The Making of a Saint

Until 22nd August 2021, the British Museum is finally hosting its Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint exhibition, which celebrates the 850th anniversary of Becket’s brutal murder. Having been postponed due to Covid-19, visitors can now discover the murder that shook the Middle Ages and learn about the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum’s collection and those on loan from Canterbury Cathedral and other locations around Europe and the United Kingdom. Each object, whether an illuminated manuscript, item of jewellery or a sacred reliquary, helps to tell the story of Becket’s journey from a merchant’s son to an archbishop, to a martyr and a saint.

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England.

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.

Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.

Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).

It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.

The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.

On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, King Henry II (Becket Leaves, c.1220-1240).

Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.

Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.

Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”

According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)

Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.

The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.

On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.

Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.

A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.

On loan from Canterbury Cathedral is a “miracle window” that reveals several experiences of pilgrims who visited Becket’s shrine. In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.

“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)

The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.

St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.

One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.

Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.

On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.

Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).

Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.

Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain. Yet, for the majority of people, Becket is a name confined to school history books. There is no cult following or pilgrimage route, yet kiss marks have been discovered on display cases holding some of the most revered objects. Perhaps Thomas Becket still has a following after all!

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open until 22nd August 2021 in The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £17 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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Blake: Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary

NPG 212; William Blake by Thomas Phillips

William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)

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.

blake-portrait-of-william-blake-1802.-collection-robert-n.-essick_5

Portrait of William Blake, 1802

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.

blake_the_little_girl_lost

Little Girl Lost – Songs of Innocence and Experience

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

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William Blake Wearing a Hat – John Linnell

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.


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