The Romantics and The Sleeping Congregation

Having finally had an opportunity to visit the Romantics exhibition at Tate Britain this weekend, here are some of my own thoughts on this show as well as Richard Wright’s small curated display, The Sleeping Congregation.

One of the aims of The Romantics is to place three of the most important artists of the period – JMW Turner, John Constable and, of course, William Blake – in a wider context. A related ambition is to emphasise the potential links between the three artists, not so much in terms of their historical relations (though those certainly existed between Constable and Turner, though they were much less evident between these two and Blake) as in their current configuration as three figures who have come to define what is meant by British Romantic art, especially for Tate Britain.

The exhibition makes it clear that this is not to be a simple chronological arrangement of what constitutes Romantic art but is, rather, arranged thematically. This is rather sensible for this particular exhibition (significantly, the large Gaugin exhibition at Tate Modern, while making the same claims, cannot help but slip into very straightforward chronologies in the contextual rooms detailing Gaugin’s career – after all, one individual’s life cannot but help follow time’s arrow at some point). Thematic arrangements for The Romantics, by contrast, avoid this most simplistic – and frequently misleading – of metanarratives, and instead makes a series of choices based on other organisational principles. Some of these may be as equally misleading as the simple history of Romantic art, but at least one – Pictures for an Exhibition – struck me as an effective intervention on the spectacular nature of Romantic art (another, British Landscape: Photography after the Picturesque, seemed a rather perverse attempt at counterpoint that did not work for me, unfortunately).

For this particular review, of the various thematic arrangements (Introducing Romanticism, Late and Early Turner, Pictures for an Exhibition, Constable and Contemporaries: Sketching from Nature, Neo-Romantics, British Landscape, and Colour and Line: Tutner’s Experiments), that on Blake and the Romantic Imagination is the most pertinent. However, it is worth making some general observations about the rest of the exhibition, not only because how it does (and sometimes does not) help to contextualise Blake’s own practice, but because Blake is also frequently invoked throughout the rest of the exhibition. The first thing that greets the visitor as they enter the Clore gallery is a line from Jerusalem – “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s”, demonstrating just how important Blake has become since his death as a rather minor figure on the fringe of the pre-Victorian art scene. Certainly Blake’s role in The Romantics is partly to frame the significance of such art as part of the national collection for the twenty-first century, in many respects he being one of the few British artists who exemplifies what could be considered a romantic attitude in the visual, as opposed to literary, arts.

It is very clear that this is the British Romantics, with little that could illustrate the burgeoning art of Europe, with only the occasional contribution by continental artists such as Delacroix, as is the impossibility to provide a few other contextual aspects from the period, such as the overlap with neoclassical art or new developments in portraiture (evident in another exhibition currently in London at the National Portrait Gallery, with Thomas Lawrence as its focus) – though this, of course, is to demand the impossible, an exhibition with unlimited space and funds to show every work from every possibly related genre. Instead, there are opportunities to view some of the best examples of what could be defined as British Romantic art, such as Joseph Wright of Derby’s Sir Brook Boothby or Henry Wallis’s famous and fantastical portrait of Chatterton, as well as witness some clever interrogations of commonly understood conventions, as with John Crome’s early nineteenth century paintings of a slate quarry.

It is, however, the late Turner who, as ever, continues to astound: while, of course, paintings such as Sunrise with Sea Monsters and Norham Castle are unfinished, Turner’s vivid, brilliant expositions of light demonstrate just how important he would be to later generations of artists (much more so than the dutiful history painter of the early period who, for me, always disappoints when one moves from the grandiose landscape in the style of Lorraine or Poussin to the rather lumpen smudges of figures scattered around the foreground).

Which brings us finally to Blake. Presented with one room, the focus of this exhibition is the new series of prints acquired by Tate in January 2010, which is both an opportunity and a product of necessity, many of the other great Blake images owned by Tate Britain currently being prepared for a large exhibition at the State Pushkin Fine Arts Museum next year. Accompanying the new prints are two other works by Blake, the marvellous Blasphemer, one of the biblical scenes painted for Thomas Butts around 1800, and the dark and poorly preserved tempera of the Bard after Thomas Gray, which had started to deteriorate during Blake’s lifetime. In addition, there are works by Samuel Palmer, Henry Fuseli (with his Titania and Bottom dominating one wall), Richard Dadd and Theodore Von Holst. The Fuseli connection is apt, though from this the curators appear to have moved to Dadd and Holst as emblematic of Romantic imagination in a way that may be true generally, but immediately loses its originality by the apposition with Blake’s small prints.

Fuseli is an artist whose star has fallen as Blake’s has risen and, looking at his slightly bombastic canvas it is not hard to see why: Fuseli captures a particular aspect of his audience’s imagination and presents it back to them, slightly modified, slightly repackaged, without ever really pushing them (and, I’m afraid, that I was much less impressed by his student, Holst). By contrast, I have always been fascinated by some of Richard Dadd’s art, especially The Fairy Fellow’s Master Stroke, displayed here. Nonetheless, its hyper-real, rather kitsch and Dali-esque style means that this particular painting often appears to me to be locked into an obsession that, while it may fascinate more than Fuseli’s suitably risque but slightly passé fantasies, also bars out the viewer from exercising his or her imagination while Blake’s work appears much more stimulating.

Of course, during his lifetime, “mad” Blake’s paintings attracted even less interest than Dadd’s in Bedlam, but the new series of prints was proving extremely popular (and was constantly surrounded during the time I was at the exhibition). This, in part, is almost certainly due to the narrative surrounding their discovery, and plenty has been written on that subject and the prints themselves. One thing that struck me very clearly upon viewing these prints is the new style of conservation and preservation, which offers a marked contrast to previous forms of presenting art works. The prints have not had an easy life, and while some of the worst damage has been removed not all traces of that material history have been erased. Thus, for example, stab marks where the prints were bound together, as well as some of the grime accumulated throughout their existence, remain very much in evidence. However, it is the colours of those small images which most strongly stand out. Many of Blake’s contemporaries and immediate followers were extremely dismissive about his use of colour, but the clear, vivid reds and blues of his images of Los, Thel and Urizen blaze brightly, so that the fluid, elegant forms – lacking the monomaniacal introversion of Dadd or the arch, slightly too-knowing grotesquery or titillation of Fuseli – rightly inscribe themselves in the viewer’s mind. Eventually, these prints will sink to a lower place in the public imagination, almost certainly supplanted by the more famous large colour prints of Newton and Nebuchadnezzar, but for the moment it is entirely appropriate that they have this moment of close inspection: Blake’s imagination is more bizarre than Dadd’s, far less conventional than Fuseli’s, but it also offers a portal to later generations that is as important philosophically as Turner’s art is formally: it is the insistence that any artist – indeed, any viewer, must create their own system or be enslaved by another’s.

While the new prints may eventually attract less attention than other works by Blake, some of my particular favourites – Blake’s woodcuts for Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil’s pastoral poetry – are scattered throughout the exhibition. These very minor illustrations, which diverted Blake but for a little time, were in many ways the most formally significant of Blake’s works, inspiring artists as diverse as Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland, such influence being especially evident in many of the works that fill the Neo-Romantics room. Apparent insignificance and ephemerality is a theme of the room curated by Richard Wright and demonstrating the importance of the Contemporary Art Society, which has donated, or caused to be donated, many important works to the nation.

Entitled The Sleeping Congregation, Wright’s room takes its title from a print by Hogarth satirising a pompous sermon. Wright’s own collection is very low-key – so low-key that we walked past it twice, somewhat distracted by Fiona Banner’s Harrier and Jaguar aircraft in the Duveen Gallery. Wright, winner of the Turner Prize for 2009, provides a more liminal space that, as well as a fragment of a title page from Blake’s Europe and small prints by Blake, Palmer and Calvert includes curios such as one of Christo’s wrapped magazines. Wright offers a critique of post-sixties art’s obsession with using the techniques of manipulation and control drawn from the advertising industry, and which offers a very understated contrast with the Duveen exhibition in the gallery next door (though Banner’s work is the most fun I’ve seen in a long time). There is also, it must be said, a certain irony in visiting this curated collection after the Romantics, for if contemporary art is sometimes seduced by the media-manipulation techniques of the advertising industry, it is also quite clear that those techniques owe much to the revelling in spectacle that has been one of fine art’s own enduring contributions to the growth of mind-forg’d manacles, and was clearly sometimes as much the intended effect of Romantic art in the early nineteenth century as any liberation of the senses.

Alice Thompson – The Existential Detective

The Existential Detective. Alice Thompson
Two Ravens Press, 2010. pp. 166. £9.99. ISBN: 978-1806120511.

This is the fifth novel by Alice Thompson, a writer I have not encountered before (although I did once own The Woodentops debut album – Thompson was keyboard player in that group). The Existential Detective is a crime novel in which private investigator William Blake is hired to find a missing woman. The title of the novel, the fact that the main protagonist is named after Blake, and even the front cover – Giorgio de Chirico’s The Mystery and Melancholy of a Street – led me to expect a very different novel to that provided by Thompson. Instead of the abstract, perhaps surrealistic and philosophical novel that I had anticipated reading, this is a rather grim, more hard-boiled book dealing with prostitution, voyeurism and paedophilia in the Edinburgh seaside resort of Portobello. It’s not as downbeat as, say, Derek Raymond’s I Was Dora Suarez, but it is very far from the magical realist style of novels that normally invoke Blake, or even the slightly academic approach if somewhat grittier approach of Michael Dibdin’s 1995 crime novel, Dark Spectre.

So thoroughly were my expectations trounced that, on first reading, I found this novel extremely dissatisfying – although, aware that this was based on the strong initial bias on my part I reread it almost immediately and was more rewarded by Thompson’s thoughtful and dark explorations of desire in a small Scottish town. The novel begins with Blake called in to investigate the disappearance of a young woman, Louise Verver, an amnesiac who has married into a rich family. Discovering that she had recently begun to recover certain memories before her disappearance, as well as the fact that a local prostitute has attempted to blackmail her husband, Blake’s search takes him through brothels and nightclubs, leading him inevitably to perverse secrets hidden away from daily life in this small resort. At the same time, the investigation brings him once more into contact with his divorced wife, Olivia, and revives his own memories of their missing daughter.

An initial disconnect with me was the relevance of naming the protagonist William Blake. It is not that the name is insignificant – Blake’s “The Sick Rose” is cited at one point, while his ex-wife is writing a paper entitled Innocence and Experience in Eighteenth-Century Paintings of Children. Nonetheless, on my first reading I found myself far too concerned with the notion of whether the character of William Blake was offering some form of critique of the poet Blake (as, for example, in J. G. Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company) or operated in ignorance of any possible relation, a mere coincidence of names used to ironic effect (as in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man). Reading a second time, and not paying so much attention to “Will Blake” – as he prefers to define himself – enabled me to concentrate more of the features of the book itself. The final denouement is a little flat after preceding events, and on both occasions I found the intrigues around prostitution dispiriting, but this is precisely the point. Thompson’s spare writing style is elegant and controlled, with the unfolding psychology of Blake (whether Will or William) compelling.

Other reviewers have compared the novel to Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, and in unravelling the disintegration of a marriage following the disappearance of a child the comparison is an apposite one. Claims that it subverts the crime genre through surrealist touches, however, are too slight in my opinion to be sustained. The novel works better when viewed as a more conventional generic crime novel, though one that fits with a generation of crime writers such as Dibdin and Ian Rankin. Where Thompson does allow magical-realist moments to emerge (as in the style of Angela Carter, perhaps), the effect is less satisfying, as when Louise mysteriously turns up in a café with a copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience which Blake picks up to read:

But as he read, the words kept disappearing until he was left with a blank page. He flicked through the rest of the book; all the pages were now blank. Only the title and author’s name on the front remained. He staggered out of the café, leaving the book on the table, and collapsed onto the pavement outside. (54)

This section can still be read in realist mode (Blake is subject to fits and this records his experiences of the scene), but the tendency in passages such as this was for me to read them as fairly heavy-handed symbolism for the content of the novel, with themes of memory and amnesia.

Where Blake’s presence does come alive in the novel, both as character in its pages and as a reference to the engraver and poet, is in the various sections of The Existential Detective that deal with desire:

There was something about depression, he thought, that if you were lucky enough to come out the other end, made you a kind of visionary – like drugs, it was mind-altering. It seemed to give another dimension to reality, a fuller version of it, as if previously the world had seemed a theatrical stage-show of colour. It forged you.

Desire returned with a vengeance, a ferocity. An abstract desire connected to pornography, rather than feeling. Most people lived life in disguise, concealing their own wants so as not to seem greedy. But we were all greedy in the end, greedy for different things. It was part of our humanity.

He was powerless over his desire. He would drive down to Leith harbour where he would see the prostitutes walking up and down the streets, some looking as young as twelve in the semi-darkness, their faces always turning towards the light of a car like moths towards a flame. (44)

The William (as opposed to Will) Blake invoked here is the author of the verse, “In a wife I would desire / What in whores is always found / The lineaments of Gratified desire” (E474), as well as the observer of the youthful harlots whose curse spread as a plague through London in the 1790s. Assuming that Will Blake is a comment on William, then the figure invoked in The Existential Detective is one both aware of the potential destructiveness as well as brilliance of his desire, a part of humanity that if ignored or controlled leads to the callous inhumanity of the cool, intellectual villain of Thompson’s novel, as well as the neglectful, dreary locale of the pub-cum-brothel, the Milton (a nod, of course, to not dissimilar themes in Blake’s epic poem).

I remain unconvinced by the neatness of the ending of The Existential Detective (though this is a personal foible with many crime novels, and I am far from the perfect audience for them). I did however, enjoy the subtlety with which all-too-male William Blake is supplanted in his investigations by two women who are, ultimately, much more effective than him. Thompson’s prose is also a great pleasure to read and if her visionary flights are not quite visionary enough for me, as a serious-minded contemplation of the routes of desire and how they affect our own perceptions this is a potent and effective novel.

The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis

The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis. Timb D. Hoswell
HoWa: House of Waho/Lulu, 2009. pp. 102. $15.95. ISBN: 978 1 60489 042 6.

It is fascinating to see how Blake gets embroiled in mini-cyclones of controversy (particularly considering his obscurity during his own lifetime). The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis has been attracting a great deal of attention online, primarily due to Creationists latching onto it as an ultimate refutation of Darwinism. As Hoswell, currently researching a PhD at the Australian Catholic University, Sydney, remarks in his preface to the book, this promotion of The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis as some simple anti-Darwinian text completely misses the point of his study, which does not seek to invalidate either biology as a science or evolution as a scientific theory, but rather to explore the “epistemic problem” facing scientists who seek “either to discover or create a sound foundation for knowledge.” This book, as Hoswell states in his conclusion, is merely the first step in considering the obstacles set in the way of those who wish to ascribe to imagination a role in structuring our knowledge of the world around us, and a revised edition is now available from

An epistemological critique of science is not itself particularly unique, of course: constructivism, for example, has a complex history since Jean Piaget emphasised the development of scientific knowledge out of peer interactions from the late 1920s onwards, and Thomas Kuhn’s term “paradigm shift” has been immensely popular (if also frequently misunderstood and contentious) since its introduction in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions in 1962. These theorists and many others have emphasised the non-objective elements of scientific knowledge, although the sensible critiques of empiricism and positivism are not concerned to support the foundations of Creationist belief any more than Hoswell’s book. What is particularly interesting about this particular text is the serious evaluation of Blake as a philosopher rather than simply poet or artist dealing with our ideas of the foundations of knowledge, and where The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis demonstrates its originality is by considering the intrinsic role that imagination has to play in all processes of knowledge, linking the insights provided by Blake with those of the anarchist philosopher of science, Paul Feyerabend. Of course, it is possible to find some similar insights in critics from Northrop Frye onwards, but these tend to gloss over Blake’s most explicit philosophical texts, the tractates There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One, published in 1788.

In his preface, Hoswell discourages viewing his work as an example of so-called “post-atheism”, but instead begins the book proper with what he characterises as the problem for much scientific epistemology, referred to here as both “the Cartesian Quandary” and “the Darwinian Paradox” (with refutations offered in the form of predicate/propositional calculus in the appendices). The first draws on the assumption by Enlightenment philosophers that if God had provided us with reason to understand creation, yet that understanding indicates the absence of God, what foundation is there for our knowledge? If we are simply animals like any other (Darwin’s premise), then belief is adaptive and there is no ground for believing in the truth of evolution: all our knowledge may be faulty, without any fundamental certainties. Descartes attempted to square the circle through a reformulation of the ontological argument, positing a necessary existence of God (if my idea of God is perfect but he does not exist, then he is not perfect – therefore God, defined as perfection, must exist), an argument that never escapes its own circularity and, as Kant pointed out, depended on the assumption that existence is more perfect than non-existence. Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion, while offering various (and somewhat cursory) rejections of this and other arguments for the existence of God, offers a metaphor of the crane ratcheting up levels of complexity to explain his view of how human consciousness can emerge without recourse to a higher, supernatural power. Dawkins’ own quandary (as well as the fact that his own metaphor relies too much on the old fallacy of the argument from analogy) is that the very Darwinism of his evolutionary biology that insists the watchmaker is blind cannot provide epistemological proof for those beliefs, and it is this faith of science in its own truth that Hoswell correctly identifies as the root of the problem. Interestingly, Hoswell distinguishes the position of the scientist concerned to find a foundation of truth for his ideas from that of what he refers to as the “engineer”, who by contrast is “interested in the principle of use… A large-scale theory of the cosmos is pointless for him unless it contains information he can use to design and build things from.” (18) For the engineer, knowledge is neither necessarily transcendent or immanent: he or she does not need to work out “what reality is” but simply to find the way in which it is contingent to the matter in hand, what Hoswell calls “engineer’s reality” in his conclusion. Dawkins’ crane frequently sticks, has to rely on metaphysical speculations such as multiverses to find the origins of his proof that God is a delusion: from the engineer’s point of view, who cares where the crane came from so long as it works?

Strictly speaking, God could actually be dispensed with but the fault of the Cartesian Quandary would remain, as evidenced by a tendency of positivist science to hypostasise an essential condition – such as the laws of nature – as the underlying reality that will offer proof of the crane’s origins. To repeat, as Hoswell does throughout the book, this is not to say that science does not work – that it is not effective – but to emphasise the epistemological problems of proof which science frequently recognises as problems but then forgets when it seeks to explain its models and theories as explaining how reality is and falls into a reductive positivism. When criticising Hume’s prejudice against fiction and imagination, Hoswell refers to Wittgenstein’s humorous four-dimensional cube as an example of how new knowledge may be created that does not reference the world around us: the reason why this is important is that theories of logical positivism were influenced by Wittgenstein’s early work on codifying language – a position rejected by Wittgenstein’s later anti-systematic language games.

One of my particular pleasures when reading this book is the close attention paid by Hoswell to Blake’s There is No Natural Religion and (to a lesser extent) All Religions Are One, which he uses as one element in his demolition of the Humean prejudice against fiction and imagination. If knowledge can only be synthesised by reason from sense impressions, then how can we account for the accumulation of knowledge that cannot be perceived directly (such as x-rays or sub-atomic particles)? Hume – in a statement from The Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding that, as Hoswell points out, is much more restrictive than Locke’s account for the accumulation of knowledge – argues that imagination “cannot exceed that original stock of ideas furnished by the internal and external senses” (cited 19). Moreover, “Every idea is copied from some preceding impression or sentiment; and where we cannot find any impression, we may be certain that there is no idea.” (Cited 22) As Blake pithily observes in proposition III from series A of There is No Natural Religion, “From a perception of only 3 senses or 3 elements none could deduce a fourth or fifth”. Blake’s innovation, argues Hoswell, is to begin from the observation that what we perceive in this world is not merely sensory: “On the most primary level of sense data, man doesn’t see electromagnetic radiation reflected from the visible light spectrum forming patterns in the ocular lens, he sees actual objects. He doesn’t just receive sound waves he hears noise.” (29) Perception goes beyond empirical experience and the reason why Blake’s epistemology is so important is because by making imagination the starting point for the act of perception (a point that is not dissimilar to Coleridge’s distinction of the primary and secondary imagination in the Biographia Literaria) he provides a means of explaining how new knowledge may emerge.

From here, Hoswell proceeds to the second Humean prejudice, the assumption that empirical observation has access to antecedents in the real world that form the basis of our ideas through sense impressions, an assumption that forms the basis of the attempt, via August Comte, John Stuart Mill and the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, to provide a coherent, reductive theory for verifying knowledge. One refutation derives from Hume’s contemporary, Thomas Reid, whose emphasis on the sensus communis (common sense) as a means of framing perception emphasised the active nature of imagination in organising sense impressions. As Hoswell observes, rather than assuming “that the coherence of experience is the result of the unity of the empirical world antecedent to our impressions” (57), the theoretical and conceptual contexts in which we operate are required for us to make sense of the world around us (he gives the example of attempts to understand and describe cellular structures before Schleiden and Schwann provided a formal, coherent theory that allowed us to “know” what we were looking at, a similar point underlying Foucault’s understanding of how the archive conceptualises and organises knowledge). Because Blake understands the fundamental importance of the disunity of languages (citing plate 11 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, in which Blake discusses the origins of religion in the stories of poets), he is able to ascribe an active and positive role to imagination in that process of conceptualising reality rather than being limited to the passive reception of antecedent impressions. As Blake wrote in his conclusion to Series B of There is No Natural Religion:

If it were not for the Poetic or Prophetic Character the Philosophic & Experimental would soon be at the ration of all things, and stand still, unable to do other than repeat the same dull round over again… He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only. (Cited 28)

The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis returned me Blake’s early tractates. I must be honest that my tendency is to skip these before settling down to the “real” matter of Blake’s career as author of the illuminated books from Songs of Innocence onwards, but as manifestos of his philosophical position they represent a sort of ground-clearing before putting into practice poetic and artistic principles. The attention paid by critics to these tractates tends to receive less attention than the other illuminated books, though Donald Ault’s Visionary Physics: Blake’s Response to Newton and Stuart Peterfreund’s William Blake in a Newtonian World cover some similar ground in terms of dealing with non-empiricist approaches to knowledge. Probably the most important text in this field is Wayne Glausser’s Locke and Blake: A Conversation Across the Eighteenth Century (1998), which begins by warning of the tendency to caricature Blake’s view of Locke as a “convenient foil”. Hoswell does not caricature Locke but instead recognises that the search for a fundamental reality – one, ironically, that is pre-empirical although amenable to the senses – is the rationalist “God” that lies at the root of Descartes’ Quandary. The Blake-Feyerabend Hypothesis is not without flaws – some of which Hoswell himself draws attention to. Thus the link between Blake and Feyerabend is more implied at many points than explicitly argued, and the author indicates that this is really the work of a future project. Also, the pre-publication manuscript I was sent for review includes a number of typos that I hope were edited out before publication (if not, he needs a good editor). Despite these criticisms – and perhaps the more fundamental one that acknowledging imagination as a foundation of knowledge does not necessarily help us with discriminating knowledge drawn from imagination, a subject dealt with in a different way in Kant’s Critique of Judgement and acknowledged by the author in his final conclusion – Hoswell makes a strong case for Blake’s search for the infinite rather than truth as a source of human creativity and thus removes “the chief obstacle impeding anyone wishing to build an epistemological foundation based on imagination.” (79)

W. C. Bamberger: On the Backstretch

On the Backstretch. W. C. Bamberger
Livingstone Alabama: Livingstone Press, 2009. pp. 102. $15.95. ISBN: 978 1 60489 042 6.

In 1944, Joyce Cary published The Horse’s Mouth, third in a trilogy of novels that included Herself Surprised (1941) and To Be a Pilgrim (1942). Dealing with the trials and (usually self-inflicted) tribulations of an artist, Gulley Jimson, this comical novel was also made into a film of the same title starring Alec Guinness as Jimson in 1958. The book has, very unfortunately, been out of print for some time – unfortunately because, as Edward Larrissy points out in Blake and Modern Literature (2006), “The Horse’s Mouth is possibly the most Blakean literary work in the language”. Regardless of the extensive allusions and citations of Blake, Cary’s novel is well-worth reading in its own right as a study of an incorrigible artistic temperament written in a rich, slangy language. The film plays up the slapstick elements (and downplays Blake) a little too much to make it one of my favourites, but it remains an intensely enjoyable screen version.

All this serves as a prologue – but a necessary one – to Bamberger’s novel which was published in December 2009. Cary’s original work begins with Jimson having just been released from prison and Bamberger takes this incarceration during 1938-9 as the premise for his own book. This is the second novel by Bamberger, whose other work includes studies of William Eastlake and Kenward Elmslie, and it reads more as a novella than full-blown novel: although the publishers claim that it stands on its own, most readers will probably (and quite rightly) be attracted to it because of familiarity with The Horse’s Mouth.

The events of On the Backstretchtake place over a few weeks in an unspecified prison where Bamberger has been sent for stealing from a collector, Hickson. Aside from Jimson himself, a grubbing artist who combines sardonic delight in his own failures with a passionate desire to paint and occasional flashes of generosity of spirit to those around him, the characters of Joyce’s novel play no part in On the Backstretch other than to sketch out background colour to Jimson’s history. Rather, his primary dealings are with two new characters: Milt, a maths school teacher imprisoned for throwing one of his pupils, the son of the woman he loves, out of a window, and Heyley, chaplain of the gaol who takes a neglectfully benevolent interest in the dissolute artist and commissions him to produce engravings for the chapel.

These two figures are drawn, unsurprisingly, from Milton and William Hayley (indeed, Heyley is misspelt with an “a” at one point), and the structure for Bamberger’s novel is very loosely based on Blake’s Milton a Poem and some aspects of Blake’s life. As Jimson remarks:

Blake, poet and engraver without peer, was himself once in danger of going to prison. The world has always been kind to the dreamers among us, stopping them from drifting away by chaining their legs if need be. Blake was on a longer tether than most, his high holy air taking him well above the plainchant of 3 Fountain Court. ‘Twas his wife Catherine’s wide hips that moored him, would be my wager. (5)

Bamberger does a good job of catching something of Cary’s style (Betjamin described him as a “Lord of Language”), and if it is not always pitch perfect it is, perhaps, because the difficulty of crafting a careful and respectful pastiche towards a writer whose subject is the dissolute and insolent. Nonetheless, there are many occasions where the author rises to the challenge of Cary’s knotty, witty mixture of vernacular and obscurantism that itself owes not a little to Blake as well as Cary’s nearer Irish contemporaries such as Joyce:

I knew a little of the writing of the Bible. Not that of His Majesty King James, or Tyndale’s before that, or the Geneva (Shakespeare’s reading), but the original, come down to us in loose papyrus sheets and translations and Babylonian jars, in Aramaic and Ugarit. (Site of a deadly rifle fight; Syrian desert bandits head-to-head with archaeologists for crumbling tablets. Someone should make a film drama of it.) A library is a handy place to come in out of the rain. But unless a man shines himself up with the glaze of a stack of study books, the librarians get out their iron punting shoes. So I knew that the Hebrew the scribes recorded in was consonants only; and a religious man would know the vowels by heart. So the true Bible was fully half holes, blanks that any reader had to fill for him or herself. (55)

Bamberger’s obscure plays did raise the pedant in me a couple of times: Heyley has a copy of one of Blake’s original designs to Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of the Recording Angel in his office – as Jimson himself points out, the only known copy of the watercolour is in the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery, but we are presented with a suitably implausible story that Heyley’s grandfather was Henry Cary who had commissioned an untraced set of the Dantes. While that is an acrobatic stretch that is admirable for its inventiveness (if not the notion that Heyley would allow it to be placed in the corridor outside Jimson’s cell), a couple of other minor features jar slightly. Thus, as well as a small, thirty-twomo edition of Jerusalem, which I am fairly sure does not match the Russell and Maclagen 1904 edition (more or less the only one that would have been available at the time), the prison library also includes a copy of the Blake illustrated A Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, which was not reprinted with Blake’s engravings between 1813 and 1963, making it a rare book indeed in 1938.

This is nitpicking with a Urizenic intensity, and none of these factors really diminished my pleasure in the book: the allusions to war and Hitler, however, were somewhat different in spirit to Cary’s original intentions. The approach of war is hardly mentioned at all in The Horse’s Mouth, creeping in towards the end with several possible interpretations: bearing in mind that Cary’s novel was published in 1944, it may be a reflection on the fact that whatever Jimson’s misdemeanours, these are nothing compared to the coming horror or his childlike ignorance of what will follow. Alternatively, and bearing in mind the anarchistic sympathies of Jimson’s friend, Plantie, it may be that the artist and his compatriots are dismissive of all political nationalisms, showing a contempt for Hitler by largely refusing to allow him the significance he demands. This is subtly changed in On the Backstretch: there are constant reminders of the approaching conflict, as when Heyley observes that the copper used by Jimson may have to be appropriated for the war effort. While the chronology is not explicitly mapped out, I did wander how much people would have been generally talking this way when appeasement was still in the air in late 1938, or how Jimson’s (and other characters’) apparent amnesia could be explained in Cary’s novel.

Such background, while distracting, should not deter readers from engaging with the real thrust of Bamberger’s novel, which is an appropriately vague retelling of Milton. This schema is indicated in the second chapter, where Jimson announces to the intended reader of his autobiography:

It may be that some of these travels I’m going to tell were only mental. I see through my memory, not with it, and my eye may improve it in the retelling. Not lies, but Los, Billy Blake’s Spirit of Creation. And despite my acquaintance with some of the best tutors in the profession, I’m no jailer. If Los wants to run rough over my memory, I’m not about to chain him down. (8)

Rather like the spiritual autobiography of Milton a Poem, Jimson identifies himself with Los (via Blake), with Milt standing in for Milton and Heyley for Hayley/Satan. Bamberger provides a delightfully light touch when dealing with the mild-mannered chaplain whose apparent desire to secure Jimson’s ease in the prison is in fact a trap that will tempt him away from his own art – something that Heyley has no understanding of when he regretfully informs the artist that his etched copper plates have been converted into “sentimental letter openers”. The humour is a little more heavy-handed when dealing with Milt, the dour maths teacher who, like Milton seeking Ololon, wishes to be united with his Hindu Lila. There is, however, a great Blakean touch when Jimson realises how he can unite Milt with his love, inspiration striking him as he bends down to tie a shoelace in a mundane re-enactment of the moment when Blake straps on his sandal after Los descends into his left foot.

On the Backstretch is a strange little novel, wonderful in its way. At one point, perhaps a point where the author reflects on his own difficulties, Jimson ponders Blake’s injunction to create his own system:

Myself, I’d long been a comfortable elf to Olde Billy St. Nick. Because so complete is his system (and so completely did he turn his back on the given world) that I’d hardly ever found a question to which he didn’t have a poetic answer at the ready.
And yet, there remained one question – one hardly worth mentioning, though it was steady becoming a constant flea bite to me. I had often thought, as I read and reread Blake, how I was betraying his spirit by being an enthusiast. In following him I was neglecting to make my own system. His own words would clip the tag of “slave to another” in my piggish ear. To follow him was to betray him. (87-8)

And this is Bamberger’s own difficulty, for he follows not one system but two, that of Cary as well as Blake. Those who have not read The Horse’s Mouth will probably be bemused by On the Backstretch, but as a reminder of the many virtues of the earlier novel Bamberger does not at least betray the spirit of Joyce Cary, even if he does follow him.

Mei-Ying Sung: William Blake and the Art of Engraving

William Blake and the Art of Engraving. Mei-Ying Sung
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009. pp. 220. £60. ISBN: 9 781851 969586.

This monograph, an extension of Mei-Ying Sung’s PhD thesis, begins with a simple observation that while Blake’s technique of relief etching has attracted considerable academic interest in recent decades, his engraving processes – including, remarkably, the archive of surviving copper plates – have been much neglected. Sung suggests that the main reason for this is that engraving as a technology of reproduction is obsolete and consequently downgraded, but a (slightly) more positive reason may be that Blake’s technique of relief etching was so innovative, particularly with regard to the illuminated books produced using this method, that it has been a much more obvious source of academic inquiry. Related to this is the much more ambivalent and frustrating factor that Blake as an artist is frequently treated as secondary to Blake as poet.

Sung’s opening technical argument provides a deft and scholarly summary of a controversy that dogged Blake studies for several years (and which often appears opaque and esoteric to general appreciators of Blake’s art). In the years following the large exhibition of Blake’s works at Tate Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2000-2001, disagreement arose between Robert Essick, Joseph Viscomi and Michael Phillips following the latter’s publication of a book, William Blake, The Creation of the Songs, in which he suggested that Blake registered plates to pull copies twice rather than once in order to make colour prints. The argument which followed became bad tempered at times, and most readers (including not a few Blake specialists) would have been overwhelmed by the intensely technical details. Sung, however, provides a usefully concise version of the controversy, with a conclusion that is rather damning towards Phillips while also observing that all experts involved confined themselves to the prints while ignoring – more or less completely – the surviving thirty-eight copper plates that survive.

It is by considering these artefacts in detail that Sung’s work provides her most rigorous innovations in Blake studies, most notably how Blake had to work and re-work his plates using a technique known as repoussage, as well as providing fascinating detours through subsequent experiments to renovate Blake’s techniques by artists such as Ruthven Todd, Joan Miró and William Stanley Hayter. In the chapter on “The History of the Theory of Conception and Execution”, a theory which has its origin in Blake’s remarks in a letter to George Cumberland in 1795 refuting the separation of the powers of invention and execution, Sung shows how the emphasis on relief etching as well as the experiments of the Surrealists has skewed our understanding of Blake’s actual practice. Despite the mistakes this has led to, however, Sung demonstrates immense respect towards the work of Ruthven Todd, a much neglected figure in Blake studies who, as she observes, was probably as important as Geoffrey Keynes in returning attention to Blake’s art.

After this theoretical introduction, the following three chapters of William Blake and the Art of Engraving provide a highly technical examination of Blake’s practice. “The Evidence of Copper Plates” begins from the observation that while proofs of prints may provide most information about the development of an image, “there is information on the metal plates which is not shown on the prints” (p. 46), most notably evidence of repoussage which indicates how the process of production is corrected as the artist works on the plate. Because, as Sung points out, plates were often re-used or rarely collected, the body of plates belonging to Blake is very small and so this chapter also provides more general information on other engravers, such as the 170 copper plates belonging to George Cruikshank and the forty or so copper and steel plates left by Phiz.

Sung notes that differences in etching and engraving techniques could have a significant difference on the amount of correction required to complete a work, and this provides important context for the subsequent chapter, “Blake’s Engraved Copper Plates”, which synthesises current knowledge about extant plates and those for which some information has been recorded even if the plates themselves are lost. This catalogue is a useful source of information for Blake scholars, and the chapter concludes with a more detailed analysis, as well as catalogue raisonné of the remaining plates for Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826). Sung’s careful examination indicates that “the evidence of the plates and Blake’s alterations to them shows not only the development of ideas but also modifications of errors”, and that this leads us “to reconsider the limits of [Joseph] Viscomi’s concept about Blake’s technique being original creation rather than secondary reproduction”, the Job engravings being a “mixture of experiments and trial and error” (pp. 85, 118).

In terms of providing minute particulars on Blake’s life, the following chapter on “Copper Plate Makers in Blake’s Time” is incredibly specialist but also quite fascinating. Rather crudely, I am not sure my own appreciation of Blake is especially influenced by knowing who provided the copper for the artist’s engraving work, but the role of the British copper industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the activities of companies such as Pontifex, opens up the world of industry within which Blake worked. There is not quite the cultural engagement here that is found in work such as that of Isobel Armstrong on Victorian glass, but details such as copper theft in the early nineteenth century offer enticing glimpses into the commercial environment of the time.

Wider appeal, however, will probably be found in the final chapter on the earliest re-engravers of Blake’s Virgil woodcuts. Of course, this statement reflects my own interest in the reception of Blake’s works, but those woodcuts began to engage with an audience during Blake’s lifetime and, as Sung observes, indicate how readers actually engaged with the Thornton Virgil has rarely been addressed. Detailing her primary research into a surviving woodblock, an early imitation of Blake’s design, Sung displays excellent detective work when discussing how Blake’s illustrations appeared in later Victorian publications such as the Athenaeum.

William Blake and the Art of Engraving is an incredibly detailed, highly technical and scholarly work, one that contributes greatly to our understanding of Blake’s techniques of production in a tradition that includes figures such as Bentley, Viscomi, Essick and Phillips. Her most important addition is to refocus specifically on Blake’s work as an engraver, and throughout the book Sung demonstrates remarkable and comprehensive attention to the minute particulars of his craft that allows her to challenge easy assumptions about the theory of his creative practice.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Philip Pullman
London: Canongate, 2010. pp. 245. £14.99. ISBN: 9 781847 678256.

Released just before Easter, Pullman’s latest novel, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ, has become a publishing sensation, attracting considerable reviews and a great deal of attention. As President of the Blake Society, Pullman’s attraction to Blake is a deep and profound one, manifested at various points in the trilogy His Dark Materials and also The Adventures of John Blake. As such, there are several moments when Blake’s influence is a telling one in this particular novel – though before dealing with this in any detail it is important to make some general points regarding The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Firstly, and in this I agree with a significant number of critics who have previously reviewed the novel, Pullman’s spare and simple style is immensely effective. Whether it was his intended effect to send readers back to the Bible is a moot point, but in many ways Pullman’s plain and unadorned writing is reminiscent of certain translations of the gospels of Mark and Matthew in particular (the latter, of course, a particular favourite of Marxist film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini). The undoubted power of the words of the good man Jesus made me wonder at times whether Pullman’s book even has designs on becoming a fifth gospel, one aimed at secular and atheist (or at least agnostic) readers, reminding them that while they may have cast off the bond of superstition perhaps they have also thrown out too much that is of undoubted good.

Much of the plot of The Good Man is largely familiar, aside from Pullman’s central conceit that Mary gave birth not to one child but two, Jesus and Christ (and carping by some readers that “Christ” is not a proper name but rather a title is completely irrelevant to Pullman’s parable). Events largely follow those of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), while John is treated suspiciously as the mystic and mystifier, the source of conversations such as the following between the unnamed stranger and Christ on the purpose of truth as being more important than history:

There is time and there is beyond time. History belongs to time, but truth belongs to what is beyond time. In writing of these things as they should have been, you are letting truth into history. You are the word of God. (99)

There is something in these words that at first sounds a little reminiscent of Blake (as in the aphorism “Eternity is in love with the productions of time” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell), but the objective of the stranger, an allegory for the church, is completely un-Blakean, the message being that the church must lie in order to maintain power. Regarding the use of the Johannine gospel, Pullman appears to more or less reject the fourth evangelist, although there is an irony in that one of the most potent stories of Jesus’s life, that of the woman taken in adultery who is saved from death by Jesus’s simple admonition, translated here by Pullman as “If there’s one you who has never committed a sin, he can throw the first stone” (154) – one of the strongest examples of the power of forgiveness of sin – is only found in John 7.53-8.11. Indeed, this is one of the problems I found with the book as a whole: Christ frequently rewrites Jesus’s life to emphasise the message that he believes to be most important, but then Pullman’s revisionary act also picks and chooses those parts that he obviously prefers.

What, then, of the Blakean aspects of the novel? The gospel narrative is, of course, much bigger than Blake, but Blake remains one of the most important commentators in English art and literature on the Bible and it is unsurprising that Pullman has taken elemnets from the Romantic. What first attracted my attention was a serialised extract that included his chapter on the conception of Jesus and Christ:

At that time, Mary was about sixteen years old, and Joseph had never touched her.
One night in her bedroom she heard a whisper through her window.
“Mary, do you know how beautiful you are? You are the most lovely of all women. The Lord must have favoured you especially, to be so sweet and so gracious, to have such eyes and such lips . . .”
She was confused, and said “Who are you?”
“I am an angel,” said the voice. “Let me in and I shall tell you a secret that only you must know.”
She opened the window and let him in. In order not to frighten her, he had assumed the appearance of a young man, just like one of the young men who spoke to her by the well.
“What is the secret?” she said.
“You are going to conceive a child,” said the angel. (7)

The all-too human circumstances of the conception of the son of God are extremely familiar from the following lines of Blake’s epic, Jerusalem:

in the Visions of Elohim Jehovah, behold Joseph & Mary
And be comforted O Jerusalem in the Visions of Jehovah Elohim
She looked & saw Joseph the Carpenter in Nazareth & Mary
His espoused Wife. And Mary said, If thou put me away from thee
Dost thou not murder me? Joseph spoke in anger & fury. Should I
Marry a Harlot & an Adulteress? Mary answerd, Art thou more pure
Than thy Maker who forgiveth Sins & calls again Her that is Lost
Tho She hates. he calls her again in love. I love my dear Joseph
But he driveth me away from his presence. yet I hear the voice of God
In the voice of my Husband. tho he is angry for a moment, he will not
Utterly cast me away. if I were pure, never could I taste the sweets
Of the Forgive[ne]ss of Sins! if I were holy! I never could behold the tears
Of love! of him who loves me in the midst of his anger in furnace of fire.
Ah my Mary: said Joseph: weeping over & embracing her closely in
His arms: Doth he forgive Jerusalem & not exact Purity from her who is
Polluted. I heard his voice in my sleep O his Angel in my dream:
Saying, Doth Jehovah Forgive a Debt only on condition that it shall
Be Payed? Doth he Forgive Pollution only on conditions of Purity
That Debt is not Forgiven! That Pollution is not Forgiven (61.1-19, E211-2)

In Blake, the immaculateness of Jesus’s conception is not that Mary has no experience of sex, but that Joseph refuses to enforce the Mosaic law. My initial reading of the Pullman chapter had been to see it as a direct parallel to Blake’s lines, as well as the mischievous debunking that takes place in The Everlasting Gospel:

Was Jesus Chaste or did he
Give any Lessons of Chastity
The morning blushd fiery red
Mary was found in Adulterous bed
Earth groand beneath & Heaven above
Trembled at discovery of Love

On reading the whole novel, however, Pullman’s representation of Mary is a more complex one. Pullman’s Mary (unlike Blake’s) appears to be something of a simpleton rather than an innocent, for she takes Christ specifically to be her child, reserving Jesus for Joseph (14). The harshness of this assessment, however, does depend on taking the title of Pullman’s book at face value: throughout much of the novel, Christ is clearly a scoundrel, but by the end it is difficult not to feel sympathy for him.

The reason for this lies in the characters of Jesus and Pullman. It is when depicting the former that Pullman often reads at his most Blakean: Jesus is a natural rebel, and during one of his first appearances in the temple (taken from Luke chapter two), the learning ascribed to him by the evangelist is instead transferred to Christ, with Jesus instead daubing graffiti on the temple walls. In the chapter “Joseph Greets his Son”, it is Jesus who is the prodigal son, and Pullman elsewhere describes Jesus as “impulsive”, a word surely employed to evoke Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where a devil describes how Jesus breaks the ten commandments and concludes, “Jesus was all virtue, and acted from impulse: not from rules.” (plates 23-4 E43) Pullman, it must be said, does not quite emphasise the rebelliousness of Jesus quite as much as Blake does (as, for example, when he emphasises in his version of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus’s emphasis on fulfilling Mosaic law, something which Blake always kicks against), but his Jesus is given to spontaneous action that cannot be seen as anything but seditious by the self-righteous, as when he creates birds from clay on the sabbath – a story drawn from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the Qu’ran rather than more orthodox Christian sources.

In the story of the clay birds, it is Christ rather than Jesus who brings them to life. As Christ himself realises, he is calculating, rational, cautious – everything that his brother is not. Pullman’s Christ is very much a god of this world, one who wants fairness, logic and order as well as glory and power. The radical nature of Jesus’s kingdom of heaven is that it is unfair – that God gives love to lilies in the field and birds in the trees as much as to grafting men and women. In many ways, it is Christ who is the more “modern” character in the book, given to introspection and self-analysis in a way that never occurs with Jesus – and it is this that, ultimately, makes him sympathetic to the reader. Christ’s problem is that he clearly is too much a man and, if early in the novel there is something despicable about him that makes him appear a true scoundrel, as when he takes the role of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness, by the end his own recognition of his shortcomings and failings is what makes him much more attractive. He is tricked by his own vanity and ambition into playing the part of Judas, and becomes so disgusted with this that by the end of the novel, having (almost accidentally) given hope to the disciples by making them believe that Jesus is risen again, he has turned his back on the world and become a net-maker. This is the only time that he seems content – until tempted once more by the mysterious stranger and his dormant desire to give more coherent shape to the story.

A number of reviewers have remarked on the fact that Christ is an analogue for Pullman. This, to me, seems both a fair assessment and also an indication of how Christ surprises through sympathy in the story. Jesus is radical – as Christ says at the end of the book, “He wanted perfection; he asked too much of people” (244) – while Christ is fallible. And just as Christ is an example of that familiar construct, the unreliable narrator, so Pullman in the end has to be an unreliable author. In most cases, I think this is a role that Pullman is perfectly content with – he wishes to undermine the authority of the transcendental narrative by which organised religion gains so much of his power, and if Christ is, after Nietzsche, human, all too human, then Pullman’s own humanism must recognise a deeper empathy with this failed divinity.

However, there are for me a couple of times in the novel when Pullman does appear to desire an alternative transcendental ground for his own narrative, one that will provide (as all such grounds do) at least the illusion of securer footing for his resistance to religion. The most notable moment is in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus launches into an atheistical tirade against God (191-201) which, while powerful, heartfelt, and full of good sense, simply does not sound like Jesus. By this I mean that Pullman the Christ, who has so deftly played with the gospel stories, now leaves those evangelists behind and makes Jesus his mouthpiece; this section felt to me very much a selection of ideas that Pullman wanted Jesus to express. I have no problem whatsoever with the sentiments that appear here – indeed I agree with many of them – but Jesus as ventriloquist’s dummy feels very much like a conjuring trick of the kind that Pullman wishes to denounce when it is employed by the church.

The second time when this happens is earlier in the novel, when Christ has sex with a prostitute. In many ways, this is one of the most interesting parts of the book, demonstrating Christ’s scoundrel nature while also – through his painful humiliation – eliciting sympathy from the reader. And yet, while reading and re-reading it, I couldn’t help but feel that this was another trick on Pullman’s part, a slightly gratuitous, extra-biblical degradation of Christ inserted into the novel to whip up some scandal and additional publicity. It is an extremely well-written chapter, and I shall not forget it quickly, but its inclusion does feel like an additional piece of authorial manipulation that did make me view Pullman’s rhetorical tricks much more suspiciously.

This is a shame, because the ultimate surprise of The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is just how appealing it makes much of the gospel story, treating it as a perfectly human and understandable story rather than one shrouded in mystery and requiring the mediation of the church (a process that, Pullman alludes to again and again, began with Saint Paul’s revisionary exercise). In many respects, Pullman’s story often reads almost as a new translation rather than fiction despite the – rather forbidding – reminder on the back cover that “This is a STORY”. I have alluded to a few explicitly Blakean elements within the novel, but this is not by any means simply a retread of Blake’s ideas as alternative orthodoxy. Rather, Pullman appears to share with Blake a desire to reinterpret the Bible as parable requiring active, hermeneutic activity on the part of the reader. And Blake, despite all his injunctions against Urizenic reason, could be quite the rationalist when it came to the good book, as in the following defence of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason against Bishop Watson: “Of what consequence is it whether Moses wrote the Pentateuch or no. If Paine trifles in some of his objections it is folly to confute him so seriously in them & leave his more material ones unanswered Public Records as If Public Records were True” (E617). Or, more simply: “Both read the Bible day & night \ But thou readst black where I read white.” (E524)

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”.

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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