William Blake at Tate Britain.

This large retrospective shows William Blake (1757-1827) as a man of his own times. Modern audiences can learn from it how he was perceived by his contemporaries, not following the traditional approach, which saw Blake as a mysterious and misunderstood genius (however, we are told that Blake’s own printmaking method to this day remains ‘mysterious’). Instead of attempting to untangle some of the complex symbolism in his art and poetry, the focus is on details from Blake’s personal and professional life.

Little snippets of information such as the relationship between Blake and his friends, patrons and publishers are quite interesting, and give an insight into his biography and difficult character. On display we encounter a few entertaining trivia treats, such as the painting The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb (c.1799-1800) still in its original frame, which might have been chosen by Blake, or a cast of an antique sculpture from the Royal Academy, which, in all likelihood, was the model for some of Blake’s sketches (hung nearby). Blake was disillusioned with the style of teaching at the Royal Academy, although he did make some lifelong friends there.

William Blake The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb (c.1799-1800)
William Blake – The Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb (c.1799-1800)


Born and bred in London, he spent most of his life in the city, not far from his childhood home. Helped by his wife Catherine, who coloured and sometimes even completed his images, he sometimes struggled financially and took not very exciting commissions, which he sometimes resented. We also learn that he experienced problems with his wealthy patrons, it seems that his eccentric character was partially to blame. The Blakes lived in Sussex from 1800 to 1803, where the artist worked on the decorative programme for the residence of William Hayley, a wealthy poet. In 1803 Blake left and ended friendship with Hayley.

Blake felt betrayed by the publisher Robert Cromek, who commissioned him to design illustrations for an edition of Robert Blair’s poem, The Grave (publ. 1808), but employed someone else to do the engravings (the fashionable engraver Luigi Schiavonetti). He also thought Cromek stole his idea for the engraving of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims.

William Blake The Counseller, King, Warrior, Mother and Child, in the Tomb (1805)
William Blake – The Counseller, King, Warrior, Mother and Child, in the Tomb (1805), one of Blake’s illustrations to The Grave.

In 1809 Blake’s independent exhibition held at 28 Broad Street (the Blake family home) was a failure, for which he partially blamed his friends. Tate Britain installed an almost-replica of the room where the exhibition took place, which perhaps illustrates why it was a flop as we can hardly see anything on the extremely dark canvases. Only when the spotlight hits two of the works the coloured details come to light.

I overheard one visitor commenting that ‘he always painted the same face’. Indeed, from Old Testament prophets, angels and demons to figures from his own personal mythology, the characteristic blank face expression, dot-like eyes and straight nose appear again and again in Blake’s paintings, prints and illustrations. One of his most recognizable images on display is the not-very-flattering portrait of Sir Isaac Newton (the composition with Newton sitting on a rock and drawing with his compass was later reinterpreted in sculpture by E. Paolozzi, currently located outside the British Library). Another point of interest is the page from Blake’s 1794 poem The Tyger, which is often referenced in popular culture.

William Blake God Judging Adam (1795, relief etching, ink and watercolour on paper)
William Blake – God Judging Adam (1795, relief etching, ink and watercolour on paper)

Blake worked for years as commercial engraver, but it was his private book projects that show the extent of his creativity in both poetry and original imagery. Blake held some strong opinions and revolutionary ideas, which he expressed in his books. We learn that was it not for the fact that hardly anyone read those books, Blake could have been arrested for his views. Luckily his ideas were so obscure that the censors did not take interest in them.

William Blake Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard
Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard (Blake’s illustration to the poem by Thomas Gray, 1797-1798)

I quite enjoyed the contents, unfortunately I found the experience of navigating around the exhibition a bit frustrating. While large canvases can be admired comfortably from a distance, tiny book pages with pale illustrations exhibited in high cabinets, behind the glass in already dimmed rooms were difficult to access. The practicalities aside, this is a must-see if you are a fan of Blake. If you would like to learn more about the artist and his art, the exhibition at Tate Britain is the best place to start.

William Blake exhibition is at Tate Britain until 2 February 2020

Read more:

Exhibition website: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/william-blake-artist

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