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The great British Blake off

The Tate’s magnificent William Blake exhibition explores the visionary artist and poet’s rage and range, says Calum Fraser

19 September, 2019 — By Calum Fraser

William Blake (1757-1827) Capaneus the Blasphemer 1824-1827 Pen and ink and water­colour over pencil and black chalk, with sponging and scratching out, 374 x 527 mm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

WILLIAM Blake hated London. But his art would be nothing without it. He despised the industry that gradually consumed the world around him and the old establishments of power under which many lived oppressed. Yet, he was fascinated with its sprawling metropolis and he spoke with angels in the streets.

As Blake travelled back to the capital after his only brief stint living outside of London, he wrote: “My heart is full of futurity… I rejoice and tremble.”

He believed that among the “satanic mills” of the city, Jerusalem could be built.

The new Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, the largest collection of his work to be displayed in 20 years, presents this tension beautifully.

Blake was born the lowly second son of a London tradesman. He died in almost complete obscurity in a ramshackle Soho house with his faithful wife at his side. He lived an apparently inconspicuous life in a time of huge historical shifts that included the American and French revolutions and the ensuing wars, terrors and unrest. But he has become one of the seminal British figures of that fiery age. In his art he personified the forces that moved men in that time to acts of heroism and barbarism.

The first image at the entrance to the exhibition is a bolt of energy that hits us straight between the eyes – The Reawaken­ing of Albion, with its colours bursting behind the naked figure with arms outstretched.

After this glorious introduction, we are taken back to the beginning of Blake’s artistic endeavours as a draughtsman at the newly formed Royal Academy of Art.

Portrait of William Blake 1802. Pencil with black, white and grey washes. 243 x 201 mm. Collection Robert N Essick 

A room with copies of his earliest illustrated books, including the Songs of Innocence and Experience collection of poems, is a more subdued experience. Some of the books are no bigger than a mobile phone.

They bring us back to the tough reality of his life. He was almost always struggling to make ends meet.

In the late 18th century London was on its way to becoming the centre of global commerce. But Blake despised the miserly philosophy that was driving London’s boom and exploiting its weakest inhabitants. His work laments the pain of the chimney sweeps – boys who have had their innocence robbed from them and the African slave who is hung by his ribs on a hook.

It is in his poem London that he scorns man’s “mind-forged manacles”, a society that champions science and logic over the imagination and spirit. He spent much of the latter part of his life walking on Hampstead Heath, looking down in despair on the sprawling city below as it gobbled up land in plumes of black smoke.

Yet at the same time, he is enamoured of the city. He had worked almost every day from the age of 14 when he was apprenticed to engraver James Basire. He pored over buildings like Westminster Abbey, engraving its gothic tombs and spires.

Blake was a visionary. He would see angels in the streets and he was visited by spirits in his house. To him they were not just in his head, he spoke to these apparitions like companions. This gave him confidence in his stature as a great prophetic painter and poet. But he was never acknowledged by the artistic establishment in his time.

The Tate has mocked up a reproduction of Blake’s house in the West End, the venue for his only substantial exhibition. It’s a bland room with a handful of modest-sized prints neatly spread around. It was a commercial failure on all accounts. He simply did not have the wherewithal to produce his art on the scale he envisioned.

The Tate has seized on this frustration by projecting two of his frescos onto a gallery wall on a huge scale. It’s an impressive gimmick.

However, the real show-stopping images are found in the room that contains his Isaac Newton and Nebuchadnezzar.

Both are figures of ridicule for Blake. Nebuchadnezzar crawls through the underworld, his body half morphed into an animal.

Newton is bent over double, trying to capture the world with his compass. Despite his ridicule, Blake has immortalised these figures with ever-enticing depictions.

This magnificent exhibition reveals Blake’s sense of rage and anger, but also his wonder and hope.

William Blake is at Tate Britain, Millbank, SW1P 4RG until February 2, 2020, www.tate.org.uk

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