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.