Review: William Blake, Tate Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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