William Blake: Apprentice and Master

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The poet and engraver William Blake was one of the great revolutionary artists. Some of his best works were inspired by the French Revolution. He courageously donned the famous symbol of liberty and equality — the “bonnet rougein”. In 1780 he took part in a riot in which the notorious Newgate Gaol was burnt to the ground and its prisoners freed. In 1803 he stood trial for sedition.

Throughout his working life he used all his talents to wage war on the institutions of the state and the church, which he passionately believed were instruments of repression and corruption.

He raged against the misery and bondage imposed on the mass of the population, and at the same time celebrated the possibility of human liberation. His political rebellion against the oppression that surrounded him was expressed in religious terms because of the times he lived in. He was so different from what else was going on that he was seen, and still is, as something of a “visionary”, which is code for “a bit mad”.

At the age of 14 Blake was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire, where he excelled. He was inspired by medieval manuscripts which he etched onto copper plates to print. The first section of the exhibition shows the extraordinary precision of his engraving and hints at the unorthodox approach he was to adopt in his poetry and art.

On display is an etching called “Head of a Damned Soul” which was created using fine wavy cross strokes with a dot in the middle of each diamond shape. The closer the lines, the darker the effect. It shows the head of a man in the throes of demonic torment, his eyes rolled up looking skywards, his mouth gasping. The feeling is one of terrible suffering and agony.

The exhibition shows how Blake developed his techniques and ways of printing in a single process so that he wasn’t beholden to the political and moral censorship of publishers. He discovered a way of varnishing the text and illustrations onto copper plate and then using corrosives to melt away the copper around the protective layer of varnish.

He had to teach himself to mirror-write to perfect this technique but it gave him the freedom to print and publish his own works. He wrote: “But first the notion that man has a body,/Distinct from his soul, is to be expunged/This I shall do by printing in the infernal method/By corrosives, which in hell are salutary and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away and displaying the infinite which was hid/If the doors of perception were cleansed/Everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”

In 1791 his engraving of one of Hogarth’s Beggar’s Opera paintings sold so well that he and his wife moved to Lambeth, where Blake operated his roller-press in the front ground-floor room. The house was demolished in 1918 but the curators have recreated Blake’s printing studio within the exhibition, including a replica of the press itself.

Blake believed in equality between all peoples — he was an early abolitionist — and between the sexes. He condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfilment. He abhorred the black-robed priests of organised religion who erected a “Thou shalt not” sign over the garden of earthly love that he believed in.

One of my favourite pieces in the exhibition is his “Circle of the Lustful” in which Blake illustrates Dante’s Divine Comedy.This pen and watercolour over pencil work shows a great gust of wind, carrying naked lovers, both men and women, in a giant wave of punishment. However, while Dante condemned the sin of lust, Blake forgives the lovers. Against a twilight sky, they are shown ecstatically released. The two have taken their place in the centre of the sun, with their bodies entwined.

Blake had no time for authority or kings and the most magnificent work on display is a colour print, with ink and watercolour to give it more depth, of Nebuchadnezzar who was the biblical king of Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar is crawling on his hands and knees, a hybrid of beast, man and lizard, his hair dragging on the ground, humbled by the Lord for boasting of the might of his kingdom. He has a haunted look on his face. It is a startlingly original image. At a time when the heads of kings were rolling and the ruling orders collapsing it is clear what the print signified.

Another striking image is “The Song of Liberty”, a celebration of revolution which foresees a future of political and religious freedom. A lot of the exhibition is devoted to how Blake developed his printing technique and I now know more about printing than I will ever need. Instead I would like to have seen more of how the historical period and his beliefs affected his work. Nevertheless this exhibition is well worth seeing.