William Blake: ‘The Immortal Man That Cannot Die’
by Inga Walton.
“And these are the gems of the Human Soul,
The rubies and pearls of a love-sick eye,
The countless gold of the akeing heart,
The martyr’s groan and the lover’s sigh.” (33-36)
– William Blake: The Mental Traveller, c.1803.
The National Gallery of Victoria holds, as one of its greatest treasures, a magnificent and highly important collection of watercolours, engravings, books and prints by William Blake (1757-1827), now considered to be one of the greatest figures of the Romantic Age.
Many works in this glorious collection are seldom displayed, owing to the light-sensitive nature of the pigments Blake employed. The previous survey, Tyger of Wrath: William Blake in the National Gallery of Victoria (28 April-30 June, 1999), was the final exhibition of prints and drawings in the Robert Raynor Gallery to be held at the St. Kilda Road site before its redevelopment. The present exhibition William Blake (until 31 August, 2014), curated by Cathy Leahy, Senior Curator of Prints and Drawings, is the first in fifteen years and brings together over 100 works from the NGV holdings.
These days, the term ‘visionary’ is as overused as it is usually underserved, particularly as it is applied to figures in the creative and literary fields. However, Blake was indisputably one such individual. Indeed, his sensibility was such that many of his contemporaries thought him profoundly eccentric, bordering on the mentally ill. His idiosyncratic manner, disdain for authority, and willingness to endorse radical social views (such as the abolition of slavery and sexual equality) challenged the conventions of his time. Blake’s family followed a dissenting form of Protestantism and, although deeply religious himself, Blake rejected the hierarchical and rigid structures of the Church of England, as he did orthodoxies of any other kind. This led to Blake being marginalised by the conservative artistic circles of late eighteenth-century London, to the extent that it was often difficult for him to support himself and Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), whom he married in 1782.
Blake’s body of work embraced esoteric meditations on the nature of God and the state of the soul, and was informed by an expansive personal mythology expressive of deep spiritual conviction. Blake’s work was often baffling to his intended audience, not only because he was prepared to wrestle with moral, political and philosophical quandaries within it, but in doing so he also attempted to conflate the visual and the literary into a single artistic statement. As David Bindman, Emeritus Professor of Art History at University College, London has observed, “Blake’s distinctive achievement…derives ultimately from his ability to create a unity out of the potentially fragmentary aspects of his life, by refusing to be confined within the professional compartments of printmaking, painting and poetry. Life, work and art were to be indivisible, united by the idea that all art was a form of prayer. Blake’s passionate sincerity and spiritual ambition were always at war with material circumstances, but he was able to bring an almost superhuman energy and technical ingenuity to his desire to give concrete expression to his visions”.
One of the ways in which Blake tried to defy the limitations imposed by genre was by pioneering a new method of printing for his books of poetry, one he called ‘Illuminated printing’. Blake claimed that the idea was revealed to him in a dream in 1787 by his beloved younger brother Robert, who had died earlier the same year. Describing it as a process ‘which combines the painter and the poet’, Blake’s goal was to successfully place the text and the image (usually printed separately using different processes) on the same plate. Essentially a form of negative etching, Blake’s demanding invention made a copper engraving plate into the equivalent of a woodcut block by printing not from incised lines, but from a raised surface. He drew the images and hand-wrote the text (in reverse) on the plate using acid-resistant liquid, before placing the plate in nitric acid to etch away the exposed parts. This left the composite design standing in relief, enabling it to be printed in one step, and then hand-coloured with watercolour. Radically different to any process used by commercial engravers or book publishers at the time, Blake believed it would allow a degree of independence from an industry he often had acrimonious dealings with.
Surprisingly perhaps, Blake’s tumultuous career had started in quite a predictable and orderly manner. Recognising his son’s emerging talent, Blake’s father James, a hosier, sent him to the drawing school of Henry Pars (1734-1806), elder brother of the better known artist William Pars (1742-82). By 1772, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire, the elder (1730-1802), the most significant of the family of engravers. Blake became a student at the prestigious Royal Academy in 1779, but soon grew to detest the views espoused by its first President, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). Although Blake submitted works for the Academy salon between 1780 and 1808 it was, at best, an uneasy association. (The Academy would grant Blake a ‘distress payment’ in 1822 to alleviate his financial predicament).
During his first year at the Royal Academy Blake met George Cumberland (1754-1848), who also had an interest in experimental printmaking. The art collector, writer and poet was a pivotal supporter of Blake’s work. Cumberland’s son (also George) was a pupil of the naturalist painter John Linnell (1792-1882), and it was he who introduced Linnell to Blake in 1818. Linnell was able to coax Blake out of a retreat into self-imposed isolation that had lasted nearly a decade. He introduced the senior artist to a wider circle of patrons, and to younger artists who admired Blake’s work. Of those, the most significant was a group known as ‘The Ancients’ (or the ‘Shoreham Ancients’) who came together around 1824, and persisted for about a decade. The core members were the artists Samuel Palmer (1805-81), George Richmond (1809-96), and Edward Calvert (1799-1883) who formed the first English expression of the idea of an artistic ‘brotherhood’. Blake met the group in 1825, as they shared his interest in the spiritual, and antipathy towards ‘modern’ trends in art.
Linnell proved a loyal friend, advocate, and a generous patron in Blake’s later years. The first major commission secured by Linnell for Blake was a set of wood engravings for Dr. Robert John Thornton, the Linnell family’s physician, who was about to publish a third edition of his school text The Pastorals of Virgil (1821). Blake produced seventeen unconventional and highly atmospheric white-line engravings for this, of which the NGV has fourteen. These tiny works did not appeal to Thornton, however, and were only grudgingly included in the volume; the blocks were bought by Linnell in 1825. As well as acquiring an outstanding personal collection of Blake’s work, Linnell directly commissioned Blake to produce engravings for the Book of Job (1823-26), and watercolours for Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy (1824-27). The latter remained unfinished at the time of Blake’s death, with the sheets in varying stages of completion, ranging from pencil sketches with annotations, to fully realised scenes in jewel-like colours.
When John Linnell’s collection came up for sale at Christie’s in London, 15 March, 1918, the NGV was in the position to acquire a large number of works, owing to the munificence of the Felton Bequest (1904). The journalist, art critic and connoisseur Robert Baldwin ‘Robbie’ Ross (1869-1918), the devoted friend and literary executor of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), was the Felton Advisor in London at the time. Well-connected in the London art world, Ross had a great interest in Blake’s work, and was ideally placed to negotiate this significant coup on the NGV’s behalf. A number of British institutions also wanted to buy various of the Blake works, particularly the Divine Comedy suite which was consigned as a single lot, but found themselves hampered by a post-war lack of funds.
Fearful of the number of works that could potentially depart British shores for American collections, Charles Aitken (1869-1936), first Director of the Tate Gallery (1917-30), took charge. His bold plan was to mount a consortium bid for the 102 Dante watercolours, with each member selecting drawings to the value of their subscription. The NGV, being considered ‘within the Empire’, was part of the successful bid, and the Dante works were acquired for £7665 (some £325,800 today). Ross had first pick of the suite on behalf of the NGV and chose thirty-six superb works, the largest group from the series. The rest were divided between the Tate, the British Museum, the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford University), the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, and two private collectors.
Sadly for the Tate Gallery, some of the subscriptions for its share of the Divine Comedy works failed to eventuate, so further sales from the suite occurred in the 1920s. The American collector Grenville Lindall Winthrop (1864-1943) would eventually acquire twenty-three of the Dante drawings. Winthrop bequeathed his collection to the Fogg Museum (Harvard University), which now has the second-largest group of the Divine Comedy sheets after the NGV. Perhaps reflecting both the dramatic potential of the text, and his own unconventional religious and mystical inclinations, Blake dedicated seventy-two works of his suite to the depiction of Hell, twenty to Purgatory, but only ten to Paradise. The complete set has never been exhibited, but one of the most pleasing and innovative aspects of the current exhibition is how that has been addressed curatorially. All 102 works in the narrative sequence can be viewed thanks to the installation of interactive touch-screens, which aim to convey the extent and power of Blake’s ambitious final endeavour to the viewer.
The NGV made further purchases from the Linnell sale, including two (of three) watercolours Blake produced for Linnell based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost, The Creation of Eve and Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (both 1822). The set of twenty-two Book of Job engravings, and three separate prints from Blake’s ‘Prophetic’ books, Plate 8 from Europe: A Prophecy (1794), Plate 21 from The First Book of Urizen (1794), and Plate 51 from Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (c.1804-c.1820), also made their way to Melbourne. The collection was increased over the intervening years, and substantially enriched in the late 1980s with the acquisition of one of Blake’s earliest illuminated books of his own poetry, Songs Of Innocence (1789), and a copy of the deluxe four-volume edition of the popular meditative poem The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality (1797) by Edward Young (1683-1765).
The immediacy of Blake’s emotive response to the various texts remains palpable upon viewing the works. As both poet and artist, he seemed to be able to take the imaginative leap into the symbolic and supernatural realm that has eluded many illustrators when dealing with the same material. Nor did Blake comply with any established visual iconography, particularly for Biblical or classical subjects, relying on the written word to conjure responses of psychological depth and great sensitivity. He also entertained a certain irreverence towards the subject-matter. Blake singles out Vanni Fucci di Pistoia, a minor character in Dante’s Inferno (Canto XXIV-XXV), for one of the more humorous moments in his illustrations to the Divine Comedy. Fucci, who refers to himself as ‘the Beast’ when accosted by Dante and Virgil, is a boastful villain mired in the Seventh ditch of the Eighth circle of Hell,
And so the thief, when his tirade was through,
made figs of both his fists, and raised them high,
crying: ‘Up yours, God, these two are for you!’ (XXV, 1-3).
Vanni Fucci ‘making Figs’ against God (1824-27) captures the moment Fucci gives the deity the finger, an impious image which is perfectly expressive of the later line, “In all the holes of Hell, I must concede, I saw no soul towards God so insolent” (XXV, 13-14).
The Gallery’s copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (1810) is one of a small number of lifetime impressions produced of this large engraving, which proved to be a commercial failure. Teaming with activity and amusing gestures, Blake completed the work in the ‘archaic’ style of ‘old masters’ such as Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Lucas van Leyden (1494-1533). As Leahy notes, “This [Blake] considered singularly appropriate for Chaucer’s poetry and solely capable of delineating character. Blake believed Chaucer’s characters represented universal types rather than individuals and he depicted them accordingly, synthesising in this engraving an entire work of literature in a single image”. Blake provided his own commentary on the production of the work, and a perceptive analysis of Chaucer, in his Descriptive Catalogue (1809), which accompanied his poorly attended London exhibition in May that year.
Blake’s dazzling originality and superlative skill as both painter and draughtsman produced transcendent and evocative works of singular beauty. They contain elements of spiritual longing, and evidence of Blake’s unswerving belief in ‘the Divine Arts of Imagination’ to enlighten, and to provide solace. Blake’s poetical musings reflect the personal convictions and resolute principles that sprang from a great independence of mind. His scepticism, hatred of dogma, and refusal to conform to many of society’s precepts make the ideas Blake engages with seem very ‘modern’ to us. The writer and critic William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919), a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, believed that Blake was, “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”. Just as Blake viewed salvation as the work of a lifetime, so did he want to share his wisdom with future generations, as he wrote in Jerusalem,
I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall. (f. 77.)
• William Blake, NGV (International), 180 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne (VIC), until 31 August – ngv.vic.gov.au
Inga Walton is a writer and arts consultant based in Melbourne who contributes to numerous Australian and international publications. She has submitted copy, of an increasingly verbose nature, to Trouble since 2008. She is under the impression that readers are not morons with a short attention span, and would like to know lots of things.