Dismissed in his lifetime as mad, William Blake is now lauded as a visionary genius, one whose art and poetry have influenced many generations of creatives. Shamini Sriskandarajah visits Tate Britain’s recent retrospective to find out why.
The Blake Society held a competition in 2016 for a drawing within the margins of a postcard, inspired by William Blake’s description of the “bounding line”. I saw the drawings and paintings – more than one hundred and twenty in total – displayed in a room close to St James’s Church on Piccadilly in London, where Blake was baptized. Each micro work was a testament to an artist whose creations ranged from deceptively simple-looking line drawings to elaborate print-making. Viewed together, they comprised several intricate and detailed designs inspired by Blake’s own: portraits of individuals or pairs, landscapes sparse or congested, random objects and abstract paintings.
When walking around the first few rooms of the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, I was not only struck by these same detailed designs but the scale and sheer number of the works displayed. At times it seemed there were as many visitors to the exhibition as there were etchings on show. Blake did not distinguish between painting and printmaking – it was all a form of drawing to him. Painting was “drawing on canvas” while etching was “drawing on copper”. He threw himself into as many pictures as he could: an estimated two thousand drawings, paintings and prints, in addition to the countless, often uncredited reproductive prints that were his day job – and it is interesting that while he is now lauded for the tireless execution of his visions, his wife Catherine, whose contribution to Blake’s work was frequently ignored or undermined, is credited in this exhibition. She regularly assisted him with the colouring of his prints, prepared proofs for his Illustrations of the Book of Job and other works, and completed some of his drawings after he died. However, his series of twenty-eight illustrations for The Pilgrim’s Progress, was considered “secondary” by the New York museum that bought them possibly because of Catherine’s assistance with the colouring.
Tate’s exhibition offers a greater impression of Blake’s standing with his contemporaries and their perceptions of him. It provides an affecting portrait of an artist extremely prolific in his work, yet reliant on the whims and decency of others in order to make ends meet (this feels pertinent at a time when cuts to the arts and education have left many students struggling to justify the cost and inevitable debt studying for a degree would entail). Throughout the show Blake’s dependency on patronage was apparent: an estimated eighty people commissioned or bought his original work during his lifetime. A senior civil servant, Thomas Butts, bought 200 of Blake’s works over the course of his life. This financial support provided Blake with some level of comfort and security; however, he objected to his patrons’ interference and opinions on his work, and frequently resented his dependency on and need for such patronage. Beyond his commitments to patrons who bought his work, Blake had dreams of creating vast frescos and work to rival Renaissance painters. The exhibition explains that, while sixteenth-century Italian painters such as Michelangelo received state funding to create their work, painters in eighteenth-century Britain had to support themselves financially, meaning that huge artworks (such as history pieces) were not viable without sufficient backing.
The first few rooms explore Blake’s early life, his training at the Royal Academy and display his early Biblical works, which have a vivacity and clarity all of their own. The colours are distinct, the lines clearly defined, fitting with Blake’s assertion: “the more distinct, sharp, and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling.” The pencil and ink drawing, Moses Receiving the Law (1780), and slightly later picture, Job, his Wife and his Friends: the Complaint of Job (1785), are both so striking and clear that they look as though they could be taken from an sharply executed graphic novel, thus fulfilling his aforementioned artistic belief. It is plain to see that the comic book genre owes a debt to Blake and his beautiful union of text and image.
When viewing Blake’s later watercolours inspired by the Bible, Milton and Shakespeare, I was struck by his range of vision. There is Satan, Sin and Death: Satan Comes to the Gates of Hell (1807), a scene taken from Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost, and The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea, a terrifying image of a dragon monster with several heads inspired by the Book of Revelation, both of which are reminiscent of monstrous figures found in graphic novels. The latter is displayed alongside The Assumption, a soft pale blue and pink painting of Mary ascending to Heaven (even though this story is not explicitly described in the Bible). This apocryphal vision is not frothy; to me, it appears less like a reverential depiction of Mary in an ethereal space between life and death, and more as though she is about to perform to the surrounding circle of angels and mortals. On his deathbed, Blake said of his wife that ‘she had ever been an angel’, and during their life together both had sung, so I like to think there is an element of the couple’s inclination to perform captured in this painting.
Blake held his only commercial exhibition at his family home on Broad Street, Soho. In the Tate’s retrospective, this show is recreated, complete with replica walls, windows and diffuse light, as it would have been in the original space. This gives the audience a taste of the 1809 exhibition which was so unsuccessful, critically and commercially, leaving Blake crushed and leading to his withdrawal from public life. It is hard to imagine now, seeing the hundreds of people attending the Tate’s exhibition and stocking up on postcards, books and wall prints in the shop, a time when an exhibition of his work didn’t result in a single sale or positive review. Even works displayed at the Soho exhibition which were considered failures by Blake and his critics at the time, such as Satan Calling Up His Legions and The Spiritual Form Nelson Guiding Leviathan, appear as fascinating departures from his usual work. The tempera and gilt of the black, brown and red painting give it a glint that encourages the viewer to take a closer look at a work which appears dark brown and indistinguishable from a distance.
After the failure of his 1809 show and a short break, Blake reengaged with the world by revisiting old subjects. This time his paintings were more vibrant and, with renewed vigour, he embarked on several huge projects: an illustrated version of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy (so committed was Blake to authenticity, he learnt Italian to better understand the visions of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell that he was illustrating) and his own work, Jerusalem (1804-1820). He died before illustrations for the Divine Comedy were complete, but still created 102 designs, working even when ill in bed.
Room 4 hosts a love letter and a surprise party. I was touched by the gallery’s decision to cover a wall with a life-sized photo of St James’s Church in Piccadilly complete with a digitally-created fresco of Blake’s 1805 painting The Crucifixion: ‘Behold Thy Mother’ at the altar. What would this have meant to him? Would he have seen it, as I did, as a poignant sign of admiration, respect and devotion? Or would he have been suspicious of the gallery’s motives, viewing it as another indication of patronage: unreliable, fickle, pitying? It is sad that he never had the recognition he deserved during his lifetime, but I hope his soul – he was a spiritual man, after all – can sense the wonder he inspires now.
William Blake was shown at the Tate Britain from 11 September 2019 to 2 February 2020. Follow the links for more information on the exhibition and to see more of Blake’s work at The William Blake Archive.