This article explores why William Blake’s solo exhibition of 1809 has been such an important source for understanding his attitude towards past art by locating the show within London’s rapidly expanding culture of Old Master displays. Blake’s exhibition is revealed as a carefully choreographed riposte to shifts in the consumption of art in the capital.

William Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue for his solo exhibition of 1809 regularly features as a major source within investigations into his attitude towards the art of the past.1 This essay seeks to explain why, by locating the show within the context of London’s recently established and rapidly expanding culture of Old Master displays, which provided an impetus for and helped shape Blake’s 1809 endeavour. Resituating Blake’s exhibition not as an anomaly, or an ill-advised vanity project, but as a carefully choreographed riposte to a series of shifts in the consumption of art in the capital helps provide a basis for analysing the nature of both the display and the catalogue that accompanied it. Furthermore, what can often seem to be idiosyncratic and somewhat extreme views expressed by Blake on the debilitating influence of past masters can be shown to bear close relation to broader currents of contemporary thought. In fact, much of Blake’s invective in the Descriptive Catalogue could be described as giving voice to fears shared by most artists of his generation, brought on by a sudden influx of Old Master paintings from the Continent following the French Revolution. In tracing the history of these events, it is possible to see that in staging a one-man show at this particular historical moment, far from isolating himself, Blake was attempting to insert himself into an emerging discourse of the British School.

Fears concerning the weight of history and anxieties about originality are, of course, age old and eternal. As the art historian Norman Bryson has written:

For the artist who is obliged by a stylistic consensus (such as that of Neo-Classicism) to imitate the art of the past, or who perceives his place in a tradition as one of latecoming, or both, tradition can assume a less beneficent guise; one that threatens his self-definition as a painter, that is, as one who gives to the world what the world never saw before … Though the viewer who loves painting will properly seek to be flooded by the images of the past, if the painter yields to the same desire he risks disaster, for in that flood his own images may drown.2

This description echoes Blake’s reference in the Descriptive Catalogue to those ‘Venetian and Flemish Demons’ who ‘put the original Artist in fear and doubt of his own original conception’.3

Originality for Blake, however, is not necessarily synonymous with ‘what the world never saw before’. While Morris Eaves has argued that Blake promoted originality as a form of independence, a ‘perfect integrity of personality’, John Barrell has figured Blake’s use of the term as a means of establishing continuity, by looking to an ‘original’ (Asian) source, to founding principles which may be shared by all artists (two definitions that are by no means mutually exclusive).4 This paper does not aim to resolve these complexities, but to situate Blake’s concern with creative independence within a set of specific historical circumstances, revealing the 1809 event as a means of expressing and managing an unease about his own originality at a moment when quickly shifting market and exhibition activities were crystallising and catalysing generalised anxieties of the type described above by Bryson.

During the early years of Blake’s career, London’s cultural life had been limited, in terms of visual art, to a programme of a few commercial contemporary displays, at the centre of which sat the Royal Academy summer exhibition, and a few Old Master dealers’ rooms filled with the dregs that had remained unsold on the continent. This all changed during the 1790s, when Napoleon’s armies marched through Europe, looting art works, or demanding impossible levies against property. Rather than have their prized possessions paraded through French crowds to the Louvre, to the chant of ‘Rome is no longer in Rome, it is all in Paris’,5 churches, palaces and private galleries across the continent were stripped of celebrated paintings, which were then sold to opportunistic British agents and dealers for a song.6 By the beginning of the nineteenth century the city had witnessed the arrival of pictures from all the best known French and Italian collections, including such major works as Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne and Ruben’s Brazen Serpent (both National Gallery, London).

The new imports did not simply feed a demanding consumer base. As dealers quickly got wise to the commercial potential of these changing circumstances, London audiences were invited to buy tickets to a series of temporary Old Master exhibitions. Amid the great excitement that these new arrivals predictably generated, however, there arose among British artists a sense of some disquiet. It had long been accepted that British art fell far short of the standards achieved across the channel, but while some commentators saw in the new imports a source of improvement for young artists, glibly claiming that with their arrival ‘England … is become a school of painting rivalled only by Italy herself’,7 for painters the situation was far more complicated. Not only did the broad accessibility of Old Master works compound an existing sense of the inferiority of the British School in relation to continental art, but the staggering prices fetched by the new commodities were felt to pose a serious threat to the livelihoods of living artists.8

Referring to comments in the Public Address from around 1809–10, John Barrell has argued that Blake took a characteristically negative view of these proceedings. But while Barrell has suggested that Blake’s reference to the ‘Rubbish of the Continent brought here by ignorant Picture dealers’ seems to echo the painter James Barry’s description of the London art market as a ‘common cloaca and sink, through which all the refuse and filth of Europe is emptied’,9 this is to gloss over substantial differences between the circumstances of the two authors. Barry’s remark was made in the 1770s, when London was the last resort of dealers left with second-rate works that had not sold abroad. Blake’s Public Address, on the other hand, was written following more than fifteen years of major sales and exhibitions of first-class pictures from across the Channel.

Blake’s ‘Rubbish’, therefore, does not necessarily signify the relative quality of the works being bought and sold, but rather his feelings towards the market in Old Masters per se.Furthermore, his claim that Englishmen were proving good judges by showing contempt for this rubbish, testifies to his close engagement with this new era of exchange. Having initially received the imports with great enthusiasm, from around 1800, and particularly between 1810 and 1815, buyers in London became more financially cautious, as the war dragged on and taxes rose, and the market faltered, with many works now considered masterpieces being bought in for low prices or failing to sell at all.10 This is not to say, though, that the threat of the Old Masters was abated. By this point the anxieties of British painters had already been raised to fever pitch by a run of blockbuster Old Master shows.

In 1793 Blake and his contemporaries would have been alerted to a new field of competition in the capital by an event of extreme political, as well as artistic, significance, since one of the first victims of the Revolution was the paintings collection housed at the Palais Royale in Paris. These works were of the highest calibre, and before hostilities with France had prevented travel abroad, they had been a star attraction on the Grand Tour. In 1793, however, the Northern paintings from the Palais arrived in London, having been sold by their owner, the Duke of Orleans, in a bid to raise money to fund a campaign for the throne. The British press gleefully reported that Rubens’s celebrated Judgement of Paris was on offer for 3,500 guineas, and that The Cradle by Rembrandt was bought by the famous connoisseur Richard Payne Knight for the extraordinary sum of 3,000 guineas.11 These works, though, were not immediately despatched to their new owners. For three months, the whole group of paintings was displayed at the Great Rooms in Pall Mall, rooms that had, until recently, been the home of the Royal Academy. The choice of venue was particularly apposite, as this was one of the first Old Master exhibitions in London, and as such posed a new challenge to the academy’s monopoly of the London art world.12

Morton Paley has proposed that Blake, distracted by the various projects he was working on during the 1790s, would have been too busy to pay much attention to this exhibition.13 Certainly we have no record of any direct comments from Blake upon the event, but I believe nonetheless that it is possible to find evidence from this time of the artist responding to an increased sense of competition on the public stage of his home city. The rooms where the Orleans works now hung had not only once housed the Royal Academy exhibitions, but had, until the previous year, been the home of the major commercial enterprise, Macklin’s Poet’s Gallery. Furthermore, they sat among a number of other sites, including Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery and Bowyer’s Historic Gallery, that would have been familiar to Blake – not only had he produced prints for Macklin in the past but he was soon to engrave Fuseli’s Shakespearean images for Boydell – so that the arrival of a blockbuster Old Master exhibition among them could hardly have passed him by unnoticed. With this in mind, the advertisement of his works towards the end of the same year in his Prospectus (10 October 1793) suggests that he was thinking tactically, not only about maintaining a public profile following the Orleans display, but about capitalising on a potential drop in contemporary competition on the print market (presumably Macklin’s works were removed from display during the run of the Orleans show, which must have overshadowed any modern exhibitions).

A few years later, in 1799, British artists faced an even larger threat when the Italian works from the Orleans collection arrived in town, and were exhibited in a similar manner for an even longer period. Pictures such as Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne were hung in not one but two sites – the Pall Mall show room of the dealer Michael Bryan (who organised their sale) and the Lyceum theatre, almost directly opposite the  Royal Academy on the Strand – for a full seven months. In an attempt to prove the benefit of such exhibitions for British artists, and as a demonstration of patriotic fervour, the syndicate responsible for importing the works allowed Royal Academicians free access to the rooms.14 In the absence of a painting collection at the academy itself, this provided a useful makeshift seminary. But it also gave rise to increased professional anxiety, and some artists tried to proclaim their cultural authority by throwing into question the received wisdom of the collection’s quality; James Barry, for example, made a habit of lingering in the exhibitions, where he would ‘in the loudest manner and without reserve criticise the pictures’.15 Paradoxically, however, it was also Barry who tried to persuade the RA to buy a number of the Orleans works, evidence of the contradictory attitudes of artists towards these exhibits.16

For Blake, the abundance of Venetian works on display at the Orleans sale, in particular the large canvases by Titian that held centre stage, was unlikely to prove a great attraction. But the model of the exhibition and the catalogue offer useful material for considering the possible appearance of Blake’s own solo exhibition. A drawing by Joseph Farington RA (1747–1821) made on blank sheets in his catalogue for the exhibition of the Orleans Italian works in 1799 records their arrangement on the walls of the Lyceum Theatre, which served at the time as a provisional gallery. Farington made a series of these plans, all demonstrating that at the centre of each wall was a key work (in one case Velasquez’s, Finding of Moses, in another, Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus) with ancillary pictures arranged symmetrically around it, and indicating that the numbering of works in the catalogue loosely corresponded to the visitors’ course about the rooms, a practice that was to become increasingly common during the early years of the nineteenth century.17 Assuming Blake adopted such a strategy, the huge Ancient Britons, now missing, would have been positioned more or less at the centre of the hang, with what might be termed the historical British subjects seen first and grouped together (The Spiritual Form of Pitt, fig.1; The Spiritual Form of Nelson; The Canterbury Pilgrims; and The Bard, fig.2), and later the so-called experimental works (such as The Goats) and Biblical subjects.

William Blake, 'The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth' ?1805
Fig.1
William Blake
The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth ?1805

William Blake, 'The Bard, from Gray' ?1809
Fig.2
William Blake
The Bard, from Gray ?1809

A precise arrangement of this sort shows evidence of curatorial vision, an attempt to marshal the pictures into some visual (or theoretical) system. This in turn would help to prevent the rooms from looking like a jumbled market stall (a likely motivation for carefully arranging the Orleans Italian works, most of which were thick with dirt and unframed). What Blake does not appear to have done, however, is to have offered the viewer any chronology of his practice or development as an artist. Instead, he places at the end of the catalogue (and possibly therefore of the show) his earliest work, The Penance of Jane Shore (fig.3), which he claimed would ‘prove to any discerning eye, that the productions of our youth and of our maturer age are equal in all essential points’.18 Read in the context of contemporaneous exhibition practice, the significance of this decision may stretch beyond a simple insistence upon the integrity and cohesion of the individual artist throughout his life.

William Blake, 'The Penance of Jane Shore in St Paul's Church' circa 1793
Fig.3
William Blake
The Penance of Jane Shore in St Paul's Church circa 1793

Since the middle of the eighteenth century, museums across the continent had started to order their collections by national school and chronology, with the stated aim of providing audiences with a didactic art historical resource.19 When British visitors flocked to the newly established Musée du Louvre, for example, during a brief cessation of hostilities between Britain and France in 1802, they were greeted by a whole visual history of European art, laid out in a carefully structured display. This was to have a marked impact upon private collections, and (later) public galleries, in London, as calls for just such a didactic resource were fuelled by the sight of so many Old Master works flooding into the country only to end up sequestered in country piles and town houses.20

For Blake, who believed in ‘wonderful originals’ from the ‘ancient republics of Asia’, of which later (European) painting was merely a pale imitation, such a reductive developmental model was anathema.21 It is no surprise, then, that it should be rejected in his own ‘museum’, which served to exhibit the fullest possible range of his work, without insisting on any history of improvement. In deciding not to adopt this fashionable mode of display, Blake effectively undermined a growing tendency towards progressive narratives of art history, whereby each successive stage is figured as so much source material for later artists, who might then absorb and refine it.22

In gathering together old and new works indiscriminately, Blake also detached himself from the (heavily criticised) culture of novelty and brief celebrity nurtured by the Royal Academy Summer exhibitions. The visitor was thereby invited to consider Blake’s entire oeuvre as a coherent totality, rather than a series of responses to fads or public demands. Blake’s stipulation that all the works should ‘remain in the Exhibition till its close’, even when sold seems to have been aimed at fostering this type of viewership.23 It is also powerfully reminiscent of, if not in fact directly inspired by, the catalogues to the Orleans shows, where visitors were reassured that purchased works could not be removed until the end of the run, thus guaranteeing the complete spectacle for the full duration of the show.24 This was, at that time, a novel strategy, and one that heralded what was to become the speedy development of commercial displays into a form of curated exhibition.

But while Blake was astute enough to insist upon the integrity of his exhibition, his financial acumen was perhaps less keen. In all probability taking a lead from recent events, Blake charged entrance to his exhibition at half a crown. Such a fee was not unprecedented – the Orleans Italian works had been accessible by the same amount, as had paintings that were once in the possession of Alexandre de Calonne, displayed at Spring Gardens in 1794 – but even at these grand displays audiences had balked at the price. After three months, the organisers of the Orleans sale were forced to reduce the charge to the traditional shilling,25 while the committee responsible for the Calonne collection were criticised ‘for not permitting admittance to the Rooms at One Shilling each person, as at most other places where Pictures are to be seen’.26 Demanding such a fee to view sixteen works by a single living artist could signal extreme self-confidence or extreme naiveté, but it may equally indicate that Blake never intended to solicit numerous visitors, just a limited ‘few’, prepared to make an investment to form his ‘fit audience’.27 The price, furthermore, was more than double that charged for entry to the exhibition traditionally thought to have had the most marked impact upon Blake, that of the works belonging to Count Truchsess, displayed as the Truchsessian Gallery from 1803 to 1806.

In 1802 Count Truchsess published a proposal calling for the government to invest in his pictures – then housed in Austria – in order to lay the foundations for ‘a regular Gallery of paintings … affording to the artist and amateur, desirous of instruction, the means of making themselves acquainted with all the Schools of Painting, by a complete a series as possible of the works of their successive masters’.28 In 1803, however, when the works were displayed in London as the Truchsessian Gallery, they were widely denounced as being vastly over-valued. Royal Academicians, who had been especially invited to view the collection by Truchsess, were particularly critical. ‘I felt much concern on seeing so many works of inferior quality’, recorded Farington,29 while Thomas Lawrence thought the entire collection not worth above £2,000 with ‘scarcely an original picture of a Great Master among them’.30 Blake’s own response recorded in a letter to William Hayley has, in marked contrast, been posited as one of almost unrestrained delight: ‘Suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truschsessian Gallery of Pictures, I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years has been closed to me as by a door and by window-shutters’.31

Morton Paley has located this reaction as part of a ‘series of implosions that drove Blake to rediscover the authentic source of his art’, among which he also counts Blake’s inspirational encounter with the work of Milton in 1802. Recognising the lukewarm responses of Blake’s contemporaries to the Truchsess collection, Paley defends the artist’s declaration using two rationales. Firstly, acknowledging that most of Truchsess’s  works were not originals, Paley argues that even copies would be extremely exciting for an artist whose sources had previously been limited to black and white prints. Secondly, in answer to the problem that a large number of the artists represented in the Truchsess collection were those most severely criticised by Blake (Rembrandt and Rubens for example), Paley then proposes that while the (copy of) Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, and Dürer’s (original) Madonna and Child would have been of interest to the artist, other paintings would have influenced Blake ‘in a contrary way’, or served as a ‘stimulus of antagonism’.32 In order to support this assertion, Paley lists paintings shown at the Gallery that were of subjects also tackled by Blake around 1804 or later, such as Rubens’s Conversion of St Paul, and Rembrandt’s Christ and Mary Magdalene. This is used as evidence that the pictures had a marked impact on the direction of Blake’s practice, despite their stylistic differences.

Paley’s fascinating, and pioneering, commentary rests on two assumptions. Firstly, that Blake had never before seen a large display of such paintings, and secondly that his ‘enlightenment’ was in fact a direct result of a close engagement with the pictures in the Truchsess collection. Even accepting the former of these eventualities (which seems highly unlikely), the fact that Blake describes his epiphany of sorts as having taken place the day after his visit indicates a less than immediate connection between the two events. Indeed, rather than recording an inspired response to the works he saw there, it is my contention that the delay Blake introduces into his letter, itself probably written some time after his visit to the gallery, suggests that it was in fact a sense of independence from the artists represented there – an acute sense of freedom from the past – that formed the foundation of the artist’s renewed sense of optimism.

This is substantiated by other passages in the same letter, specifically the sentence preceding the one usually quoted. ‘O lovely Felpham, parent of Immortal Friendship’, Blake writes, ‘to thee I am eternally indebted for my three years rest from perturbation, and the strength I now enjoy’. Here Blake appears to ascribe his new vitality not to any encounter with the works of the Old Masters, but to his refuge from the stimuli of the metropolis. Everything about the tenor of the rest of the letter – Blake’s claim that he is ‘drunk with intellectual vision’, exclaiming ‘I thank God that courageously pursued my path through darkness’ and stating ‘I am now satisfied and proud of my work’ – substantiates this notion of a newly (re)discovered sense of autonomy, rather than an expression of awe at what he saw in the eight rooms of the Truchsess Gallery.

Paley, in fact, points towards such a conclusion, not only in his mention of the ‘authentic sources’ of Blake’s art, but in his description of an ‘eclectic middle period’ of Blake’s practice, during which the artist struggled to assimilate a huge range of styles, including those of Titian and Rubens (whose disabling influence he was later to denounce in such powerful terms in the Descriptive Catalogue).33 The expression of relief within Blake’s letter would seem to emerge from his sense that he had now escaped these prohibitive forces, and could resume work on his own terms. This reading also helps towards understanding the particular relevance and timing of Blake’s solo project, as an effort to assert parity and independence in the face of what must have seemed like a foreign invasion.

It would be misleading, though, to construe this effort as merely one man’s noble struggle, a lone voice in the wilderness. Despite its monographic nature – or perhaps even because of it – the exhibition (and the catalogue) can be related to broader attempts being made at the time to galvanise the British School in the face of the new arrivals from the continent. Since the first influx of the 1790s, rivers of ink had been spilt in the struggle to identify a British aesthetic, to establish some sort of national artistic identity that might stand a chance of competing against the great continental European traditions. Although outside the established systems for displaying contemporary art in London, Blake’s show can be understood as a part of these efforts to determine a theory of British art. For what emerged in the various attempts to define a British School at this date, was the acceptance that such a thing could only exist as a paradox, that the only quality writers felt able to posit as characteristically British was the quality of being resolutely individual. As James Dallaway wrote in his  Anecdotes on the Arts (1800), ‘it might be difficult to assign the English School … any perfect discrimination as each painter implicitly follows his own genius, or attaches himself to that particular manner of the foreign schools which approaches nearest to his own ideas of excellence’.34

Attitudes such as these had grown out of the eighteenth-century writings of the philosopher David Hume (1711–1776) who, as David Simpson has put it, proposed the ‘ingenious argument that the very lack of a national character was the concomitant of Englishness’.35 By staging a one-man exhibition, therefore, Blake was not necessarily divorcing himself from other British artists, but could be seen to have been making an implicit claim upon a certain type of nationalised identity. Indeed, this is corroborated by a statement made the following year; ‘Resentment for Personal Injuries has had some share in this Public Address But Love to My Art & Zeal for my Country a much Greater.’36 Recognising the influence of his private interests, Blake nevertheless saw his endeavour as serving a greater good for art and, more particularly, for British culture.

This is not to say that Blake was interested in practising a blind patriotism in favour of his fellow artists. In comparing his exhibition with others, Blake charged both Old Master and contemporary displays with the same failing; ‘When you view a collection of Pictures painted since Venetian art was the fashion or go into a Modern Exhibition with a Very few Exceptions Every Picture has the same Effect’, he argued. While ‘[t]heir Effects are in every Picture the same’, Blake argues,  ‘Mine are in Every Picture different’.37 But even in this criticism, Blake employs the same notions of range and variety that had become buzzwords in promoting British art. His conclusions may have been different (that all the works of British artists look the same) but the codes of his judgement (the value placed upon diversity, even within the oeuvre of a single artist) were the same as those employed by the champions of British painters. These principles helped to explain (or perhaps excuse?) the seemingly incoherent selection of works shown at Golden Square, but they also fitted neatly into broader trends of thought concerning the character of British art.

Furthermore, Blake’s diatribes in the Descriptive Catalogue against those ‘Venetian and Flemish Demons’, which can read as excessive even unbalanced criticism, correspond closely with contemporary fears concerning the direction of British painting.38 It seems, far from being out of touch with reality, Blake was acutely conscious of the shape of the market, which was being driven by a growing fad among British collectors for the Venetian colourists. As the ubiquitous (and unscrupulous) dealer William Buchanan wrote in letters to his agent in Italy in 1803, ‘lively and pleasing compositions’ full of ‘bravura and breadth of light’ were (perhaps understandably) preferred by collectors, over ‘brown, dark pictures of saints and the like’.39 Blake must have found this state of affairs particularly infuriating , for ‘a man who has got any brains’, he argued, would ‘never buy a Picture by the colour’.40

And Blake was not alone in this opinion. John Britton – a prominent author on British art and champion of the national school – complained of the rage among collectors for the Venetian School, which he said ‘sought fame and fortune in substituting tinsel for gold, shadow for substance, and affectation for reality. It is to be regretted’ he continued, ‘that the English School has followed this model rather more than the Roman; but here we find an apology for its error in the caprice and vanity of the public. The artist as well as the actor, is obliged to acknowledge the axiom of ‘he that lives to please must please to live’’.41 Or, as Blake put it in his catalogue, the Artist is tormented ‘till he leaves the Florentine, and adopts the Venetian practice’.42

Blake’s invective against the Venetian colourists, then, may have been less idiosyncratic than it first appears. Nor was he the only one to doubt the merits of Rubens – that ‘most outrageous demon’ who ‘hinders all power of individual thought: so that the man who is possessed by this demon loses all admiration of any other artist’. In 1807, the Director, a conservative journal, reviewed James Ward’s Phaeton hurled from the chariot of the sun, which was exhibited that year at the British Institution. Ward was accused in the article of keeping his eye ‘too much upon Rubens’, as his picture, the journalist complained, was ‘very gorgeous’ (not intended as a compliment in this instance).43 And just as Blake complained in his catalogue that Venetian and Flemish practice was all ‘broken lines, broken masses and broken colours’, that their art was to ‘lose form, while his art is to find form and to keep it’, many commentators found what was termed the ‘sloven style’ of recent British art cause for concern.44

Doubts about the value of current British art had, of course, been exacerbated by the new atmosphere of comparison and competition generated by the newly imported Old Master works, and a particular locus for these concerns was the British Institution. This body was set up ostensibly to encourage British artists by staging an annual commercial display of their works, offering prizes in various categories, and – most significantly – by gathering loans of Old Master works from private collectors in order to provide a so–called ‘school’ each year, at which young artists might study closely the art of the past. So well recognised, though, were the fears that living painters harboured concerning the increasing visibility of foreign works in London, that the directors of the BI were moved to publish some words of comfort in the 1811 exhibition catalogue. They claimed they could ‘discover no reason why British artists should dread a competition with any Modern School, however they may shrink from the invidious comparison so frequently and unfairly made, between a Selection of the finest pictures produced during two brilliant centuries, by all the first Painters of Europe, with the ANNUAL exhibition of the Metropolis’.45 Just a year earlier, Blake appears to have pre-empted these sentiments with a combative statement: ‘I do not shrink from the Comparison in Either Relief or Strength of Colour with either Rembrandt or Rubens on the Contrary I court the Comparison & fear not the Result.’46

George Dawe, 'Imogen Found in the Cave of Belarius' exhibited 1809
Fig.4
George Dawe
Imogen Found in the Cave of Belarius exhibited 1809

The Directors’ declaration, however, was somewhat disingenuous, as they more than anyone were responsible for propagating just such comparisons and, moreover, for encouraging artists to introduce direct references to the art of the past in their work. In the year of Blake’s exhibition, for instance, the history painting premium was won by George Dawe for his Imogen at the cave of Belarius(fig.4). This image drew explicitly from Old Master sources – or rather one source in particular, Carracci’s Dead Christ Mourned (National Gallery, London), a picture that had been shown at the Orleans exhibition of 1798, with the figure of Christ acting as the template for that of Dawe’s Imogen. Against such overt championing of imitation and emulation, Blake must have felt his fight for originality, by any definition, was under serious attack. 

The growing market in Old Master works in London, and its impact upon attitudes towards British art can, then, help to explain the preoccupation with the threat of the past apparent in Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue. They are also vital in understanding the failure of the exhibition – which took place in an overcrowded, competitive field, against displays of the time-sanctioned works by the most revered European masters – and the critical agenda of the project. Spurred by the changing market and exhibition culture in London, Blake’s activities in 1809 emerge as a project to challenge prevailing taste, and to propose the individual British artist as a valid contender in the new field of artistic consumption in the city. In his catalogue, Blake warned that the ‘memory of Pictures of the various Schools’ might possess the Artist’s mind, so that they would lose their identity  ‘like speaking or looking in another man’s style and manner, unappropriate and repugnant to your own individual character’. In so doing, and in taking the courageous step of launching his own solo exhibition in a city increasingly filled with rich and varied Old Master displays, he was not only defending his own practice, but issuing a challenge to his generation, calling upon them to discover their own visual language, with which, as he put it, they might ultimately conquer.47

  • 1. See for example Morton D. Paley, ‘Blake’s Poem on Art and Artists’ in Sarah Haggarty and Jon Mee (eds.), Blake and Conflict, Basingstoke and London 2009, pp.210–27. Morris Eaves, William Blake’s Theory of Art, New Jersey 1982, pp.37-8 and John Barrell, The Political Theory of Painting From Reynolds to Hazlitt, New Haven and London 1986, p.245.
  • 2. Norman Bryson, Tradition and Desire: from David to Delacroix, Cambridge 1984, p.4.
  • 3. Blake’s ‘Descriptive Catalogue’ in William Blake, The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. by David Erdman, Los Angeles and London 2008, p.547. Hereafter cited as ‘Erdman’ with the page reference.
  • 4. Eaves, William Blake’s Theory of Art, pp.72–9, especially p.77. Barrell, Political Theory, p.227.
  • 5. Quoted in Entrée triumphant des sciences et des arts, 9 thermidor an VI (27 July 1798).
  • 6. For details of this flood, and its impact upon British collections, see Francis Haskell, Rediscoveries in Art: Some Aspects of Taste, Fashion and Collecting in England and France, London 1976, p.124.
  • 7. James Dallaway. Anecdotes of the Arts in England; or, Comparative Remarks on Architecture, Sculpture, and Painting, Chiefly Illustrated by Specimens at Oxford, London 1800, p.519.
  • 8. As Morris Eaves has noted ‘inferiority is a stock topic in the discourse about English art well into the nineteenth century’, see Eaves, The Counter-Arts Conspiracy; Art and Industry in the Age of Blake, Ithaca and London 1992, p.4.
  • 9. Blake’s ‘Public Address’ in Erdman, p.581. James Barry, The Works of James Barry, Esq. Historical Painter, ed. by Dr Edward Fryer, 2 vols., London 1809, vol.2, p.217.
  • 10. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, sales began to wane. The innovative, and previously highly successful dealer, Michael Bryan, responsible for the sale of the Orleans Italian works, was forced to declare himself bankrupt, while works such as Rubens’s Brazen Serpent, now considered a major part of the collection of the National Gallery, London, were left unsold. In this instance the seller almost resorted to staging a lottery for the painting, which was bought, finally, for a low price by the ubiquitous William Buchanan, see Hugh Brigstocke, William Buchanan and the Nineteenth Century Art Trade: 100 Letters to his Agents in London and Italy, New Haven 1982, pp.7–8. For more information on these trends see George Redford, Art Sales: A History of Sales of Pictures and Other Works of Art, London 1888, vol.2, p.xxv.
  • 11. True Briton, 2 May 1793 and Morning Chronicle, 5 April 1793.
  • 12. The organiser of the sale, John Wilson, capitalised fully upon this connection, making much of it in the exhibition catalogue and in press advertisements; see the front page of The Orleans Gallery Now Exhibiting at the Great Rooms Late the Royal Academy, April 1793 and, for example, The Times, 20 May 1793, and Morning Chronicle, 3 April 1793.
  • 13. Paley, ‘Blake’s Poems on Art and Artists’ pp.210–11. Paley also argues convincingly that Blake was yet to form his negative opinion of Rubens and Rembrandt, and may well have looked favourably on the works displayed here, a notion suggested by Blake’s later warning against the temptation of such colouristic art. See William Blake, ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures’, Erdman, p.547.
  • 14. Artists received and made use of these tickets, but were offended that they came issued from a dealer, rather than the noble syndicate who had backed the sale. See Kenneth Garlick and Angus MacIntyre (eds.), The Diary of Joseph Farington, vol.4, p.1132 (11 January 1799), New Haven and London 1983; hereafter cited as ‘Farington’.
  • 15. Farington, vol.4, p.1127 (3 January 1799). Lord Gower entering the room to see his pictures ‘received intimation … how Barry was going on’ and retired. Barry is recorded as acting in a similar manner, ibid., p.1258 (29 July 1799).
  • 16. James Barry, A Letter to the Dilettanti Society, London 1799, Appendix, p.229. Barry described the exhibition of the works as a ‘happy opportunity’ for assisting their studies.
  • 17. Troy Patenaude notes that this was common practice, and also proposes it as a likely structure for the 1809 exhibition in his essay ‘L’Exposition de Blake à Londres en 1809–1810’ in William Blake: Le Génie visionnaire de romantisme anglais, exhibition catalogue, Petit Palais, Paris 2009, p.161. Also see C.S. Matheson, ‘“A Shilling Well Laid Out”: the Royal Academy’s Early Public’, in David Solkin (ed.), Art on the Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780–1836, New Haven and London 2001, pp.35–54, in which the Royal Academy’s similar numbering system is discussed, p.43.
  • 18. ‘Descriptive Catalogue’, Erdman, p.550.
  • 19. For more information on this and its impact on British collections see Giles Waterfield, Palaces of Art, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 1992, pp.49–52.
  • 20. The Stafford Collection at Cleveland House, which opened to a restricted public in 1806, was a particularly high-profile example of the arrangement of works by school as it opened to a restricted public in 1806 to great fanfare.
  • 21. ‘Descriptive Catalogue’, Erdman, p.531.
  • 22. The use of this system to promote an optimistic attitude towards British art is discussed in detail by Morris Eaves. See The Counter-Arts Conspiracy especially pp.8–11.
  • 23. ‘Descriptive Catalogue’, Erdman, p.528.
  • 24. The Orleans Gallery Now Exhibiting at the Great Rooms Late the Royal Academy, April 1793, also mentioned in The Times, 20 May 1793.
  • 25. An advert in The Times, 4 May 1799 notes the new admission fee. The price change also appears in later advertisements, but was not changed in the catalogues, although one copy in the Getty Research Institute has half a crown crossed through and replaced by a shilling (call no. P980009, box. 8, f.11).
  • 26. Oracle, 1 May 1794.
  • 27. The advertisement for the 1809 exhibition included a quote from Milton, ‘Fit audience find tho’ few’, Erdman, p.527.
  • 28. Count Joseph Truchsess, Proposal for the Establishment of a Public Gallery of Pictures in London, Addressed to the Nobility and Gentry of the British Empire, and Particularly to the Inhabitants of the Metropolis, London, 1802, p.1.
  • 29. Farington, vol.4, p.2112 (22 August, 1803).
  • 30. Farington, vol.4, p.2111, (21 August 1803).
  • 31. Letter to William Haley dated 23 October 1804, Erdman, p.756.
  • 32. Morton Paley, ‘The Truchsessian Gallery Revisited’, Studies in Romanticism, vol.16. no.2, 1977, pp.170, 172.
  • 33. Paley, ‘Truchsessian Gallery Revisited’, p.173.
  • 34. Dallaway 1800, p.523.
  • 35. David Simpson, Romanticism, Nationalism and the Revolt against Theory, Chicago 1993, p.42.
  • 36. ‘Public Address’, Erdman, p.574.
  • 37. ‘Public Address’, Erdman, p.579.
  • 38. Erdman, p.547.
  • 39. Hugh Brigstocke, William Buchanan and the Nineteenth Century Art Trade: 100 Letters to his Agents in London and Italy, New Haven 1982, p.78, letter dated 3 June 1803, p.89, letter dated 23 July 1803 and p.79, letter dated 3 June 1803.
  • 40. ‘Public Address’, Erdman, p.578.
  • 41. John Britton, Catalogue Raisonné of the Pictures Belonging to the Most Honourable Marquis of Stafford, in the Gallery of Cleveland House, London 1808, p.32.
  • 42. ‘Descriptive Catalogue’, Erdman, p.547.
  • 43. The Director, 21 February 1807, p.159.
  • 44. Sporting Magazine, June 1815 p.102.
  • 45. British Institution, Catalogue of the works of British Artists in the Gallery of the British Institution, London 1811, p.9.
  • 46. ‘Public Address’, Erdman, p.579.
  • 47. ‘Descriptive Catalogue’, Erdman, p.547.

Acknowledgements

This paper, together with the three other articles on Blake’s 1809 exhibition, in Tate Papers no.14, originated as contributions to the symposium Appealing to the Public: William Blake in 1809, held at Tate Britain in September 2009 and organised by The Tate Research Centre: British Romantic Art, with Tate Learning.

Philippa Simpson is an Assistant Curator at Tate Britain

How to cite

Philippa Simpson, 'Lost in the Crowd: Blake and London in 1809', Tate Papers, no.14, Autumn 2010, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/14/lost-in-the-crowd-blake-and%20london-in-1809, accessed 28 June 2017.

Tate Papers (ISSN 1753-9854) is a peer-reviewed research journal that publishes articles on British and modern international art, and on museum practice today.