William Blake at Tate Britain
Tender sketches and glowering apocalypticism: Nick Panteli visits the largest survey of Blake for a generation
As art students of South East London may have once told you, a young boy, sauntering along Peckham Rye Common encountered, “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” It was to be the first of William Blake’s many angelic visions, as recorded by Alexander Gilchrist (his first biographer). In the last century, there have been four such exhibits about Blake at the Millbank Tate, and ‘Visionary’ is a word that is liberally used around his work—27 times to count this year’s official Tate catalogue-book (gnostic is used just once).
William Blake (1757-1827) seems both modern, a Londoner through-and-through, and yet resists being placed in space and time. His unique schematising cosmogonies captured in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, the early The Book of Thel (c. 1789)—all here—and The Song of Los are all gorgeously illuminated books to feature Blake’s own invented figures with names that are made up but also resonate closely with names that we already know (Brama, Los, Urizen). Much has been said about the aspiration to the loftier status of epic poetry (and putative literary qualities) of these attempts: that’s for you to decide.
It is, though, something of a rare treat to have some of the many iterations of similar but uniquely-different illuminated books housed alongside one another, including Europe, a Prophecy (Copies E and A), There is no Natural Religion (Copy B) or For Children (Copy E) from 1793, a miniature book affectionately—and alienly—drawing the analogy of newly born with a hungry caterpillar. All are normally in American collections. All are worth peering in for a closer look.
These personal invented mythologies produced, for the most part, in his prophetic books have been reimagined for a whole host of aims, partly because of their obscurer nature of their referents. Outside of Blake scholarship there have almost been Blakes for everyone, enlisted to pacifism or sexual equality or queer protest or anarchism (Tate Catalogue, p. 13) in spite of what he might have actually have thought or said.
Albion Rose, or Glad Day is a shining example—almost literally. He stands here arms outstretched, undismayed in his nakedness, before a polychromatic dazzle of colour. A central character in Blake’s later personal mythology where he is conceived as a giant personification with the mythical, Latinate name of nation, the image has become constantly re-appropriated as an emblem of freedom of all sorts: as a call for revolutionary action, as a counter-cultural symbol, or ideas of imaginative freedom; and more recently, for psychic well-being and body confidence. It’s the first image you walk into, though the impact of its intended affect is perhaps lost in the actual size of this engraved etching, being little bigger than an A4 sheet.
Room 1, ‘Blake Be An Artist’ traces the early affordances of young Blake—his family-funded drawing lessons and his apprenticeship as an engraver. These years, though not the Blake we know entirely, were instructive to the artist who found his own way through the Royal Academy’s neoclassicism—repetitious proportions and Hellenised features—and one significant moment in tracing artistic evolution through these rooms that eludes easy summarisation. More interesting are his early pencilled homages to Michelangelo (After Michelangelo, Matthan, c. 1785), and the lightly rendered, tender sketch of his wife (Catherine Blake, c.1805), whose labour in his artistic work is recognised here. It’s not hard to see how those clean lines and expressive clarity of the bodies conceived by the ancient sculptors were foundational to Blake’s own art. These noble brows and muscular shoulders for men and wafting diaphanous figures for women have their continuation in the later works, though. Something is gained, and close-up something is lost.
Rooms 2 and 3 take in earnest those Blakean imaginative preoccupations which limn what we might now call: proto-working class nationalism; cosmopolitanism; gnostic Manichaeism; as well as more orthodox Christian themes. New artistic techniques also come into contact, sometimes all at once: relief etching with engraving, watercolours, and ink. As in the sumptuous ink and watercolour stony-coral throne of Newton (1795 – c. 1805), similar to Urizen, an embodiment of reaction and oppressive law, leaning over to size up the cosmos with a compass and a stern gaze; or the different frontispieces for America, A Prophecy (1793) which hold a similar attraction even where the text—a murky allegory somewhat relatable to the American Revolutionary War—could be less so.
Both in its catalogue and its curation, the exhibit does a very good job to offer a historicist and materialist bent to the events, ideas and often radically egalitarian networks that influenced Blake mentally and financially. In this, the exhibit dangles the thread of Blake and his patrons, one involving the conception of a new, modern kind of artist, neither entirely visual nor entirely a writer, but an autonomous individual creating, buoyed or depressed by a market.
There are many items by contemporaries—like engraver James Basire who he was apprenticed to for seven years in 1772—which give an idea about his style, and pull Blake out from the abstraction of genius to someone more mediated by very localisable contexts. Blake the feminist and the anti-imperialist also arises in Room 2 with his ventures into print publishing like the fairly well-known etchings for John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam,’ unflinchingly depicting a slave hung alive by the ribs.
Whether this simply illustrates the relevant writer’s thoughts or interprets and elaborate these materials to accord with Blake’s own thinking is moot. The catalogue and wall materials bear witness to this, to what Morris Eaves called the ‘Blakes we want and Blakes we don’t’. It cannot be absolutely said, whilst his progressivism is borne out by his prophecy books, that he was a feminist or fierce opponent of slavery or the codification of racial hierarchies.
For those inclined, Room 3 and 5—the last—appear to have works that lean on Dante’s redemptive journey of the observer through heaven and hell, as well as having nods to Milton’s humanisation and characterisation of the figures of deep theology (i.e. God, Satan, Adam, Eve, a coterie of angels, demons and Christ). The long series of vivid watercolours for Dante’s Divine Comedy are fluent and stunning.
Room 3, in particular, enters Blake’s period in the support of wealthier patrons like the poet William Hayley, who, while living in Sussex between 1800-03 for Hayley, produced single illustrations for most of the Old Testament books. The figural language of revelation is embodied here in the most strident rich detail, sometimes elaborating meaning on the basis of much slighter textual allusions. The formality of these Bible watercolours, in part, realise the most outrageous and abstract of imagery into a compelling visual form. The Book of Revelation itself was the subject of at least eleven watercolours, encompassing the apocalyptic climax of the ‘Red Dragon’, the ‘Beast’ and another horned monstrosity who ‘spake like a dragon’ (Revelation 13.11). The watercolour The Number of the Beast is 666, presents a dense, musculature hardened by a strong ink lining (and not out of place in Hannibal’s cell). In so doing, the medium repurposes the fluent expressivity and naturalism put forward by landscape painters of the day.
In all, the exhibit is bracketed by a grandeur of medium that Blake rarely achieved in his commissions or independent works. The penultimate room, a large projection, shows off Blake’s apparent desire to have his work presented at scale—uncharacteristically, heroic artworks of the (then) Prime Minister amongst others. Just outside, it’s hard not to feel cowed taking in the glowering apocalypticism of a reproduction of The Ancient of Days. It is at least 10 foot tall, with the beard-swept demiurge Urizen, crouching, setting a compass to the Earth against the inchoate darkness.
This is a closely considered, deeply immersive walk-through of Blake’s multiple influences, prying ajar the mystery of the Londoner just enough to the light of the heavens.
William Blake at Tate Britain runs until 2 February 2020. William Blake is curated by Martin Myrone, Senior Curator, pre-1800 British Art, and Amy Concannon, Curator, British Art 1790-1850. For more information visit Tate Britain’s website here.