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William Blake’s design innovations

Blake was seen by most of his contemporaries as eccentric and mediocre. But for all his technical failings, his inventive approach made him one of the greatest graphic artists of all time.

In February 1818, Samuel Taylor Cole-ridge was sent a copy of Songs of Innocence, William Blake’s first illustrated book of poems, which had been published some 30 years earlier. He was both impressed and discomfited by what he read. “You may smile at my calling another Poet a Mystic,” Coleridge, by then a fully fledged opium addict, wrote to a friend, “but verily I am in the very mire of commonplace common sense compared with Mr Blake.” Coleridge was not, of course, the first or last person to be mired.

Blake’s offbeat character – from his naturism and convoluted, self-invented cosmology to his visions of angels sitting in trees and his political and religious nonconformism – forms a carapace so tough as to be nigh-on impenetrable. The fact that his quirks were not so much elements of the man but the man himself means that he can be too daunting to comprehend properly. He once said of his illustrated poems that “My style of designing is a species by itself” and Blake too can perhaps be best characterised as a species in himself.

Whatever Blake was – poet, prophet and sage, or “Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary” as the poster to Tate Britain’s extraordinary new survey of his career somewhat sensationally puts it – he was primarily, and from first to last, a professional artist. For much of his life he spent his days as a highly regarded freelance commercial engraver; his evenings he gave over to his watercolours and relief etchings – intended as saleable products; and it was only late at night that he became a poet, composing in snatches when he had a few moments to spare.

Traditionally, the artist and poet have been considered inseparable, and it is true that his illustrated books, and the technique of relief engraving he developed for them, were born of frustration with the limitations of existing publishing methods. However, many of his peers and supporters were baffled by such works as The First Book of Urizen (1794), Europe: a Prophecy (1794), and The Book of Los (1795). If they didn’t understand the convoluted messages, they did understand the power of the images that accompanied the words. And Blake in his turn understood that there was money to be made from them, so in several instances he blanked out the text and sold books of the pictures as independent works of art. Unmoored from the texts the images take on universal themes. For Blake, the purity of his vision was not sacrosanct.

Something of this same worldly pragmatism was at play when he created some of his most mystical works, the 100 “Visionary heads” he made in the last decade of his life. One of his great supporters in his later years was John Varley, a watercolourist and astrologer with an interest in spiritualism. The two men would embark on nocturnal seances that could last from ten at night to three in the morning (Varley would often fall asleep) and Varley would ask Blake to draw the spirits he encountered on the astral plane. Blake sketched the likes of Wat Tyler, King David and Solomon. Importantly, Varley would buy the drawings.

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uring one of their sessions Varley asked Blake to look out for the spirit of William Wallace; he didn’t have to wait long. “There, there, how noble he looks – reach me my things!” Blake shouted and started drawing, but then stopped. “I cannot finish him ­– Edward I has stepped in between him and me.” “That’s lucky,” said Varley, “for I want the portrait of Edward too.” According to the painter John Linnell, Varley “believed in the reality of Blake’s visions more than even Blake himself… It was Varley who excited Blake to see or fancy the portraits of historical personages.” Blake, “a hearty laugher at absurdity” in Linnell’s words, was nevertheless happy enough to play on the credulousness of his patron.

One of Blake’s most celebrated images, The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20), emerged in just this way. Blake told Varley that he had seen a vision of the spectral insect but hadn’t drawn it: “I wish I had, but I shall, if he appears again!” Lo and behold, he “looked earnestly” into a corner of the room, and said: “Here he is ­– reach me my things, I shall keep my eye on him. There he comes! His eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hand to hold blood, and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green.” Whether the vision was genuine, in jest, for money or somewhere in between, the creature he drew is nevertheless truly unsettling.

Blake’s career was in many ways a long struggle to be accepted. He was born in 1757, the son of moderately successful Soho shopkeepers, and set out from an early age to be an artist. Encouraged first by his parents, he was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire and worked extensively in Westminster Abbey making prints of the monuments. In 1779 he entered the Royal Academy (RA) Schools and received an approved artistic training, first drawing from casts, then from the live model, and ingesting the traditional artistic hierarchy that held history painting – scenes from history, the Bible, Shakespeare and classical mythology – as the pre-eminent form.

Although his love of the Gothic and Michelangelo (then a less revered figure than Raphael) put him at odds with Joshua Reynolds, the RA president, Blake didn’t doubt the primacy of the Academy’s top-tier genre. Throughout his career, he almost never drew lesser works such as portraits or landscapes and his pictures can be seen as personal variants on the idea of history painting.


Glad Day, c 1795, Blake’s ecstatic version of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

Around 1809 Blake defined his vision of art. “Painting is Drawing on Canvas,” he said, “and Engraving is Drawing on Copper and nothing Else. Drawing is Execution and nothing Else and he who Draws best must be the best Artist.” For all his training, Blake was never close to being the best artist. He yearned to paint frescoes and altarpieces and take art back to the grandeur, power and authenticity of Michelangelo but his own painting method was rudimentary, his understanding of technique sketchy, and he rarely worked on images much bigger than a sheet of paper. As a draughtsman too he was limited: his drawing style was highly mannered – linear, with elongated figures, heads with undifferentiated features, and he had little interest in proportion, the articulation of joints, perspective, or nature.

Certainly, most of his contemporaries saw him both as an eccentric and a mediocre artist. In 1809, on the back of modest success for his designs for an edition of Robert Blair’s poem The Grave, he held a one-man exhibition above his brother’s haberdashery shop in Soho. “If Art is the glory of a Nation,” he wrote, “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 was alone in his opinion: the show attracted hardly any visitors, none of his paintings sold, and the one review it generated was hostile, the critic labelling the pictures “the wild effusions of a distempered brain”.

Blake has all too frequently been depicted as sui generis, an original and solitary outsider, the archetypal prophet without honour. To some degree he was, but it is a view that needs tempering. He was far from the only artist at the time with a powerful visionary bent and a distinctive personal style. Among his own circle, Henry Fuseli, James Barry and George Romney could produce odd and deeply potent works and both Fuseli and Blake’s fellow RA student John Flaxman had a profound influence on him. On the continent Goya, a genuinely great artist, gave startling pictorial form to his disturbing inner world. In Denmark, Nicolai Abildgaard sometimes touched the same intensity, while the German painter Philipp Otto Runge was another artist with a mystical frame of mind.

If Blake’s religio-mythical world, with its cast of urges and personifications – Urizen, Los, Enitharmon, Thel ­– and mixture of Christian, classical and Norse themes, was all his own, some of his political and social instincts had a wider resonance. His anti- slavery, anti-establishment sentiments; his distrust of both orthodox religion and un-numinous science; and belief in personal liberty (including a degree of free love) made him a member of Georgian England’s awkward squad rather than putting him completely beyond the pale.

Radicalism was hardly rebellion and even his one real altercation with authority was not all it seemed. In 1803 Blake had a scuffle with a soldier who then accused him of assault and sedition, claiming Blake had shouted “Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves.” When he came up before the beak at Chichester assizes he was quickly acquitted and the evidence dismissed as trumped up.

At the time of the incident Blake was living in a cottage at Felpham in Sussex belonging to the poet William Hayley, who had commissioned him to illustrate his books. Although they fell out, Hayley was just one of a group of supporters who in the first decade of the 19th century allowed Blake to become financially independent. The most steadfast of them was Thomas Butts, a civil servant in charge of supplying the army with uniforms, whose patronage was to last some 20 years: at one point he owned 200 of Blake’s works, many of which he dotted round the girls’ school he also ran. Other admirers and helpers included the Third Earl of Egremont, John Linnell and the landscape artist Samuel Palmer with his group of pastoralists, known as the Ancients.

The exhibition’s curators are keen to stress that Blake’s wife Catherine was his greatest helpmeet. Not only did she organise the household, do his accounts and manage their bouts of poverty, but she helped with the production of his prints and took a hand in their colouring. They had married after an unconventional courtship when, lachrymose after a previous failed relationship, Blake confessed his heartbreak to her. “Do you pity me?” he asked and when Catherine replied that she did he responded: “Then I love you.” The marriage proved to be enduring, although not without its strains, not least because, as the poet Swinburne reported, “once in a patriarchal mood he did propose to add a second wife to their small and shifting household”. Blake nevertheless declared to her at the very end of his life: “You have ever been an angel to me.”

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In some ways, this artistic, social and familial milieu makes Blake’s work even more extraordinary. For all his technical frailties he was one of the greatest of all graphic artists, with an instinctive understanding of design. The great majority of his body-centred art is small in scale but it views large. The last of the 300 pictures in the Tate’s exhibition is Blake’s famous The Ancient of Days showing the bearded Urizen kneeling out of the sun and measuring the world with a pair of compasses. Originally the frontispiece to Europe: a Prophecy, Blake worked on this image in the days before his death in 1827 and declared it “the best I have ever finished”. Indeed, this richly coloured impression of intense sunset reds, much deeper in tone than his other hand-coloured versions, is the perfect example of his work at its most powerful. It is epic in everything but scale: an image that could, like the works of his hero Michelangelo, cover a wall is only the size of a sheet of A4 paper.

Blake’s work may have been uniquely tied to the word, with illustrations to the Bible, Milton, Shakespeare, Dante and Bunyan at its core, but his greatest innovations were visual. For example, his illustrated books – versions of medieval illuminated manuscripts – were made by relief etching, a technique he called the “infernal method” and which he claimed to have learned from the ghost of his brother Robert. While normal etching uses acid to burn away the incised lines of a design, relief etching (he left no description of exactly how he did it) burns away the surface of the plate to leave the words and designs standing proud. It was not his only unusual technique: he was fascinated with tempera, which uses egg as the medium for colours rather than oil, but worked it in conjunction with ink and oil on mahogany boards. This bizarre attempt at recreating antique methods did not always have happy results.

The series of 12 great prints he made between 1795 and 1805, which includes his images of Isaac Newton at the bottom of the sea and a bestial, crawling Nebuchadnezzar, were further innovations. Rather than simply working directly on paper he painted the designs onto millboard, pressed a sheet of paper onto that and then worked, with watercolour and ink, to bring the image to fruition. The result of this mixed method was a greater surface texture and complexity than he could otherwise have achieved.


Ghost of a Flea, 1819-20​

That the Tate’s enormous display forces home is the staggering breadth of Blake’s imagination and inventiveness. Urizen drowning, knees tucked-up as if he had just bomb-dived into a swimming pool; the four terrifying images of the Red Dragon from the Book of Revelation – Dr Moreau monsters with superhero muscles, bat wings, horned heads and scales; Glad Day, an ecstatic version of Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man recast as an affirmation of the natural state of existence. Figures surge through the skies and dance through flames, they huddle, bound, process, embrace, stretch out in their ease or gesticulate heroically like leading men in a musical. For Blake the human body, in stylised form, was infinitely expressive.

The Tate show is an extraordinary gathering of his work, exhaustive and exhausting. What it shows above all is how his intensity of concentration was sustained for an entire career; it never wavered. It also shows that, for all the timelessness of his work, just how rooted Blake was in the social and artistic agendas of his time. If he seems a very different artist from more accepted figures such as Turner and Constable there are numerous correspondences too, not least that Blake would occasionally bump into Constable when both were walking on Hampstead Heath, and was an avowed admirer of the younger man. All three men though, in their different ways, were observational artists; while Turner and Constable were the great interpreters of the external world, Blake’s focus was fixed firmly on the imaginative one. 

“William Blake” runs at Tate Britain until 2 February 2020

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 20 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control