William Blake’s Universe Back

Reviewed on: 20th March 2024

Unlike most previous Blake exhibitions (for example Tate Britain in 2019) William Blake’s Universe is very much NOT a retrospective of this arguably very English, and arguably very eccentric artist. Instead, as its title suggests this is an ambitious attempt to set Blake and his ideas and works within broader contexts: of his artistic circle, of European classical traditions  and of the wider, creative ‘background mood’ of his times. It is mounted in collaboration with the Hamburger Kunsthalle, to which  this  exhibition will next travel. The German connection is very evident in the number of works by German artists, and especially Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1801), chosen to represent the contemporary European context. I should stress at this point that I am coming to Blake and to this exhibition as a historian and not an art history specialist. 

William Blake. Albion Rose (“Glad Day”… “The Dance of Ablion”), 1794-96. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The exhibited works are arranged across three rooms representing in a chronological sweep Past, Present and Future as Blake might have seen them. ‘Past’ considers the classical art tradition of the Royal Academy in which Blake was trained and its overseas equivalents – a tradition based on copying from the ancients. ‘Present’ looks at the tumultuous world events of the latter two decades of the eighteenth and earlier nineteenth centuries – years of revolution and  war – and the artistic reaction to these. ‘Future’ turns to the importance to Blake and others of the need for a revived spiritual response to the chaos. This contextualising, of course, to a large extent undermines the belief that Blake was entirely an eccentric.

For Blake enthusiasts there is a sumptuous quantity of varied material to enjoy: from the early copied drawings, to the personally developed, stylised and apocalyptic approach of his prophetic books in which images taken from the imagination and designed for dramatic impact are closely intertwined with manuscript text, to the later Romantic, more delicately coloured spiritual religiosity seen in, for example, ‘Paradise Regained’.  There are surprises, too. ‘F(rench) Revolution’ is a small etching depicting royal guards protecting Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from the mob at Versailles. Commissioned in 1793 as an illustration for Bellamy’s Picturesque Magazine. This looks less like ‘a Blake’ and more like a Francis Hayman illustration to Pamela. Almost always impoverished, Blake received little  financial reward for his visionary work, and this is a reminder of his need at times to be commercial. The second  surprise, towards the end of the exhibition, is the scale (153.6 x 123 cm) of the tempera on canvas painting ‘An Allegory of the Spiritual Condition of Man’ (1811?). This, the largest surviving Blake painting, is, as the catalogue acknowledges (p. 135), akin to fresco painting, an exercise in monumental public art.[i]

Blake’s historical universe is well-put-together, and so too is the London artistic and literary universe which he inhabited. From Academy days onwards, those whom he encountered, whose encouragement he received, whose artistic or radical political influence he felt and whom he in turn influenced are reflected in their works displayed in parallel to Blake’s: John  Flaxman, Benjamin West, Hanry Fuseli, James Barry, Henry Crabb Robinson, Samuel Palmer. What is more tendentious is the, at times, somewhat heavy focus on contemporary European artists such as Runge. For the received notion of Blake as a very English artist is true. He never left England. Indeed, except for a three-year interlude in Felpham, Sussex, he never left London. Despite his academic training he was, compared to most of his contemporaries, very much born into trade: his father a Soho hosier and he initially an apprentice to the engraver James Basire. There is no evidence that Blake ever met or was even aware of Runge and his understanding of European art movements was necessarily entirely second-hand through books and through better-travelled friends such as Flaxman. That there were parallel artistic responses to the stifling nature of the classical art  tradition when faced with the upheaval of revolution and war is interesting but not especially surprising.  The works displayed are beautiful (more so than Blake’s, according to the Guardian’s reviewer) and broaden the visitor’s mind (I for one blush to admit I had never heard of Runge), but do they really represent Blake’s universe? Or affect our understanding of his art?   

Finally, may I put in a word for an important contributor to Blake’s life and world almost entirely overlooked: his wife Catherine? There is a small sketch of her husband as a young man made by her shortly after his death in 1827, and a brief catalogue acknowledgment (p. 28) of her role as an ‘assistant’ together with an admission that ‘it is difficult to differentiate her colouring from Blake’s in copies of the illuminated books’ (p. 28). The Fitzwilliam holds two further works by Catherine Blake and including these in the exhibition would have made a small but important difference to what we understand by ‘Blake’s Universe’.      

[i] David Bindman and Esther Chadwick, eds, William Blake’s Universe (Cambridge: The Fitzwilliam Museum, 2024).