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.

Blakespotting: Blake news for April 2019

The start of April saw Tate Britain ramping up the publicity for its new Blake exhibition that will open in September. Among the stories carried in the national press, themes tended to emerge around the importance that will be given to the role of his wife Catherine – The Guardian wrote that it will celebrate her creative influence, while The Telegraph said that she would be placed at the heart of the exhibition – and the inclusion of the only self-portrait by Blake. Senior curator Martin Myrone told the Evening Standard that the portrait had a “jewel-like intensity” and The Daily Mail reported that this would be the first time it has gone on display in the UK. William Blake: The Artist will be on show at Tate Britain from 11 September until 2 February.

While the opening of the Tate exhibition will be the biggest event of the year, the most important event of the month was the world premier of Allen Bevan’s Ancient of Days on 15 April. Performed by the Edmonton Metropolitan Chorus at the Winspear Centre for Music in Alberta, the opera was a multi-media work for chorus and orchestra, much of it spoken word and drawing extensively on Blake’s poetry, ideas and visual art. Toronto-born Bevan had completed his Masters at Edmonton and he himself conducted several of the parts on the night. The Edmonton Journal described it as a “verbal drama with incidental music”, with Timothy Anderson and Dawn Sadoway playing the parts of Blake and his Emanation, the whole comprising a “thoughtful work” and “an effective introduction to Blake.”

Paradise Club in New York held an event early in April entitled “The Devouring: A Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. A cabaret night where participants were invited to paradise and inferno, the show itself was performed by the Brooklyn collective House of Yes with a “theatrical feast” created by John Fraser. Hosted by Nik Alexander, The Telegraph described it as “not your usual theatre experience”, the organisers intended the burlesque to be a celebration of “what it means to be human”.

Finally, as April drew to a close, the music organisation WordSong, based in Boston, hosted Tyger Circus, a set of fifteen different compositions based on Blake’s poem “The Tyger”. Taking place on 26th, Krista River, Keith Phares, and Linda Osborn performed work by Adele Dusunbury, Howard Frazin, and Benjamin Pesetsky at the First Church in Boston, at an event that also marked the tenth anniversary of Wordsong. The month also saw the launch of Peter Linebaugh’s Red Round Globe Burning Hot, which begins with the execution of Colonel Edward (Ned) Despard after a plot to overthrow George III. Tracing resistance to the loss of commons throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Linebaugh draws upon Blake’s imagery throughout the book to draw attention (as he explained in an interview for Counterpunch) to how “Blake’s moment of truth is upon us”.

 

Watercolour at Tate Britain

A new exhibition opened this week at Tate Britain, devoted to understanding what has often been considered a particularly British art form of which William Blake was a particular devotee.

Titled simply “Watercolour”, the exhibition, which runs from 16 February to 21 August 2011, looks at the often neglected impact of this medium over 800 years. Described as “the most ambitious exhibition about watercolour ever to be staged”, it covers a wide range of formats from miniatures and manuscript illustration to extensive landscape paintings that are often neglected in favour of oil.

Artists on display in “Watercolour” include JMW Turner, Paul Nash, David Jones, Anish Kapoor and Tracey Emin – as well, of course, as William Blake.  In his Descriptive Catalogue of 1809, Blake praised watercolour (which he described as fresco) in the following, typically extravagant but also subtly perceptive, terms:

Fresco Painting is properly Miniature, or Enamel Painting; every thing in Fresco is as high finished as Miniature or Enamel, although in Works larger than Life. The Art has been lost: I have recovered it. How this was done, will be told, together with the whole Process, in a Work on Art, now in the Press. The ignorant Insults of Individuals will not hinder me from doing my duty to my Art. Fresco Painting, as it is now practised, is like most other things, the contrary of what it pretends to be.

Tate Britain is also running a blog on the exhibition that will include articles by both the curators involved in the show and various other public figures such as David Attenborough and contemporary artists included in the exhibition.

“Watercolour” at Tate Britain: 16 February – 21 August 2011. Entrance fee: £12.70/£10.90 concessions. For more information visit http://www.tate.org.uk/britain/exhibitions/watercolour/default.shtm.

William Blake Birthday Party and the Blake Society

As remarked in the news story at the beginning of this week, on Sunday 28 November the Blake Society organised a celebration to mark the anniversary of Blake’s birth at the Clore Gallery, Tate Britain, which also served as an opportunity to note 25 years since it was founded.

The event was a great success, with more than 150 members of the society (as well as general public) in attendance to listen to a number of talks about Blake as well as two films: Caterpillar and Fly, a delightful and extremely charming short movie by Becky Adams of Reelscape Films, and Jerusalem, a biopic directed by Ryan Andrews and written by Philippa Goslett, starring Ray Winstone in the role of Blake. Musical interludes were provided by Fernand Péna, Guy Pearson, and Tally Koren: Fernand’s rock and roll approach to Blake has already featured on this site, and a review of his and Guy’s classical exposition of Blake’s poems will follow in the weeks ahead. Tally, “based in London by way of Israel and Mexico”, ended the day with a rousing performance of her song “Man on the Thames”, based on Blake’s poem “Why should I care for the men of thames”. You can download the song from Soundcloud.

Speakers included Keri Davies and Shirley Dent with some comments on future directions for Blake and the Blake Society, as well as Philippa Simpson from Tate Britain discussing the recent acquisition of Blake’s prints and yours truly indicating some of the exciting possibilities offered by web 2.0 and social media technologies for engaging with an audience of Blake enthusiasts. All speakers, singers and presenters were introduced by Tim Heath, the current chair of the Blake Society whose hard work for the day was deeply appreciated by all who attended.

Founded in 1985 and meeting regularly since 1986, the Blake Society – in its own words – sets out to “honour and celebrate” Blake, and anyone with an interest in the poet and artist should consider joining. It is an extremely open – and also extremely friendly – society, and over the years has brought together some of the most important scholars working in the field of Blake studies to share their findings and celebrated public figures, not least the current chairman, Philip Pullman. More than this, however, it has also celebrated the enthusiasm of many others who may not be academically involved with Blake but who often have a profound – and lifelong – fascination with this most remarkable of men.

The first 25 years of the Society has seen it become a rich source of all things Blakean, and over the next 25 it will surely become even more entrenched as a centre for all those who have a rich passion for Blake’s works. You can become a member of the Blake Society by visiting its web site, http://www.blakesociety.org.

Blake and Physiognomy

This new display in Room 2 of the Tate Britain collections for British Art 1500-2010 brings together a selection of Blake’s works in the context of Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss pastor and physiognomist most famous for his book, Essays on Physiognomy. Translated in 1789, this book caused something of a sensation in Britain (as well as the rest of Europe), and Blake was commissioned – along with Thomas Holloway – to engrave a number of designs made for the Essays by Lavater’s friend, Henry Fuseli.

The display has been brought together by Philippa Simpson with input from Sybille Erle, who has long worked on Blake’s illustrations to Lavater and whose book, Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy was recently published by Legenda. It opens with a brief account that contextualises the ideas made popular by the Swiss writer. His illustrations to Essays on Physiognomy, begun near the start of Blake’s career, are followed immediately by designs for the so-called “Visionary Heads”, the series of drawings and famous tempera painting of the Ghost of a Flea that were composed at the instigation of his friend John Varley in the final years of Blake’s life. While Blake seemed to have taken a lifelong interest in the depictions of facial types that was consonant with the philosophy of Lavater, that interest was much less literal in many respects than Varley’s who, as various asides from his contemporaries made clear, believed more or less everything he heard and everything that he read.

Much of the display is comprised of selections from two series that Blake worked on: the large colour prints, including the magnificent illustrations of Nebuchadnezzar and Newton, and watercolours and engravings from the illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. While Blake was immensely impressed by Lavater’s theories, having inscribed a heart around his and Lavater’s names in his own copy of the Essays, one of the most striking elements of this display is the occasional dissonance that appears to occur in Blake’s own art. Lavater suggested that through physiognomy was displayed the essential characteristics of a person’s character, and while Blake appears to have agreed with this basic tenet he also sometimes appears to turn the correspondences between psychic and physical attributes on their (so to speak) head. This is most evident in the print of Newton – in which the idealised spiritual beauty of the scientist betrays a cold, almost blind monomania rather than perfection of character – and Ciampolo the Barrator Tormented by the Devils. In this latter engraving, the malebranche, or horned devils that torture Ciampolo (whose sin is to sell political influence) have faces of refined gentlemen, offering a satirical cast on Blake’s use of physiognomy to reflect character.

As the curators make clear, if very subtly, though Lavater was considered one of the mildest of men his pseudo-scientific theories also contained disturbing aspects, most notably his anti-semitism. Lavater believed, for example, that by conversion to Christianity Jews would see their features slowly become less “jewish”, and once or twice the immensely philo-semitic Blake appears to pander to this crass prejudice, as well as – perhaps rather understandably – the straightforward Eurocentrism of the age.

While Blake’s illustrations dominate the display, there are also works on show from Sir David Wilkie and William Hogarth, whose painting of heads of six of his servants is a delightful masterpiece. While Hogarth is obviously fascinated by the features of his servants, his interest in physiognomy does not display the same fascination in abstraction, theory and types as Lavater’s and Blake’s but captures instead vivid characters rather than correspondences. Alongside this is a print of Blake’s depiction of the Canterbury Tales, vivid and brilliant in a very different way to Hogarth’s masterly painting. In his catalogue entry for the original painting, Blake had written: ”

Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter.” (E532-3) Whereas Hogarth depicted individual characters, specific to the faces of the wonderfully mundane figures in his employ at that time, for Blake the illumination of types from literature was a more important consideration for the ideal artist.

The final items on display are two versions of the famous life mask of Blake made by James Deville in 1823. Deville, who created and collected phrenological casts, wished to capture the faculties of imagination which, he assumed, were displayed most clearly in the face of Blake. The versions, in plaster and bronze, have become one of the most significant and popular images produced by Blake, influential on a wide range of later artists such as Francis Bacon and Antony Gormley – and which I have long considered his most important piece of performance art. As ever, the life mask, is a fascinating piece and also offers an ironic counterpoint to many of my own assumptions regarding the pseudo-scientific gobbledegook that Lavater inspired: if physiognomy is not an index of character, particularly of the racialist strictures that it was to give rise to in the nineteenth century, it never ceases to amaze me how much of my own estimation of what type of man Blake was has been formed by looking on the somwhat stern, concentrated face preserved in Deville’s remarkable cast.

Blake and Physiognomy runs until 8 May 2011. Entrance is free.

Blake’s Birthday and 25th Anniversary of the Blake Society

Tomorrow is the anniversary of the birth of William Blake and, this year, the Blake Society is 25 years old. In celebration of both these events, a special event is being held at the Clore Gallery of Tate Britain.

The Society was founded in 1985 at St James’s Church, Picadilly to celebrate and honour Blake’s life and work and has been meeting regularly in London since 1986, with many speakers including some of the most eminent scholars working in the field. The Society aims to attract anyone with an interest in Blake and has monthly meetings usually in the City of Westminster Archives Centre in London.

The event at Tate Britain will include discussion between the surviving Chairs of the Society (David Worrall, Keri Davies, Shirley Dent, and Tim Heath), as well as musical interludes provided by Fernand Péna, Guy Pearson, and Tally Koren and two short films: Catterpillar and the Fly by Becky Adams, and Jerusalem, directed by Ryan Andrews and starring Ray Winstone. Philippa Simpson and Jason Whittaker will also provide two short talks, on the newly discovered Blake prints and the future of Blake online.

In conjunction with this event and to mark the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth, Zoamorphosis will have a week of additional material providing reviews of new books and displays, discussions of where the future of Blake studies lies online, and the launch of a new project which will explore how everyday users interact with the work of this most popular and illuminating of artists and poets. At the end of the week, we’ll also be announcing the winner of the William Blake Jukebox Competiton, so be sure to add your suggestions before the end of the week so that they can be added to the site.

For more information on the Blake Society, visit blakesociety.org.uk.

Blake and Physiognomy

Tate Britain has just opened a new display on Blake and Physiognomy which is to run at the gallery until 8 May 2011.

Curated by Philippa Simpson, with items on loan from the National Portrait Gallery and drawing on the research of Sibylle Erle, Blake and Physiognomy explores the relationship between Blake and the fascination with aspects of physiognomy and phrenology that developed in the late eighteenth century.

Works on show in the display include some of Blake’s large colour prints, notably Nebuchadnezzar, as well as a selection of the illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy and other artists from the period such as William Hogarth and Sir David Wilkie who had an interest in physiognomy. The display also focuses on Blake’s interest in Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss pastor and friend of Henry Fuseli whose essays on physiognomy sparked most sustained attention on the subject at the time.

Entrance to Blake and Physiognomy is free and the display is located in Room 2 at Tate Britain. It runs from 8 November 2010 to 11 May 2011.

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.

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.

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.