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Divine machinations: William Blake, Apprentice and Master

William Blake’s “infernal method” is revealed in an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Blake's Head of a Damned Soul. Picture: Hunterian Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

William Blake: Apprentice and Master
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

Walk by the memorial to William Blake in Bunhill Fields in London almost any day of the year, and you will find offerings placed before it, underneath the fig tree that overhangs the spot: usually there is a jar with flowers and almost always there are coppers set along the curve of the stone. These quotidian oblations are testimony to the peculiar power of the visionary artist.

“If Italy is enriched and made great by Raphael, if Michael Angelo is its supreme glory, if Art is the glory of a Nation, if Genius and Inspiration are the great Origin and Bond of Society, the distinction my Works have obtained from those who best understand such things, calls for my Exhibition as the greatest of Duties to my Country,” he wrote in 1809, in advance of the only exhibition of his works during his lifetime. On a broadside produced to advertise his “paintings in fresco”, as he called them (his method was actually closer to tempera painting; he “tempered” his pigments with a binding agent), Blake set out a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Fit audience find, tho’ few”. He knew his worth; he knew, too, that others might not.

Bunhill (“bone hill”) Fields was the Dissenters’ burial ground; much less easily discovered there is any marker for Blake’s beloved younger brother Robert, who died in 1787 at the age of 24. It was Robert’s spirit that revealed to the artist, in a dream, “the mode of accomplishing the publication of his illustrated songs, without their being subject to the expense of letter-press”, as one of the earliest accounts of Blake’s life had it. As the guest curator Michael Phillips explains in his fine catalogue, Blake’s innovation in engraving “turned the conventional practice on its head”, so that instead of covering the plate’s surface with a ground and scratching the design into it, he treated the copper plate like a sheet of paper, using varnish like ink and writing his text directly on to the polished surface of the plate: the “infernal method”, as he wrote in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake’s technique was revolutionary; just how revelatory it was is demonstrated in the Ashmolean’s “William Blake: Apprentice and Master”, a concise and beautiful show that highlights his extraordinary technical skill.

The Ashmolean is on a roll when it comes to taking topics that might seem overexposed and considering them anew: the just-ended “Discovering Tutankhamun” cast fresh light on the pharaoh’s oft-told tale by highlighting Howard Carter’s remarkable drawings from the tomb’s excavation. And although it is true that the last big Blake show was nearly 15 years ago at the Tate, his work is reproduced so frequently that it’s easy to think there is no more to say or see.

The show is broken up into three sections, covering his childhood and apprenticeship, when he was engaged to James Basire, a London engraver, and sent out to study the city’s Gothic churches; his innovations in colour printing techniques in the last part of the 18th century; and finally his later career and that of the Ancients, as they called themselves: the young artists who became his disciples – Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert. It would be perfectly possible to look at everything the museum has on offer in an hour, if one were so inclined; and yet the show would reward a great many repeat visits.

Reproduction diminishes Blake and contains him. But viewed “live”, the relief and white-line etching of The Approach of Doom (c.1788), created in answer to a work of Robert’s, are viscerally free, vividly present; it is astonishing to think it was made well over two centuries ago. How was it made? A re-creation of Blake’s Lambeth studio in the centre gallery gives the viewer a good idea. Although the site of the studio – No 13 Hercules Buildings, on Hercules Road, SE1 – was razed in 1918, recently discovered plans show the house’s dimensions, and Phillips (a skilled printmaker who has re-created Blake’s illuminated books) gives insight, in this simple room with its wooden press, into Blake’s daily environment.

It is striking to see three images of The House of Death/The Lazar House (c.1795) set side by side; never before have they been displayed together this way, and each is so very different. Paler colours or greener tones alter the whole feel of the scene; Blake finished each colour-printed monotype with chalk, watercolour, Indian ink – whatever suited his needs. His artistic adventurousness can also be seen in the work of those who came after him. George Richmond’s The Creation of Light (1826) is thoroughly Blakean in its vision, in the musculature of the soaring figure at its centre; but the gold and silver that accentuate the tempera seem to anticipate the dazzling work of Gustav Klimt.

Perhaps this is not surprising. Blake’s imagination was not bounded by time; in his Lambeth garden with his wife, Catherine, he was at one with all the world for ever. “In him you saw at once the Maker, the Inventor,” Samuel Palmer wrote of him; “one of the few in any age . . . He was energy itself . . . To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter . . . Those may laugh at this who never knew such an one as Blake; but of him it is the simple truth.” 

Until 1 March. More details: ashmolean.org

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times