William Blake at Tate Britain

William Blake at Tate Britain



To some, William Blake is the eighteenth century artistic equivalent of Marmite. Personally, I have always had a mild aversion to ‘visionary’ works of art, either visual or verbal, peopled by floating figures in the form of gods, or even God, devils, demons, angels and characters from the Old Testament with names like Lamech, Naomi, Ruth and Orpah from the Land of Moab, Los, one of the four Zoas in the Moravian hymn to the Divine Mother, and Orc, his son with Enitharmon, or Hecabe, Greco-Roman goddess of magic and the underworld, from the Book of Urizen, and in Greek mythology, Typhon, a terrifying giant serpent, not forgetting Niobe the daughter of Tantalus. Tiriel was a mythological prophetic narrative poem, from which is extracted the title of one illustration, ‘Har blessing Tiriel while Mnetha comforts Heva,’ the illustrated text being ‘Then Har arose and laid his hand on old Tiriel’s head’. Blake also claimed inspiration for his visions of large-scale sacred art from ancient Egypt, India and Persia. He also illustrated The Book of Job, Dante’s Inferno, Shakespeare, and Milton’s Paradise Lost, one illustraion from which depicts Eve gently sucking on a glans-like pear, itself being held for her delectation in the mouth of a smiling serpent. It is probably heresy to the ears of the faithful Blakean followers to say that, at times, he was just not a very good drawer, and his human anatomy could have done with some timely life-drawing refresher classes. His male figures display acute over-musculature, with tightly-clenched buttocks, while his female figures have the same, but slightly smaller, smoother and sleaker, and wearing neo-classical, high-waisted wafting robes, with his old men having flowing white beards and matching hair. His foreshortening of certain bodies is awkward at best and poor draughtsmanship at worst. However, three of his most famous images are on show at Tate Britain, including his Ancient of Days, setting a Compass to the Earth, a version of which he completed just before he died, saying, ‘it was the best I ever finished.’ It depicts Urizen, one of God’s titles in The Book of Daniel, holding a set of dividers over a dark void. More dividers, this time with Newton, bending over a scroll, whilst sitting on wonderfully-textured rock. One of his more disturbing images is that of The Ghost of a Flea, which John Varley, one of Blake’s supporters, described in his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy that Blake once had a seance-induced spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea and that, according to the Tate’s website, ‘This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect, while drawing the spirit, it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were “by nature bloodthirsty to excess”’. Alongside is shown a rarely-seen preliminary pencil sketch. Also on display is his animalistic portrait of Nebuchadnezzar, wild-eyed and on all fours, who, according to the Bible, was driven mad and forced to live like a wild animal as punishment for excessive pride.

From his earliest years, he revealed his visionary tendencies, reporting at the age of four that he saw God put his forehead to his bedroom window and he saw a tree full with angels with the prophet Ezekiel sitting under it. He resisted conventional religious dogma, proclaiming that ‘all religions are on,’ but he was brought up on a diet of liberated views of sexuality through his parents’ involvement with the Moravian Church in Fetter Lane and the teachings of the charismatic Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, leader of the renewed Unitas Fratrum, and the spiritual-artistic ethos of the ‘Sifting Time’ a turbulent and creative period in the middle of the eighteenth century, of spiritual, sexual and artistic experimentation, the terror of revolution in neighbouring France and the abolition of slavery. He was never really successful in his lifetime in selling his own poetry and paintings, but was highly regarded as a master engraver. He did, however, have a small group of fellow artists, who supported him throughout his life, men like John Flaxman, Thomas Stothard, John Linnell, Samuel Palmer, John Varley and George Cumberland. A wealthy poet William Hayley employed him to illustrate his poetry, but Blake soon tired of this, and wanted to go his own way, so the patron and his ward parted company, even though Hayley had supported him in a court case of treason brought against him by a soldier, with whom he had an argument. Another supporter was a senior civil servant Thomas Butts, who bought upwards of 200 works, which kept Blake and his wife Cathering Bouyant.

Although some of his draughtsmanship is questionable, his ‘divine imagination’ was astonishing, with heavenly creatures above and Death below, saints and sinners lined up on Judgement Day, alongside monsters and magicians, mixing with ghoulies and ghosties. Although Blake is nowadays regarded as a radical painter, visionary and thinker, the exhibition could not be more conventionally laid out, which is now standard practice at Tate Britain in so many of their ‘worthy’ shows.  Dozens of framed prints on the walls and manuscripts and bound volumes in vitrines, unimaginatively displayed. There have probably been more dull, poorly-curated shows, like All Too Human, British Folk Art, Edourard Muybridge, Victorious Sculpture, Art Under Attack, Salt and Silver and Ruin Lust, than at any other gallery in the world. One would have thought that, when Penelope Curtis was eased out, after by much criticism in the press, and she ended up at Museu Calouste Gulbenkian in Lisbon, which must be a bit like being sent to be the Governor of the Falklands, having been the British Ambassador at the UN, things would improve. Alas, no. One sad addendum is that the back page of the A6 booklet given to visitors has been left blank, with the suggestion that, as ‘drawing was fundamental for Blake, use this page as your exhibition sketchbook.’ Drawing materials, in the form of stubby betting-shop pencils, were available.

Until 2 February 2020

Admission £18


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