A new display at Tate Britain, William Blake’s 1809 Exhibition, brings together ten of the surviving works from the only solo show Blake mounted in his lifetime. This is the largest number from this group to be reunited since they were first shown together 200 years ago. Open from 20 April, the display includes the newly agreed loan The Canterbury Pilgrims 1808, Blake’s depiction of the characters from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Culture and Sport Glasgow have kindly loaned the work to Tate Britain for this restaging of the 1809 exhibition, on show as part of the BP British Art Displays.
The 1809 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. Held above his brother’s shop near Golden Square, Soho, it comprised 16 works in watercolour and tempera. It was not a critical success: only a single, negative review was published 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 even further from the public realm and become even more embittered about the state of the British art world.
The Tate display includes works from the Tate Collection alongside important loans from the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Culture and Sport Glasgow and the Southampton Art Gallery. Lost works are represented by blank panels, to convey the number and scale of the paintings in the original exhibition, alongside related works by Blake that depict similar subjects. By way of comparison, this display also includes more conventional oil and watercolour paintings from other exhibitions in London in 1809, including pictures by JMW Turner, in order to demonstrate the originality of Blake’s work.
The original exhibition was accompanied by a Descriptive Catalogue that Blake wrote himself, describing his practice and setting out his manifesto for a return to ‘the Grand style of art’. One of the few remaining copies is also on show as part of Tate Britain’s restaging, and a new edition has been published by Tate Publishing to coincide with the display, entitled Seen in My Visions. This catalogue is perhaps one of the most overlooked of Blake’s writings. Within it, 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.
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 achievements would one day be properly recognised and, in the early 1920s, Tate created the first ever gallery devoted to his work. To this day Blake’s work has been a popular feature of Tate Britain’s regularly changing displays, playing a significant role in shaping the extraordinary public reputation which Blake now enjoys.
Seen in My Visions: A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures is edited by Tate curator, Martin Myrone and published in hardback by Tate Publishing (price £12.99).