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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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage