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Art review: William Blake’s Universe at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

08 March 2024

Nicholas Cranfield sees an exhibition about the artist in his context

© the fitzwilliam museum, cambridge

The morning comes / America A Prophecy, relief-etching, printed in colour, with hand colouring, and heightened with gold (c.1824) by William Blake

The morning comes / America A Prophecy, relief-etching, printed in colour, with hand colouring, and heightened with gold (c.1824) by William Blake

WILLIAM BLAKE turned 40 in the November of 1797, three years after his friend and fellow Swedenborgian John Flaxman had returned from seven years in Italy. Earlier that year, Mary Lushington had died at the age of 25. She was the middle of three daughters of Pauline and William Lushington.

Her parents commissioned Flaxman for a monument to her in their parish church, St Mary’s, Lewisham (architect George Gibson, 1774). If you can ignore the saccharine pious verse by the gentleman poet William Hayley, Blake’s patron and father of one of Flaxman’s apprentices, the plaque is still the only thing worth seeking out in the church (north aisle).

William Lushington (1747-1823) had made his money in Bengal, but had resigned from the East India Company (of which his elder brother was chairman) in 1773, returning to England. In a portrait at the time, once attributed to Joshua Reynolds but now given to Hugh Barron, he appears handsomely and quietly confident (Sotheby’s, London, 6 April 2022, lot 84).

Lushington later became an Alderman and MP for the City of London. He invested heavily in the West Indies, at one point buying the island of Mustique for £12,723 (1801). He was sometime Agent for Grenada and took a part share in a bank, but was later bankrupted.

The monument shows an angelic figure sweeping above the deceased who is shrouded in a veil, typical of Flaxman’s sinuous and diaphanous figures that speak of Emmanuel Swedenborg rather than the Gospel promise of resurrection.

In the first room of this new exhibition in Cambridge, Flaxman takes centre stage with his tomb designs for another daughter of privilege, Agnes Sarah Harriet Cromwell who died in 1797, aged 18. Her father, Henry Cromwell (c.1739-1814) was a career sailor, rising to become captain and commanding officer of the Victory at the second battle of Ushant (1781) and the Royal George (1782). After his daughter’s death, he became a vice-admiral (1810).

This is not just another exhibition about William Blake for the mass market, but is an intelligently curated show that explores the world of ideas in his lifetime from war in America to the abolition of slavery. Arguably, the display of Flaxman, inexplicably overlooked in our generation, and the clever pairing of Jacques Louis Pérée’s engraving The Rights of Man (1795/96) alongside Blake’s own better known The Dance of Albion or Albion’s Rose as images of redemption are the exceptional parts of the show.

© Hamburger Kunsthalle/bpk Photo Elke WalfordPhilipp Otto Runge, The Large Morning (Der Grosse Morgen) (1808-09)  

Pérée (1769-1832) and his French Revolutionary contemporaries had overthrown the Ancien Régime. The victorious male stands all but naked amid a litter of symbols of Church and State, holding up Freedom’s charter in one hand and resting his weapon on the ground in the other, a pose that recalls David holding up Goliath’s head with his massive sword resting on the ground.

Pérée’s virile innocent personifies the cult of the Supreme Being introduced by Robespierre in 1794. In place of Catholicism, the national religion was now a Deism in which civic virtues triumphed and reason and liberty brought immortality.

Blake, on the other hand, rejected Deism. His figure from the same period embodies the fullness of God’s revelation in the perfection of youth. The identification of this as Albion (or Britain) in a later edition of the print seems a little over-hopeful as the century drew to a close in a debauched and exhausted Hanoverian England.

The European dimension of Blake’s world introduces Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810) and promises Caspar David Friedrich for when the show transfers to Germany (Hamburger Kunsthalle, 14 June to 8 September). Although neither knew Blake’s work, they struggled with the same ideas as the Establishment faced challenge.

The last part of the exhibition charts the rise of German mysticism and the earlier spirit world of the Saxon cobbler and mystic Jacob Böhme (1575-1624) and its visual spread in the 18th century of Hanoverian Britain.


“William Blake’s Universe” is at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Trumpington Street, Cambridge, until 19 May. Phone 01223 332900. hfitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk

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