Robert Greer

William Blake at Tate Britain

Thought to be mad by Wordsworth but considered a genius by Coleridge, William Blake (1757-1827) was an oddity during his lifetime. A genius engraver of images with a penchant for public nudity and political radicalism, a poet who would break off from conversation to confer with angels and spirits in the room, he is considered by many to be the closest thing Britain has had to a prophet.

Growing up with the poems and ideas of Blake, in the religious and social critique of the Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789) and the Swedenborgian philosophy of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), this is how I had always thought of him — as the otherworldly Godfather of English Romanticism. While the beautifully engraved plates had always astounded me with their visionary quality, the illustrations bringing his words to life in these collections had been something of an afterthought in my appreciation of Blake as a writer and thinker.

The new exhibition at the Tate Britain seeks to challenge this view. Where the original copies of the books and their plates are on display in full glory, we are reminded that Blake sold very few of them; that he lived from commissions as a visual artist, and that this is how he primarily saw himself.

‘Europe’ Plate i: Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’, 1827, Etching with ink and watercolour on paper, 232 x 120mm, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

To see the delicate, coloured engravings of The Ghost of a Flea and ‘Europe’ Plate i: Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ in person is genuinely thrilling, as it is to see the plates from Jerusalem and his other literary works. In their sheer craft, his use of colour, and the creation of the sublime, Blake was undoubtedly a genius of his time; he paved the way for the movement that succeeded him. But the most interesting thing about the exhibition is how the collection is curated to tell Blake’s story, which is largely to do with the collections of the patrons who financed him.

There was the wealthy John Flaxman, who had studied at the Royal Academy with Blake. There was Thomas Putts, who lived in a large house in Westminster, and who spent his working life between running a school and supplying uniforms to the army. Putts was an early collector of Blake’s work, financing him with private commissions, ending up with over 200 pieces by the artist, as well as illuminated books. Putts’ private collection is here, and a phenomenal selection of images in which Blake was able to explore his religious beliefs, to put his radical visions into the world.

There was also William Hayley, the wealthy writer who lived in Sussex, and who invited William and Catherine to stay with them in the countryside. Their escape from London was cut short, as Blake was called to court on a count of treason, having forcibly evicted a soldier from Hayley’s garden who had wandered in.

Pity, c.1795, Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, 425 x 539 m, Tate

When Blake returned to London, he was something of a local celebrity. In 1809 he sought to capitalise on this and put on a solo exhibition at 28 Broad Street, Soho. The few that came dismissed Blake as a lunatic.

The 1809 exhibition itself is re-created for audiences today at the Tate Britain in a stroke of curatorial brilliance. Through our experience of Blake’s attempts to be known above all as a visual artist, we realise that beyond his literary and philosophical writings, creating images was what occupied Blake most.

Blake saw out his last years in London as a kind of cult celebrity for budding artists and writers, who became acolytes of his visionary style and philosophy. His legacy, in this respect, has always been understood. Contrarily, his brilliance in crafting images, in turning internal visions into psychedelic art, has been largely overlooked in the public eye. This exhibition, drawing on a magnificent collection of well-known and rarely seen work, re-positions it from under the shadow of his writing.

For its demonstration of Blake’s craftsmanship and true insight into his life, the exhibition is a must-see.

Words by Robert Greer.

William Blake at Tate Britain is on 11 Sep 2019 – 2 Feb 2020. For more information and to book tickets, visit the Tate’s website here.

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