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Exhibition review: William Blake at Tate Britain

15 November 2019

Blake’s trademark was a lack of inhibition, says Nicholas Cranfield

The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

William Blake, The Ancient of Days, 1827, frontispiece (Plate 1) of his book Europe a Prophecy

William Blake, The Ancient of Days, 1827, frontispiece (Plate 1) of his book Europe a Prophecy

ST MARY’s, Battersea, hosted the wedding ceremony for William Blake and the 20-year-old Catherine Bourchier on 18 August 1782; so it is fitting that almost opposite along the Thames on Milbank, Tate Britain should host this major retrospective. This is the fourth such exhibition here; the first was in 1913, and the most recent in 2000.

Blake (1757-1827) has always divided his critics, and many see his poetry in a very different class from his illustrative work. The late spymaster Sir Anthony Blunt opened his 1959 Bampton Lectures with a bold sentence that memorably states, “Blake’s development as a painter was the exact opposite to his evolution as a poet.”

He continued, “By the age of twenty he had written some of the finest lyrics in the English language. . . As a painter, if he had died at thirty, he would be hardly remembered at all.”

His lectures at Columbia University set out to show that the rather incompetent Hanoverian artist, one of a fledgling group in revolt against all that Sir Joshua Reynolds had made the Royal Academy represent and with “little natural facility as a painter”. grew in stature as an artist, coming to a great climax in Jerusalem, and the illustrations for the book of Job and the works of Dante.

It is a fascinating trajectory, followed broadly by the chronological hang of this exhibition, and I was almost convinced by Blunt’s thesis on this showing.

The first exhibit is the colour engraving and etching of a naked young man, standing with his feet planted wide apart on a rocky crag. A rainbow bursts into an explosion of prismatic colour behind him (Albion Rose, c.1793). The last that we see is said to be Blake’s final work, Ancient of Days (1827). Created as a frontispiece for his 1794 prophetic book Europe a Prophecy, a naked old man bends forward with a pair of dividers that seem to send out a thunderbolt, down in to the void below.

Blake was habitually interested in Nakedness, Good, and Evil. Indeed, it is said that, at his wedding, he and his bride were naked, taking an understanding of Genesis 2 a little too literally. If the first figure represents Man in his innocence, the final figure is that of a malevolent demi-urge, Jehovah-Urizen, as the principle of evil. To Blake, who believed only in the free life of the imagination, the compasses symbolised the reduction of the infinite to the finite and the compelling of Man to live a restrained life in bondage to Reason.

TATEWilliam Blake (1757-1827), Pity, c.1795

It is, perhaps, no surprise to find how clearly indebted he was to Michelangelo, and, even if he never was commissioned to undertake work on the Florentine’s heroic scale, it is not for the want of ability: the famous watercolour of Newton (c.1795-1800), the striding figure of Satan throughout the pages of Paradise Lost (1807), and the muscular form of Samson Subdued (c.1800) repeatedly show how influenced he had been by the earlier artist and poet.

Idiosyncratic and unorthodox by turn, his iconography, when it comes to biblical subjects, can be infuriating to understand. His purpose seems always to have been to challenge convention. The 18th-century Church in England, in the face of Reason, had retreated into a somnolence of meagre kindness from which, arguably, it has never recovered. Blake re-imagined scenes of faith with rare inhibition.

For instance, in his pen-and-ink watercolours The Resurrection: The Angel Rolling the stone away from the Sepulchre (V&A) and Mary Magdalene at the Sepulchre (Yale Center for British Art), the scene is considered from inside, with two angels on either side of the open mouth of the tomb. In this way, we see Jesus just as he is being re-animated and then, with the kneeling Magdalene, we are confronted by the Risen Lord of Easter.

A very much later work in the same medium, with additional gold paint, is Epitome of James Hervey’s “Meditations among the Tombs”. James Harvey was a Northamptonshire clergyman (1714-58) who espoused a sombre understanding of theology more akin to Calvinism than to the doctrines of the Methodists with whom he had flirted at Oxford. After his death, his Meditations were taken up by those of a Romantic cast of mind and became widely influential.

Blake pictures the cleric standing between two angels in front of a railed-in holy table, on which are set the gifts of bread and two standing cups. Above the altar is painted the Transfiguration (not, as the Tate curators suggest, a scene of “Christ floating up”, whatever that might be), while, up aloft, God reigns over all, as biblical figures including Solomon and David ascend a winding stair to the divine presence. On either side are souls of the redeemed and of the damned. To one side, stands the Virgin, her eyes cast heavenward in prayer, while above her is her own reduplicated image as the Virgin of the Assumption, crowned with stars.

Bringing together both bound books and unbound pages, individual sketches, watercolours, miniatures (skilful portraits of his patrons Thomas and Elizabeth Butts in a medium that he himself despised), and any number of engravings after his own compositions and those of other artists, this exhibition offers much to marvel over, but perhaps little that is truly remarkable.

“William Blake” is at Tate Britain, Milbank, London SW1, until 2 February 2020. Phone 020 7887 8888. www.tate.org.uk

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