William Blake (1757–1827) is admired today as an artist of supreme originality, but his art was little appreciated in his lifetime.
He was born in Soho, London and spent his whole life in the city. After training as an engraver he was employed by commercial publishers to undertake relatively mundane engraving work. In his own time he developed radical new approaches to painting and printmaking to explore highly personal interpretations of Christian themes. While his work was admired by a handful of artists and collectors, Blake was generally regarded as an oddball visionary.
His reputation began to improve more generally in the later nineteenth century, as ideas about creativity shifted to become more accommodating of his singularity. Although the collection of British art at Tate traditionally focused on oil painting – a medium Blake never used – his works have long been given special treatment by the gallery. The gift and bequest of more than 20 of Blake’s works by the writer and artist W. Graham Robertson (1866–1948), together with many other individual purchases and gifts, means that Tate holds one of the world’s most important collections of Blake.
The first dedicated ‘Blake Room’ was opened at the Tate Gallery in 1923, and there were major exhibitions here in 1913, 1947, 1978 and 2001. This room provides a showcase for a changing selection of works from the collection. As all Blake’s works are fragile they can be shown only for limited periods under reduced lighting conditions.
This display has been devised by curator Martin Myrone.
Although Blake is now noted for his extreme individuality, his work emerged from a moment of experimentation and innovation in British art more generally. The foundation of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768, an upsurge in Britain’s imperial and commercial fortunes, and a maelstrom of new ideas in philosophy, politics and aesthetics inspired many artists towards creative risk-taking. The works shown together here highlight some of the contemporary artists that Blake emulated early in his career, including the acclaimed draughtsman John Hamilton Mortimer, the eccentric Swiss-born history painter Henry Fuseli, and the illustrator and painter Thomas Stothard. The enduring influence of these artists can be seen in the art made by Blake throughout his life. Examples of Blake’s work as a professional printmaker can also be seen here, executed in the conventional techniques of line engraving and stipple.
Working, by his own account, under the inspiration of his recently-deceased brother Robert, in 1788 Blake invented a new form of relief etching in colour. Using this ‘illuminated printing’ method to combine texts and images, Blake created a series of poems and ‘prophetic books’ including Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789–94), America a Prophecy (1793), Europe a Prophecy (1794), Milton (1804–11) and Jerusalem (1804–20). Although Blake’s paintings and watercolours are richly represented at Tate, his printmaking has been collected more extensively by the national collections held by the V&A and British Museum. The ‘illuminated books’ are represented here by later reprints and separate images that Blake printed without the textual elements. Blake’s most ambitious series of separate prints was his ‘Large Colour Prints’ (c.1795–1805) showing subjects from the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare and his imagination. These were created using a form of relief printing combined with hand colouring to create rich painterly images he described as ‘frescos’.
Watercolours and temperas
Blake used the medium of watercolour throughout his career. But while contemporaries like J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) and Thomas Girtin (1775–1802) were using watercolour to evoke natural effects and convey a sense of spontaneous creativity, Blake thought of it as a form of ‘fresco’. His emphasis on the drawn line and bright, clear colours was intended to evoke the great wall paintings of Italian Renaissance painters. He also experimented with a form of tempera (a medium mixing pigment with water and glues). He similarly termed this ‘fresco’. From 1799–1805 Blake executed a long series of Bible illustrations for his most reliable patron, Thomas Butts. He also produced many paintings of literary themes and invented subjects. Although his surviving pictures are small, Blake said he wanted such images to be painted on a large scale in public buildings. In 1809 he held a one-man exhibition and declared his ambitions in print, but almost no one came and he was dismissed as a ‘madman’.
The Book of Job
Blake returned several times to the figure of Job from the Old Testament. In the Bible story Job is made to suffer a series of terrible misfortunes which he endures with fortitude while struggling with his faith. Given his own struggles, Blake may have identified with Job, but he was also critical of his adherence to biblical laws rather than spiritual inspiration. In 1823 Blake was commissioned by his friend, the artist John Linnell (1792–1882) to engrave a series of illustrations to the book of Job. The finished works display Blake’s commitment to the linear engraving techniques used by sixteenth-century German and Netherlandish artists whose works had long been considered ‘primitive’ compared to the more elaborate and delicate techniques of modern commercial printmakers. The final plates incorporate biblical quotes, paraphrases and marginal pictorial elements which extend and complicate the meanings of the main image.
Dante’s Divine Comedy
At the very end of his life Blake undertook an ambitious new project: to illustrate the famous Divine Comedy of the medieval Italian poet Dante. This epic text follows the travels of Dante himself, accompanied by the Roman poet Virgil, through Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Dante’s poem was often admired for its imagination and invention, although its many scenes of horror and fantasy were also thought shocking and extravagant. Blake produced 102 watercolours and planned to engrave these (although only seven were undertaken). The illustrations were commissioned by John Linnell. Another artist and friend, Samuel Palmer (1805–1881), recalled seeing Blake at work on these ‘sublimest designs’ in the last days of his life. Having endured years of critical neglect and professional struggle, Blake found new support among a few artists such as Linnell and Palmer, who considered his spirituality and rigorous techniques to be exemplary.