Visionary art in another time of turmoil

William Blake

Tate Britain, to 2 February 2020, £18

Reviewed by Manny Thain

Dramatic, moody and otherworldly. Just a few words to describe the work of William Blake, the subject of a major exhibition at Tate Britain. It is chronological, tracing Blake’s footsteps from his birth in 1757 to his death in 1827. Those were decades of revolution, war, disaster and plague, while the forces of the industrial revolution were being unleashed in capitalist Britain. It was a time of colossal change and upheaval.

William Blake was born into this maelstrom, the son of comfortably off shopkeepers in Broad Street, Soho. At the time, the area was the home of doctors, clergymen and high-end tradespeople, and Blake’s parents supported his passion for art by enrolling him as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1779.

There, Blake learnt about the Renaissance artists, although he soon began to develop his own distinct style, often looking further back to medieval Gothic styles. There was a clash between Blake’s aspiration – alongside his Royal Academy contemporary, Henry Fuseli, and others – that art should serve a greater (publicly funded) social purpose, and the increasingly commercialised art market.

The exhibition contains over 300 items of Blake’s work and his style is evident even in the early drawings and watercolours. Dating from the mid-1780s, they typically illustrate biblical stories, such as The Complaint of Job, with Blake’s signature facial and body forms instantly recognisable. Blake seems to have been a natural born rebel, rejecting the academy’s preferred oil paint and canvas in favour of experimental techniques. He associated with the more radical set of artists, poets and writers.

There was much to be radical about. The American war of independence raged from 1775 to 1783, a tumultuous background to Blake’s youth. The French revolution then took centre stage from 1789. Blake celebrated the American victory over British colonialism and identified with the struggle across the Channel. He loathed all kinds of oppression, denouncing slavery and other forms of brutality.

In 1782, William Blake married Catherine Boucher and she played a pivotal role assisting him, operating printing presses, colouring and finishing some of his works. Catherine also handled the business side, often in times of real hardship, no mean feat for someone who was illiterate when they met in 1781. Blake worked for several London publishers, so his illustrations appeared in a wide variety of publications from children’s books to scientific research papers, poetry and his own imaginative works.

He trained as a reproductive engraver, copying images by cutting fine lines onto metal plates from which prints were taken. Most of the time, Blake was able to earn enough money to get by although his frustration at the commercial jobs he had to do sometimes drove him to despair. He was innovative, inventing ‘relief etching’ around 1788. This enabled him to print in colour and to combine text and images. He used this technique on his books, in which he commented on important political and moral questions of the day.

This was when British capitalism was gearing up to, then engaging in, military conflict with revolutionary France. It was a time when revolutionaries and radicals were being rounded up. Yet it would be unwise to overstate the political effect of Blake’s work. America a Prophecy, for instance, was published in 1793 as an 18-page book – displayed at Tate Britain in separate sheets. In it, the main characters, such as Thomas Paine and George Washington, all feature and are lionised. But these books were not for mass consumption. They were exquisite, painstakingly designed and executed. They were expensive to buy.

Moreover, Blake’s language was very obscure. Of course, at times of heightened state repression, there would be every reason to exercise caution and be more circumspect. Blake’s mythical inventions, however, must have put them outside the understanding of most people, apart from a select few. Moreover, the fact that they were produced in such small numbers – the consequence of the long hours of labour required to produce them – would have minimised their influence.

Nonetheless, the 1790s saw Blake in a rich vein of form. One of the many things on show is the Small Book of Design, 1794. It is what it says it is, but these pictures – some around 5cm x 5cm or smaller – highlight a wide range of skills. Some are packed with detail, others consist of little blocks of colour, some are stark, but all are rich and deep. Remarkable.

Blake’s well-known Songs of Innocence (1789), Songs of Experience (1793) – published together in 1794 – and his Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1795) are archetypal Blake. Again in 1795, Blake produced experimental monotype prints, enriched with ink and watercolour. Nebuchadnezzar, from the Old Testament Book of Daniel, crawls on all fours. Newton bends over paper, calculating angles.

Blake’s attitude to science is both interesting and contradictory. Clearly someone keen to experiment and develop new techniques, he profoundly distrusted scientific investigation. For him it represented a threat to the freedom of thought, imagination and creativity.

It is a dilemma rooted in the eighteenth century, particularly acute in Britain. From the English revolution of the mid-seventeenth century, land began to be enclosed, ending poor people’s right to access common land to the benefit of wealthy landowners. It was the start of a process enforcing and reinforcing capitalism in the agrarian economy. This accelerated at breakneck speed from 1750 to 1860 with a series of enclosure acts.

Hundreds of thousands of people were driven off the land and into the cities where they provided a workforce – in what Blake called ‘dark satanic mills’ – economically conscripted into gigantic, soulless factories. In addition, torn away from their ability to provide for themselves and their families – alienated from the means of production – they had no choice but to become a new mass market for cheap commodities.

Society was reeling from the devastating changes wrought by rising capitalism. Such turmoil inevitably led to questioning the direction society was heading in, and to radicalisation in all kinds of directions. After all, what was taking place had never happened before. It is also possible to see echoes of Blake’s sensibilities in the Pre-Raphaelites from 1848 and in the Arts and Crafts movement’s fear of the consequences of industrialisation from 1880.

After a few years in Sussex under the patronage of the wealthy poet, William Hayley, William and Catherine returned to London in 1803, where they struggled. Blake repeatedly fell out with the people who commissioned him and, in 1808, he was bitterly disappointed that he was not given the job of engraving his designs for Robert Blair’s poem, The Grave. He also broke up with the publisher, Robert Cromek, who Blake accused of stealing his ideas for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In 1809, Blake organised a one-man exhibition back in Broad Street, above the family business then run by his brother. Tate Britain includes a mock-up of the room. Although his own show was small, Blake’s ambitions were huge – so big, they appear delusional. Claiming inspiration from ancient Egypt, India and Persia, Blake called for his paintings of Admiral Nelson and William Pitt, the prime minister, to be reproduced on a similarly gigantic scale. The exhibition was a failure, however, its only reviewer denouncing Blake as “an unfortunate lunatic”. Several years of obscurity and despair followed.

Despite the setbacks, Blake’s fortunes were about to change. From 1818, he met up with younger artists – John Linnell, Samuel Palmer and John Varley – who formed a kind of fan club known as the Ancients. Boosted by their financial and moral support, the last ten years of Blake’s life saw his creativity rekindled.

In 1820, he finally completed the long-postponed illustrated poem Jerusalem, and he produced 102 illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy, although the work remained unfinished – and much else besides. The Ancients revived Blake’s reputation and laid the foundation for how he would be viewed after his death.

Tate Britain’s exhibition provides a fascinating look into the immense output of this original, influential and enigmatic artist, and the dynamic forces that helped to shape him.