Pity c.1795 | Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper | Tate

Something in the Madness of the Man

20th September 2019

William Blake has been dubbed the universal artist, an inspiration to poets, musicians and other performers, as well as painters and illustrators, worldwide. Jack Watkins goes to see Tate Britain’s latest exhibition, which concentrates on Blake’s visual artistry…

I wonder what William Blake would make of Battersea’s swanky new blocks of apartments? So disconnected are they from the street and riverscape, it’s as if the developers and planners have given the middle finger to the area’s former heritage of market gardens and marshes. Blake despised naked commercialism and might have depicted these blocks as the haunts of devils. He would probably have felt more at ease on the other side of Battersea Park, however. Here, amongst the high rise, survive remnants of the old village, including one of the most atmospherically located churches in London. St Mary’s is a great brick barn of a building with a pointy spire, located on the very edge of the riverbank. It was in this church in 1782 that Blake married Catherine Boucher, a market gardener’s daughter.

The event is commemorated by a stained glass window, although the church interior is currently being refurbished, and is off-limits. Catherine signed the register with an ‘X’ but, according to the Tate Britain exhibition, she proved a major support to the artist in his work, becoming the unacknowledged hand in the production of his paintings and illuminated books. ‘Blake’s extraordinary vision,’ say the exhibition curators, ‘depended on his partnership with Catherine’. Examples of her work on display here include a coloured image to accompany Blake’s famous line, ‘Tyger, Tyger burning bright’.

Having someone as shrewd and stable as Catherine by his side must have been invaluable to a man such as Blake, an unstable genius if ever there was one, a visionary poet whose writings have tended to overshadow his painting. The Tate Britain show concentrates on the art, and it’s already had some commentators hyperventilating. One reviewer has even gone as far as to say that Blake was an artist who ‘blows away Constable and Turner’. Believe me, he doesn’t. And you’ll need a bit of stamina to get through rooms with minute drawings of pale celestial beings in extraordinary poses, before you finally get to some larger colour prints. These remind me of the sort of thing Genesis and other pretentious prog rock bands of the 1970s used to appropriate for LP covers.

Some of Blake’s images were striking enough, however, and you can see why he might have been dismissed in his time. The Ancient of Days, created in 1824, seems either astonishingly modern or strikingly timeless. Yet Blake’s life and experiences – of which these works were the by-product of course – are at times more interesting than the pictures, and I like the way the Tate has approached this show in a chronological way.

Blake’s origins were humble, though not impoverished. His family ran a hosiery and haberdashery business in Broad Street, in the heart of Soho. While the street was later to show signs of creeping poverty, in Blake’s youth it was peopled by doctors, clergymen, wealthy widows and fashionable tradespeople. Blake, who for most of his life apart from a three-year spell in Sussex, would work within a 20 minute walk of his Soho birthplace, had artistic ambitions from an early age, and his family was able to indulge him in them. Blake even enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy, but he detested the focus on the Renaissance masters like Raphael and Michelangelo, and declared professional drawings from life to be hateful, speaking of them looking “more like death and smelling of mortality.”

Drawn to older medieval Gothic art with its more fanciful imagery, he was nevertheless a superb illustrator, training as a reproductive engraver. He always had this to fall back on when the money was short, but as an instinctive non-conformist, he found the restrictions of working for the commercial market frustrating. Although he exhibited at the Royal Academy, including a remarkable recreation of The Last Supper in 1799, Blake’s bitter estrangement from the contemporary art world, fuelled by the disappointments and rejections of his early career, was reflected in sweeping statements such as ‘The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents & Genius – But whether he is Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass & obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art & Science’.

A supporter of revolutionary ideas, he deployed a new, still mysterious today, form of printmaking he called relief etching to produce image-driven texts on moral and political issues of the day, including equality of the sexes, the slave trade and revolution. With Britain at war with Revolutionary France at the time, the publication of some of these texts could easily have landed him in prison. Sadly for Blake, there was small chance, given they were so little distributed or read.

It was during his Sussex sojourn that he was tried for treason, however. Blake and Catherine had moved there in 1800 to work for a wealthy patron, but the artist got into an argument with a soldier which ended with him bundling him out of his cottage garden. Blake was later arrested and charged with sedition and treasonable expressions in support of Napoleon Bonaparte, and for cursing King George III. He was found not guilty but was seriously disturbed by the experience, which occasioned his return to London in 1803.

In 1809, in an attempt to bring his work to a wider audience he put on a one man show above the family shop in Broad Street (the Tate has mounted a restaging as part of the exhibition). It was a flop and one of the few people who did bother to review it described the artist as ‘an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement’.

Many people questioned Blake’s mental health, while friends thought him an eccentric. An image thought to be a self-portrait done in his early 40s, has him gazing intensely out at us in a faintly unnerving manner. Later in the show there is a portrait by Thomas Phillips for which Blake sat about ten years later. Phillip reckoned he’d captured Blake’s ‘rapt expression’ as he recalled one of his visions – a visit to his study from the Archangel Gabriel.

One of the most eerie paintings is Ghost Of A Flea: a speckled, scaly monster inspired by what one of his biographers wrote was the artist’s only sighting of what he believed to be a ghost, which had rushed down the stairs at him in his home, forcing him to run out into the garden. The Ancient Of Days was also inspired by a figure he’d seen hovering above his landing. ‘There was no doubt this poor man was mad,’ wrote Wordsworth. ‘But there is something in the madness of the man that interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.’

Poor old Blake died in 1827 aged 70, still busy, working on some engravings of Dante’s Divine Comedy, but with what little celebrity he had ever had almost totally forgotten. One of his ambitions had been to have some of his pictures displayed on an enlarged scale in churches. In final realisation of the artist’s plan, the Tate have projected his painting The Crucifixion: Behold Thy Mother on a large wall image, so that it looks as if it’s been inserted as an altarpiece at St James Church, Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised in 1757. He’d surely have been happier with that than what’s been done to Battersea.

William Blake continues at Tate Britain until 2 February • www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain

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