Tate Britain’s William Blake Back

William Blake (1757-1827), Albion Rose, c. 1793. Colour engraving (250 x 211 mm).
Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections.

Adorned with golden curls and proudly baring his rose-pink limbs to the world, Albion rises. The epitome of Blakean exuberance and delight, he stands triumphant, arms outstretched, a fanfare of colour streaming into the furthest corners of the page. Not yet the Albion central to Blake’s later epic, Jerusalem (1804-20), the figure in Albion Rose (1793) is a hope, a promise, a glittering glimpse of what’s to come. To Blake enthusiasts however, he’s an expected sight; mythical muscular bodies flit and fly, bend and flex, crouch and hover throughout his work, achieving the kind of acrobatic pyrotechnics Olympians could only dream of. Poised in an asymmetrical cruciform position, Albion represents potential energy unleashed, the birth of unadulterated pleasure and creativity, a selfhood as undivided as it is abundant. Although an allegorical representation of Britain, Albion personifies freedom; he is a cipher for Blake himself, the poet-artist, whose name now prompts vibrant visions in the minds and work of contemporary artists.

That an engraving from the 1790s should appear in the first room of Tate Britain’s retrospective is curious. Created in 1793, when William and Catherine moved to Lambeth to enjoy their own “little Eden” on the suburbs of the City, Albion Rose belongs to a time where the Blakes were prodigious in their output; a time where Blake was at the peak of his powers conceiving and creating the Illuminated Books, and developing his innovative printing technique of relief etching. Colour did indeed abound in these mostly happy and prolific years. To be greeted by this male nude, awash in radiant reds, rich ochres, blushing pinks and aquamarine blues, is to confirm what sits at the heart of the exhibition: the artistic, intellectual, cultural and political liberty Blake embodied and vividly espoused, in and out of his practise. That Albion Rose hangs next to Blake’s early work merely serves to heighten this notion. Shining brightly next to dark and stolid watercolours from the 1780s, Albion Rose hints at the creative liberty Blake was to enjoy later in his career.

That’s not to say the surrounding works from the 1780s aren’t worth viewing. Despite the rigid figuration and staid biblical scene, watercolours like Joseph’s Brethren Bowing Down before him and The Story of Joseph (1784-5), reveal a Blake experimenting with the language of gesture, composition and narrative-based depiction. All three images in the Joseph series evince signs of Blake’s past education too, as elaborated in the wall cards around the first room. In the 1780s Blake attended the Royal Academy as a student. There he drew studies of classical casts and busts, such as that of Cincinnatus, the Roman patrician of the early republic. Although such studies were not new to Blake – he attended Henry Par’s drawing school in the late 1760s, was apprenticed to engraver James Basire in the 1770s and was indulged with ample casts and materials by his parents –, at the Royal Academy he was expected to adhere more strictly to the precepts behind classical representation. Looking at the Joseph series one can see the solidity of such casts translated into the ink drawing: Joseph’s treacherous brothers cower in sculptural humiliation, as if lifted from a Hellenic pediment or frieze, whereas Joseph himself emulates a Patrician ruler, weighed down by heavy drapery. At the same time, with the Joseph series we see Blake twist away from traditional conceptions of bodily representation and composition. His bodies, though akin to statuary in their suspended fixed positionality, almost break free from such linear restrictions. Much like the Joseph of biblical legend, Blake’s betrayed leader longs to be acknowledged as the powerful and chosen son he once was. As staged as the Joseph series is and though not quite approaching the pictorial freedom seen in works like Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (c.1786), these early watercolours contain the seeds that were to stylistically and formally flourish in later engravings like Albion Rose.

What is surprising about Blake’s Joseph series is his decision to represent the reconciliation scenes over those connected to a decidedly Blakean theme: dreams, prophecies and their explication. If room 1 begins with culturally palatable (and supposedly marketable) renditions of biblical heroes, it certainly closes with drawings definitively and dreamily Blakean in their execution and content. The Tiriel series (c.1789) melds past mythological and legendary characters (Sophocles’ Oedipus and Tiresias, Shakespeare’s King Lear) with contemporary influences (James Macpherson’s Ossian cycle, Thomas Chatterton, hints of Fuseli-inspired tableaux and the style of Flaxman), the result of which is the emergence of Blake’s own mythos. Characters from his later Illuminated Books and poems are introduced here, as is the rhetorical style and language found in the eponymously titled poem (c.1788-9). The liberty taken with the composition, figuration and, in the case of the Tiriel poem, technique, is also seen in the inclusion of the sexually suggestive trio, Har, Heva (Tiriel’s parents) and Mnetha. Lovers Har and Heva are frequently watched over by the most “vigilant” Mnetha, their supposed mother. Bathing in crystal clear waters, Har and Heva’s profiles merge, while Mnetha’s body gently curves like a bent reed around the couple. She is ‘looking on’ according to the title, not so much voyeuristically ­– for voyeurism belongs to a world of shame, which Blake has no time for especially when it comes to his ambrosial couplings – but with a sense of ease and assuredness, the watery reflections marrying her to the sexual symbiosis and liquid sexuality beneath. Clearly the Oedipus complex was not on Blake’s mind when drawing tableaux of this nature; rather, pleasure was framed as a guilt-free inclination, one which the Blakean hero never sought to hide or deny. Far from endorsing libertine amorality or a puritanical code of ethics, Blake envisioned a radical form of free love that was mythically bound as it was realistically elusive, at least for most individuals in the eighteenth century. Flip forward (or back, in the case of this review) to Albion Rose’s plush pink limbs, nubile nakedness and unashamedly phallic resurrection, and Blake’s definition of unadulterated pleasure will be fully comprehended.

True artistic liberty, however, was reserved for the 1790s, an era fully explored in room 2. It was during this revolutionary period, when the Blakes moved to the green spaces of Lambeth, that he was able to develop his pioneering printing technique of relief etching. To this day the exact processes of the technique remain unclear, but what is known is the amount of time, strength and patience required to complete etchings of this kind. Lambeth afforded the Blakes all three. It was this mysterious process that married body and soul, image and word, painting and poetry together. At a time where Blake was somewhat successful as an engraver and illustrator of designs for commercial commissions through radical publisher Joseph Johnson, it is a wonder he had any time to produce his own work. But produce he did, and it is thanks to this golden few years that we now have the highly anthologised Songs of Innocence (1789) and Experience (1793), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1794), The Book of Thel (c.1789), the Urizenic books (1794), America: A Prophecy (1793), Europe: A Prophecy (1794), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), and many other cherished works. Displayed along the edge of the room, around various printing paraphernalia and cabinets of commercial book designs, Blake’s relief etchings gleam and sing off the page. There’s Thel in dialogue with a tiny babe-like figure floating atop a crisp cream cloud; there’s the infant Los blissfully free and flying almost unaided in a cosmic swirl of candy pinks and baby blues; then another with an older Los, his face a bloated howl of despair, his broad torso compressed by the etched frame, his legs and arms lapped by hellish flames. All of Blake’s visions, his expansive mythical universe, are here, as if they were newly made and hot off the press, still blazing with the fire of his imagination.

But what captivated me most about the work in this room, more so than that found in the subsequent 3 rooms, was their scale. Diminutive in size but vast in vision and feeling, Blake’s works from the 1790s are more affective and effective than, say, his impressive drawings of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the large prints of Newton and Nebuchadnezzar (both in room 3), or even the sublimely coloured and crisply conceived drawings of Dante’s Divine Comedy in room 5. Why is this so? Some of the works, chiefly those from the Songs, are miniscule yet no less remarkable or sacrosanct in the Blakean repertoire. With some of the relief etchings fitting in the palm of one’s hand, these talking gems are exquisitely alive with both the spirit of the age (miniatures were all the rage in eighteenth-century Britain) and their creator. No two copies of the Songs are the same thanks to the mystical methods of relief etching; many were hand-painted by Catherine Blake herself, and several were sold during Blake’s own life time. What these marvellous poems-cum-images confirm is that you can indeed ‘see a World in a Grain of Sand’ and ‘hold infinity in the palm of your hand’. Freedom, particularly of the artistic kind, may not always be a lucrative or popular option – Blake saw very little money for his own poetry – and may not be embraced by a decade that sought to silence dissenting voices, but its marks and lines are unmistakable, particularly to new audiences, peering in from the injustices and oppressive forces of the twenty-first century and looking for a rebel, a radical, a visionary such as Blake, to voice and figure hope for them again.

If the exhibition begins with a vision of the ebullient Albion, it ends with the sombre form of Europe, Blake’s god-like embodiment of Enlightenment thought. Kneeling in the centre of a burning red sphere, Europe scales the dark depths of chaos with a compass. Bruised clouds strew the apocalyptic scene; metal grey and fiery orange shafts of light emanate from behind. Suspended above, Blake’s Urizenic-looking figure fixes his gaze downwards, deep in grave contemplation. Albion, by contrast, confidently stands on a reef-like precipice, newly born and beaming outwards. Unlike Europe’s closed steely form, Albion’s rose-pink body is bare and shamelessly open. Diametrically opposite in force, composition and character, these two forms incarnate the interrelationship of Blakean contrasts; they bookend not only a show, but a life devoted to artistic experimentation, the power of the imagination and freedom of thought. And while Albion Rose may not directly resonate with today’s political turmoil quite like Europe, both works testify to his own complexly composite beliefs about nationhood, patriotism and international relations. Although I’d hazard a guess that Blake would believe the freedom of one is bound up in the actions of the other. Without Europe can Albion truly rise – and vice versa?  Weeks before his death in 1827, Blake pronounced Europe ‘the best I have ever finished.’ Europe therefore completes a cycle, not of his mythology and esoteric credo, but of his own personal endeavour to fully realise that which he saw glistening and golden in his own mind’s eye, ripe for the picking and ready to transfer onto paper. He breathed life into the forms of his own imagination, risked poverty and endured slander to print the world as he saw it. Whether through Albion Rose or Europe, Blake’s richly realised visions will continue to inspire future generations, to encourage them to envisage new sights and worlds to come.