In April 2009, Tate Britain will unveil the first display devoted to William Blake’s only one-man exhibition, reuniting nine of the surviving works two hundred years after they went on display in May 1809. The original exhibition was Blake’s most significant attempt to create a public reputation for himself as a painter and provided a vital insight into the artist’s self-image and ambitions. A new edition of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue (1809) will be published by Tate Publishing to coincide with the display.
Held in Blake’s brother’s shop on Golden Square, Soho, the exhibition comprised 16 works. It was not a critical success: only a single, negative review was published in the press, and the show was very poorly attended, to the artist’s profound dismay. It proved to be a turning-point in Blake’s life, leading him to withdraw yet more fully from the public realm and become even more embittered about the state of the British art world.
The Tate display will include works from the Tate Collection along with important loans from the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum, and Southampton Art Gallery. The display will highlight Blake’s distinctive use of watercolour and tempera, which he called ‘fresco painting’ in imitation of the great painters of the Renaissance. For example, the watercolour The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ’s Garments 1800 will be displayed alongside tempera paintings such as Satan Calling up his Legions 1795-1800. The display will also include a number of related works by Blake, and more conventional paintings in oil colours and watercolour exhibited in other exhibitions in London in 1809 - including pictures by JMW Turner.
Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue (1809) is one of the most sustained and lucid commentaries on his aspirations as an artist, his symbolism, and on art and the art world. Tate Publishing will be publishing a new edition of this important work, which will make available to the general reader for the first time this key text by one of the best-loved and most intensively studied of British artists. Significantly, this will incorporate full-colour illustrations of the works surviving from the original exhibition now to be seen alongside Blake’s text.
In this catalogue Blake directly addresses widely relevant questions about art history and aesthetic value, technique and commerce in art, displaying ferocious wit, insight and an extraordinary sense of creative ambition. The Descriptive Catalogue is perhaps one of the most overlooked of Blake’s writings.
William Blake (1757-1827) was a poet, printmaker, visionary and artist whose work was both profoundly personal and universal. Overlooked by many of his contemporaries, Blake was always certain that his achievement as artist, poet, prophet and visionary, would one day be properly recognised and, in the early 1920s, Tate created the first ever gallery devoted to his work. To this day a designated Blake gallery, with regularly changing displays, is a permanent feature at Tate Britain, playing a significant role in shaping the extraordinary public reputation which Blake now enjoys.
Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue with illustrations is edited by Tate curator, Martin Myrone and published in hardback by Tate Publishing (price £12.99)
The display is part of the BP British Art Displays and admission is free. It opens on 20 April and will run until 4 October 2009.
Notes to Editor
BP British Art Displays 1500-2009 is supported by BP. BP has supported Collection Displays at Millbank since 1990, first at the Tate Gallery and then from the opening of Tate Britain in 2000 to the present. BP's continued support, which was recently extended until 2012, allows Tate Britain to create a broad and dynamic displays programme which explores in depth British art from 1500 to the present.
The following works were in the original exhibition and will go on display at Tate:
The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan circa 1805-9Tempera on canvas
The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth 1805Tempera heightened with gold on canvas
The Bard, from Gray 1809Tempera heightened with gold on canvas
The Penance of Jane Shore in St Paul's Church 1793Pen and ink and watercolour finished with size on paper
Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels 1805Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour on paperLent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Satan Calling up his Legions 1795-1800Tempera on canvasLent by the Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Ruth Parting from Naomi 1803Wash, pencil, and coloured chalk on paperLent by Southampton City Art Gallery
Jacob's Ladder 1799-1806Pen and grey ink and watercolour on paperLent by The British Museum
The Soldiers Casting Lots for Christ's Garments 1800Pen, Indian ink, grey wash and watercolour on paperLent by the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge