by Roderick Conway Morris

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Visionary, Artist and Poet

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 20 September 2019
British Museum, London
The Ancient of Days by William Blake, 1827



William Blake was a passionate believer in the renewal of English art and its potential powers to bring about political and social reform. Indeed, in another age he might have been described as 'avant-garde', a term first applied to the idea that artists could be in the vanguard of a social revolution by the French reformer Olinde Rodrigues, two years before Blake's death in 1827, but not widely used until later in the 19th century.

As things turned out, Blake was far too idiosyncratic to lead a movement of any kind. But his greatest works remain as fresh, arresting and revolutionary in their way as they were when he first gave life to them.

Some 300 of them are now on display at Tate Britain, the first major show of the artist's works for nearly twenty years, curated by Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon, which includes pretty well all the old favourites, along with some fascinating lesser-known pieces, such as a set of exquisite wood-engravings and a series of Illustrations for Bunyan's 'Pilgrim's Progress', the latter of particular interest because they seem certainly to have been coloured by the artist's wife Catherine, whose central role in Blake's output is currently being re-examined.

Blake spent almost his entire life, except for a three-year stay in Sussex, living and working within a twenty-minute walk of the house in central London, in Broad Street, Soho, where he was born in 1757. His draper father and family were sympathetic to his aspirations to become an artist and supported him for fifteen years until he became financially independent after a long apprenticeship as an engraver. During this time he also attended classes at the newly opened Royal Academy schools, where he received a thorough training in drawing and made life-long friends, some of whom became supporters and patrons.

Despite the wildly imaginative content of Blake's works, it was his hard-earned technical skills that gave his pieces their extraordinary texture and chromatic strength. As both painter and poet, he strove to find a method allowing him to print both words and images in colour from a single plate. Between 1778 and 1793 he invented a completely new technique called 'relief etching', which he described in mystical, alchemical terms as 'melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid'.

The details of this method have continued to baffle modern researchers. Among the first results of it were 'The Songs of Innocence' and 'The Songs of Experience'. The colouring of these illuminated books could be varied, making each one unique. William and Catherine, who was by now intimately involved in their production, went on to use the method to print large colour prints 'unaccompanied by writing'. However, the laboriousness of the process of producing these 'relief engravings' made them commercially unviable, leaving the Blakes with stock that was slow to sell.

As time went on Blake began to feel increasingly marginialized as an artist, despite the loyal support of a core group of collectors. But the last decade of his life saw a remarkable revival in his fortunes and in his spirits, after he met, in 1818, an ambitious young landscape painter John Linnell, who was market savvy but also shared Blake's arcane tendencies.

Linnell was a leading member of a group of young artists, who styled themselves the Ancients, among whom was the 19-year-old Samuel Palmer. Linnell secured Blake almost all his later commissions, and he himself commissioned the older artist to illustrate a number of scenes from Dante's 'Divine Comedy'. In Samuel Palmer Blake found perhaps his most direct artistic heir. Blake's 17 wood engravings for Robert John Thornton's 'The Pastorals of Virgil' (1821), a Latin textbook, contained, in Palmer's words, 'a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the innermost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world.'

The Ancients not only offered Blake admiration, friendship and financial support but inspired him to produce some of his finest works. His colouring, just before he died, of a frontispiece for his earlier prophetic book 'Europe a Prophecy', called 'The Ancient of Days', was his last work, which he described as 'the best I have ever finished'.

It was the Ancients above all who fostered the romantic image of Blake as a struggling, solitary, heroic genius - as 'a new kind of man, wholly original'. While earlier biographies had acknowledged the crucial part his wife Catherine played in his career, this view had the effect of diminishing Catherine's contribution, who continued to print her husband's books after his death. Given the recent scholarly reassessment of her role, it is surprising that Tate Britain's exhibition fails to give her more prominence.

Equally puzzling is that, although the artist's 'Milton: a poem in 2 books' is displayed in a glass case, it is not open at the page on which the words of Blake's poem 'Jerusalem' first appeared. Given that these verses have become almost an English national anthem and must be the most regularly sung poem in the English language, this seems perverse.

William Blake; Tate Britain; London; 11 September 2019 - 2 February 2020

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023