‘Imagination is my world.’ So wrote William Blake. His was a world of ‘historical inventions’. Nelson and Lucifer, Pitt and the Great Red Dragon, chimney sweeps and cherubim, the Surrey Hills and Jerusalem in ruins, the alms houses of Mile End and the vast abyss of Satan’s bosom. He saw the fires of the Gordon Riots and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. His subjects were Milton and Merlin, Dante and Job, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ and the Book of Revelation. He held infinity in the palm of his hand, yet worked through the night to write and grave all that was on his mind. ‘I have very little of Mr Blake’s company,’ said Catherine Blake with the indulgent sigh of all wives of Great Men. ‘He is always in Paradise.’
As a boy, Blake had seen a tree filled with angels on Peckham Rye. As an apprentice engraver, sent by his master James Basire to sketch the gothic tombs in Westminster Abbey, he saw a great procession of monks, priests, choristers and incense burners walking to heavenly music. When he was a journeyman engraver, cutting ‘fribbles’ for his living, the sacred carpenter Joseph appeared in a dream to tell him the secret of Italian tempera painting. His late beloved brother Robert revealed to him the mysteries of printing. His vision of ‘The Ancient of Days’(1794) taking the measure of creation with a pair of compasses came to him at the top of a staircase in Lambeth. When asked by the wife of a patron where he had seen a field of lambs turned to statues, he touched his forehead and replied: ‘Here, madam.’
Blake was a Londoner. He was born in 1757 at Broad Street near Carnaby Market and died in Fountain Court in 1827 aged almost 70, a Methuselah of the Thames. In the 1820s, a group of young men who called themselves ‘the Ancients’, Samuel Palmer foremost among them, went to sit at his venerable feet. That is the Blake we know. Propped up in bed, working still, surrounded by his books, like an Old Testament patriarch or the dying Michelangelo. He drew so many men with flowing beards, beards as long as time itself, that that is how we imagine Blake. The sage, the mystic, the artist visited by divine inspiration. Moses wrote the law on stone tablets; Blake graved his visions on copper and sold the prints for a guinea a go.
Blake was a pioneer of what we would today call ‘slasher culture’, writes Martin Myrone, curator of Tate Britain’s autumn retrospective of the artist’s works. ‘An artist/engraver/poet/visionary.’ Blake made around 2,000 drawings, watercolours and single coloured prints. More than 300 works are on show at Tate Britain. ‘I have written,’ Blake claimed, ‘more than Rousseau or Voltaire — six or seven epic poems as long as Homer’s and 20 tragedies as long as Macbeth’.
‘Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary’, cry the posters on the London Underground. In the American War of Independence Blake was a ‘Liberty Boy’. In the French Revolution he wore the bonnet rouge — the red cap of the sans-culottes — on the streets of Holborn. When the Terror came, Blake returned to his dark wide-brimmed hat. ‘Albion Rose’ (c.1793), the opening image of the exhibition, was Blake’s emblem of political awakening. Yawn, stretch, greet the morn, shake off the bonds of slavery and oppression. Blake’s principal employer in the 1780s and 1790s (though he disdained the ‘mere drudgery of business’) was Joseph Johnson, a seller of dissident tracts and political works by Mary Wollstonecraft and Edmund Burke. Blake’s Songs of Innocence, published in 1789, was a collection of country cradle songs, of pretty, pretty robins and merry, merry sparrows, of pleasant glee and ha, ha, he. Never such innocence again. Songs of Experience, published in 1794 along with Songs of Innocence, was marked by the horror of what had happened in France. Here was pity, cruelty, deceit, wrath and fear, the Devil and the Barrel, the mind-forg’d manacles and the harlot’s curse.
Blake was a prophet/raver/voice in the wilderness. He wrote a paranoid ‘Public Address’ in 1810 complaining of nests of villains, secret calumnies and imposters. His reputation had been ‘blasted’ for 30 years. ‘We all know that editors of newspapers trouble their heads very little about art and science and that they are always paid for what they put in on these ungracious subjects.’ Artists had worshipped false gods. Joshua Reynolds and Rembrandt produced ‘blots & blurs’. Peter Paul Rubens was ‘a blockhead’. (Elsewhere Titian was a ‘Venetian demon’.)
His heroes were Raphael, Michelangelo and Albrecht Dürer. He railed against ‘that infernal machine, called Chiaro Oscuro’. Line, not colour, was all. ‘The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art.’ Whether drawn or cut, his line travels like a burin. ‘I know my execution is not like anybody else’s,’ he wrote. Nevertheless, the richest of his coloured prints have the brilliance of gilded and illuminated manuscripts.
No draughtsman was so strange and yet so certain. Blake’s nightmares are solid and unreal. His ‘Cerberus’ (1824–7) squeezes a soul as if it were a soft chew toy. You feel your own chest seize in sympathy. His figures are muscular — buns of steel, washboard abs, bowling-ball thighs — and yet they have the transparency of spectres. You see the light through their skins. The figure in ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ (c.1819/20) isn’t a vapour, he’s a Schwarzenegger. Blake’s angels wear empire-line shrouds. His maidens amorphously shimmy.
Blake was proud that his attention to dress and costume was always ‘minutely laboured’. His ‘Satan in his Original Glory’ (1805) is dressed like a carnival dancer: wings, garlands, crown, mantle of darkness, hair in rollers. In ‘Samson Subdued’ (c.1800) the shorn Samson is left with a few bare curls at the nape of his neck. In ‘Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims’ (1810), the largest of Blake’s prints, every detail of breeches and bridle and Host’s beer belly is described to the last link and hem. Even without the character crib, you’d know them. There, unmistakably, is the Wife of Bath riding sidesaddle like the Whore of Babylon, glass in hand, drunk at the reins. Blake had seen the Parthenon Marbles, unpacked by Lord Elgin in 1807, and gave his pilgrims the trit-trotting, chit-chatting rhythm of a classical frieze.
Blake wanted to draw larger still. He dreamed of pictures 100-feet high. Tate has granted his wish. Details of ‘The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan, (c.1805–9) and ‘The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth’ (c.1805) have been digitally enlarged and projected wall-wide. His compositions marry order and anarchy. Many of his plates — ‘Satan Calling up His Legions’ (1809), ‘Queen Katherine’s Dream’ (1809), ‘The Vision of the Last Judgement’ (1808) — start symmetrically, then wander and sway.
At times Blake sounds like the man who rages that the end is nigh. When the Beast of Revelation came, when the walls of Jerusalem fell, Blake would be the first to say: I told you so. I drew it.
William Blake is at Tate Britain until 2 February 2020.