William Blake is a strange character. Known for his creation of an entire mythology which refigures Biblical narratives into poetry peopled with fantastical characters and ideals and art which was mostly neglected by his 18th Century peers, he has remained a cult figure in both the literary and artistic circles. He stuck to his artistic integrity and ideals, shunning a life as a successful commercial printmaker and instead opted to independently produce his own poetry and prints as well as commissions for a select few whose works he admired, leaving him relatively unknown upon his death in 1827. His fierce opinions made him many enemies and he was only removed from the academic sphere following his influence on the beat poets of the 1950s and ‘60s and the subsequent assumption of his works into popular music and fiction.
You might have studied his most famous poem, “The Tyger”, in primary school and dismissed the simplistic style of this work and all of those in his most well known collection, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Having studied Blake further, however, I have found the more you engage with his works, the more rewarding your reading and experiencing of them becomes. One crucial element of Blake’s work is that his writing and his illustrations are inextricably linked. An analysis of one must follow the other and as such the recent exhibition of Blake’s prints at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford combines both elements perfectly.
'Blockbuster' exhibitions like this are always at least one of three things: busy, sweaty, underwhelming. On arriving, I was immediately hit by the first two, being greeted by a horde of excited kids on a mid-term school trip and slower, sedate groupings of daytime art enthusiasts, all crammed into the dimly-lit, small rooms that comprised the exhibition space. So far not so good.
Once I’d acclimatized to the space though, I realised that seeing Blake’s original prints and hand-written notebooks together was truly impressive and no match for seeing them online. The vibrancy and detail of his illustrations always gave me the impression that they were large in scale, but in fact they were all relatively small, ranging from his miniscule illustrations to an edition of Virgil’s Eclogues to his largest A4 prints of Newton and Nebuchadnezzar. As the exhibition moved through in chronological order from Blake’s apprenticeship to the engraver James Basire to his studying at the Royal Academy and finally to his independent commissioned prints and illustrations, you could see a real development of his style, pushing further and further away from convention. Originally beginning making relief etchings that scratch away copper where the design should appear, he then moved on to develop his own unique style of printing in the “infernal method” whereby Blake would apply an acidic mixture to burn away the negative space, leaving his design standing. His technical skill is immense and this is displayed by the original copper printing-plates and wood-blocks with their microscopic etchings where you can see how painstaking each mark must have been to make, meaning that some works, such as his “Beggar’s Opera” print took almost two years to complete. Original copies of his works are displayed in full, such as Europa, Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Songs of Innocence and Experience as well as a life-size recreation of his printing studio at his house in Bethnal Green, containing a replica of the printing press that he would have used by hand.
Even if you know nothing about Blake, the exhibition is still an astonishing insight into the art and skill of printmaking and might inspire you to come along to one of Helicon’s very own printmaking workshops! Just try your best to ignore the crowds and mild claustrophobia – at the exhibition that is.
[This article was originally published in Helicon Magazine on 24/1/15]