LONDON: Visionary, radical thinker, lunatic – English poet and painter William Blake has been called all of these, and a new exhibition presenting his works as he intended gives visitors a rare chance to draw their own conclusions.
Getting on for two centuries after his death, Blake remains a mainstay of English culture.
Generations of schoolchildren have sung his poem And did those feet, which asks if Jerusalem was built among the “dark satanic mills” that sprung up during the country’s industrial revolution.
England’s tourist board has made it the centrepiece of a television commercial linked to the rugby World Cup, which the country will host this year.
“William Blake – Apprentice and Master”, at Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum until March 1, shows how his poetry is indivisible from the pictures he created to accompany it, and how his genius as an engraver developed.
“It is a composite art made up of words and images,” curator Michael Phillips said.
Many of Blake’s most celebrated poems, including The Tyger that burnt brightly in the forests of the night, were produced as texts for illuminated books. To create the plates, Blake mastered mirror writing and developed his own engraving techniques.
Once the plates were printed, Blake would add extra colour by hand, making each book unique. Rarely seen originals are on show in Oxford, as is a facsimile of their creator’s printing press, reconstructed on the basis of Phillips’s research.
Phillips said that only as photographic processes have developed and become less expensive, have Blake’s works as he created them become readily accessible.
Also on show are some of Blake’s most iconic images, including the 1795 print Nebuchadnezzar showing the old biblical king crawling mad and naked with claw-like fingers and toes. In response to such nightmarish images, many critics of his day branded Blake insane.
Unfair, says Phillips. “What he is trying to do is embody and articulate psychological states and he is very much ahead of his time in that.”
One reason Blake undertook every stage of production was to avoid censorship in the febrile political atmosphere of the years after the 1789 French Revolution.
For some, contemporary England could use a dose of Blake’s radicalism.
In London, one of his Songs of Experience, Blake writes how the chimney sweep’s cry “every black’ning church appals”.
For Phillips, Blake showed “an extraordinary sensitivity towards the plight of his fellow man” and was motivated by “rejection of oppression of every kind”.
So who is the real William Blake? A key part of the exhibition is an online copy of Blake’s notebook, which shows how he endlessly reworked his poems and illustrations.
“I would like to think that if people come to Blake thinking he is a bit of a madman, a visionary… who drew from purported visions, they would see that there is an awful lot of craft, of trial and error, and that there is a lesson for us all,” Phillips said. – Reuters