William Blake: Exhibition themes: The Furnace of Lambeth's Vale

William Blake, ‘Frontispiece to ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’’ c.1795
William Blake
Frontispiece to ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’ c.1795

Blake’s Studio and His World

‘There is a Grain of Sand in Lambeth that Satan cannot find’

When Blake and his wife Catherine moved to Lambeth in 1790, the borough south of the Thames was still a village, more famous for its marshes than for its Eden-like qualities. Nonetheless, Blake saw Lambeth as ‘the place of the Lamb’ and a site for a new Jerusalem. When a friend interrupted him and Catherine reading Milton’s Paradise Lost naked in their garden at 13 Hercules Buildings, he is said to have replied, ‘It’s only Adam and Eve, you know.’

Blake’s move to Lambeth can be seen as a bid for personal and professional independence. He left central London, where he had been born and bred, for a house with space for a rolling press and painting studio. It was here that he began printing by his revolutionary ‘infernal method’ of relief etching which combined poems and pictures on a single plate.

The rolling press and tools displayed in this section are similar to those Blake would have used. These printing materials also underline Blake’s background as an engraver. Although he had attended classes at the Royal Academy and exhibited there, his relationship with the art establishment was complex. He was friends with successful artists such as Flaxman, Fuseli and Linnell, but his sympathies were always more closely allied with a dissenting artisan class.

Blake responded directly to the social injustices he perceived around him, as can be seen in his poem, Holy Thursday, which paralleled contemporary reports about a baby found dead in Lambeth Marsh. The Poor Rate Books and documents from the Westminster Lying-in Hospital bear witness to the suffering which he encountered on his doorstep. And the Songs of Experience, produced in 1794 as a pair to the earlier volume, Songs of Innocence, first published in 1789, reflect his continuing pessimism and despair that cruelty should persist in the world.

Anti-authoritarian to the core, Blake sympathised with the values of the French and American Revolutions and the radical politics of his day. And unlike many other British radicals, he did not disown these sympathies or reject his ideals of freedom when news of the execution of Louis XVI in 1793 reached England. Instead, his mistrust of tyranny deepened. He was brought to trial for defaming the monarchy in 1804, and despite his subsequent acquittal, the experience strengthened his hatred of authority.

The Prospectus

‘The Labours of the Artist, the Poet, the Musician have been proverbially attended by poverty and obscurity … Even Milton and Shakespeare could not publish their own works.’

In Lambeth during the 1790s, Blake’s professional, personal and technical aspirations all fused. He perfected his radical colour printing method ‘which combines the painter and poet’, illuminating his poems with pictures on a single printing plate, which he and, sometimes, Catherine would then hand finish in watercolour.

In October 1793, Blake published the Prospectus, a kind of public advertisement of his recent works. It was also a critique of the establishment and the difficulty of gaining recognition for artists who lacked ‘the means to propagate such works as have wholly absorbed the Man of Genius’. Blake was literally taking matters into his own hands by producing his own work and offering it for sale at his home.

This section presents many of the works listed in the Prospectus of 1793. Around this time, Blake had completed his first series of prophetic books, which contain some of his most famous images. These works, which denounce authority in mythological language with a cast of imaginary characters, include The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an epic filled with proverbs; The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, an allegory of freedom; and the so-called ‘continental prophecy’ of America.

Even if the Prospectus was distributed (it seems unlikely that it was, since the reactionary mood of the day made Blake’s radical views suspect), Blake probably had few clients knocking on his door. He produced most of his books, which were highly labour-intensive, for a small coterie of friends. In his lifetime, he never succeeded in distributing his own work widely and cheaply to the public.