For years, Tate Britain has had a small room dedicated to the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827). Now until 2nd February 2020, Tate Britain is offering visitors the opportunity to experience Blake’s visionary art in his largest show in a generation. Detailing his life chronologically, 300 original works illustrate Blake’s talents, personal struggles, innovation and vision.
Blake’s art and poetry continue to influence and inspire many people regardless of profession, religion and nationality. Although produced during a period of unrest involving war, the British Empire and industrialisation, Blake’s work resonates with the present world and the struggles people face today.
William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho, London, the third of seven children to James and Catherine (née Wright). His father, a hosier, and mother thoroughly encouraged Blake’s aspiration to become an artist. Although he attended school long enough to learn to read and write, he was educated from home by his mother after the age of ten. The Bible was an important aspect of his studies, which remained a source of inspiration for the rest of his life.
Blake was encouraged to practise his drawing ability by producing engravings of well-known artworks for his father. Alongside this, he attended classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand and explored the art of poetry, reading works by Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Edmund Spencer (1552-99) as well as the Book of Psalms. In August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire (1730-1802), a significant British engraver, for seven years. By the age of 21, Blake was working as a professional.
In 1779, Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, which at the time was situated in Old Somerset House. He may have attended with one of his brothers, Robert, whose illustrations are briefly featured in the exhibition. The Royal Academy taught its students to draw by studying and copying classical sculptures, prints, live models and paintings, such as those by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Blake, on the other hand, rejected these teachings, preferring to use artworks by classical artists, such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).
Despite rebelling against the traditional teaching methods, Blake participated in six exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, since he did not conform to the typical oil paint-format the Academy expected, Blake’s watercolours were often consigned to a smaller room.
Students were encouraged to paint serious subject matters, often resulting in portraits and landscapes. Blake, on the other hand, chose to focus on Biblical stories, for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Written in the Book of Genesis, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The series of events that follow result in Joseph having significant authority in the land of Egypt and, during a famine, his brothers end up begging him for help.
Blake produced three watercolours that express the latter part of the story of Joseph. In the first, the brothers, unaware who Joseph is, bow down before him, pleading for help to survive the famine. The second, Joseph Ordering Simeon to be bound, shows one of Joseph’s older brothers willingly being arrested for a crime he did not commit to spare the life of another brother. Noting that the attitudes of his brothers have changed since they sold him into slavery, Joseph reveals his true identity and welcomes his brothers with open arms, as shown in Blake’s third painting.
Similar to his Joseph paintings, Blake’s early work typically involved sweeping lines of ink or watercolour, revealing dainty characters full of grand gestures. These tended to have a strong visual impact, evoking emotion and communicating a message or story. Subjects were often drawn from Bible passages, although not necessary the well-known ones, and other literature, such as Shakespeare. As time went on, however, Blake’s works became more obscure and harder to decipher.
Shortly after Blake’s time at the Royal Academy, he met Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), the daughter of a market gardener in Battersea on the south side of the River Thames. At the time, Blake was suffering from a rejection of a previous attempt at love and Catherine proved to be a good ear to listen to his tales of heartbreak. This led to the pair falling in love and marrying on 18th August 1782 in St Mary’s Church in southwest London. The couple had a long, invaluable marriage with Catherine helping her husband to print some of his later works and Blake teaching his wife to read and write.
As well as illustrating existing stories, Blake began to write and illustrate his own, for example, the epic poem Tiriel, although this was never published. Blake borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and Gaelic stories to pen the narrative of an aged king, Tiriel, who had been exiled from his land. In the past, Tiriel enslaved one of his brothers and cursed his children and now seeks solace from his misrule and arrogance. Frail and blind, Tiriel tries and fails to make amends for what he has done, thus receiving his comeuppance for his acts of tyranny.
The illustrations Blake produced to accompany the poem Tiriel were engravings rather than paintings. Having trained as an engraver before joining the Royal Academy, Blake found this technique a preferable way of earning an income. Engravings involved copying or drawing an image with fine cuts onto a metal plate, which could then be inked, printed and reproduced several times. This was a technique Blake used for many commissions, such as those delivered to the print shop he temporarily opened with his friend James Parker in 1784. He also worked for a range of London publishers, including the radical Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), who published works by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) amongst other feminists and religious dissenters.
Etching and engraving were time-consuming and limited, which Blake found frustrating. In 1788, Blake developed what he termed “relief etching”, which allowed him to print in colour and combine text and images. Over time, Blake printed numerous books in this manner, many of which he had written himself and continue to be some of his most famous work. This style of engraving combined “both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was also a cheap and efficient method of printing, although the stories and poetry the illustrations accompanied often baffled Blake’s readers and supporters.
From 1790 to 1800, Blake and Catherine lived in North Lambeth, less than twenty minutes from his childhood home. Although the property has been demolished, a nearby tunnel of Waterloo Station is decorated with a series of 70 mosaics resembling illustrations from Blake’s illuminated books. These books reflect Blake’s thoughts during a turbulent time in Britain. Both French and American revolutions occurred during Blake’s lifetime, leading him to become vocal about freedom and liberty, and argue against slavery and the empire.
Despite his strong views, Blake was rather cryptic in how he portrayed his thoughts in his poetry and illustrations. Had his views been expressed more clearly, Blake would have been at risk of arrest, however, his symbolism was too obscure to attract the attention of the authorities.
Tate Britain displays a range of examples from Blake’s radical illuminated books including Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which condemns forced marriage and defends the rights of women. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell expressed Blake’s revolutionary beliefs using biblical prophecy as a basis. Rather than Hell being a place of punishment, Blake depicts it as a place of chaos and irrationality.
Blake also created his own mythology, for instance, The Book of Urizen, from which his recognisable illustration The Ancient of Days comes. Urizen, depicted as a bearded old man, is the personification of reason and law. Considering himself to be god-like and holy, Urizen traps people in webs of law and conventional society. He is often shown with some form of architectural tool, such as a compass, with which he creates his universe. Urizen’s only opposition is Los, who can be likened to a fallen angel, representing imagination. Blake’s myth is almost a reversal of Christian beliefs, with Urizen serving as a Satanic force.
Amongst all the books represented in the exhibition is one of his most well-known works Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the famous poem The Tyger. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night…” Published in 1794, the book of poems is a combination of Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793). Although the illustrations are suggestive of children’s books and the poems deal with themes of childhood, they also tackle morality, suffering and injustice, which are topics usually deemed unsuitable for that demographic.
Although Songs of Innocence and Experience is famous today, Blake only sold about 30 copies during his lifetime. For income, he relied heavily upon commissions and patronage, including fellow artists. John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and draughtsman Blake met at the Royal Academy. Flaxman supported Blake’s publication of Poetical Sketches in 1783 and his wife, Ann, commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-71).
A civil servant, Thomas Butts was one of Blake’s biggest patrons, purchasing over 200 different works. Many of these were watercolours on biblical themes. Whilst typical scenes involving Jesus, the crucifixion and well-known Old and New Testament characters were popular, Butts was also interested in Blake’s more imaginative works, representing the prophecies of Ezekiel or the Book of Revelation.
The Reverend Joseph Thomas (1765-1811) of Epsom, Surrey was another keen purchaser of Blake’s biblical work. He was also interested in the works of Shakespeare and John Milton and commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for various plays and poems. For Milton’s hymn On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Thomas paid Blake two pounds for each drawing – a total of six – which was more than Butts paid for individual watercolours.
Thomas Butts also purchased a series of large coloured prints that Blake produced by experimenting with monotype. This involved using thick, tacky ink on the metal etching plates, which was then transferred onto paper by applying pressure. Once printed, Blake added watercolour and ink washes to finish the illustration. This gave the prints the initial appearance of a painting, however, many elements are impossible to achieve by hand.
The twelve large prints included in the exhibition relate to a range of themes. As usual, Blake depicted biblical scenes, for example, the madness of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, whose humiliating suffering was predicted in the Book of Daniel. Blake produced an illustration of God judging Adam, whereas most artists focus on Eve’s sin. Other biblical images include Lamech and his Two Wives and Noami Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab.
Amongst the prints is a portrayal of the famous English mathematician and scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), albeit a rather young and muscular one. Unlike the older figure most people imagine when thinking of Newton, Blake drew Newton as a Michelangelo-esque character crouched naked on a rock. The figure’s attention is fully focused on a piece of parchment at his feet on which he draws a diagram with a compass.
Blake chose to illustrate Newton as a reproach rather than praise. The artist was critical of Newton’s scientific approach, which followed precise rules rather than taking in the bigger picture. The figure’s focus on the compass represent’s Newton’s methods, which makes him oblivious to the beauty in the colour of the rocks on which he is sitting.
In 1800, Blake and his wife moved to a cottage in Felpham, (West) Sussex, where he illustrated works for the poet William Hayley (1745-1820) until 1804. Hayley is best known for his biography of his friend William Cowper (1731-1800) whose work was among the poems Hayley wished Blake to illustrate. Mostly, however, Hayley expected Blake to produce miniature portraits, which was something Blake was not keen on due to the lack of inventiveness.
Hayley had recently established a new library in The Turret, his house in Felpham, and commissioned Blake to produce long canvases to decorate the room. Each canvas represented a famous poet, including William Cowper. In the centre, Blake reproduced a likeness of the poets based on existing portraits and engravings and used the remains of the canvas to be more creative. Other poets included William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Dante Alighieri (1265- 1321) and Edmund Spenser (1552-99).
As time went on, Blake began to resent Hayley, who he believed did not appreciate art. Fortunately, Hayley was still on Blake’s side and able to bail him out when he was arrested following a physical altercation with a soldier. After his acquittal, Blake returned to London.
In 1806, Blake began planning pictures for Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of 24 short stories written by the “father of English literature”. Mostly written in verse like Blake’s own work, the tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket (1119-70). Blake envisioned a frieze-like composition, which he completed in 1808 and published as an etching in 1810.
Unfortunately, Blake could not enjoy his work on The Canterbury Tales because he felt he was competing against two friends who were also producing work for the same book. He felt betrayed by these friends, believing that their work would overshadow his artistic vision. He claimed his so-called friends were more interested in making money than producing great art.
Around the same time, Blake was working on illustrations for the 1808 edition of Robert Blair’s (1699-1746) poem The Grave. The commission came from the newly established publisher Robert Cromek (1770-1812), and not wanting to let Cromek’s new career flounder, Blake took the project very seriously.
Blake was attracted to the poem’s themes of death and the afterlife, which were often topics of his own writings. He quickly produced twenty drawings for Cromek, which the publisher began to promote widely in public places, touring London, Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst this gave Blake the attention he deserved, he felt betrayed when Cromek employed someone else to print the illustrations.
The disappointments and supposed betrayals of the early 1800s led Blake to break contact with some of his friends and set up an independent exhibition in 1809. Using the upper rooms of his childhood home, now belonging to his brother James who used the lower rooms for his hosiery shop, Blake displayed several of his paintings, which were accompanied by a Descriptive Catalogue. It was a rather strange location for an exhibition – rather modest in comparison to Blake’s gigantic ambitions – and only a handful of visitors attended. In the only public review written about the exhibition, Blake was branded “an unfortunate lunatic”.
Tate Britain excels itself by recreating one of the rooms in the Blake family home, complete with fake flooring, ceiling, windows and walls, upon which a handful of paintings are hung. Many of Blake’s original paintings have been damaged over time, losing their colour and becoming dark and difficult to decipher. Every 20 minutes, two of the paintings are illuminated to appear as they would have done in 1809 and a disembodied voice reads out Blake’s words from the Descriptive Catalogue.
“The two Pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age.”
Blake’s solo exhibition took place during a period of war and upheaval. Although his paintings appear to be disconnected from politics, featuring allegorical and spiritual elements, they are full of hidden meaning. Two paintings are based on national figures who had both led Britain in the war against France. These figures, the late Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) and naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), are shown alongside biblical monsters, bringing chaos and destruction to the world. Blake likens these heroes to mythological and biblical characters, for instance, Hercules and cherubim. Although the paintings are representing destruction, Blake is hinting at the potential new freedoms and spiritual rebirth that could follow.
In the next room, a projection shows close up details of these two paintings. He had once dreamt that they would be executed on a large scale and displayed on public walls. After the failure of his solo exhibition, Blake knew this dream would never come to fruition and became increasingly withdrawn and bitter. Tate Britain tries to do Blake’s aspirations justice by showing the paintings at such a large scale.
Having withdrawn from society for a few years, Blake returned with a burst of creativity for the final decade of his life. In 1818, he met the artist John Linnell who provided him with moral and material support. During this time, Blake produced relief-etchings for new and old books for a variety of purchasers, including engravings for the Book of Job.
Throughout his life, Blake reportedly had visions of spirits with whom he conversed. Encouraged by a friend, Blake began to draw these spirits for a series he titled “Visionary Heads”. Over six years, Blake drew more than a hundred of these vision, often attending séance-like sessions to study the details of these characters. Whilst, on the one hand, some people believed in Blake’s visions, others debated whether they were real or a sign of mental ill-health.
One of Blake’s most bizarre characters was The Ghost of a Flea. Depicted as a muscular, nude figure – part-man, part-vampire, part-reptile – the Flea is using its tongue to drink out of a bowl of blood. In its left hand is a thorn and acorn, which are typical icons of fairies and similar mythical characters. Whether or not Blake saw this figure, his painting magnified a flea, which is usually associated with uncleanliness, into a monstrous, bloodthirsty creature.
As well as his personal monsters, Blake was commissioned by Linnell to illustrate the creatures in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The poem, which describes a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, leant itself to Blake’s typical style of illustration and preference of theme. Blake used dark, menacing colours to illustrate the depths of Hell, contrasting it with the luminous shades of Paradise.
Although he intended to illustrate the poem in its entirety, Blake passed away before he could finish. Another unfinished work was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was a popular religious text during Blake’s lifetime. Again, it suited Blake’s style, dealing with the realms of dreams, destruction, sins and heaven.
Before Blake’s death in 1827, he managed to complete and illustrate one final epic poem, which is probably his best-known work today. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is the longest of Blake’s prophetic books and tells the story of the fall of Albion – Blake’s personification of Britain and the western world. The narrative, however, can be confusing and does not have a linear plot.
Jerusalem is not to be confused with the famous hymn of the same name with music written by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), which was used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1917. Although Blake wrote the words of this hymn, it comes from the preface of his epic poem Milton: A Poem in Two Books.
Blake’s magnum opus, on the other hand, is a 4500 lined poem that his first biographer called “a chaos of words, names and images.” Albion (England) has been infected by “soul disease” and her “mountains run with blood” as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Religion is being used to exploit the lower classes and those in charge of the country are full of greed. If Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem once more, then all humanity will survive and be bound together in love.
Jerusalem, like some of Blake’s previous works, summed up his philosophical thoughts, particularly concerning the Age of Enlightenment, which dominated Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment focuses on ideals of rationalism and empiricism (the theory that knowledge comes from experience), which went against Blake’s beliefs that imagination was the most important human element. Previous paintings showed that Blake was opposed to the Newtonian view of the universe and unimpressed by the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Royal Academy who looked at art with a “vegetative eye”. Jerusalem was Blake’s final attempt at expressing his strong views.
“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”
– Excerpt from Jerusalem
Blake spent his final years living with his wife at Fountain Court off the Strand, near to where the Savoy Hotel is situated today. It is reported that on 12th August 1827 Blake was working on his Dante series when he stopped, turned to his wife and insisted he drew her portrait. Afterwards, he sang hymns and recited verses of poetry until 6 pm when, after promising Catherine he would always be with her, he died. Five days later, on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Catherine buried her husband in Bunhill Fields, the same burial ground as his parents.
Catherine continued to sell Blake’s work until her death in October 1831 when an acquaintance took up the job. Although only a mere handful of his works sold during his lifetime, William Blake became posthumously famous and in 1949, the Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour. He is also recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and, in 1957, a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey for both him and his wife.
William Blake is the type of figure whose name is recognised worldwide and yet very few know much about him. His name is associated with various titles of books and poems but knowledge of his private life is less common. Tate Britain rectifies this by providing a chronological timeline of Blake’s life alongside his works. We learn who he was, how he lived, how he thought and what he believed. Although many will disagree with his philosophies and controversial ideas, Blake is an interesting character who is worth knowing about.
The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is open until 2nd February 2020. Prices are £18 for adults, £17 for concessions and £5 for 12-18 years olds. Whilst under 12s may visit for free when accompanied by an adult, some of Blake’s work is unsuitable for younger children.