Blurring Blake

In August 1993, a federal judge sentenced the police officers who assaulted Rodney King to 30 months in prison after their earlier acquittal sparked riots in LA, Japan was experiencing its first non-LDP government since 1995, and in Britain the Conservative government under John Major was limping along after a surprise victory the previous year. Cool Britannia was nowhere to be seen, but one of the bands that was to define British culture for the rest of the decade had gathered at the Maison Rouge studios in Fulham, London to record a new album.

Blur’s previous album, Modern Life is Rubbish, had been a commercial failure and over the following weeks the band worked furiously, recording a large number of tracks, sixteen of which were to appear on Parklife, released in April 1994. The album debuted at number 1 and remained in the charts for some ninety weeks, establishing the band as kings of Britpop for the rest of the decade and inaugurating the mock-struggle for hearts and minds with Oasis that was a favourite topic of British media in the nineties.

One of the tracks recorded at Maison Rouge but not released on Parklife was a natty track, Magpie. With lyrics drawn from Blake’s A Poison Tree, it was included as a B-side on the first single from the album, Girls & Boys, which was released a month before Parklife itself. And so began Blur’s – or, more precisely perhaps, bassist Alex James’s – public love affair with Blake.

The track, easily deserving inclusion on the main album, is a perfect example of why the band was so popular in the mid-nineties. In 1994, however, Blake was probably still a little too quirky for the British public – but what happens next is illustrative of how his reputation changed in England’s green and pleasant land in a very short space of time.

The most important change was the huge retrospective of Blake’s art held at Tate Britain in 2000, but in the preceding couple of years Blake had become increasingly important after relative years of neglect. Millennium anxieties, perhaps, were better served by his prophetic vision than cool, ironic cynicism. Whatever the reason, Blakemania was on the increase and so James was one of several figures who decided to out publicly his interest in the artist, selecting the painting of Newton for comment in the Independent newspaper, October 2001:

I LOOKED at this and my immediate thoughts were: colourful, classical Greek figure, very nice. Then I looked again and thought, why is the figure in a fish tank? And what’s that geometry he’s doing? The figure is Newton, one of the great mathematicians in history. He worked out that everything is in motion and came up with his law of universal gravitation: what a feeling, the greatest sort of click moment!

I’m interested in religion but, unlike Blake, my faith is in science, the idea that we can measure the world. I didn’t realise at first that Blake is taking the piss out of science. He’s painted Newton at the bottom of the ocean and if you look closely you see that the body is more like maggot flesh than human muscle. The shape that Newton’s drawing is a piece of mathematics from the Ancient Greeks. By Blake’s day, mathematics was different – Gauss, for instance, was developing ideas of non-Euclidean geometries. So Blake could have drawn Newton doing something more sexy than fiddling with his compass. Essentially, he’s saying, “This man’s an idiot!”

James maintains a critical respect for Blake, admiring the picture but rejecting the artist’s view of the mathematician. Prior to this piece, James had also been involved with Keith Allen and Damien Hirst as part of Fat Les in the recording of England’s official song for the Euro 2000 football contest. Their version of Jerusalem coincided with a brief moment of hysteria around the hymn: Britain’s most popular tabloid, the Sun , announced “You have 31 days to learn these words for Euro 2000”, followed by an article on “10 Things You Didn’t Know About William Blake”. For Fat Les, as indeed for a number of other commentators in the media, the real issue was not just a football song but whether Jerusalem should replace God Save the Queen as the national anthem.

James went on to participate in an event marking the end of the Tate exhibition, Tygers of Wrath, where he performed alongside Simon Boswell, Jah Wobble, and Billy Bragg at the Criterion Theatre in Picadilly. Since then his interest in Blake appears to have diminished (or at least become more private). What is most significant for me about this slice of history, however, is the ways in which it indicates one transformation Blake’s reception. There are always artists, writers, musicians, and filmakers who are interested in Blake, but sometimes he emerges from networks of relatively private, low-key appreciation into much more clearly demonstrated public popularity. In this particular instance, when Britain had not yet tired of New Labour and Cool Britannia could be uttered (at least by some people) without the sense of being completely naff, it seemed to be particularly significant that British Blake was taken up by the public in the UK – more so even than now, I would argue, when more often than not it is English Blake who features in the media in this country. Blake, like Blur, may be part of James’s history now, but for a brief period he was the pre-eminent poet for the musician to connect with his own history.

Forthcoming conferences and events

A number of conferences and symposia dealing with aspects of Blake’s work are to be held over the coming months.

The first of these, a two-day conference on Digital Romanticisms on May 22-23 at the University of Tokyo, is not devoted exclusively to Blake but will include a large contingent of international scholars exploring changes in the definition and rationale of romantic studies that have occurred due to recent technological innovations. While exploring romantic studies generally can accommodate such issues as reproducibility, transfer, ownership, access, and dissemination, several papers are devoted to exploring the impact of such elements as the Blake Archive and the challenges posed by Web 2.0 technologies. For further information, see the HASTAC listing.

St Aldgate’s Church, Oxford will host a two-day conference on Blake, Gender and Sexuality in the Twenty-First Century, on July 15-16. The conference will explore present and future directions opened up since publication of Irene Taylor’s “The Woman Scaly”, exploring how critics have wrestled and struggled with, delighted in and savoured, Blake’s provocative and abundant sexual visions. The event will celebrate and build upon past knowledge as it reaches toward likely concerns of the future. It will also be preceded by a workshop at Tate Britain focussing on the new Blake acquisitions by the gallery.

On August 28, there will be a symposium on Blake In Our Time at Victoria University, part of the University of Toronto. This celebrates the legacy of G. E. Bentley and looks to the future of Blake studies, with We encourage papers exploring new directions and approaches to the study of Blake using manuscript archives, new online resources, forgeries and oddities, Blake’s commercial engravings, and variations in Blake’s illuminated books, as well as studies of the major collections amassed by private scholar-collectors.

For any other events that you would like to see promoted on, please use the Contact link in the top menu and enter “Events” in the line underneath Subject.

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.

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.

Events, exhibitions, releases February 2010

A number of new exhibitions and releases for 2010 demonstrate the continuing influence of William Blake in a variety of arts and formats.

One of the biggest events for the new year is the Chris Ofili exhibition at Tate Britain, but Blake is also present in the work of a number of other artists whose work has recently gone on display.

The Spanish conceptualist sculptor, Jaume Plensa, who in 1996 created Blake in Gateshead, a laser installation for the Baltic Centre of Contemporary Art, recently unveiled a new collection at the Nasher Sculpture Center. One piece, Twenty-nine Palms, is a curtain of stainless steel letters that spell out passages from some of Plensa’s favourite poets, including Blake as well as Charles Baudelaire and Emily Dickinson. The exhibition, Jaume Plensa: Genus and Species, runs until May 2.

At the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a retrospective of the work of Paul Nash shows how the landscapes created by the artist betweeen 1911 and 1946 were influenced by Blake as well as Samuel Palmer, Nash seeking to forge his own idiosyncratic symbolic language in the style of the Romantic artist. Paul Nash: The Elements is open between February 10 and May 9. It is also possible to see some of Blake’s own work at the Picture of Us? Identity in British Art exhibition that is currently on at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield.

Beyond the visual arts, Blake has had a role to play in a number of new musical releases. The country singer John Goodspeed’s new album, A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), compares Blake to Muddy Waters, while the third album by Midlake, The Courage of Others, cites Blake as a poetic influence. That influence is more than passing for the Danish group The William Blakes, who have released two albums and are becoming increasingly popular in Scandinavia where they are currently on tour.

One extremely significant event is Jez Butterworth’s new play, Jerusalem, currently showing at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London after its transfer from the Royal Court. Jerusalem deals with often-neglected, alternative forms of Englishness, and stars Mark Rylance as a drug-addled gipsy, Rooster Byron. Throughout the play, Blake is an important lodestone for the forgotten aspects of this often cynical green and pleasant land, and runs until April 24.

Perhaps the strangest influence of all, however, is the appearance of some of Blake’s visual ideas in the new game from Electronic Arts, Dante’s Inferno. Aiming to take gamers to Dante’s view of hell, a book of the game indicates clearly that Blake, along with Auguste Rodin and Gustave Doré, was one of the inspirations for the game design.

New Ofili show at Tate Britain

The Chris Ofili retrospective at Tate Britain opened on January 27 and runs at Tate until 16 May, 2010.

Ofili, an artist who has been influenced by Blake since the 1980s, has brought together more than 45 paintings as well as drawings and watercolours for the exhibition.

As well as an opportunity to see many of his most famous works, such as No Woman, No Cry (1998), Ofili’s response to the Stephen Lawrence case, and the remarkable Upper Room collection, the new show includes some of his latest paintings that demonstrate the effect of his new surroundings in Trinidad and Tobago.

Many art critics have noted the continuing importance of Blake as one of several influences on Ofili. Tom Lubbock saw the show as one of the strangest examples of Blake’s enduring appeal, while Charlotte Higgins noted the strong connections between Blake’s works and Ofili’s new images of a character he calls “The Healer”. 

The Chris Ofili exhibition runs from 27 January to 16 May, 2010. Entry: £10, concessions £8.50. More details at

Related links: Review of Chris Ofili and Richard Wright.

Chris Ofili and Richard Wright

Two recent exhibitions at Tate Britain have demonstrated the continuing importance of Blake as an influence on contemporary art. The Chris Ofili retrospective opened on January 27 and runs until May 16, 2010, while the winner of the 2009 Turner Prize, Richard Wright, attracted a great deal of admiration with his impressive contribution, a beautiful gold-leaf fresco.

Ofili, also a Turner Prize winner in 1998, has long been interested in Blake, most clearly in two paintings from 1995, Satan (inspired by Blake’s Satan in his Original Glory, c.1805) and Seven Bitches Tossing their Pussies before the Divine Dung (after Four and Twenty Elders Casting their Crowns before the Divine Throne). Neither of these works are present in the current exhibition, which brings together more than 45 paintings as well as pencil drawings and watercolours, but, as a number of critics have noted, Blake’s influence continues to play a role in the development of Ofili’s art.

The most obvious example of this is a print, Siesta of the Soul, produced by Ofili as a limited edition for Tate Britain. With branching tendrils and vines surrounding elegant, handwritten text, this particular work is especially evocative of a page from one of Blake’s illuminated books, comprising a song of innocence or of experience that ends with the lines “shaded but not shrouded, summoning his dancing demons”. As a marriage of image and text, heavenly but with a hint of Blake’s playful diabolism, Ofili’s print is also reminiscent of the Romantic artist in terms of the spray-painted colours that remind me of the colour washes in Blake’s illuminated prophecies. Tom Lubbock has spoken of the works in this retrospective as “an art of luminous colour… of wild imagination”, and this is certainly true of the best of Ofili’s paintings.

To concentrate on Blake is, of course, to do a disservice to Ofili. His new surroundings in Trinidad and Tobago (the artist left London in 2005) inspire the latest paintings with a rich and luscious beauty, but Charlotte Higgins is certainly correct to see something of Blake in another of his recent works, The Healer, in which an uncanny figure devours vivid, yellow blooms. Personally, the highlight of the show for me was an opportunity to see The Upper Room, a recreation of his deservedly famous exhibition which ran at Tate throughout 2006, thirteen rhesus macaque monkeys depicted in gloriously competing colours.

Richard Wright has been creating site-specific art works for many years, often intricate paintings that are then erased. Sometimes those installations are discreet and delicate, such as the alcove shown as part of an exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery in 2008, but his major untitled piece for the 2009 Turner Prize was spectacular, an exquisite gold-leaf fresco that dominated the room in which it was displayed at Tate Britain.

The painstaking methods used by Wright to transfer the fresco to the wall, as well as the subtlety of effects achieved, has won him acclaim from usually sceptical commentators who regard the Turner Prize as little more than a freak show. Similarly, the transience of the work, now whitewashed over (so that, ironically, it remains as an archeological layer somewhere beneath the current Ofili exhibits), draws attention to what Wright has identified as the fragility of experience in his paintings.

Wright has frequently mentioned his admiration for Blake, telling interviewers that he often travelled down from his home in Glasgow to see the Blakes and Turners housed at Tate Britain, an experience that often left him both exhausted and elated. The influence of Blake, as well as Turner’s voluminous light and colour, is evident in the fresco (which, even though it no longer exists, I cannot help but think of in the present tense). The initial experience is overwhelming, a balanced chaos, but the painting it brought to mind most for me was Blake’s 1808 A Vision of the Last Judgement, that imposing mandala of the end of days in which damned and saved fall and rise around a central pillar of heavenly and infernal judgement, eternally circulating between paradise and earth. Wright’s work brings with it none of the overt Christian morality attached to Blake’s subject; rather, formal motifs repeat and circulate, creating a vision of the secular sublime.

The Chris Ofili exhibition runs from 27 January to 16 May, 2010. Entry: £10, concessions £8.50. More details at

Tate buys Blake works

A fundraising appeal by Tate Britain has raised £441,000 to purchase a series of eight Blake etchings. Left by Blake to his wife Catherine, the series was later inherited by Frederick Tatham but subsequently lost until discovered in the 1970s inside a train timetable.

After the works were offered to the Tate by the owner, money was raised by The Art Fund, Tate Members, Tate Patrons and public donations. Nicholas Serota said that he was “delighted we have been able to acquire it for the nation.”

The works, comprising six etchings from The [First] Book of Urizen, one from The Book of Thel and another from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, will go on display at the Tate in July 2010 before going on to the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art, Moscow in November 2011.