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.

Print as Social Media: The William Blake Birthday Book

I was recently sent a copy of this delightful book by Felicity Bowers. Rather than provide a straightforward review I have decided to write about it in a slightly different format – partly because of the date of publication (2007) but also because, while reading it, several other thoughts on a broader theme became apparent to me.

The Birthday Book was published to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth and launched with an exhibition, “All that we See is Vision”, in November of that year at the House of William Blake in South Molton Street, where Blake lived in the early nineteenth century. The book also grew out of a long-established group, the William Blake Congregation, which was set up in 1986 by Simon Miles and which meets every year at Tate Britain to celebrate Blake’s birth. As such, the editors sent out invitations to artists and poets influenced by Blake who in turn spread the word to others, submissions then being brought together to produce the final book.

The result is a collection of 61 poems and illustrations printed in colour and taking Blake, directly or obliquely, as a source of inspiration. By and large images and poems alternate throughout the book, with plenty of pages combining both in a manner befitting Blake’s own method of production (and demonstrating just how much easier his task would have been had he lived and worked in the age of digital reproduction). Contributors include several famous figures, such as Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horovitz and Chris Orr, as well as plenty of others who may or may not be enthusiastic amateurs (or, at least, unknown to me). This is by no means a criticism of the project, as opening up Blake to the widest possible audience is of especial interest to me.

With regard to the images and poems themselves, the quality of such a collection is variable – as one would expect of a medley such as this – and the same is true of style, media and presentation. Some particularly attracted my attention: Jan Martin’s elegant, minimalist linocut, “Heaven in a Wild Flower”, is graceful and delicate, inviting the viewer to consider Blake’s imaginative infinity in the spaces bounded by a firm line; Roger Wagner’s untitled woodcut is reminiscent of Blake’s designs for Thornton’s Virgil and his watercolour “Albion Rose”, as well as alluding to elements of the fourfold vision in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem; Partou Zia’s painting, also untitled, depicting a woman painting in a book beneath a tree, was especially poignant for me, as I had met Partou – an Iranian born artist who had lived in Newlyn since 1993 – several times before her early death in 2008.

The contributions tend to be divided between those that reinterpret a particular text or motif from Blake – such as Brian Catling’s “Blake – The Flea”, Karen Camp’s “from Songs of Innocence – Night”, and Michael Chaitow’s “Energy is Eternal Delight” – and those that use Blake as a starting point for original compositions that echo Blakean themes and styles, or aspects of his biography, rather than specific minute particulars, such as Horovitz’s “Footnotes to Blake” or interFerence’s “To Whom It May Concern.”

The thoughts roused in me when reading through The William Blake Birthday Book were most intriguing in dealing with the social feeling that runs throughout the book. Social media may be a buzzword when dealing with online and digital platforms, but everything about this printed book – from its conception to the delicious jumble decoherent responses – points to how other formats may be social media. In particular, considering the conversations inspired throughout the pages of this little book, the editor’s acknowledgement of thanks to “all the artists and poets who responded with enthusiasm at short notice and accommodated our strange request to use handwriting in the age of email and to work at the same size as the printed image in the age of photography and digital scanning” is a tribute to the aspirations of this (itself delightfully strange) work inspired by one who described himself as “very much delighted with being in good Company.”

The William Blake Birthday Book is available from www.williamblakecongregation.co.uk. For more information on the Blake Congregation, including its next meeting at Tate Britain, visit williamblakecongregation.wordpress.com.

Richard Wright: The Sleeping Congregation

Richard Wright, winner of last year’s Turner Prize, is the third and final artist to curate the Contemporary Art Society series at Tate Britain from 13 September to 5 December 2010.

Wright, who lives and works in Glasgow, is an artist very much influenced by Blake’s visionary works in his own art, though the title of this exhibition takes its title from a 1763 Hogarth engraving, which mocks a tedious sermoniser and his bored audience.

Also included in the exhibition are pieces by William Blake (a posthumously produced fragment from Europe) and Kurt Schwitters. Wright’s aim with the exhibition is to address the need for more inspirational and exhortative forms of art that will rouse the sleeping congregation to renewed energy.

Founded in 1910, the Contemporary Art Society exists to support and develop public collections of contemporary art in the UK. It does so by raising the funds to purchase and commission new works of contemporary art for a national network of public collections, and by soliciting gifts of works to these collections for public benefit.

More information on the exhibition can be found on the Tate web site, and to learn more about the Contemporary Art Society visit www.contemporaryartsociety.org.

Blakespotting: Philip Ringler’s Nocturnal Sunrise

I recently came across a series of stunningly beautiful photographs by Philip Ringler. Entitled Nocturnal Sunrise, this series of 21 images can be viewed on his web site at www.philipringler.com, as well as other work.

Ringler, who has an MFA from John F. Kennedy University, comes from the San Francisco Bay Area and has worked as a professional photographer since 1995. His exhibitions include Declassified (2006) and The Shadow Side of New Orleans (2004) as well as Nocturnal Sunrise (2009).

What attracted my attention to Ringler’s work was an interview with Dean Brierly for the blog The Photographer Speaks, in which the photographer outlines some of his literary influences. As well as J. G. Ballard and Edgar Allen Poe, Ringler has the following to say about Blake:

William Blake’s poetry and etchings also move me deeply and have infused their influence into this series. In Blake’s poem “Auguries of Innocence,” there is the line “some are born to the endless night.” That idea always sends chills down my spine.

The images in Nocturnal Sunrise themselves more clearly demonstrate gothic and melancholy elements than other aspects of Blake’s work, and – in reference to the line from Blake’s Auguries – it is hard for me not to make a connection between Ringler’s art and Jim Jarmusch’s film Dead Man. Although very different in terms of subject matter, the aesthetic of decay that infuses many of the pictures, with beautiful, corroded textures as in “The Great Destroyer” and “The Great Depression”, also call to mind some of Joel Peter-Witkin’s photographs in Songs of Innocence and Experience. Of his images, Ringler describes them as neither pessimistic or optimistic, but paradoxical: “The images may be read as light emerging from darkness, darkness overtaking light, light infiltrating darkness, etc., but ultimately all of these ideas can coexist together.” Blake himself was no fan of chiaroscuro (somewhat ironic, considering how many photographers working in monochrome appeal to him), but as a master of contraries he would certainly have approved of an artist seeking to paint with paradoxes.

www.philipringler.com

New exhibition: The Romantics

Tate Britain is to hold a major new exhibition that will open on 9 August and run until 31 December 2012.

The Romantics will explore the origins and legacies of Romantic art in Britain as part of a major, nine-room display in the Clore Gallery, with works drawn from the Tate’s collection. As well as works by Henry Fuseli, J. M. W. Turner, John Constable and Samuel Palmer, the recently acquired Blake prints will also be on display. (For information about the prints, click here.) Two rooms will also be devoted to the legacy of the Romantics on Graham Sutherland and other later artists.

Admission to the exhibition is free, and you can find more details including opening times on the Tate web site.

Blakean Summer Shows

With continuing interest in the art of William Blake, Summer 2010 promises to be a lively time to see either his work or art inspired by his paintings.

June began with the unveiling of a new painting that will almost certainly be recognised as a major contribution to Blake’s reception. William Daniels presented his William Blake II, created from rubbish and detritus, at the Newspeak: British Art Now, part one of which opened at the Saatchi Gallery on May 30 and runs there until October 17. Including work by Steve Bishop, Anthea Hamilton and Henrijs Preiss as well as Daniels, it has been attracting very favourable reviews in the press, with Blake II – based on the Thomas Phillips portrait of 1807 which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery – receiving particular praise.

Another exhibition that opened this month and include Blake’s works or installations inspired by him is The Alchemy of Things Unknown at the Khastoo Gallery in Los Angeles. Drawing together art, writing and other media by figures such as Kenneth Anger, Austin Osman Spare and Marilyn Manson as well as Blake, the exhibition aims to explore mystic traditions and creativity, drawing particularly on Carl Gustav Jung’s theories of the creative unconscious as espoused in The Red Book. It runs from June 10 to July 31.

Elsewhere, you can see examples of Allen Ginsberg’s photography at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC in Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg until September 16, as well as examples of Blake’s art as part of the Watercolour in Britain: Tradition and Beyond show at Sheffield Museums, running from June 17 to September 5, while the Larkhill Gallery in Bath has Blake’s illustrations to The Book of Job and other prints until July 10. Finally, Blake’s work is also included in the Drama & Desire: Artists and the Theatre exhibition which includes his art alongside that of Edgar Dégas and Aubrey Beardsley at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and which will open to the public until September 26.

The new Blakes at the Tate: prequel

Here are notes I put together in 2007, when the “new Blakes” (then still in private hands) were first displayed at Tate Britain.  I hope these notes may prove useful or at least encourage discussion when the “new Blakes” go back on display in July 2010. [Notes newly corrected 12 July 2010.]

The latest [November 2007] Tate Britain display in their Blake room is entitled:  “William Blake: ‘I still go on till the heavens & earth are gone’”.  A group of newly-discovered prints, apparently once bound up as a book, like a Small Book of Designs now in the British Museum, is displayed alongside a print from the Tate collection which possibly formed part of the same set.

The eight new prints contain just the illustration part of a few pages from three of Blake’s illuminated books—without the accompanying text that is present in the usual full version of the illuminated book.  Instead they have just a brief inscription handwritten beneath the image, yielding a total of thirteen lines of text that have been unknown until now.

Tate Britain provides no fuller discussion of the new images.  There is just a brief mention on the gallery website: “a highlight is the private loans of recently discovered works which have never before been exhibited”.  I list the prints in the sequence in which they are displayed on the walls of Tate Britain, left to right.

The First Book of Urizen, plate 2.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed by Blake below the framing lines: “Teach these Souls to Fly.”
NUMBERING Paper has been cropped to a roughly square format removing any numbering.
COLLECTION Tate (N 03696)

The Book of Thel, plate 7.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1780/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Doth God take Care of These”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 5 (or 3?)
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23184)*
* This is a running “Accession Number” given to all works loaned to the Tate.

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 16.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1790/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Who shall set”/“The Prisoners free”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 4
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23185)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 7.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “I sought Pleasure & found Pain”. / “Unutterable”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 9
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23171)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 11.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Everything is an attempt” / “To be Human”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 6
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 20172)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 12.
Full-page image surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Written in an unknown hand and within the outer framing lines: The floods overwhelmed me
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 10
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23173)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 17.
Full-page image surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Vegetating in fibres of Blood”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 8
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23181)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 19.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Is the Female death” / “Become new Life”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 1
COLLECTION Private Collection (X23182)

The First Book of Urizen, plate 23.
Image only (no text), surrounded by black ink framing lines.  Colour-printed from a relief-etched copper plate and finished with watercolours and pen and black ink on wove paper.  3 stitch-holes in left-hand margin.
DATE Dated 1794/1796 by the Tate curators.
INSCRIPTION Inscribed in Blake’s hand below the framing lines: “Fearless tho in pain” / “I travel on”
NUMBERING Numbered in pencil, outside framing lines, in bottom right corner: 7.
COLLECTION Private Collection (X 23183)

The Small Book of Designs is a sequence of 23 quarto pages formerly bound into a book.  Each page is numbered—which may represent Blake’s original sequence.  It is now in the British Museum (disbound and the pages separately mounted).  The designs derive from Blake’s works in Illuminated Printing but the texts associated with the designs have been blanked out in printing.

Linked to the BM set (“Copy A”) are a number of single prints which may be pages from a second copy of a Small Book of Designs.  This is sometimes referred to as Copy B.  Some of these “Copy B” prints carry inscriptions—cryptic, allusive—which suggest that Blake intended to create an emblem book on the lines of his intaglio-engraved The Gates of Paradise, but in rich colour.  The newly-discovered designs are on apparently untrimmed numbered quarto pages with stitch marks indicating they were once bound together.  This confirmation of a set sequence of images with inscriptions further supports the idea that the pages were intended as an emblem book.

As the table below makes clear, there appear to be just two printings of each image.  The newly-discovered prints nicely fill the gaps in the sequence of known pages from Copy B.  The two exceptions are pages which are not represented in Copy A.  Could indeed the supposed Copy B prints from Urizen plates 9, 12, 13 once have formed part of the Copy A sequence?  The problem with that suggestion is that none of the Copy A prints carry inscriptions whereas Urizen 9, 12, 13 are inscribed in ink, some possibly in Blake’s hand.  Further checking for stitch-holes, and measurement of the gaps between holes, might clarify what belongs in what sequence.

The images in the Small Book of Designs, copy A, are colour-printed—that is printed from coloured inks painted on to the copper plates—with little additional work after printing.  My knowledge of the BM prints derives mostly from reproductions, but it seems to me that the new prints are not so heavily printed; the images have been substantially reworked and strengthened in watercolour and with pen and ink work.  This suggests that the new set consists of second pulls from the same inking as the BM set.

Source Copy A (No) Copy B (No) New Set (No)
Urizen plate 1 British Museum (1) No inscription Keynes “Which is the Way” | “The Right or the Left”  
Marriage plate 11 British Museum (2) No inscription Princeton “Death & Hell” | “Teem with Life”  
Urizen plate 17 British Museum (3) No inscription   Private Colln (8) “Vegetating in fibres of Blood”
Marriage plate 16 British Museum (4) No inscription   Private Colln (4) “Who shall set” | “The Prisoners free”
Marriage plate 14 British Museum (5) No inscription Rosenwald (9) “A Flaming Sword” | “Revolving every way”  
Marriage plate 20 British Museum (6) No inscription Anonymous Colln “O revolving serpent” | “O the Ocean of Time & Space”  
Urizen plate 23 British Museum (7) No inscription   Private Colln (7) “Fearless tho in pain” | “I travel on”
Urizen plate 24 British Museum (8) No inscription    
Urizen plate 3 British Museum (9) No inscription KeynesOh! Flames of Furious Desires  
Thel plate 2. British Museum (10) No inscription    
Urizen plate 27 British Museum (11) No inscription    
Urizen plate 2 British Museum (12) No inscription Tate “Teach these Souls to Fly.”  
Urizen plate 8 British Museum (13) No inscription    
Urizen plate 19 British Museum (14) No inscription   Private Colln (1) “Is the Female death” | “Become new Life” 
Urizen plate 10 British Museum (15) No inscription Yale (20) “Does the Soul labour thus” | “In Caverns of The Grave”  
Thel plate 6 British Museum (16) No inscription    
Visions plate 3 British Museum (17) No inscription Keynes (22) “Wait Sisters” | “Tho all is Lost”  
Urizen plate 7 British Museum (18) No inscription   Private Colln (9) “I sought Pleasure & found Pain”. | “Unutterable”
Urizen plate 11 British Museum (19) No inscription   Private Colln (6) “Everything is an attempt” | “To be Human”
Visions plate 10 British Museum (20) No inscription    
Urizen plate 5 British Museum (21) No inscription Yale (19) “The Book of my Remembrance”  
Thel plate 7 British Museum (22) No inscription   Private Colln (5) “Doth God take Care of These”
Thel plate 4 British Museum (23) No inscription    
Urizen plate 9   Princeton (13) “Eternally I labour on”  
Urizen plate 12   Pierpont Morgan I labour upwards into |  futurity | Blake Private Colln (10) The floods overwhelmed me
Urizen plate 13   Joseph Holland “Frozen doors to mock” | “The World: while they within torments uplock.”  

Link

http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/nov/11/artnews.poetry

The left hand path – William Blake and Austin Osman Spare

On May 15, 1956, Austin Osman Spare passed away in obscurity in London. Spare was an artist and occultist, born at Snowhill in 1886 and the son of a London policeman. His early success as an artist (exhibiting at the Royal Academy at 16) led to artistic and editorial contributions to Form: A Quarterly of the Arts (1916-7 and 1921-2) as well as The Golden Hind (1922-4). He worked as an official war artist during the First World War, but was always intrigued by more idiosyncratic occult practices, publishing his own books such as The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love) (1909-13) and The Focus of Life: The Mutterings of Aâos (1921).

Spare is often referred to as one of the originators of Chaos magic and, during the late twentieth century, was influential on artists such as Genesis P. Orridge and the occult avant-garde group Coil. There was a time when I found myself rather obsessed with Spare’s art and writing, particularly as it appears so close to Blake’s in some respects (though very far from it in others), but it was unfortunate that Spare’s art didn’t really develop throughout his life. By the 1950s, he continued to remain something of the decadent Edwardian artist he had started out as – meanwhile Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and many other artistic movements had passed him by, only touching his work occasionally.

Nonetheless, as a self-publishing artist based in London and interested in esoteric themes, the similarities between Spare and Blake were noted during Spare’s lifetime, as in a review of a solo exhibition in 1927 which remarked that although the later artist did not directly imitate Blake, the viewer “might be reminded of Blake’s extremely matter-of-fact provisions of pictorial machinery for the promptings of an unconscious mind at least as rich as his own.” Spare’s own comments on Blake were ambivalent, however, and although he claimed to have lived before as an Englishman who had been born around 1750, “he vehemently denied any suggestions that he might have been William Blake, whose work he greatly admired and with which his own has sometimes been compared.” (Cited in Kenneth Grant, Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare, p.16)

Spare’s earliest art was influenced as much by decadence and art nouveau, particuarly the work of Aubrey Beardsley, as much as by Blake, and he was drawn to esoteric movements and figures such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley. Crowley observed, in typical pompous manner, that “[my] disciple has learnt much from The Book of the Law; for the rest he has drawn from The Book of Lies and William Blake, also Nietzsche and the Tao Teh King.” (Cited in Grant, p.8)

Probably the strongest connection between Spare and Blake lies in the former’s creation of a personal mythology, which he sometimes referred to as “witchcraft”, that saw godhead as an emanation of inner psychic energy expressed in art. The Focus of Life in particular seems to draw a great deal from The Four Zoas (which had been made available to Spare via W. B. Yeats’s edition of Blake’s poetry), and which begins:

True wisdom cannot be expressed by articulate sounds…
Confined within the limits of rationalism; no guess has yet answered.
O Zos, thou art fallen into the involuntary accident of birth and rebirth into the incarnating ideas of women. (Spare, The Focus of Life, p.7)

There are important differences between Spare and Blake, not least the fact that the former saw his spiritual ideas as a product of witchcraft and occult practices, while the latter believed that Christianity was the basis of his visions. Likewise, whereas Blake’s later poetry seeks annihilation of the self, Spare is always concerned to find fulfilment of that self. While some of these differences were fundamental, however, and recognised as such by Spare, others were more apparent and superficial (both artists rejected conventional notions of selfhood, for example), and certainly Spare’s understanding of Blake was much more profound – and hence much more ambivalent – than Crowley’s.

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.

Surreal sunflowers – Paul Nash and William Blake

Today is the anniversary of the birth of one of my favourite artists, Paul Nash. While there are plenty of figures I have an interest in because of their connections with Blake, Nash is one of those I have a long and abiding love because of his own work. I had been fascinated with Nash since my teenage years as perhaps the best of the British surrealists and only much later did I discover the connection between him and Blake. (Note: the perhaps is for the benefit of other readers who may have particular opinions about British surrealist art – in my mind, there is no “perhaps”.)

To reduce Nash to a convenient tag, surrealism, is problematic: he contributed to abstraction and Vorticism through the group Unit One. Born in London on May 11, 1889, he studied briefly at the Slade but, according to his biographer Andrew Causley (Paul Nash, 1980), was largely self taught. A printmaker, designer, writer and photographer as well as painter, Nash served as an officer during the First World War before becoming Official War Artist in 1917. His ‘Void of War’ exhibition in 1918 established his reputation, but his real innovations came in the 1920s and 1930s.

Many critics have placed Nash in a tradition of British art that includes Blake, Samuel Palmer and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In a letter to Dora Carrington in 1913, he observed to her “I expect you love Blake as I do”, and early works demonstrated a clear debt to Blake, such as “Angel and Devil” and “Our Lady of Inspiration”, drawings completed in 1910 and the latter drawn from Blake’s poem to Thomas Butts, ‘Over sea, over land,/My eyes did expand/Into regions of the air’ (E712). He also completed two illustrations in 1917 based on Blake’s poem Tiriel.

Most of Nash’s most famous work, such as his Landscape in a Dream (1936-8) and Landscape of the Megaliths deals with abstract visions of place, and as such appears to place him at odds with Blake. Yet his series of woodcuts, Places (published by Heinemann in 1922) showed the profound influence of Blake’s series of illustrations to Dr Thornton’s edition of Virgil (1821), with the link to Palmer providing the fulcrum between the two. Nash himself was aware of the irony of his fascination with both Blake and landscape, as he wrote in an article on ‘Abstract Art’ for The Listener in 1932:

Perhaps the strongest contribution to the history of the pictorial subject in England, and one whose character is, in a sense, extremely modern, was made by William Blake. Blake is said to have hated Nature, and his work certainly shows a contempt for natural appearances. Like the Surrealists of today he sought material for his pictures in other worlds. Within the realm of the mind he conceived certain very precise and solid images, bright with colour and of a rather persistent curvilinear design. The finest of these do indeed burn with unreal life and seem the product of unique vision. (cited in James King, Interior Landscapes: A Life of Paul Nash, 1987, p. 137)

Towards the end of his life, Blake’s poem ‘Ah! Sun-Flower’ became another source of inspiration for Nash’s art, leading him to depict a series of gigantic sunflowers such as Sunflower and Sun (1942) and Eclipse of the Sunflower (1945). In these late art works, Nash does not simply respond to the obvious energy of the emblematic flower, but also to the ambivalent tone of melancholy within Blake’s original poem.

Blake, then, occupied Nash’s thoughts and inspired his practice at the beginning and the end of his career. Nash’s real significance as an artist was to promote modernism and the avant garde, both in his own work and his friendships with others such as Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Herbert Read at a time when such art was viewed with suspicion in conservative Britain.