Anne Gardom visits an epic exhibition

THE WILLIAM BLAKE exhibition at the Tate is almost dauntingly large and comprehensive. His huge range of creativity was so interesting and complex, and covered such a wide range of disciplines and techniques, that there is much to be seen and learnt.

He was from early days an unusual and far from easy person. His father was a hosier, and he came from a fairly simple home. His parents realized quite early that they had a child whose qualities made it difficult for him to fit into his background, and he was never sent to a formal school. He went to art school and became an early collector of antique prints. He was apprenticed quite young (as the custom was) to a commercial engraver. Though this forced him into a profession that was extremely and minutely demanding, it gave him the skills with which, later on, he was able to express his astonishing visionary and prophetic ideas.


As part of his training, he was required to make detailed drawings and consequent engravings, of the monuments in Westminster Abbey. This gave him an insight into the concept of the Gothic, as opposed to the Classical, vision of art and architecture. The Gothic style was beginning to be seen as more spiritual, true and emotionally honest than the elegance and wit of the Age of Reason. Artists and writers were seeking to engage with the emotions, with darkness, tragedy and terror, rather than explore the forces of rationalism. His contact with mediaeval Gothic was a very important influence on the young Blake – it affected his personal philosophy and his whole view of the prophetic role of the artist in society, as well as his own artistic style.

The drawings he made at this time are delicate and fine, but in his first commission, to illustrate Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, a vast poem which ran to 10,000 words and nine volumes, we begin to see the development of his own style. There are only a few of the illustrated settings he did for the pages of text on display, but the originality and energy of the compositions and the expressive colours are full of vitality.

In his desire to return to the spiritual values of the Gothic, Blake developed a technique of glue-based tempera painting. Unfortunately most of these paintings have not worn very well, and the colour is now dull and much darkened, in total contrast to the lyrical colouring he achieves in his watercolours and prints.

The contrast between Blake’s thinking and painting and that of some of his contemporaries is very clearly seen when you look at his painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims and compare it with a similar painting by the very successful and gifted artist, Thomas Stothard. The two pictures hang near each other and the difference in attitude and style is startling. Stothard’s painting is full of life and movement, varied poses and light and vibrant colour. Blake’s is much more static, much more like a frieze, with the colours subdued and the poses statuesque – but, if you look at the faces and the poses, every movement, every face, every gesture is full of meaning and significance. Each pilgrim is a reflection of some aspect of mankind and the whole picture represents life’s pilgrimage.


Although Blake’s paintings and certainly his prints were in marked contrast to those of most of his successful contemporaries, this does not mean that he was misunderstood and without his admirers and supporters. He numbered among his friends the painters Fuseli, Flaxman and Samuel Palmer, and worked with some of them as an engraver. It is easy to think of him as an artistic and social loner, and though this is to some extent the case, he enjoyed the company of a circle of friends and was interested in and influenced by their work.

Blake illustrated a variety of works as well as his own poems and prophetic writings. His beautiful watercolours of Dante’s Divine Comedy are well known and wonderfully vivid. A number of these are shown in the exhibition. Dante fleeing from the Three Beasts, who represent for him lust, pride and avarice, is a composition of great power and imagination, but it is only one among many of comparable quality. Some of these come from as far away as Melbourne, and it is very interesting to have so many gathered together in one display.


The Bible was a constant source of inspiration for Blake’s paintings. Between 1799 and 1805 he produced no less than 135 watercolours on Biblical themes for his patron, Thomas Butts. Blake saw the Bible as the embodiment of the whole history of mankind as well as a historical document and a source of spiritual enlightenment. It profoundly affected and moulded the whole of his artistic philosophy. He regarded artistic creativity itself as a form of praise and an act of faith, and looked on Christ and his disciples as artists. No-one who was not artistically creative, he said, could properly be called a Christian. He closely identified with his Biblical paintings and they represent some of his finest achievements.

Milton was regarded by contemporary artists and writers as the finest poet ever to have written in the English language. Blake regarded him as superior to Shakespeare and Chaucer. Many artists, including Fuseli and Thomas Lawrence, illustrated his poems, especially Paradise Lost. Blake did two series of illustrations, of which the later one, made for his patron Thomas Butts, is in the exhibition. They are very detailed and delicate works in pen and watercolour, showing great attention to Milton’s text. They also show the influence of Michaelangelo, much admired by Blake, as an epic painter. In the Rout of the Rebel Angels the avenging figure of Christ, and the tumbling contorted figures of the nude rebel angels have the qualities of a heroic fresco, and this is repeated in many of these magnificent illustrations. Blake identified strongly with Milton and, indeed, painted a visionary portrait of him as a young man. His own work – Milton, A Poem – is a detailed and complex response to the poet’s life and work.


In 1790 Blake, and his wife Catharine, moved to Lambeth, where he took a house with enough room to set up a rolling press for his printing and have an artists’s studio. A similar rolling press and tools for etching and engraving are shown in an interesting and very clear display. Although Lambeth was still a village then, it was not particularly attractive or salubrious. Photographs taken slightly later show it to have been a rather dull collection of small artisans’ houses and workshops. It was rather better known for its marshes than for any other charms. However, Blake saw it as the Place of the Lamb, and considered it as the site of the new Jerusalem. He identified closely with the lives, the hardships and the difficulties of those living in the area. The records of the local Lying-in Hospital and the Poor Rate books on display are poignant reminders of the daily tragedies and injustices suffered by the poor. His poem Holy Thursday is a response to the discovery of the body of a dead child, the Chimney Sweeper to the cruel lives of the child chimney sweeps. These poems, and many others demonstrate that his involvement with the political and social scene was immediate and intense.

It was during the time at Lambeth that Blake worked further on, and perfected, his etching and engraving techniques. His method of reverse etching (having the outlines proud of the background plate) rather than intaglio etching (having the lines etched or cut into the plate) enabled him to print a page with the lettering and page decoration at the same time. The surrounding decoration or picture was then hand-coloured. It was hugely labour-intensive and difficult to do, and one looks at some of the minute and exquisite lettering of the pages of his prophetic books with a horrified amazement when one thinks of the hours and hours of work that must have gone into each one.

The Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are amongst the best-known of his printed/illustrated works. They are quite small and were never commercially successful, though valued among his circle of friends. They are direct and beautiful expressions in words and pictures of some very profound ideas. It is in those little books that one sees poetry and the artistic expression of the poetry balanced in a way that is beautiful and completely satisfying. We all know some of these poems – Tyger, Tyger…, Infant Joy…. But what about London, from Songs of Experience?

I wander thro’ each charter’d street
Next where the charter’d Thames doth flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear.
How the Chimney Sweeper’s cry
Every black’ning Church appalls;

And the hapless Soldier’s sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlot’s curse
Blasts the newborn Infant’s tear,
And blights with plagues the Marriage Hearse.


Blake was a man who saw visions – many of his portraits are visionary, and some of them, like The Ghost of a Flea are very strange indeed. His visions were a very important source of inspiration, both artistic, poetic and prophetic. He was, from time to time, regarded as mad by some of his contemporaries, and his visions were among the reasons for this. (His wife once said “I have very little of Mr Blake’s company. He is often in Paradise”.) Though his prophetic books are complex and obscure, and the symbolism in them and some of his paintings baffled both his contemporaries and later students of his work, there seems no real grounds for suggesting he was insane, though this was said of him at the time, and has been said since.

The series of Large Prints form an important part of Blake’s work – they are indeed unusually large for monoprints, and the technique used – mixing paints and sometimes chalk on a piece of millboard, and then pressing the paper down onto it – gives the print surface a richly textured look. The dark rich mixes of colours give the prints an almost sculptural quality, with the fine details worked in on top. They are extraordinary, rich and subtle, the product of much preliminary labour, both in paint preparation and application and in preparatory sketches. Blake’s grasp and interpretation of religious themes and mythological stories is seen here at its richest and most confident.


From the beginning the writer and artist were developing in parallel. Blake was certainly writing poetry at about the age of eleven years, and attending a drawing academy and collecting prints before that. He placed great value on his writings and regarded them as integral, if not central, to his whole artistic career. Therefore, though his huge output of illustrated books is less well-known and certainly less well understood than his illustrations and Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, they were supremely important to him, and therefore to our understanding of him. He wrote his prophetic works, in his own words, “under the Directions of Messengers from Heaven, Daily and Nightly”. Prophetic is how he saw them, as is shown by the use of the words Song and Prophecy in his titles, and he regarded them as “of equal magnitude and consequence with the productions of any age or country”. Pages from these books end the exhibition, and they are well placed – certainly they are the works that he regarded as the most important of all his productions. They are awe-inspiring in their scope and beauty, page after page of minute and lovely script with swirling and whirling illustrations in dramatic and brilliant colours. He invented a series of mythological figures to express his prophecies which embraced a vast range of social, visionary and religious themes – The Book of Thel, The Book of Urizen, The Book of Los, Europe, a Prophecy, The Vision of the Daughters of Albion.


Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion, was his last and perhaps most brilliant book, upon which he expended more labour of love than anything else he did. It explores the themes of alienation and redemption in pages of amazing beauty and complexity. The words are not easy to understand, the symbolism both in the (extremely small) writing and in the wonderful illustration, is often very difficult to unravel, but their importance in Blake’s eyes was paramount, and therefore they are essential to understanding him as a writer and artist.

However, I may say, these pages are a joy to behold and stand on their own as beautiful artifacts.

There is much to be enjoyed and much to be learnt. The very large number of rather wordy printed labels show how difficult it is to explain Blake’s work. There is a lot of reading to do as well as a lot of looking, but the rewards are worth the effort!

Anne Gardom is the Art Critic for New Directions