Last week, to celebrate my successful viva (minor corrections as is normal, reflective post on PhD experience coming in due course) I went to Oxford to catch William Blake: Apprentice and Master in its final week at the Ashmolean Museum. For many, Blake is simply the pedlar of the whimsical Songs of Innocence, and the rousing but surprisingly-hard-to-sing Jerusalem of the Women’s Institute and the Last Night of the Proms. For others, who’ve dipped into his Prophetic Books, he’s the Gothic nightmare-merchant who conjured up impenetrable scenes of Michelangelesque terribilitia accompanied by obscure prophetic ramblings, the sort of thing that makes for a cracking heavy metal album. Blake certainly spoke to angels and his deceased brother on a regular basis. So why is this Romantic nutcase so rewarding to constantly revisit in exhibitions, books and artistic tributes?
This show set out to explore the actual making of Blake’s art, and was curated by Michael Phillips, who heroically has taken up print-making to understand the master’s methods. Like the fourteenth-century Sienese painter Simone Martini, another artistic hero of mine, Blake made tremendous innovations in the form of his artworks, their content, but also the physical processes by which he made them. He despised oil painting beloved by the establishment, finding it incapable of rendering his visions. Instead, he sought to revive techniques of medieval painting: what he called ‘fresco’ but which is actually more akin to tempera, where the pigment is mixed with a binding agent such as egg yolk, or in Blake’s case, animal glue. Like medieval masters, he did not sully colours by sloshing them together on the canvas, but let the pigments give out their own natural brilliance. Sometimes his experiments failed and are all but illegible now, but when they worked – such as the sun in Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils – they are truly extraordinary, and something that reproduction simply cannot do justice to.
However, unlike Simone, Blake can hardly be said to be immediately influential. The only other artists who really paid attention to him were a band we now refer to as ‘The Ancients’, who gathered around Blake when he moved to Felpham in Sussex. They referred to him as ‘the Master’, wore funny clothes, and made him realise he preferred it when he was left alone, probably going back to London because they were getting on his wick. A number of pictures by these followers were at the Ashmolean, the most exciting being George Richmond’s The Creation of Light, which I’ve seen on the cover of a paperback of Paradise Lost, but never seen out at Tate Britain. It’s an extraordinary thing: the abstracted triangular flames of the sun, the feeling of space and majesty add up to possibly the most accurate pastiche of Blake’s style ever made. Yet there’s something missing in this image that reminds us that Mr B. was more than just the sum of his techniques.
While Richmond’s Creation of Light is basically just illustrating the Genesis account by showing a big man with a beard making the world, Blake’s art is consistently sophisticated and nuanced. It is never what it immediately seems, and is deeply connected to his poetry. Now, if one is honest, a great amount of Blake’s poetry is what Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to as ‘Parnassian’: competent, but ultimately, well, boring. If you read a transcription of his final magnum opus Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, when you get to the bit when Blake lists all the counties of England AND Wales as part of Albion’s gigantic body, you may be excused to feel a little exasperated. But this is because you should never read Blake’s Illuminated books without the illustrations (for instance in the Complete Poems). It’s like thinking you can read the shooting script for Apocalypse Now instead of watching the film.
Blake’s arguments and philosophies lie between his words and images. As an art historian, it’s easy to sometimes forget it is as important to read pictures as carefully as texts, and that an image can carry just as nuanced a meaning as poetry. For instance, look at this simple poem in Songs of Experience: Infant Sorrow. Who is the speaker of the verse? Could it not be the Nurse reflecting on her infancy rather than the baby? Or is it both, developing the meaning into a circle of maturity smothering youthful vivacity? This is a very simple example of how Blake invites you, as reader, to also become an artist when engaging with his work. He sets up many absolute dichotomies, as well as text and image, he sets male versus female; infant innocence versus adult experience; and inert reason versus active imagination. We often tend to speak in absolutes of positive and negative, but a close reading of Blake reminds us that the truth always lies in the middle: like the surface of his paintings, infinitely complex and open to interpretation.