William Blake: Apprentice and Master (Review of the Exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)
Considered as a cultural icon, William Blake is a protean figure whose Whitmanesque motto might well be 'I contain multitudes'. He comes in a range of models – prophet, visionary, radical firebrand, Antinomian, treasured English eccentric, Swedenborgian, obscurantist, poet and artist. All of these epithets and more have been employed in various combinations to unlock the character of a figure who lived and died in relative, though not total, obscurity, whose grave is unmarked but whose posthumous renown sees many new studies being added to the Blakean research archives every year. To slightly misquote another poet, Auden this time, there is a sense in which Blake has become his admirers.
So what is there left to say about this man that hasn't already been said, and is there a way of presenting his work in a context which hasn't been trotted out numerous times before? Michael Phillips, the curator of William Blake: Apprentice and Master, thinks there is, certainly in terms of Blake’s artistic work and, more specifically, his printmaking exploits. As the title might suggest, this was an exhibition which focused in the main on its subject as a highly – indeed, mesmerisingly -- accomplished craftsman. Whilst that in itself was enough of an enticing prospect to get a Blake devotee such as myself to hotfoot it all the way from the north of England down to Oxford, an unforeseen further treat was the accompanying catalogue, which turned out to be one of the best examples of its kind that I've ever come across.
Prior to attending I'd read one or two less than glowing reviews which mainly seemed to focus on the exhibition's incongruous handling of themes; Blake as jobbing artisan versus Blake as intransigent mystic. For me, though, the careful structure and pacing of the show served to successfully demonstrate how the aspiring young artist developed over many arduous and occasionally indigent years into the sage who so inspired Samuel Palmer and the rest of the Ancients that one of them recalled, “never did he enter Blake's house without imprinting a reverent kiss upon the bell-handle.” It is, perhaps, that William Blake, the bald old man wreathed in an aura of English mysticism, creator of swirly seraphs and bearded patriarchs, who has gained the greatest currency amongst the art-appreciating public. However, this latest exhibition for the most part banished nebulous speculation about its subject's unworldly genius, offering instead a much more analytical perspective on the cultural and economic conditions in which Blake worked, the graphic art techniques he adopted and those he developed himself.
Such close attention to Blake's actual working practices meant that from the outset visitors were confronted with artefacts which gave a visceral sense of the kind of prowess the young Blake would have had to aim for in order to thrive in the mid-eighteenth century commercial art world. One early example of this was a huge engraving produced by James Basire, depicting Henry VIII and Francis I meeting on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. It is, perhaps, all too easy to skim over these old engravings without stopping to consider the acutely disciplined skill involved in producing them. In Basire's case, it was this kind of proficiency that had earned him his appointment as official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries in 1759 --a proficiency which he would have looked to foster in the teenage Blake who became his apprentice in 1772. Once indentured, the young man was set to work in Westminster Abbey making antiquarian drawings of royal tombs as studies for illustrations to appear in Richard Gough's Sepulchral Monumentsof Great Britain. The portraits that Blake produced based on sculpted effigies, of subjects such as Edward III, with cascading locks framing a serenely venerable face, prefigured the type of ancient patriarch that, in future years, would feature in the artist's work as both divinity and demiurge.
Following his apprenticeship Blake attended the Royal Academy's (R.A.) Antique School as a probationer, and it is from this period that accounts of the artist's uncompromising views on art begin to be recorded. A vehement disagreement with the Keeper of the R.A. as to the merits of such artists as Rubens and Le Brun, whose painterly style Blake disavowed in favour of the linear exactitude of Dürer and Michelangelo, set the tone for many of the artist's later verbal and written tirades against ‘iniquitous’ or ‘debased’ individuals or institutions. Such redoubtable self-conviction combined with a determination not to slavishly follow fashionable or popular tastes fuelled some of his best work even if, during his lifetime, these qualities often alienated him from buyers. We may now be familiar -- even over-familiar - -with Blake's illuminated books such as Songs of Innocence etc., with their glorious synthesis of lyrical puissance and prodigious artistry, but, in the context of the period and milieu in which he worked, what the exhibition demonstrated was just how singularly curious these works must have appeared at the time.
For those not familiar with the various methods of producing engravings and etchings in use during Blake's lifetime, the exhibition might have proved either a revelation or a confusing crash course. Although there were several carefully positioned and notated examples to show the often intricate processes involved, some discreetly placed demonstration videos (of which there are several examples on YouTube etc.) might have helped to reinforce the printed information. Instead of moving images, as an aid to understanding the practical considerations involved in producing his images, one corner of the exhibition space contained a reconstruction of the room that Blake used as a studio when he lived in Lambeth, complete with its own printing press. The contrast between the fascinating prospect of viewing this set-up, as described in the pre-publicity, and the reality of gazing on a strangely sterile replication devoid of any sense of historical character has been remarked upon elsewhere and, for me, was the whole event's weak spot. Nevertheless, if nothing else, the sheer size of the press and the lack of space in which to operate it did emphasise the cramped conditions that Blake endured. That he in fact thrived in such confined circumstances is a testament to his transcendent sense of vocation. As discussed in the exhibition catalogue, Blake's printing methods were “symbolic of his philosophy of mind and unwavering belief in the existence of innate ideas.” To put that in rather more prosaic terms, whereas the printing of illustrated books in the eighteenth century had entailed a combination of raised letterpress for the text and illustrations etched into the surface of a copper plate, Blake arrived at a method which combined the reproduction of words and images in one single process. He did this by etching both text and design on the same plate using a technique which caused both to stand in relief. While this was practically innovative and endowed his work with its unique appearance, for Blake it was also emblematic of his rejection of contemporary empirical philosophy, as propounded by such figures as John Locke with his claims that the human mind started out as a tabula rasa upon which subsequent experience inscribed itself. In contrast, Blake's method of revealing the design of a plate by biting at its blank surface expressed his belief that humanity's essential divinity is an innate quality which we must bring to light in order to rediscover.
The tangible results of such philosophical experiments are the several wondrous prints, with their radiant combinations of words and images. As intricate and abstruse as the verse narrative might often be in such works as The Book of Urizen, Europe: A Prophesy or Visions of the Daughters of Albion, it is the overall experience of encountering Blake's towering imagination in words and pictures that, for me, makes this artist's work so compelling. Take any one of the so-called 'Large Colour Prints' of 1795, for example, such as the well-known images of Nebuchadnezzar crawling around on all fours in his terror-stricken madness, or the naked Newton bending over his diagrams, compass in hand, the embodiment of scientific sterility to Blake's visionary eye, and you are immediately immersed in a world that is strange, sublime and utterly convincing. Here again, the exhibition proved fascinating in its display of the preparatory images that Blake worked up to inform the final versions of such works. Particularly striking were those for the House of Death/Lazar House which, in its several versions, illustrated a passage from Book XI of Paradise Lost wherein a 'monstrous crew' of men are described as afflicted by 'Diseases dire': Blake's imagining of this scene increasingly becomes the collective embodiment of agonised suffering.
As formidable as such works are, though, for me Blake's two finest achievements are his Illustrations of the Book of Job and his woodcut engravings for Dr Robert Thornton's Pastorals of Virgil, both of which featured in the show. With his Job intaglios, Blake realised an astonishing synthesis of word and imagery, the effect of which is to produce a biblical realm of restless exhilaration underpinned by the kind of monumental gravitas that he had first captured as an apprentice when working on Gough's Sepulchral Monuments. It was these illustrations which so delighted the artist, and important patron of Blake, John Linnell who, in turn, introduced the young Samuel Palmer to the ageing visionary. As mentioned above, thereafter Palmer and his artistic circle would provide Blake with a reverential audience in his final years. Of his later works, Blake's small wood engravings for Thornton's Pastorals of Virgil would have particular resonance for Palmer and provide an important inspiration for much of his now celebrated early work produced whilst he was resident in the Shoreham countryside. In previous reviews for Albion I've made reference to these woodcuts, so I will not belabour the point here --suffice it to say that they are quite simply exquisite and infinitely fascinating. That superb prints of them were on display at the exhibition along with much of Palmer's Shoreham work and that of his fellow Ancients (including the woefully unsung Edward Calvert) made for an engrossing finale to the whole show.
All in all, then, William Blake: Apprentice and Master was a remarkable exhibition which conveyed a real sense of how this highly skilled printmaker wielded his preternatural artistic and poetic gifts in the pursuit of eking out a living on the margins of the commercial art world. Just a few years after his death, Blake was summed up by Edward Fitzgerald as “a genius with a screw loose,” and whilst it has, perhaps, been all too easy to assign him to the ranks of once misunderstood geniuses and leave it at that, this exhibition served to significantly subvert such misty-eyed platitudes. In so doing, it also managed to re-contextualise Blake within the lived socio-economic and artistic parameters of his working life. --Mark Jones