MANY members of the clergy of my acquaintance share a common
anxiety about the mail. Unprovoked, and often abusive, letters turn
up unexpectedly, while anonymised claims get lodged randomly with
archdeacons. Not all are maliciously intended, but, now that social
media are becoming all-pervasive, a chance remark or a
misunderstanding can be widely circulated mischievously.
I can sympathise with the Vicar at Englefield Green receiving
the following unwarranted tirade from somebody he was trying to
"Especially if I should have to answer for it I feel very sorry
that your ideas and Mine . . . differ so much as to have made you
angry. . . If I am wrong I am in good company. . . But you ought to
know what is Grand is necessarily obscure to weak men. That which
can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care," etc.,
There you have it.
In fact, the correspondence is dated 23 August 1799, but, as I
read it, a shiver ran down my spine, as it felt all too real.
William Blake had been put in touch with the Revd Dr John Trusler
as a possible patron by George Cumberland, to whom he had taught
etching techniques, and fell out with him spectacularly about what
he defined as "Moral Painting".
Blake, it turns out, was good at biting the hands that fed
He was also a man of firm opinion, as his 1798 copy of an
influential edition of lectures given by the founder president of
the Royal Academy (The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds) on
display in the current exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford
shows; on the title page, the impassioned artist has scribbled,
"This man was Hired to Depress Art This is the opinion of Will
Blake my proofs of this Opinion are given in the following
As indeed they are. In one piece of doggerel in his 1808
Notebook, he dismisses an Old Master whom Reynolds had
You must agree that Rubens was a
And yet you make him master of your school
And give more money for his Slobberings
Than you will give for Raphael's finest things.
Yet, as this latest exhibition by Michael Philips, the doyen of
Blake's world, makes clear, Blake was well schooled among the
antiquaries, and his early work reflects a deep knowledge and
understanding of the Old Masters and a very traditional
apprenticeship that followed an ambitious programme of drawing as a
At the outset, Blake, a hosier's son from Soho, was able to copy
casts of classical sculptures which his father bought for that
express purpose. Even before becoming a teenager, he was a regular
visitor to the London houses of the nobility to see fine paintings.
This sort of "Open House" arrangement had been promoted for
interested scholars and artists alike from 1740 onwards, alongside
the founding of the Society of Arts.
Blake made a habit of visiting Christie's and other auction
houses, sketchpad in hand. In all the years I have walked through
the showrooms in Kensington and Mayfair, I have not spotted any
After four years at drawing school, he served seven years with
James Basire, from the age of 14 in 1772. The first galleries are
full of drawings of the medieval tomb effigies in Westminster Abbey
for Richard Gough's 1796 ground-breaking work, Sepulchral
Monuments in Great Britain, which preoccupied Basire at the
Thanks to the generosity of the Bodleian Library, a range of
medieval illuminated manuscripts that, it is suggested, informed
Blake's own decorative styles, distinctive curlicues in the margins
causing havoc with the text, is on show.
He was also, as were all British artists who had never had the
opportunity to cross the Channel, indebted to the engravings of Old
Master paintings. For a publisher who asked him in 1780 to
illustrate The Protestant's Family Bible he copied the Old
Testament scenes that Raphael frescoed for the Vatican Loggias from
his own edition of Raphael's Bible which he had bought as
an apprentice in 1773.
Sisto Badalocchio (born 1585) and Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647)
had etched drawings of the Raphael frescoes that the great
Bolognese artist Annibale Carracci (1560-1609) had made when he
moved to Rome. The chain of transmission may strike us as odd in
our age of virtual (and immediate) communication, but, in the era
before photography, artists relied upon copying, itself made much
easier with the invention of printing.
From Raphael to Carracci to Lanfranco and Badalocchio to the
front room of 13 Hercules Buildings, Hercules Road, Lambeth, may
seem a circuitous route for an exhibition to take. But it was
across the Thames that Blake moved, with his wife, and set up his
studio ten years later, in January 1791. The curators have
recreated the studio, following floor plans that were discovered in
The house itself was demolished in 1918, but how poky the
cramped printing room (13 ft 7 ½ ins. × 12 ft) looks to us when we
recall the scale of work that Blake printed here. He was able to
take down and reassemble the five-foot-high flat rolling press, a
job that would have required the assistance of a more than
competent craftsman. The even smaller back ground-floor room served
as his painting atelier.
His final residence in the 1820s until his death in 1827, at 3
Fountain Court, in the Strand, was just two rooms on the first
floor of a house in which his wife, Catherine, was expected to cook
in the bedroom.
For visitors of an artistic bent, this exhibition richly
provides for a history of printing, and shows how well Blake
managed his craft and developed his art. These include techniques
for printing in more than one colour, and his innovation of relief
printing, in which he combined the two very different processes
required by printing text and providing illustrations. The dizzying
complications of this made me even more amazed by his transferring
reams of text in his inimitable hand.
The range of exhibits includes a pencil portrait of him, around
1785, by Catherine; his publication of Songs of Innocence and
of Experience (1789); and the familiar images from the 1794
Europe a Prophecy, and busts of Milton and of Dante from
the series of Heads of the Poets (c.1800-05),
commissioned by William Hayley for his house in the seaside village
of Felpham, Sussex.
Observation and carefully detailed drawing delineate all his
works to the end, and the final gallery room takes Blake's later
career into the lifetime of his pupils and those who sat at his
feet: "the Ancients", as Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, and Edward
Calvert chose to be known.
This ambitious and scholarly exhibition is complemented across
the city centre with Jeremy Deller's display of works by William
Morris and Andy Warhol, "Love is Enough", at Modern Art Oxford (to
8 March), a seriously playful and equally challenging exposition of
artists one might think one knew already too well.
"William Blake: Apprentice and Master" is at the Ashmolean
Museum, Beaumont Street, Oxford, until 1 March. Phone 01865