“Blake is all about the possibilities of the human imagination. He offers us an escape from the dull realities of everyday life. He challenges us to think beyond the rational and the assumed with fantastical creations such as The First Book of Urizen (1794). We don’t need to know what his bank account looked like at the time, or where he happened to be living. The work can speak for itself without a nagging commentary dragging into the mundane.”
But we’ve had *that* exhibition — at the Tate, at the Ashmolean, at Petworth House. And if you’re reading Blake as escapist, you’re doing him wrong. What Tate has done — and I’m not entirely sure it is a great exhibition— is to show a whole lot of his prints, illustrated books and tempura in chronological order. You therefore have the opportunity to read and examine his poetical works in complete versions. If you are diligent, you can read the scratchy handwriting and admire the marginal illustrations in context.
This will take some time.
And longer given there’s some bloke taking some time to examine plate eight when you’ve looked at plate seven for all the details.
I was lucky enough to acquire facsimile editions of Milton, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and so on second hand, and I suspect they are easier to read. There’s not the buzz of the actual bits of paper as handled by Blake, but it’s a little less exhausting. There’s also the sense that you can be clear of the order — the prints are hung left to right, but some you approach from the end so I looked at The Pilgrim’s Progress and America in reverse order.
This isn’t literary criticism, so you won’t normally get the hint that when he is writing his poetry his history of the American or French Revolutions there’s probably the Matter of Britain (or at least of Albion) and a reengagement with the Bible via Milton, not to mention his own personal mythology which means that several of his slogans are in the mouths of not necessarily trustworthy character. His proverbs of hell, for example, are at the least ironic. If you don’t know who or what the four Zoas are, you won’t learn it here. My collected Blake volumes— Penguin and Oxford editions, which may also include most of the prose and marginalia, are several inches thick.
But you can get the sense of variant versions of plates, so that no two illustrated books are the same. The exhibition is a little vague on his revolutionary printing technique, whereas I think the Ashmoleon exhibition was clearer — and had a printer on display.
I think it’s useful to get a sense of what he was paid for each print, to get a sense of what the labour of engraving brought in and therefore to be clearer why his books were doomed to financial failure. On the other hand, when you read that £1 in 1800 is equivalent to £100 now and he got paid £1000 for that, was it actually a lot of money? The narrative I’m familiar with is that of the starving artist, but presumably it took a long time to design the book of Job. It is interesting to know his patrons and the circles he moved in, even if it cuts down his lone genius PR (which Munch may have followed).
The Earl and Countess of Egremont are an interesting couple — isn’t the Earl also part of the story of Turner — as Elizabeth Ilive was an amateur scientist, mother to eight of the Earl’s children, and only married to him 1801-1803. (He seems to have at least forty children and fifteen mistresses, so the Tate’s “unconventional relationship” is a little euphemistic.) Elizabeth commissioned a number of works, especially when Blake was living nearby. Meanwhile, Thomas Butts bought pictures and prints over thirty years: “a well paid civil servant, with a side-line as a coal merchant, and also ran a girl’s school.”
The way you do.
And then there’s the rival engravers, who are allowed to take Blake’s designs and scratch with different tools and produce different images as a result. This is why Blake is different and unique and transcends a frankly limited range of male and female shapes. It’s not a new display here, but compare his Canterbury Pilgrims to the other versions.
There are a score of works that are worth the admission on their own — the glorious Glad Day, the dozen or so tempura works that are all too rarely on display at the Clore Gallery in the Tate and the Ancient of Days I saw at the Whitworth thirty years ago. I will return to these.
The exhibition comes with a trigger warning:
Please be aware that the art of William Blake contains strong and sometimes challenging imagery, including some depictions of cruelty, suffering, sexual violence and the brutal treatment of enslaved people.
His slave engravings are troubling, but perhaps they are meant to be. You just have to read Songs of Innocence and Experience to learn of the chimney sweeper, the sex worker, the slave and so on, and there’s something a little special pleading about the Lamb.
If this is escapism, you are made clear what he is escaping from.