William Blake Exhibition

Literary Britain contributor Emma Pearce reviews her recent visit to the Tate Gallery.

There is always some trepidation and excitement when just outside an exhibition of someone whose work is so recognised, it is often something you can feel in the crowds of other visitors as you line up to scan your tickets and go through the exhibition doors. I am pleased to say, after seeing The Tate Britain’s Blake exhibition, that overall the excitement was justified.

The exhibition was laid out chronologically, starting in the first room with his early sketches and watercolours from his time as a student at the Royal Academy and moving through the subsequent stages of his career, ending in the final years of creativity spurred on by admiring younger artists, before his death. It was interesting to read that Blake had wanted to be an Artist from a young age and this was something his parents had encouraged, getting him art lessons and supporting his ambition. I am so used to reading about thwarted creative geniuses and the families who had to be fought and overcome, that it was nice to find someone who had had the support and encouragement to do what he wanted to do. Of course, the years Blake then spent scraping by struggling to make a living from his work does also highlight why so many people, even to this day often don’t encourage their children to pursue literature and the arts. I remember my own A Level art teacher’s response to some of the class when we expressed the desire to become artists, ‘as long as you like living on cornflakes’ (other corn based cereals are available!). That is not to say that you can’t make a living from your creativity as figures such as Joshua Reynolds demonstrate, but it is something that requires a level of commercial nouse and artistic compromise; something Blake clearly struggled with.

I particularly enjoyed seeing an early watercolour he had submitted to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in which he depicted grand moral and religious themes, in a classical style, a piece which represented everything Blake had been taught. As a watercolour the piece was not displayed in the main exhibition rooms with the oil paintings but in a side room and turned out to be rather unfashionable against all of the landscapes and portraits displayed by other artists. Clearly, then as now, what you are taught and what will actually bring commercial and popular success can be very different things and doing what you are told does not always bring rewards. I could very much appreciate Blake’s frustration after putting in a work based on his years of education only to discover this was not what was popular. It was interesting to see how this difficulty played out across the exhibition and Blake’s career as we progressed through the rooms.

Lucifer and the Pope in Hell

Another nice touch was having a map of all the key areas and places in London in Blake’s life reproduced to give some context to the places where some his work was produced. As someone who is very visual this was a nice touch that helped me put things together in my head a little better, and who doesn’t love an old map? It was also nice to see references to Blake’s wife throughout and an acknowledgment of the help she was to her husband in colouring many of his prints, helping him produce his work for sale.

America, A Prophecy (plate 9)

One particularly striking aspect about many of the pieces on display, particularly the pages and illustrations of Blake’s books was their diminutive size. This brings an added sense of delicacy and otherworldliness to his already rather surreal images making them feel more magical. It was a strange experience for me to go to an exhibition and find many of the pieces I had seen in books had actually been printed in a bigger scale than their real life counterparts; very different from the usual experience of walking into a room to see pieces you had only ever seen as small prints blown up to a huge scale. Blake did not often work on a grand scale although always wished some of his pieces would be recreated as great church altar pieces, the effect of which was created in one room of the exhibition. This does bring me to the main criticism of the exhibition that from the moment you stepped into the first room you were surrounded on all sides by crowds of people and spent much of the first half jostling shoulders and squeezing past bags to try and see anything. If you decided to join a queue to see a wall or cabinet you could eventually cycle round and see everything you wanted to see but it made the whole experience feel a bit more like Christmas shopping on a busy Saturday afternoon. You certainly couldn’t take a random wander around a room and drift over to something that caught your eye, you had to go with the flow and progress at the pace of the crowd. I have heard there have been other complaints about how crowded the rooms were so know it wasn’t just my general introverted aversion to them that made it a bit uncomfortable.

I have been to other exhibitions of equally famous and crowd drawing artists which have not had the same issues, Turner and Monet for example. It makes me think there may have been some overestimation of how many people could progress through the exhibition within each time slot, which must be appealing considering how much money galleries can make from a big name exhibition and I don’t begrudge them that considering much of the art we get to see is free but I hope next time I go to a Tate exhibition, it isn’t so crowded.

Visions of the Daughters of Albion (plate 4)

My dislike of crowds, however, does not mean I dislike people, I find them fascinating in fact and our visit to the exhibition did afford us the opportunity for some earnest people watching. There was the obligatory expert taking some younger people, presumably relatives, around the exhibition and giving very enthusiastic overviews of each piece: much more detailed and emotionally charged than the content provided by the gallery. Every exhibition has at least one of these people, I may have been guilty of being this person on previous occasions. It is nice to see how much love and passion can be inspired although it is often the case the people with them don’t always seem to share the same level of enthusiasm.

The Tiger, Songs of Experience

My favourite was the man on the phone who didn’t seem particularly interested in the exhibition but seemed determined to give his children an education. His children were not so interested in being buffeted by crowds as they all waited for a view of a small glass cabinet and instead wanted sushi. They were told very categorically they weren’t allowed any; they’d had some the day before. They had to continue squeezing around the cabinet in order to see ‘Tiger Tiger’ as it was one of the most famous poems. I could sympathise with the children, why stand around being squashed by much larger adults in order to see a small book in a glass case, which probably means nothing to you when you could be eating sushi, particularly when your parent doesn’t actually seem that bothered. After seeing the crowds around this cabinet I took a cursory glance but didn’t stay long.

Cerberus

For me the joy of going to exhibitions, particularly of well known creatives such as Blake, is not seeing the world famous piece I have seen many times in books, coasters, mugs, ‘in the flesh’ but seeing works I have never seen before. One aspect of the exhibition I thought was particularly effective was an area set aside as an ‘immersive’ recreation of a small room above his brother’s haberdashery shop in London, in which Blake displayed a small exhibition in 1809. The exhibition, like much of Blake’s financial efforts in his lifetime, was not a success but it’s recreation was a fascinating view of how Blake chose to display his own works in his lifetime. The small dark eighteenth century room was created within the wider Tate gallery, complete with sash windows with the watercolours and dark aged tempera pieces looming from the walls. Every ten minutes one piece was illuminated with the original colours superimposed over the now blackened and aged images, this really was a sight to behold and we were lucky enough to arrive just as some of the images were going through this cycle. To accompany this was a voiceover taken from the Descriptive Catalogue that Blake produced to accompany the exhibition containing detailed descriptions of his artwork and this really did have a dramatic effect on the viewers, including ourselves as we were frozen in place admiring the colours and shapes, swept up with the strange hypnotic words. I think it was a great experiment on the part of the gallery and really brought his pieces to life and was a treat to behold. So much of how we view art or literature now is tied up in the modern setting and our current understanding of what creative art is but it is interesting to see how these views are not static and the way we view a piece is not the same. As well as being a very individual experience it is also tied up with time and place, this part of the exhibition really brought this home for me.

The Sea of Time and Space

The final rooms were set aside for the last few years of Blake’s life where he reached a level of notoriety with younger artists like John Linnell and The Ancients: a group of young artists brought together in the 1820s by their admiration for Blake’s work. This encouraged a burst of creativity in the final years of Blake’s life, including encouraging Blake to record images of his ‘visionary heads’, records of spirits Blake claimed to speak to during seance like sessions. It was an uplifting end to the exhibition to see Blake recover some creative impetus and know he received some enthusiasm for his work from other artists even if his work remained largely unrecognised until the twentieth century. Like many artists we now recognise as creative visionaries Blake only received his fame and recognition posthumously but this recognition now it has come is well deserved, Blake’s imagination was clearly something to behold and this exhibition was a fascinating insight into the works of a creative and complex individual.

Emma Pearce is a modern artist and landscape painter. You can see her work on instagram @pearcee653

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