William Blake, ‘David Delivered out of Many Waters’ c.1805
William Blake
David Delivered out of Many Waters c.1805

A Spiritual Vision

‘Grecian Art is Mathematic Form; Gothic is Living Form’

This section of the exhibition brings together works from across Blake’s life to show how the Gothic world influenced his art, imagination, and ideals. It extends from his youthful drawings of the medieval tombs in Westminster Abbey through to his magnificent Bible illustrations, his illustrations to Chaucer and his last and greatest series of illustrations, for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Like many of his contemporaries, Blake was interested in medieval culture. But for him medieval architecture and sculpture provided more than forms to inspire his art: they also embodied his artistic ideal, in which spirituality and aesthetic value were inseparable. For Blake, the Gothic meant not just an historical period, nor even a style - it meant the epitome of the spiritual integrity to which art must aspire.

Blake’s engraving Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion is a complex statement about his ideal of the Christian artist. Copied from a detail of a fresco by Michelangelo, the image depicts the legendary figure who was supposed to have brought Christianity, and in Blake’s view, art, to ancient Britain. Isolated on the wild shores of Albion, Joseph presents a melancholic image of the artist with which Blake identified.

Blake believed art must be invested with a more intense spiritual expression than that attained from copying ancient Greek and Roman compositions. His engraving The Laocoön as Jehovah with Satan and Adam reinterpreted the classical sculpture - probably one of the most famous works of art of his age - as an ancient Hebrew tale.

Blake’s creative blending of ancient history and medieval legend can be seen in Tiriel, his first prophetic book. The bleak landscapes and raging emotions of Blake’s poem typify the heightened sensibility - called gothic - of the literature of the time. In its theme of the destructiveness of materialism, its complex symbolism and storytelling, Tiriel foreshadows Blake’s later mythological writing.

The Bible

‘The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art’

The Bible was Blake’s most important source of subject matter. Between 1799-1805, he produced 135 watercolours and paintings on Biblical themes for the civil servant, Thomas Butts (1757-1845), making him Blake’s most important patron. For Blake, the Bible was not a record of historical events, nor even a form of spiritual document, but the embodiment of the whole history of mankind - past, present and future. The Bible provided the key to understanding, and artistic creativity itself was a form of praise and an act of faith. According to Blake, Christ and the Disciples could be considered artists, while anyone who was not artistically creative could not properly be called a Christian.

In the watercolours and paintings he produced for Butts, Blake was influenced by a wide variety of sources. Looking to gothic art as an example, Blake even invented a glue-based paint that he called ‘tempera’, in an attempt to emulate the techniques used by medieval artists before the discovery of oil paint. To him, tempera recalled the honest methods and spirituality of art before the modern age.

Blake identified closely with his biblical subjects and often introduced his own symbolism into well-known scenes, as seen in his depiction of Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop: the compasses that Christ holds appear elsewhere in Blake’s work as a symbol of reason, most famously in his image of Newton. In this context, they may represent Christ’s synthesis of reason and imagination. He also chose obscure, yet dramatic subjects, as seen in The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in the Sun, taken from the Book of Revelation.

Blake’s Canterbury Pilgrims represents the summation of his gothic ideal. He saw Chaucer’s range of characters as symbolising the spiritual pilgrimage of mankind itself. In keeping with his desire to evoke the time of Chaucer’s Tales, he executed this painting in tempera. The painting of the same subject by the artist Thomas Stothard demonstrates how different Blake was from his contemporaries in his techniques, beliefs and style. Stothard illustrates the text in decorative detail, but in a decidedly modern style. By contrast, Blake’s stylised treatment of the figures and archaic technique was an attempt to embody a sense of deeper, gothic qualities.


‘Dante saw devils where I see none – I see only good’

When Blake’s friend and fellow artist John Linnell (1792-1882) commissioned Blake to illustrate cantos from Dante’s Divine Comedy in 1824, the artist was sixty-seven and at the height of his powers. The series was to have been published as engravings but by the time of Blake’s death in 1827, only seven plates had been engraved and the designs themselves were in various stages of completion. Nonetheless, with over 100 watercolours and additional associated sketches, Blake had produced a substantial body of work.

Given the inherent otherworldliness of the Divine Comedy and above all its themes of judgement and salvation - so prevalent in Blake’s own work - it seems inevitable that Blake should engage with Dante’s text. And although he was to express serious theological reservations about Dante, there is little doubt that Blake admired him as an artist.

How far Blake’s designs extend beyond illustration to form a commentary on Dante’s text has been the subject of much debate. His annotations to Dante and various recorded conversations on the subject, underline Blake’s fundamental objections to the poet’s vision, which he found to be too preoccupied with judgement and vengeance. In 1825, he told the journalist Henry Crabb Robinson that ‘Dante saw devils where I see none - I see only good.’

Most of the designs in this section are direct responses to Dante’s text. Others, through subtle alterations or additions to the details given by Dante, are more complex and suggest Blake’s misgivings about Dante’s obedience to Roman Catholic dogma.