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.

this work im doin i dont kno what it is

Philip Davenport, who guest-edited the recent issue of Ekleksographia dedicated to the inspiration of William Blake and entitled the Naked Tea Party, has been in touch to draw attention to another event with which he is currently involved.

“this work im doin i dont kno what it is” is a series of poems for the eye, combining visual objects with text and exhibited and hidden at the Henry Moore Institute Library. It will run from April 27 to June 7 and, in addition, Philip will be reader in residence on May 5.

“Heart-shape pornography” uses pornography as a found object to create a poem from a cross-section in fruit, while “Spreadsheets of Light” poems are written into spreadsheets which present moral dilemmas such as war crimes, celebrity or simple shopping as a tangled series of accountancy questions. These poems in turn are accompanied by eggshells in which fragments of the poems are written, emphasising the dual visual/literal nature of such objects.

Philip offers the following explanation of his work: “For the last decade I’ve made poems by collecting the words surrounding me and cutting them up to create poems. Journalism, porn, missing person notices, advertising, misheard conversations… I like being freed from using my own vocabulary to describe the world. I often work off the page, putting poems onto objects to complement ideas held in language. More recently, I find my own words, thoughts, self reappearing in the work. Many of these new pieces are about moral dilemmas, written as spreadsheets balancing up violence/love, fame/anonymity, and so on. I am struck by how often we try to explain the world using numbers, so that statistics have an authority they don’t really own. Here, I am totting up words as if they are numbers, trying to use the form of the spreadsheet to shape a poem.”

You can find more details of “this work im doin i dont kno what it is” at the Henry Moore Library web site.

The new Blakes at the Tate

On Monday, during a visit to Tate Britain, I had a chance to see the William Blake prints that have recently been acquired by Tate and are currently undergoing restoration.

Tate purchased the eight prints at the beginning of this year, with funds largely raised by members and patrons (you can read the original news story here). A certain romanticism has already started to accrue to the prints – most notably their discovery inside a railway timetable (a small myth that caused at least one of the conservationists to roll his eyes in disdain). In any case, the collection is undoubtedly beautiful, consisting of eight prints from an original series of ten according to the numbers on the pages. Six of these are taken from The Book of Urizen, with the other two being drawn from The Book of Thel and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The works had apparently been loaned for a 2007 exhibition at Tate, but this was my first chance to see them in detail.

One of the most fascinating features of the prints, beyond the immediate, vivid colouring of dark blues and turquoise, bold, fiery orange-golds and reds and, of course, Blake’s powerful designs, was the patina of dirt and mild abuse that had built up in the intervening two centuries, traces of the material history of the prints subsequent to Blake’s composition and execution. The starkest example of this was the print taken from the final plate of The Book of Thel, which has thick fold lines in the paper where someone had probably wrapped its corners to fit it into an oval frame. As David Worrall remarked, the chances were that an owner of these prints identified this single image as the only one really suitable for public display, the others being shuffled away somewhere into a private portfolio. Similarly, the stab holes alongside each image indicate that at some point all were bound together, but the absence of creases indicates that they were not viewed as a book, instead simply being gathered together for safe keeping.

All the images found here were originally produced as part of Blake’s composite art, combining text and image to convey the prophetic messages of Blake’s illuminated books. As with his Small Book of Designs, however, it is quite clear that the original collector, while interested in Blake’s visual art, had little time for the artist’s idiosyncratic poetry. As such, the relief etchings were masked off so that no text was displayed and then worked up as painted copies, with hand drawn borders surrounding the printed area.

The prints are due to go on display at Tate Britain in July 2010 before being included as part of a major exhibition at the Pushkin Gallery in 2011.

Blake’s art and Dante Rossetti

Today is the anniversary of the death of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, probably the most famous of the Pre-Raphaelites and one of the leading figures in the renovation of William Blake’s reputation during the Victorian era.

Rossetti became interested in Blake after reading Allan Cunningham’s biography on Blake in The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1830), and in 1847 purchased Blake’s Notebook (sometimes called the Rossetti Manuscript) from William Palmer, brother of the artist Samuel who had known Blake in the engraver’s final years. Along with his wombats, this was probably the most famous purchase that Rossetti ever made.

Like Blake, Rosetti was both painter and poet and appears, like Algernon Swinburne, to have also been fascinated with the Romantic’s reputation as a rebel. Blake’s attacks on artists such as Titian, Rembrandt and Joshua Reynolds appear to have partly inspired Rossetti’s own rebellion as part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and in 1849 he wrote a short poem to Blake:

BLAKE
To the memory of William Blake, a Painter and Poet, whose greatness may be named even here since it was equalled by his goodness, this tablet is now erected – years after his death, at the age of sixty-eight, on August 12th, 1827, in poverty and neglect, by one who honours his life and works.

Epitaph
ALL beauty to pourtray
Therein his duty lay
And still through toilsome strife
Duty to him was life –
Most thankful still that duty
Lay in the paths of beauty.

This sentimental verse has found few admirers since, and some critics have remarked just how much it binds Blake into what Robert Essick calls “a heaven of Victorian sensibility”. Meeting Swinburne and then Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, Rossetti made the Notebook available to them and also began work with Gilchrist editing what was to become the most important early biography on Blake – Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus. As well as providing descriptions of various illustrations, with his brother, William Michael, he also edited Blake’s writings for the second volume of the Life and provided a series of introductions, or “Headnotes”.

In his descriptions of the designs, Rossetti emphasised the Gothic elements of Blake’s work, and his version of Blake’s poetry was heavily edited: this was partly guided by the desire to make Blake more readable for the Victorian public, a policy of freely rewriting Blake which drew criticism from contemporaries, most notably Richard Herne Shepherd. The Rossettis, as with Gilchrist and Swinburne, had an important role to play in reviving the reputation of Blake for a Victorian public, although Dante Gabriel was as guilty as Swinburne for also encouraging a view of aspects of Blake’s art as only accessible to an aesthetic elite.

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.

Bible illustrations published on Blake Archive

Blasphemer - Blake ArchiveTwenty of Blake’s water colour illustrations to the Bible have been published on theBlake Archive. Produced by Blake between approximately 1800 and 1806, the selected images depict scenes from the Old Testament and indicate the profound and lasting influence that the Bible had on his work.

Blake painted a series of some eighty biblical scenes for Thomas Butts in the early nineteenth century, and some of the images in the series, such as The Blasphemer, Ezekiel’s Wheels and David Delivered Out of Many Waters are among the most famous of Blake’s images.

The Blake Archive will continue to add Blake’s biblical paintings, with plans to include scenes from the New Testament before moving on to images from early in Blake’s career, such as Abraham and Isaac (c. 1780), as well as his final biblical paintings from the 1820s.

For more information visit http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/public/update.html or http://blakearchive.wordpress.com/2010/03/27/publication-announcement-blakes-water-color-illustrations-to-the-bible/.

New releases and forthcoming events

Just released is Chase the Devil, a new album by Gary Lucas and Dean Bowman, which draws inspiration from Blake, Blind Willie Johnson and Shlomo Carlebach among others. Lucas, who played and recorded with a number of artists including Captain Beefheart, Jeff Buckley and Lou Reed over the years, has been attracting reviews that describe his guitar-playing as driven by an almost religious fervour on tracks such as “In Christ There Is No East or West” and “Out on the Rolling Sea”. Of particular note for Blake followers is the inclusion of a version of “Jerusalem” that combines Lucas’s bluesy, sliding guitar to good effect with Bowman’s clear voice.

An exhibition around Carl Jung’s “Red Book” at the Library of Congress shows how Blake was one of his influences. The 205-page manuscript had been locked away after his death until a facsimile was published by Norton last year, and demonstrates his technique of what he calls “active imagination”, elaborating the stream of his unconscious. Prints of Blake, alongside Tibetan mandalas and books of alchemy, are part of the exhibition that will run from June 17 till August 18. Another exhibition, “Psychedelic: Optical and Visionary Art since the 1960s” at the San Antonio Museum of Arts, draws on Blake and Hieronymous Bosch as precursors, and runs till August 1.

Of forthcoming talks, lectures and conferences, Victoria University is holding a Symposium, “Blake In Our Time”, celebrating the life and work of renowned Blake scholar, G. E. Bentley, Jr., on August 28. On July 15-16, “Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century”, organised by Helen Bruder and Tristanne Connolly, will be running at the Christopher Room, Aldgate Church, Oxford, and the “Digital Romanticisms” conference at the University of Tokyo on May 22-23 will include a number of speakers discussing Blake’s work in the digital age.

Finally, The Blake Society also recently posted a reminder that it will be running its annual celebration of Blake’s life and work at his grave in Bunhill Fields. Anyone can come and participate, and this year Robin Hatton-Gore, the gardener in charge of the cemetary for many years, will talk about the topography of the site. The event takes place at noon on Sunday, August 15.