Art Travelling: ‘Inside the mind of William Blake’ – Tate Britain, London

William blake quote

Well, he was right about that, at least in respect to himself. He was a superb drawer and took that skill into engraving and then he became an incredible colorist.

Anyway, so I went to the Blake exhibition in London at the Tate Britain museum. Initially, I wasn’t going to go, because I thought “Blake boring” with his obscure personal cosmology and his unreadable poems. Then I kept hearing how good the show was so what could I do but pop to Pimlico and see for myself.

Tate Britain is always a place I am wary of. Its mandate to show “British” art only, means sometimes they are desperate. Eeek. Last time I went I saw an execrable ‘show’ by Mark Leckey, consisting of lousy videos and a pretend motorway underpass that would have been laughed off the stage at a high school play (I know: I was in high school plays).

Don’t get me wrong, the Permanent Collection is amazing and has some of my favourite pictures of all time including Carnation Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargeant and The Death of Major Pierson by John SIngleton Copley. Oops – those artists are both AMERICANS, though they lived in London.

I digress. I went to see Wiliam Blake. He’s such a Londoner. He lived all his life in Soho, for good or ill. Somehow the mucky backalleys of Soho and its funny little streets (he lived on Broad St, Poland St and also down nearer the river) inspired him to a vision of something he called Albion, which for sure isn’t the modern England he resided in but a fantasy realm. Blake was English in a deliciously eccentric, even unhinged, radical way.

God (?) carrying the sun

He believed in spirits and conversed with them, and talked to fairies and practiced nudism with his wife, even when visitors were in attendance. He believed he was a genius (especially compared to his peers) and got upset and bitter when his friends and patrons didn’t quite share this view, though they liked him and his work. He went to art school and the Royal Academy and resented the establishment there, but found his own, peculiar way to art.

The Red Dragon – you might be familiar with the film, it’s one fo the Hannibal Lecter films, with Ralph Fiennes playing the title role. Blake’s picture is a big part of the plot.


Blake’s illustration for Gray’s Elegy

His work is bizarre and quite beautiful.

The epic narrative poems are actually okay, but very long and Blake wrote them in his own hand so they are hard to read. I’ve only ever read excerpts so it’s a bit hard to know if they were all that good or not. What was a revelation was the illustrations he did of other writers’ works – Thomas Gray, Edward Young, Shakespeare and others – even the moralising Pilgrim’s Progress and the pious poems of boring old William Cowper. Blake’s illustrations are really beautiful. And his piece de resistance has to be his illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Milton’s Satan before his fall; one of Blake’s most compelling works.

It was, in short, a magnificent show and I came away with a fully revised impression of Blake. I enjoyed noticing how his academic training remained as core element of his art. The painter he resembles most to me is actually Jacques-Louis David, which might surprise some people because their subject matter was so different; but they share a fascination with classical forms and worked out their own version of the classical.

Blake’s sensibility in colour was incredible when he worked with tempera and washes over the engravings and there are also some pure ink drawings in the show, which are superb.

reminds me of David, somehow

I still think Blake was an odd character, completely sui generis. Yet he was also a product of a fascinating time in British history and culture. I suppose my main revision is that I now feel I understand him better.  I am intrigued and will pursue this more…

This is the kind of drawing detail most artists would try to avoid doing: feet are hard to do.