2021 began with a bang as Patti Smith's recital of "2021: A New Year" was live streamed from Picadilly. The event was orchestrated by CIRCA, an arts and culture group that takes over billboards around the world to broadcast unique works of art, Picadilly itself - normally a site of lively chaos at the New Year - was very subdued as the UK headed into another lockdown, but Smith dominated the digital billboards above the city streets, reading aloud her poem that was inspired by William Blake and dedicated to Greta Thunberg on the climate activist's 18th birthday.
For Blake scholars, an important event was the publication on the Blake Archive of Poetical Sketches. This collection, first published in 1784, included some of his juvenilia but also demonstrated how, even at an early age, Blake was becoming a highly original poet. The Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet joined with the sculptor John Flaxman, who was to be one of Blake's longest friends, in publishing the collection.
In terms of popular culture, the DVD release of Saint Maude in February brought to a wider audience the highly original first movie by director, Rose Glass, Saint Maud: originally slated for a 2019 premiere, this horror story dealing with a young nurse, Maud (played by Morfydd Clark), who becomes obsessed with visions inspired by William Blake was delayed by the pandemic but has since gone on to become a cult film. Another debut was the experimental film, Tyger Tyger, written and directed by Kerry Mondragon. Following the lead character Blake (Sam Quartin), described as "a medical Robin Hood" who robs pharmacies to steal life-saving drugs for the less fortunate, this dream-like film also began to attract attention through the year.
A significant exhibition in February showed the ways in which Blake's art remain relevant to contemporary practitioners. Richard Ayodeji Ikhide's Future Past was the first of V.O Curations' exhibitions to mark the opening of its new gallery in Mayfair. Nigerian-born Ikhide studied textile design at Central Saint Martins as well as a postgraduate diploma at the Royal Drawing School, was artist in residence at V.O and draws on a wide range of inspirations, from prehistoric Japanese culture to European artists such as El Greco and Blake. In an interview with Steve Turner, Ikhide told how Blake's "emphasis on imagination, spirituality and open-mindedness resonated with me. I love that he railed against slavery in his poems and that he built his own mythology." On the international scene, meanwhile, a selection of Blake's poetry was translated into Persian by Kambiz Manouchehrian and published by Cheshmeh Publishing in March under the title A Poison Tree, a limited edition of 500 copies.
In May, as part of an exhibition at Scott Mills Gallery in Philadelphia, Kutztown University Associate Professor Leigh Kane showed a series of video animations and photo montages. As part of the former, she overlays Blake's poetry with images of her mouth, demonstrating the duality of the smile to seduce and deceive. Another artist influenced by Blake - John Craxton - was also remembered at this time in the publication on a new book by Ian Collins, John Craxton: A Life of Gifts. Additional artistic works on show over the summer that took inspiration from Blake included Bruce Walters' exhibit of "The Tyger" at Muscatine Art Center in Iowa, and Anthony Cudahy's "Blake Moon" at the Semiose Gallery, Paris, while Larry Groff's show at the Santa Ysabel Art Gallery, Through a Grain of Sand, took its tile from Blake's Auguries of Innocence.
The Year In Pictures
July saw a one-man performance by Kenneth Jay bringing to life Blake's writings. William Blake: Letters from Heaven and Hell was a 75-minute show at Jermyn Street Theatre, London, in which Jay moves between the different aspects of Blake's light and darkness, his innocence and experience, drawing on poetry and letters to create the script. Much sadder news was the announcement of the death of Michael Horovitz in July. An acclaimed poet, his anthology Children of Albion (1969) brought together a range of British poets influenced by Blake - and Allen Ginsberg - for the attention of a wider audience.
Another summer highlight was the announcement by Alexander McQueen studios of their new menswear collection for 2022: drawing inspiration from Blake's art, including a Songs of Innocence and of Experience themed tank top and a Dante-illustrated Jacquard coat, the SS22 Collection will bring a new flavour to British Romantic fashion. Meanwhile, as part of the ever changing digital art world, the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester announced that they would release an NFT of The Ancient of Days, a unique digital version which was then to be sold to generate funds for community projects. A team at the Whitworth and John Rylands Research Institute used multispectral imaging equipment to generate a new visual reading of Blake's iconic image.
As the UK opened more fully over the Summer after the pandemic, additional exhibitions continued to be held, including one of the Muswell Hill artist, Peter Freeth, at the Art Space Gallery in Islington, London. The 83-year old Royal Academician who studied painting and printmaking at the Slade, includes Shelley and Blake among his influences - the latter most notably referenced in his Night City aquatint. Across the Atlantic, the first in-person public exhibition at Brown University's Bell Gallery showcased two local artists - Harry Gould Harvey and Faith Wilding - in Arrows of Desire, offering work that they had produced while bonding over William Blake during the lockdown. There was also an exhibition at Cornell - Visions of Dante - which brought together a selection of artists including Blake ot celebrate the 700th anniversary of Dante's death. A much more eccentric (if pertinent here) contribution to the visual arts was the release - after 30 years - of visual FX artist Phil Tippetts Mad God, a stop-motion film that adds Blake and Hieronymous Bosch in its vision of a dystopian, hellish world.
Blakefest returned with style in September, providing a whole host of artistic and literary guests in celebration of the life and work of William Blake. The event was held at Petworth House - which had previously been the site for the William Blake in Sussex exhibition and associated with Blake during his time at Felpham. The theme for Blakefest 2021 was Visions and lineup included author and film-maker Tobias Churton, poet Karen McCarthy Woolf, actor Gareth Williams, and classical guitarist Linda Kelsall-Barnett. Meanwhile, in probably the oddest bit of Blakespotting news of the year, the director of Eternals, Chloe Zhao, said that her pitch to Marvel boss Kevin Feige included the opening of Auguries of Innocence to convey the film's scale, both immense and intimate.
New publications in 2021
John Higgs - William Blake versus The World, Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Makoto Fujimura - Art and Faith: A Theology of Making, Yale University Press
Joseph Viscomi - William Blake's Printed Paintings, Paul Mellon Centre
Jason Whittaker - Divine Images: The Life & Work of William Blake, Reaktion
Lucy Cogan - Blake and the Failure of Prophecy, Palgrave
Joseph Fletcher - William Blake as Natural Philosopher, Anthem Press
Joshua Schouten de Jel - Blake and Lucretius, Palgrave
November 2021 was the 264th anniversary of Blake's birth - and saw the birth of volume 2 of Vala, The Journal of the Blake Society, bringing together a huge number of scholars, artists and writers around the them of gender and sexuality. The month began, however, with the news that William Blake's cottage in Felpham - the last surviving residence of the artist - had been put on the at risk register by Historic England. While this could appear very gloomy, it now joins nearly 1,500 buildings which will have greater access to funding. To end the year, Lord Whitney - the artistic collaboration between Amy Lord and Rebekah Whitney - created a seasonal installation at Harewood House in West Yorkshire, Upon a Christmas Wish, that includes the influence of Blake's "mythic consciousness" as part of its inspiration.