9 November 2000 – 11 February 2001
The major exhibition at Tate Britain this autumn will take a fresh view of the unique and innovative British artist and poet, William Blake (1757-1827). Although largely overlooked in his time, Blake’s impact and influence on later generations of artists, writers and musicians has been enormous. He remains a major reference point in British culture today and this show aims to reveal his remarkable work to a wide audience.
Supported by Glaxo Wellcome plc, it is the first major exhibition of Blake’s work in Britain for more than twenty years and will offer a clear and informative overview of his life and work, placing him in the context of the political and social upheavals of his time and exploring his powerful personal symbolism.
The exhibition will consist of approximately 400 of Blake’s works, including some of his best known images. Drawn from international public and private collections, they include all 100 plates of the illuminated book Jerusalem (c.1821, lent by Yale Center for British Art and not exhibited in this country since the 1920s), Newton (1795) and The Tyger from Songs of Experience (1794). Alongside such key works, lesser known images, documentary material, and work by Blake’s contemporaries will create a rich picture of the artist and his world.
The show has been conceived in four thematic sections. The first, entitled One of the Gothic Artists, will focus on Blake’s interest in medieval art. This was inspired by his early apprentice years spent drawing the tombs of English monarchs in Westminster Abbey - the site of ‘his earliest and most sacred recollections’. This section embraces Blake’s education in the craft of engraving, his contact with organised religion, the State and national mythology (which culminated in his exploration of the myth of Albion in Jerusalem) and his interest in the ideal of the medieval artist as a figure of individual and artistic integrity.
In The Furnace of Lambeth’s Vale sets Blake’s great prophetic books in the context of the French Revolution and radical politics in the 1790s, the period when he lived in Lambeth, London. Illustrated books by Blake will be displayed alongside relevant documentary material. There will also be a partial recreation of the artist’s studio, based on new research, including a printing press from the period and explanations of Blake’s technique.
Blake’s assertion that ‘the imagination is not a state, it is the human existence itself’, forms the title of the third section, which explores the imaginative sources from which he developed his ideas, language and images. Characters from Blake’s personal mythology will be explored, including Urizen, Los and Orc, and there will be a section devoted to Blake’s important relationship with the seventeenth-century poet John Milton, featuring the illuminated book Milton (1811).
The final section, Very Many Formidable Works, presents the complete illuminated books that constitute Blake’s greatest achievement as artist and poet, bringing together his revolutionary technical, stylistic and literary achievements. Here the exhibition reaches a climax in the specially designed displays of some of Blake’s grandest works, ranging from Songs of Innocence and Experience (a late copy lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art) to the richly coloured Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (printed c.1818-20).
A fully illustrated catalogue accompanies the exhibition, featuring contributions from the distinguished biographer Peter Ackroyd; Professor Marilyn Butler, Rector of Exeter College, Oxford; Michael Phillips, a leading Blake scholar; and Robin Hamlyn, Senior Curator, Tate Collection, who has been supported by a team of Tate curators in the creation of this remarkable exhibition.