Artists and Illustrators – William Blake

Artists and Illustrators – William Blake
William Blake is one of the most potent figures in British art. His writing and his illustrations are part of a great synthetic vision that continues to exhilarate, inspire and astonish succeeding generations while remaining outside what is often perceived to be the mainstream of Western Art.

I can write that William Blake was born in 1757 in London where he lived until his death in 1827, that his only formal education was in art – drawing school at the age of ten, four years after that to the Royal Academy and then, aged 18, apprenticed for seven years to the engraver Thomas Basire. I can describe his subsequent career as a jobbing engraver whose work ranged from illustrating ”An Introduction To Mensuration” to producing sample books for Josiah Wedgewood’s salesmen and who ”during a period of Forty years never suspended his Labours on Copper for a single Day”. However, its a tricky business writing the c.v. of a man who wrote about getting up in the morning

“ When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?
O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”, and describes time and space thus
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”

The temptation for anyone writing about Blake is to separate an art that was filled with grandeur and drama from a life that must have seemed to those who knew him by his appearance only, to be marked by hard work and a particularly humdrum failure. However it is the mixture of the divine and the everyday that makes him so attractive. He had no private income to shield him from the reality of the industrial revolution but was a tradesman who had to pay his own way. He was a mystic who did not turn his back on the world but saw the glory of heaven and the despair of hell in the streets of London.

This year the Tate gallery in London is showing a new display of the work of William Blake alongside that of “The Ancients” a group of artists that included Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert and George Richmond. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is holding a special exhibition that runs from 22 June to—— of Blake’s work. Here again his work is presented alongside that of “The Ancients”, but also includes artists such as Fuseli, Varley and Stothard who, one way and another, played an important part in Blake’s life. Both exhibitions prompt reflections not only on Blake’s art but on those artists whose work he has influenced.

Blake’s illustrations are imaginative and centred on mankind. Landscape, apart from one inspired series is noticeably absent. While the vast majority of his work is designed to be shown alongside a text, during a particularly creative period of his life, while living in Lambeth, he produced a series of prints that he wished to stand alone.

Blake was fond of inventing his own technique. In order to make this particular series, millboard was painted with oil colour, printed while still wet and the final picture finished off using water-colour. This method allowed versions of the same design to be produced on demand, although no two versions would be exactly alike. The Tate is showing a selection of these prints including an image central to Blake’s art, a portrait of Isaac Newton. The prints operate in pairs, “Newton” the great mathematician and scientist is paired with “Nebuchadnezzar” the king of Babylon, who for seven years ate grass and dwelt with the beasts of the field until his understanding returned to him and he “praised and honoured him that liveth fore ever”.

Newton is shown holding a pair of measuring compasses, a symbol that Blake used throughout his life to denote the potentially deadening effect on the imagination of rationalism (one cannot at the same time claim to hold infinity in the palm of one’s hand and believe in the universal efficacy of measurement!)

At the beginning and the end of Blake’s system of thought stands the Universal Man, the “Human Form Divine” who he named “Albion”. Albion is man, god and cosmos.

Our present lives are the result of the splitting up of this original form into separate parts, one of whom is “Urizen” a being who longs for permanence and unity and who measures out the abyss with ruler and compass: Newton is under Urizen’s control. History is the story of Mankind striving towards and then falling back from this original state until, through the redeemer – who Blake equates with the human imagination, there is a return (via an apocalypse) to the original unified state of the Universal man, “Albion”.

The fact that these ideas originated through Blake making books that combined his poetry, illustrations and calligraphy determined their substance. Concepts are more difficult to illustrate than characters who embody those concepts. Once drawable characters are invented, they interact, create drama and drive the plot: myth not philosophy is the result. The books were stitched between loose covers by Blake’s wife Catherine and produced in their tens rather than in their hundreds; few survive today. These books, “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience”, “The Book of Urizen”, “America”, “Jerusalem” and others are at the core of Blake’s artistic output. Despite the huge amount of effort that Blake put into these productions, they never made him any money.

During the same year (1814) that George Cumberland was writing “Poor Blake, still poor, still dirty”, a young businessman/ artist called John Linnell met Blake and became his friend. This friendship marked something of a turning point in Blake’s life. After finding him commissions and patrons, Linnell began to pay him regular sums of money on account. Among the projects that Linnell instigated were the illustrations for Dante’s “Divine Comedy” that Blake was working on up until his death. Blake had begun learning Italian in 1802 in order to read Dante in the original. Dante, the Bible and Milton, were the chief influences on Blake’s writing and in Blake’s case, words were always linked with images. In 1809 Blake had written “The more distinct, sharp and wiry the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art”. In these watercolours, painted in a volume that Linnell had given him for the purpose, Blake’s rich and magnificent colour, “bounding lines” and above all the unnerving power of his imagination combine magnificently. Viewed as individual works they are extraordinary, as a series, the designs are awe inspiring.

In Birmingham Museum’s “Circle of the Lustfull,” the movement of the souls caught within the whirlwind is almost visible, there is a suggestion of vast space and an empathy with the damned that draws one into the detail of the piece. Blake believed Hell to be constructed by “Urizen”, that is to say, the application of Moral Law rather than the exercise of the cardinal Christian virtue, the forgiveness of sin. Blake’s journey into Hell, like Dante’s , is a necessary part of an internal journey that ends in Paradise.

It was Linnell who introduced Blake to a young group of artists who called themselves “The Ancients” and it was he who was instrumental in commissioning a set of wood engravings illustrating a version of “The Pastorals of Virgil” that Robert Thornton (Linnell’s doctor), was publishing for schools. In these small wood engravings a rural vision, unique in Blake’s work, is expressed.

Samuel Palmer, the most talented member of ”The Ancients” met Blake in 1824 when he was 19 and Blake was 67. For Palmer, the prints were “Nooks and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisite pitch of intense poetry”.

These tiny images have become the fountain head for a distinct tradition of romantic British landscape and are especially linked with Palmer’s best ( and earliest) work, produced while Blake’s influence was at its height.

Palmer created the art that he will always be remembered for by the time he was 26. Works such as “The Bright Cloud” go beyond the portrayal of a rural idyll and are suffused with a religious sensibility that is benevolent and protective. The moon that so often appeared in his work at this time looks like God’s eye. An embryo growing in the womb of God might see and paint such a landscape.

The work that Palmer did at this time did not sell. Poverty eventually directed his style in a more familiar and therefore more commercial direction. However, it was not only his poverty that altered his art for the worse. The agricultural riots that preceded the passing of the Reform Bill of 1832 horrified Palmer and the rest of ”The Ancients”. They found their joyous image of a bountiful countryside harder to sustain in the face of the increasingly obvious poverty and hardship of the agricultural labourer. The reactionary platitudes that Palmer retreated into were destructive to his vision and would have been anathema to Blake, who had died in 1827.

Blake surely would have taken these events in his stride – contraries were necessary for progress! Blake’s art, unlike Palmer’s, contains within it a huge range of energies knitted together to form a comprehensive system of belief and is tough enough to withstand the horrors and vandalism of time. For this we should be grateful and like Palmer and many others, take such inspiration as we can from his example.