; as such, Blake’s decision to exhibit was by no means as eccentric as (in the eyes of those few contemporaries who saw them) were the works of art on display. As Myrone concludes, Blake was not that unusual, and many artists “had tried to acquire a public reputation, and avoid the pitfalls of the big annual exhibitions, by setting up their own shows” (p. 18).

While Myrone effectively contextualises Blake within a sphere of contemporary practice that was not, then, particularly unusual, the Descriptive Catalogue itself cannot but appear idiosyncratic even after two centuries. The longest section of text describes a a painting of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which emulated a Gothic, medieval style that was considerably out of favour with early nineteenth-century tastes. Charles Lamb described this as one of the finest pieces of criticism he had ever seen, and certainly it demonstrates Blake’s incisive opinions, but other readers such as the Hunt brothers and Robert Southey who encountered his denunciations of Rubens and Titian, as well as his declarations of the primacy of semitic over classical art considered him at best eccentric, at worst mad.

The plates of surviving works (eleven out of sixteen included in the 1809 show) include some of Blake’s most famous images, such as The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan and Christ in the Sepulchre, guarded by Angels, as well as early, more conventional examples of Blake’s art such as The Penance of Jane Shore, which he had painted in 1793 for exhibition in the Royal Academy. Some of these paintings, notably the rich temperas of which Satan Calling up his Legions is a good example, have suffered considerably over time, the canvas having cracked and darkened. The watercolours, however, particularly the glorious angels guarding Christ, remain translucent and vivid. By displaying mainly biblical subjects or those drawn from contemporary poetry (for example Gray’s The Bard), rather than those figures that comprised his own mythology, Blake attempted to present himself in a relatively conventional light, yet the non-mimetic, gradiose figures elevated from flat, pre-Renaissance backgrounds, could not have appeared as anything other than impossibly bizarre to most viewers at the time.

Myrone’s glossary, as with his footnotes to the Catalogue, provides a lucid explanation of various terms. The book as a whole has been designed as a catalogue for general readers (and visitors to the 2009 show) rather than academics, and the strength of Myrone’s style is his ability to convey the complexities of art history with an assured, light touch. Blake’s painting, in contrast to his poetry and printmaking, tends to be a neglected subject, but recent exhibitions and the continuing interest of twenty-first century artists in Blake indicate that “Seen in My Visions” probably marks the start of a new trend in Blake studies that will pay more attention to that art.

The William Blakes – Dear Unknown Friend

When the William Blakes released their first album, Wayne Coyne, in 2008, it received excellent reviews in Denmark, the band’s home land, but was largely missed by the rest of the world or, when noticed, viewed with the typical disdain reserved by Anglo-American critics, bloggers, and the rest for Euro-pop. A couple of reviewers commented on the archness of the band’s name, along with the fact that their album cover consisted of Thomas Phillips’s 1807 portrait of Blake over which was pasted the head of Wayne Coyne, lead singer and guitarist for The Flaming Lips. Well, at least Coyne appreciated the tribute as recorded in this video interview, and of course it is precisely the band’s chutzpah in selecting Blake’s name and portrait that first attracted me.

The influence of Coyne remains very much in evidence on their 2009 follow-up, Dear Unknown Friend, as well as that of Talking Heads and 1980s wunderkind Roland Orzabal from Tears for Fears. For me, unfortunately, that is not an entirely good thing: I always preferred my eighties synth pop to either have a rougher edge (early Ministry) or be more stripped down and intellectual (Kraftwerk). Likewise, I have always wanted to like the Flaming Lips ever since I bought Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots purely on the whim of its marvellous title, but found myself unable to listen happily to Coyne’s voice. I love to read about him (for example “The Parking Lot Experiments”), but sitting in the same room as an entire Flaming Lips album is never something I manage with ease.

Nonetheless, having indicated that I am a person who literally will buy records on the basis of something as superficial as the title and cover art, Dear Unknown Friend is something of a delight. The William Blakes comprise Kristian Leth on vocals, with Bo Rande on horn and keyboard, and twins Fridolin and Frederik Nordsø on drums and guitar. The reason for their name is an intriguing one, that “They took their name from the poet William Blake (1757 – 1827) because they share his desire for a spiritual upheaval,” even if it is best to pass over the assertion “This is music made without fear” with as little comment as possible.  In general, however, the lush production, effortless harmonies and catchy pop tunes of Dear Unknown Friend provide moments of genuine pleasure, with only the occasional duff note – literally in the case of Leth’s voice when he tries a little too hard to imitate Coyne, metaphorically with lyrics such as “My government is killing every hope for me” on opening track “The Thing We All Believe In”: Leth’s sympathies are in the right place, but as political protest lines such as this trip over their own feet.

Elsewhere, however, the William Blakes are much more deft – a particular favourite of mine being “It Looked Like Us” which reminded me of of a missing track from Julian Cope’s Jehovahkill: humane, amusing, but also an every-so-slightly disturbing apocalyptic vision that appears immediately vivid and yet somehow uncertain at the same time. What exactly it is that looks like us is never clear and yet I see many things when listening to this song. In addition, the idiosyncracies of Leth’s voice are perfect here, shifting to mild paranoia in a way that arouses the listener’s sympathy rather than grates. “Contact” is also impressive in its ambition, avoiding prog-rock overkill to evoke rather elements of Pink Floyd or even Space Oddity-era David Bowie before launching into an incredibly uplifting final chorus.

How much, then, do the William Blakes invoke their namesake? They avoid anything as crass as direct references – so fans of the original should be warned that this is no direct engagement with the Romantic artist in the style of Jah Wobble. However, there is something of an attitude that reminds me of Cope’s appropriation of the great man as a presiding spirit who wishes to pursue heaven and hell, angels and devils in the quotidian. The visionary qualities of Dear Unknown Friend never approach the originality of Blake (nor Julian Cope, for that matter), but the final feeling after listening to the album is that the William Blakes have found a great deal of fun in this series of memorable fancies as well as moments of brilliance in tacks such as “It Looked Like Us”.

You can purchase Dear Unknown Friend from

“It Looked Like Us” track on YouTube:

Blake’s Margins

Blake’s Margins: An Interpretative Study of the Annotations. Hazard Adams.
Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Company Inc., 2009. pp. 204. £32.50. ISBN: 978 0 7864 4536 3.

As Adams points out in his introduction to Blake’s Margins, although Blake’s annotations to writers such as Bacon, Lavater and Watson are often alluded to by critics, very few substantial studies of those annotations have been published. Eleven volumes bearing Blake’s comments have survived, along with sheets of notes to Wordsworth’s The Excursion and a transcript of the annotations to Spurzheim’s Observations on the Deranged Manifestations of the Mind, and Blake almost certainly recorded various observations in other books, now lost to us. Of subsequent critical commentary, R. J. Shroyer and G. Ingli James provide introductions to their facsimiles (including Blake’s annotations) of Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man and Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, with essays on the subject by Morton Paley, Thomas McFarland and H. J. Jackson, as well as one book, Jason Allen Snart’s The Torn Book: UnReading William Blake’s Marginalia. As Adams observes, his own approach – dealing directly with Blake’s words with a special emphasis on providing a descriptive context for each text that Blake annotates – is very different to the postmodernist and deconstructionist line taken by Snart.

As such, Blake’s Margins is much clearer than The Torn Book, its plainness of style being very much evident in the first chapter that turns to Henry Fuseli’s translation of John Caspar Lavater’s Aphorisms, a book that Blake returned to with considerable pleasure (drawing a heart around his and Lavater’s names) despite – or even because of – the differences that emerged between them. On first reading, Blake scholars may feel a certain sense of disappointment here (as I certainly did): there is little that is specifically new or innovative in how Adam’s interprets the aphorisms, in contrast to example to Jeanne Moskal’s influential reading in her 1989 essay on “The Problem of Forgiveness in Blake’s Annotations to Lavater” or, more recently, Sybille Erle’s 2006 piece, “Leaving Their Mark: Lavater, Fuseli and Blake’s Imprint on Aphorisms on Man”. Nonetheless, the virtues of Adams’s writing soon becomes clear: while this book will not especially provoke critical waves, nor will it be subject to scholarly fashions and, as a book, provides a careful and extremely well considered contextual account that will be of lasting benefit to all readers of Blake (indeed, in his introduction Adams emphasises that he writes “less for scholars well acquainted with Blake’s writings and art” and more for students and the general reader, p.3).

The chapter on Lavater sits with a number of others dealing with Blake’s responses to various psychological and philosophical topics, such as those on Sir Francis Bacon, J. C. Spurzheim, and George Berkeley. Blake’s benevolent feelings towards Lavater are clear when turning to Bacon. As Adams points out (following other commentators before him), Blake’s damning verdict of Bacon is expressed less by his words and more by a marginal illustration of a devil’s arse dropping excrement on the words “A King” (p.84). Despising Bacon’s politics, Blake has little more to admire in Bacon’s economics (considered by Blake to be no more than usury), religion (he accuses Bacon of atheism), philosophy (with a critique of the limits of inductive reason), nor his aesthetics. Blake is a little more sympathetic when annotating George Berkeley’s Siris, although the fact that he does not mark at all the first two thirds of the book which discuss the beneficial properties of tar-water do not provide us with knowledge of whether Blake agreed or disagreed with Berkeley’s foolish opinions. Adams is clear and precise, however, when detailing Blake’s contentions with aspects of Berkeley’s Platonism, as well as the fact that Blake may also have misunderstood parts of Berkeley’s philosophy. With regard to Spurzheim, Blake made only two annotations but, as Adams points out, these are significant both because of the aspersions of insanity that were made against Blake during his lifetime and the influence of Spurzheim’s phrenology on his series of Visionary Heads (p.139).

If philosophy and psychology dominate a considerable part of Blake’s marginal annotations, it is unsurprising to see that the other types of text that detained his reading were those dealing with religion and the arts. Blake’s antipathy to Sir Joshua Reynolds is notorious, and Adams notes that the annotations to the Discourses “range from angry accusations and denunciations to the occasional agreement.” (p. 109) In general, Blake considered Reynolds a hireling and hates the President of the Royal Academy’s self-satisfaction, complacency and hypocrisy, but these notes are also a source for Blake’s opinions on significant matters such as the role of imitation in education, genius in the arts and attention to “minute discrimination”. It is uncertain whether Blake read all of Reynold’s Discourses, but throughout it is clear that both artists held fundamentally different opinions as to the purpose of imagination. The annotations to Henry Boyd’s translation of Dante’s Inferno, by contrast, are less angry, though still motivated by disagreement with regard to what he saw as Boyd’s deism and the role of morality in religion. More interesting for later readers are the comments on William Wordsworth’s Poems, published in 1815 and lent to Blake by Henry Crabb Robinson. Robinson’s diaries and notes record a more favourable opinion on the part of Blake, but in the annotations he criticises Wordsworth’s notions of vision, imagination and nature. Nonetheless, if Adams is right and certain poems and passages marked with a cross indicate Blake’s hand, there may have been many passages dealing with innocence and experience, as well as those in the ballad form, that appealed to him considerably.

The final subject that attracted Blake’s pen was religion. A substantial chapter is devoted to Bishop Richard Watson’s An Apology for the Bible, published in 1796 and annotated by Blake in 1798. As an answer to Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (some of the content of which Adams summarises here), Watson sought to refute the attacks on the priesthood that appeared in the second part of Paine’s work (Adams writes that there is no evidence that the Bishop had even read the first part) and offer a defence of more orthodox opinion. Blake’s interest, suggests Adams, flagged after the first three letters; significantly, although Blake was by no means inclined towards Paine’s deism, that is not attacked here almost certainly because he was more concerned with expressing political sympathy with Paine as well as irritation with “Watson’s barely concealed snobbishness” (p.79). At the end of the artist’s life, comments in Robert John Thornton’s The Lord’s Prayer, Newly Translated (1827) provide an entertaining, pithy and radical blast against the often eccentric doctor, who Blake knew through John Linnell, and who had commissioned Blake for a series of woodcuts to Virgil’s Eclogues.

Blake’s Margins ends with a brief account of Blake’s reading and citations from a number of other sources, as varied as Joseph Addison’s Cato and William Gilpin’s work on the picturesque, concluding that he was “an avid critic and commentator” (p.197). Adams’s book is a clear introduction to several works which, obscure now, provide considerable insight into Blake’s ideas and philosophies on a range of subjects. Snart’s book is considerably more sophisticated in its approach to Blake and reading, but this interpretative study of the marginalia provides many insights into how those peripheral squibs and praises informed a great deal of the artist’s thought.

Chris Ofili and Richard Wright

Two recent exhibitions at Tate Britain have demonstrated the continuing importance of Blake as an influence on contemporary art. The Chris Ofili retrospective opened on January 27 and runs until May 16, 2010, while the winner of the 2009 Turner Prize, Richard Wright, attracted a great deal of admiration with his impressive contribution, a beautiful gold-leaf fresco.

Ofili, also a Turner Prize winner in 1998, has long been interested in Blake, most clearly in two paintings from 1995, Satan (inspired by Blake’s Satan in his Original Glory, c.1805) and Seven Bitches Tossing their Pussies before the Divine Dung (after Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne). Neither of these works are present in the current exhibition, which brings together more than 45 paintings as well as pencil drawings and watercolours, but, as a number of critics have noted, Blake’s influence continues to play a role in the development of Ofili’s art.

The most obvious example of this is a print, Siesta of the Soul, produced by Ofili as a limited edition for Tate Britain. With branching tendrils and vines surrounding elegant, handwritten text, this particular work is especially evocative of a page from one of Blake’s illuminated books, comprising a song of innocence or of experience that ends with the lines “shaded but not shrouded, summoning his dancing demons”. As a marriage of image and text, heavenly but with a hint of Blake’s playful diabolism, Ofili’s print is also reminiscent of the Romantic artist in terms of the spray-painted colours that remind me of the colour washes in Blake’s illuminated prophecies. Tom Lubbock has spoken of the works in this retrospective as “an art of luminous colour… of wild imagination”, and this is certainly true of the best of Ofili’s paintings.

To concentrate on Blake is, of course, to do a disservice to Ofili. His new surroundings in Trinidad and Tobago (the artist left London in 2005) inspire the latest paintings with a rich and luscious beauty, but Charlotte Higgins is certainly correct to see something of Blake in another of his recent works, The Healer, in which an uncanny figure devours vivid, yellow blooms. Personally, the highlight of the show for me was an opportunity to see The Upper Room, a recreation of his deservedly famous exhibition which ran at Tate throughout 2006, thirteen rhesus macaque monkeys depicted in gloriously competing colours.

Richard Wright has been creating site-specific art works for many years, often intricate paintings that are then erased. Sometimes those installations are discreet and delicate, such as the alcove shown as part of an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in 2008, but his major untitled piece for the 2009 Turner Prize was spectacular, an exquisite gold-leaf fresco that dominated the room in which it was displayed at Tate Britain.

The painstaking methods used by Wright to transfer the fresco to the wall, as well as the subtlety of effects achieved, has won him acclaim from usually sceptical commentators who regard the Turner Prize as little more than a freak show. Similarly, the transience of the work, now whitewashed over (so that, ironically, it remains as an archeological layer somewhere beneath the current Ofili exhibits), draws attention to what Wright has identified as the fragility of experience in his paintings.

Wright has frequently mentioned his admiration for Blake, telling interviewers that he often travelled down from his home in Glasgow to see the Blakes and Turners housed at Tate Britain, an experience that often left him both exhausted and elated. The influence of Blake, as well as Turner’s voluminous light and colour, is evident in the fresco (which, even though it no longer exists, I cannot help but think of in the present tense). The initial experience is overwhelming, a balanced chaos, but the painting it brought to mind most for me was Blake’s 1808 A Vision of the Last Judgement, that imposing mandala of the end of days in which damned and saved fall and rise around a central pillar of heavenly and infernal judgement, eternally circulating between paradise and earth. Wright’s work brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime.

The Chris Ofili exhibition runs from 27 January to 16 May, 2010. Entry: £10, concessions £8.50. More details at

Blake and Conflict

Blake and Conflict. Sarah Haggarty and Jon Mee.
Palgrave, 2008. pp. 256. £50. ISBN: 9 7802 3057 3871.

Blake and Conflict is a collection of essays from a 2006 conference of the same name. Jon Mee and Sarah Haggarty propose a way for dealing with Blake’s contrary visions in a time of conflict as a series of conversations (with particular reference to Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of the inoperative community), although they recognise that this runs the danger of denying or even sanctioning violence in Blake’s work, drawing on William Keach’s critique of a masculinist will-to-power that is found in his art and poetry. Conflict in Blake’s art and writings is dealt with here in terms of interweaving dialogues between religion, politics and the visual arts, beginning with Saree Makdisi’s “Blake and the Ontology of Empire”, which builds on the Orientalist critique found in his previous work (including William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s), examining how Blake “refuses Orientalism” because he rejects “the logic of individualism predicated on an opposition to otherness” (12) which had become ingrained in a western discourse that bound together Orientalism, imperialism and western subjectivity founded on moral virtue as the basis for the self-regulating self. Blake’s God, by contrast, is an open one, and his task (evident, for example, in his reading of Paine’s Age of Reason) is to recover an “unperverted Bible” of love and forgiveness.

Makdisi’s thoughtful essay goes very well with Angus Whitehead’s contribution, “‘A wise tale of the Mahometans’: Blake and Islam, 1819-26”, which takes a fascinating look at the Islamic community which was becoming increasingly visible in early nineteenth-century London. Study of Blake’s relationships to Islam have started, finally, to become more noticeable among scholarly articles, providing a minor counterpoint to Blake’s obvious engagement with Christianity of various types and Judaism. Blake’s direct references to Islam are, to say the least, fleeting, and Whitehead draws attention to differing interpretations of Blake’s Orientalism (such as Makdisi’s outlined briefly above, or Larrissy’s more critical interpretation of Blake in thrall to Orientalist attitudes). Whitehead draws on three late references to Islam by Blake, in a conversation with Crabb Robinson, the visionary head of “Mahomet”, and his depiction of the prophet in Dante’s Inferno, presents positive representations of Islam. A similarly meticulous approach to the historical record is provided in David Worrall’s “Blake, the Female Prophet and the American Agent: The Evidence of the 1789 Swedenborg Conference Attendance List”, which builds on previous research conducted by Worrall into the 1789 conference to identify some of the radical (and sometimes shadowy) figures encountered by Blake, such as Dorothy Gott, author of The Midnight Cry, and Colborn Barrell.

Susan Matthews’s “Impurity of Diction: The ‘Harlot’s Curse’ and Dirty Words”, focuses on the role of prostitution as an essential corollary to the formation of polite society and the figure of the virtuous woman. Blake, argues Matthews, uses diction transformatively to celebrate female sexuality (her comments on our assumptions to locate sexuality in “corporeality” rather than “spirituality”, and thus fail to appreciate the complexity of Blake’s opinions, are particularly pertinent here) rather than transmit dominant ideas of his day. It is Blake’s dialogic, indeed often ambivalent, relations with Christianity that  are covered in the following two essays: David Fallon’s “‘She Cuts His Heart Out at his Side’: Christianity and Political Virtue” considers attitudes to civic virtue which, in humanist thinking, tended to be held in opposition to traditional Christian virtues, but not in the line of “Commonwealthmen” writers such as Milton, Harrington and (later) Richard Price with which Blake was aligned by Gilchrist and others. Fallon sees Blake as demonstrating “evident affiliations” with civic humanism, but making “distinctive alterations to produce the type of citizenship he valorized” (97).

Haggarty, in “From Donation to Demand? Almsgiving and the ‘Annotations to Thornton’”, places Blake’s annotations to Thornton’s Lord’s Prayer Newly Translated in the ongoing separation of virtuous gift-giving from economics during the long-eighteenth century, remarking that Blake’s own ideas are often contradictory and even incoherent without a more profound understanding of the gift. One contributor to the debate around economics and charity was William Godwin, who also features in Jon Mee’s “‘A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action’: Mutuality, Converse and Mental Fight”, which considers the role of conversation in the liberal public sphere as an alternative to commonly perceived French despotism at the time. Mee identifies two cultures of conversation: one polite and consensual, the other “capacious enough to include contention and dispute” (129). Considering the importance of the latter to Dissenting traditions, Mee starts from Blake’s satire on conversation in An Island in the Moon through his illuminated books, seeing in this “aspect of the everday world” a “utopian possibility for the future” (139). Sibylle Erle’s “Shadows in the Cave: Refocusing Vision in Blake’s Creation Myth” reinterprets the metaphor of the cave to refer fairly specifically to Blake’s account of sight and the eye, particularly in relation to empirical philosophers such as Locke and Newton.

This discussion of the science of optics is a serendipitous link to the final three essays of the collection, which deal with various aspects of Blake’s visual arts. Mark Crosby’s “A Minute Skirmish: Blake, Hayley and the Art of Miniature Painting” concentrates on that minute particular of Blake’s artistic career, the miniature paintings he conducted in Felpham, as a site of conflict with his patron William Hayley, Blake’s technique often being at odds with Hayley’s instruction and presaging the disputes that were to come later. Luisa Calè, in “Blake and the Literary Galleries”, contrasts the rivalries of the illustrated book market with those of the literary galleries, such as the ones established by Fuseli and Boydell, the latter dealt with most notably, of course, in Morris Eaves’ Counter-Arts Conspiracy. Blake’s work for Young’s Night Thoughts especially, Calè argues, demonstrates how he was “experimenting with different book formats in an attempt to access the literary-gallery market” (204), from which he had only ever received minor commissions.

Finally, Morton Paley’s “Blake’s Poems on Art and Artists” looks at his various texts from 1798-1811, such as the annotations to the works of Joshua Reynolds and the Descriptive Catalogue, but also his verse on contemporaries, that deal with art and artists. Although the prose writings have received considerable scholarly attention, Paley argues that the occasional poetry should not be dismissed as doggerel but examined both as satire and “as expressions of Blake’s views about art, artists and the art market” (210). The range of essays from established and new scholars is impressive and generally well integrated, making this an extremely significant and useful collection.