Blake for the Ages

by Flora Armetta

Summer has drawn to a close, but there are consolations to be had. One exhibition, long in the works, is open as of September 11th and is worth a trip to London if you are so inclined: William Blake, an artist whose enduring reputation still rests nearly equally on his diverse and prodigious artistic gifts and his sometimes tormented psychological state, receives his due at the Tate Britain in a show that will run through February 2 of 2020. For many, Blake’s poetry is perhaps more widely known than his prolifically produced works of visual art  (“Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright” is, after all, in many a child’s anthology of verse). But the Tate, which, thanks to various early twentieth-century bequests of works from artists and other collectors, has one of the world’s most significant collections of Blake, here focuses on “William Blake: The Artist.” With roughly three hundred works of drawings, watercolors, prints, and engravings, the museum presents Blake as “a visual artist for the 21st century.” This is a rare opportunity to see a wide range of work, especially given that many of the items belonging to the Tate are in a delicate state (the artist worked in print, watercolor, tempera, and other fragile media, never in oils) that require them to be on view for only limited periods of time. 

Portrait of William Blake, 1802(Collection Robert N Essick/PA)

Blake was born in London in 1757, and, except for a brief stint of study with an artist a short distance from the city, lived there his whole life, dying in 1827. He lived through a remarkable age, in which his imagery was perhaps as revolutionary as the events and ideals of the times. During his childhood and prolific young adulthood, the world changed rapidly and radically. England’s Stamp Act became the final straw for the American colonies and, as havoc ensued, the Boston Tea Party and shots fired at Lexington and Concord marked the beginning of the American Revolution; the first cotton mill opened in England; the eighteenth-century Catholic Relief Act sparked some of the worst riots in British history; the former slave Olaudah Equiano published his autobiography, helping lead, through its horrifying narrative, to the Slave Trade Act of 1807 and the eventual abolishment of slavery itself (in the British Empire, though not worldwide) in the 1830s; the French stormed the Bastille; Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo; and the first public steam railway was established. Within a few years of Blake’s death, Parliamentary Reform, long a hoped-for possibility among the lower and middle classes, had at last extended the franchise, and the Factory Act had restricted work hours for women and children in the textile mills. 

Blake’s personal life was nearly as dramatic as what was taking place on the broader world stage, and was marked by painful experiences: philosophical as well as financial struggles, with at least as many valleys as peaks. He once wrote, in criticizing a fellow-artist (the iconic founder of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds), “To generalise is to be an idiot; to particularise is the alone [sic] distinction of merit.” This statement could be taken as his life philosophy; he was suspicious of “the general”—systems, governments, organizations—and ultimately placed more hope in “the particular” - the power of the individual. Politically, he sympathized with many of the radicals of his day (Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, for example). He depicted some government figures sympathetically, if bizarrely (William Pitt in his “spiritual form” astride a behemoth, for example), yet was at one point accused of sedition (it was claimed he had damned the king, though he was later acquitted). Ultimately, Blake found it difficult to trust in any movement’s or group’s ability to effect worthy change, even when he was supportive of their aims. It was similar in his life of faith. A devout Christian whose intimate knowledge of the Bible informed much of his work, Blake nevertheless resisted the forms and practices of any one denominational tradition and failed to embrace—indeed, was staunchly against—the Church of England. 

But his spiritual experiences were deeply affecting, and read like Biblical accounts of the supernatural: “I am under the direction of messengers from heaven daily and nightly,” Blake once explained. According to one close friend, the journalist Henry Crabb Robinson, Blake began experiencing visions at the age of four, when he saw God’s head appear in a window; a later vision, at ten, showed him a tree full of angels. He was also said to have seen the spirit of his brother, who died a tragic early death from tuberculosis, rise joyfully heavenward at the moment of the young man’s passing. Such visions gave rise, perhaps, to much of the compelling intensity that so characterizes Blake’s work. We might also imagine that they contributed to his tremendous drive to create, in the face of general indifference and even outright rejection (one critic cruelly referred to the artist as “an unfortunate lunatic”). They cannot have made life simple or peaceful. 

Blake began studying art at a young age, first attending drawing school in London and then becoming, by the time he was fourteen, apprenticed to an engraver. As did most serious artists in this period, Blake learned to draw the human figure by copying plaster casts of ancient sculpture before practicing sketching from life; in addition, his apprenticeship took him to Westminster Abbey, where he drew many of the seemingly endless tombs and monuments there. Blake also showed an early interest in artistic forebears who were unpopular in his day, collecting the work of such Renaissance masters (only later acknowledged as such) as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Albrecht Dürer. These disparate formative influences in his education and taste clearly helped shaped his interest in human anatomy (which shows in his many figures with heavily articulated muscles, sinews, and veins), in classical narrative, and in death and the life of the spirit. They account, too, for the unique mixture of classical and Romantic ideals much of the artist’s work reveals. 

<em>Catherine Blake</em>, sketch, 1805Selections from Blake’s marvelous illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, for example, are classical in their attention to the figure and in their compositional emphasis on dynamic symmetry. Consider the engraving “The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (‘The Whirlwind of Lovers’),” from around 1826. Though of course wildly different in scale, medium, and style, it compares in many ways to Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment,” with its masses of twisting, turning forms and symmetrically balanced lines or arching rows of bodies arranged to lead the eye continually left, right, above, and below. Yet Blake’s insistence on the overwhelming natural forces in his image is peculiarly Romantic. He renders Dante’s “hellish hurricane” as a suggestive snake-like ocean wave that sweeps tormented lovers up from and over a turgid body of water, and he places the prone figure of Dante, who has fainted, on a menacing bed of creeping vines and leaves. Thus, where Michelangelo’s elegant figures are essentially backed by a landscape that serves as a relatively simple scheme for heaven and hell (there’s an above and a below), in Blake the psychological power of the image rests on the uncontrollable elements that overtake each body. This may be a gesture toward Burke’s theory of the sublime, so essential to the Romantics, or a prefiguring of, say, J.M.W. Turner’s “Slave Ship,” of 1840, in which a desperate, vain humanity is subsumed by its own evil instincts and, in equal, awful measure, the natural world.

Among the works on view in the exhibition are a self-portrait, displayed only once before since its creation, of marvelously delicate pencil. In it, the artist faces the viewer head on and stares out, unblinking, with slightly pursed lips. It is hard not to read his face as defiant, perhaps even argumentative, as though a challenge had just been thrown out and the artist were preparing to answer it. The softness of Blake’s medium makes the apparent hardness of his gaze all the more vivid. 

A spare pencil sketch of Blake’s wife, Catherine, from 1805, likewise offers some insight into the difficulties of Blake’s life and of being in his orbit. Born Catherine Sophia Boucher, she was five years younger than he, and scholars evidently agree that she was of a slightly lower social class and may even have been illiterate when they met. Critics have often characterized Catherine as long-suffering and marginalized within the marriage, and certainly she is known to have been justly angry at her husband’s apparent occasional interest in polygamy; some speculate that she also endured a miscarriage. Yet Catherine was often described by Blake’s peers as perfectly matched with her husband, and there are textual and sketchbook records of their periods of mutual trust, friendship, and respect as well. A notebook drawing of Blake’s (not on view) testifies to simple domestic comfort, showing himself seated on the edge of their bed, dressing, as his wife relaxes under the covers. Perhaps more noteworthy is the fact that Catherine and William collaborated in co-producing illuminated copies of Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, a process referred to in verse by Blake (according to the scholar Morton D. Paley) as “a lovely form inspird divinely human.” Whether this is accurate or not, Blake’s drawing of his wife here speaks to a tender affection for the young woman, who sits with her head bent over her lap (she seems to be sewing). The focus is not on her handiwork - indeed, her hands are barely represented - but upon her soft cheeks, the light curls brushing her forehead from under a kerchief, and the patient set of her mouth, all drawn with single, clear, unwavering lines. Whatever Catherine may be contemplating, she is depicted as comfortable, and the literal and metaphorical closeness of the artist to the sitter here is obvious, and rather moving.

<em>Pity</em>, circa 1795, color print, ink, and watercolor on paper

Elsewhere in the exhibition, look for “Pity,” from about 1795, in color print, ink, and watercolor on paper. The image is taken from lines in Shakespeare’s Macbeth: ‘pity, like a naked newborn babe / Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air’ (Act I, sc. vii), in which Macbeth pauses to consider how his potential murder of Duncan will bring mourning throughout the land (the above-described Pity “shall blow the horrid deed in every eye”).

<em>The Ghost of a Flea</em>, circa 1819, tempera and gold on mahogany

Blake’s depiction is oddly literal in that the newborn babe, anxious cherubim, and sightless horses of the verse are all present, all contending with a dark storm and the thick, boulder-like cloud that marks their strange, heavenly territory. Yet the artist also includes an element that has nothing do with the Shakespearean passage: the supine figure of a young woman on the ground, whose expression suggests she is in need of pity, terrified and helpless, though we can’t tell why. Reminiscent of the young female victim in Henry Fuseli’s painting “The Nightmare” (1781) in her pose, dress, and hair, the figure in Blake’s image serves as a bridge between the seventeenth-century allegory of Shakespeare’s play and the eighteen-century Gothic and Romantic sensibilities of his viewers. 

The Tate is also exhibiting a true star of its collection, Blake’s astounding portrait of  “The Ghost of a Flea,” created in about 1819, when the artist was in his early sixties. This tiny, terrifying gem, roughly 8.5 by 6.3 inches, is in tempera and gold on a mahogany panel. It depicts Blake’s vision of a demon-like creature, with a somewhat human form but with the addition of claws, batwings for ears, and a spiky spine and pointed tongue. The creature holds a cup, which is apparently filled with blood, in its hand, looking at it with manic glee. According to the museum’s curators, Blake heard this spirit tell him, as he was drawing it, that “all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess.’ ” This statement, one might argue, perfectly encapsulates Blake’s spiritual sensitivity and his severe political and economic experience; the image itself is perhaps the best example of his acute power to not only render, but also to create in his viewers, a distinctive psychological state. 

William Blake died in relative obscurity, leaving numbers of works unfinished and having experienced deepening poverty and ever greater depression toward the end of his life. Yet much of the unconformity that drove him into isolation in his lifetime contributed to the outlandish visual vocabulary that became so influential after his death. He is now celebrated,  among Britons and around the world. Perhaps he would have appreciated this irony.