William Blake’s Baffling, Tempestuous Visions at London’s Tate Britain

A new retrospective shows a different side to the cosmic dreamer

William Blake, Newton, 1795 – c. 1805, colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, 46 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Tate

William Blake, Newton, c. 1795–1805, colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, 46 x 60 cm. Courtesy: Tate

We are all familiar with William Blake the visionary, the radical, the painter of mythic scenes and author of epic poetry; but Blake the commercial engraver? The first UK retrospective of the singular artist in over two decades, at Tate Britain, reveals the more mundane side of the cosmic dreamer.

Set over five rooms, this chronologically-arranged exhibition contextualizes Blake by introducing the prints he produced to make a living, the coterie of patrons who supported him and the art world he attempted to operate within. One room is given over to a recreation of his 1809 exhibition above his family’s hosiery shop, which proved a critical and commercial disaster. Blake emerges here in an unfamiliar guise – that of the struggling artist, forced to work multiple, precarious jobs. It’s no wonder he was a revolutionary.

William Blake, Capaneus the Blasphemer, 1824–1827, pen and ink and watercolour over pencil and black chalk, with sponging and scratching out, 37 x 53 cm. Courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

William Blake, Capaneus the Blasphemer, 1824–1827, pen and ink and watercolour over pencil and black chalk, with sponging and scratching out, 37 x 53 cm. Courtesy: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Blake’s best works did not sell well in his lifetime. His ‘books of designs’ – collections of small, smudgy prints made using a technique called relief etching, which he developed himself – baffled even his most ardent supporters. To the contemporary eye, however, they show Blake at his most visionary, as if dramatic images from his eccentric mind are transcribed directly on to paper. In one miniature plate, a tormented figure floats in a tempestuous sea; above the sky burns (from ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’, c.1795).

William Blake, ‘Europe’ Plate i: Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’, 1827, etching with ink and watercolour on paper, 23 x 12 cm. Courtesy: The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

William Blake, ‘Europe’ Plate i: Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’, 1827, etching with ink and watercolour on paper, 23 x 12 cm. Courtesy: The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

Elsewhere, works commissioned by well-to-do patrons are exhibited alongside favourites such as Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789). The final rooms display Blake’s late body of work, produced while surrounded by a younger group of artists known as ‘The Ancients’ who encouraged him to realize his surreal visions. These are shown here en masse – from the bizarre and nightmarish The Ghost of a Flea (c. 1819–20) to his apocalyptic final work, an illustrated plate from ‘Europe’ (1827). Under the influence of The Ancients, Blake was finally free to relinquish commercial concerns and concentrate on illustrating his bewildering artistic universe.

‘William Blake’ is on view at Tate Britain, London, UK, until 2 February 2020.

Figgy Guyver is editorial assistant of frieze, based in London, UK. She is co-founder and editor of CUMULUS journal. Follow her on Twitter: @FiggyGuyver.

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