William Blake: Method and madness

'The intimacy draws us into Blake’s world; his other-worldly figures begin to make sense in our world and its division, hypocrisy, faithlessness and faithfulness. He plumbs our depths, the worst and the best'

Cindy Polemis

“He that has never travelled in his thoughts and mind to heaven is no artist.” William Blake did not indulge in sketching tours and sojourns at aristocrats’ country piles. The artist had more adventurous journeys in mind: mysterious, enigmatic, terrifying visions, which apparently came to him at night from the age of eight—the product, it is thought, of his eidetic (photographic) memory. Their son’s transports must have been alarming for his parents, but they had the good sense to finance his artistic ambitions by supporting his studies at the Royal Academy. Its founding president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, was the man Blake accused of never travelling “in his thoughts and mind to heaven”, and whom he later described as “hired to repress art”. Unsurprisingly, the art establishment viewed Blake as, at best eccentric, or at worst a madman, and largely disregarded his talents.

His was the art of poetical alchemy and extraordinary hallucinogenic visions. It could only ever have been misunderstood and continues to befuddle, dazzle and divide. My views were coloured by the ubiquitous poster reproductions of bearded longhaired prophets with six-packs, bluetacked onto college bedroom walls. There is something a little, dare I say, trippy about Blake, and Tate Britain’s latest show reveals an artist who fearlessly eschewed convention in favour of a seemingly boundless capacity to invent.

The most comprehensive exploration of the artist for a generation includes more than 340 works: paintings, drawings and prints, and illuminated books, as well as contributions from his contemporaries. In an unfashionable yet welcome chronological layout, the curators trace the life of Blake the poet, the painter, the engraver, and the Londoner, born in 1757, the son of a Soho hosier, who died 70 years later in squalid cramped rooms off the Strand.

His was truly revolutionary art, working against the backdrop of the social and political convulsions of the American and French Revolutions and the European wars which followed. In his particular and eccentric way, he projected the hopes and fears of his age.

Forget those posters. Throughout the exhibition one is reminded that most of his works are palm-sized. A magnifying glass helps grasp the fury, zeal and terror that fill his vibrant illuminated manuscripts. The intimacy draws us into Blake’s world; his other-worldly figures begin to make sense in our world and its division, hypocrisy, faithlessness and faithfulness. Blake plumbs our depths, the worst and the best.

The exhibition brings together the highlights of Tate’s collection with many of his most famous pieces from other British collections along with some rarely seen international loans. It also provides a fascinating new focus on the significant role played by his wife Catherine in printing his designs, colouring his prints, looking after the household and finances and, according to one friend, singing “sweetly” to him.

The highlight, halfway through the exhibition, is a room showing his enigmatic cycle of 12 so-called “Large Colour Prints”, including Newton and Nebuchadnezzar, commissioned by Thomas Butts, a civil servant whose main job was to
ensure the army had sufficient uniforms, but who had a sideline as a coal merchant and ran a girls’ boarding school with his wife. Picture the scene: Mr and Mrs Butts and the visual equivalent of heavy metal on the walls of their modest Soho house.

Blake depicts Isaac Newton both as a man of science and a tyrannical figure, the architect of a clockwork universe, which Blake found so repellent. Newton’s scientific laws measured our world and therefore restricted humanity. His “science” produced the miseries of the Industrial Revolution and the “dark satanic mills” of Blake’s most famous poem, Jerusalem. Yet Blake’s image has been reclaimed as a universal symbol of knowledge, appearing on the covers of science textbooks. Eduardo Paolozzi recreated it as a sculpture in 1995 to grace the forecourt of the British Library. Is this Blake’s ironic version of the perfect man, classical rippling muscles bursting from his marbled torso, responsible for all the ills of 18th-century society?

Hanging next to Newton in the exhibition is the bedraggled leonine King Nebuchadnezzar, driven mad and forced to live like a wild animal as a punishment for excessive pride. Perhaps these two breathtaking images were designed as a pair: Nebuchadnezzar a slave to emotional weakness, Newton a slave to Reason.

Around 1788 Blake invented a new form of printing in colour, combining text and image, painter and poet. He described it as his “infernal” method, which he claimed he had learnt from the ghost of his dead brother Robert. So his art came as a sort of added bonus to his verses neither of which gave him establishment kudos. He earned what little he did as an engraver, and sold his art to a small coterie of friends and supporters who were seduced by his fantastical, and for the time, risqué images. The earliest owners of Blake’s illuminated books included a number of rare book collectors, some of whom were dubbed “The Lunatics”. Another owner of Blake books, Isaac Disraeli, the father of the future prime minster, Benjamin, described how his guests would “disport” themselves with Blake’s books “beneath the lighted Argand lamp of his drawing room” delighting in his engraved images of “angels, devils, giants, dwarves, saints, sinners, senators and chimney sweeps.” As T.S. Eliot later wrote in 1921, Blake was “a wild poet for the super-cultivated”.

The exhibition ends with one of his most powerful images, The Ancient of Days (right, 1827), a figure from his imagination, Urizen, the man who measures the world at the moment of creation. Naked, bearded and sinuous, the old man leans out from the sun with vast compasses; a grim scientist measuring the world at the moment of creation, measuring what can never truly be measured. This work was coloured in the last days of Blake’s life and he declared it to be the “best I have ever finished”. He died in August 1827. An obituary in the Literary Chronicle expressed the conflicted contemporary view, that he was “one of those ingenious persons . . . whose eccentricities were still more remarkable than their professional abilities”. Blake would not have cared: in 1809, following a disastrous one-man show in London, he had written that, “if a man is master of his profession, he cannot be ignorant that he is so; and if he is not employed by those who pretend to encourage art, he will employ himself, and laugh in secret at the pretences of the ignorant”.

The genius of this Tate show lies in highlighting Blake the artist, who happened to write poetry on the side. The images unravel allegorical stories, like some elaborate graphic novel. He aspired to be a British Michelangelo but instead delved inwards into a furnace-like, phantasmagoric world based on the Bible and his own poetry. His was not the art of his contemporaries such as Constable and Turner: poetical and atmospheric collaborations of clouds and sunlight on English landscapes. Blake’s oeuvre, instead, is of a man with an imagination on fire, struggling against the realities of being an artist in a commercial world and trying to make sense of social and political changes way beyond his imaginings.

“William Blake” is at Tate Britain until February 2, 2020



Above: Albion Rose, c.1793, opposite: Newton, 1795-1805, both by William Blake

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"