With Mr Blake at the Tate

Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares his recent experiences and reflections on the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, London, which opened last September and ends on 2nd February.


“a new kind of man, wholly original” 
-- from an 1863 biography, drawing on reflections of Blake’s followers

Just back from an afternoon with Blake at the Tate, I’d been processing on the train home …

Overall, it was an intense encounter: really busy for a Sunday afternoon, which results in conveyor-belt art appreciation, with shuffles and shoves to see and stand for a few moments in front of the image or text that grabs the eye; with my guerilla-style meanderings round the rooms, being led to the Blakes I know well or have wanted to meet for a while, or a colour or a line or an outstretched arm within an image calling for attention.

Here’s a tiny clip of me immediately post-show, trying to gather some thoughts:

On seeing Blake at Tate 11/1/2020 from James Murray-White.

from a Blake exhibition
‘Lucifer and the Pope in hell’ William Blake: 1794-6

Recreating a Blake exhibition

There are five rooms in all, each literally stuffed with images of all types. Which is pretty overwhelming, though quite glorious. This show focuses on smaller pieces, with the timeline in order of their production, whereas the last Blake exhibition I saw — at Petworth in Sussex — was smaller and seemed to focus on bigger and brighter images, with space around them. One of my favourites, ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ (1821) has come up from Petworth and was originally commissioned by Countess Egremont when he was down the road in Felpham. And it’s curious that the descriptor on the wall says that the subject of the painting is ‘a mystery’ whereas, post-Petworth, many of the interviewees for our Finding Blake film were keen to discuss it, dissect it and come up with multiple meanings……

‘The Sea of Time & Space’ William Blake, 1821

from a Blake exhibition

The highlight of the show was the recreation of his 1809 independent exhibition in his then house in Broad Street, Soho — with some clever lighting really bringing four of the pictures to life: ‘Satan calling up his legions’ (1795 – 1800); ‘The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan’ (1805 – 09); ‘The spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth’ (1805); ‘The bard, from Gray’ (1809). This effect really opened up these images, naturally displayed in the regulation, lower lighting levels.

Connecting the legacy?

In the next room was a projection showing these same paintings at a grand scale, which enables that intimate engagement with pigment and brushstroke I really long for in my standing with a Blake. However, what the exhibition does really lack is any more audio-visual material; why no film? Why no ‘experts’ talking about what Blake means to them? And why no material or an entire room connecting the continuing legacy through to our age and beyond?

There is the Tate’s room upstairs, with 20th-century artists’ responses to Blake, so why couldn’t the show be configured to lead into that, at least? Something like: ‘the artist as of his time and beyond’. I like the short and succinct titles for each room: ‘Blake be an artist’, ‘Making prints, making a living’, ‘Patronage and independence’, ‘Independence and despair’, and ‘A new kind of man’. It felt like the exhibition was solely concentrating on the man: inside Blake’s mind as he worked on each commission, or responded to the voices he heard, or reflected with his brush on the swirling politics and rush into the industrial / military / capitalist system happening in the London streets around him; his deep dive into a spiritual world, with visionary realms, clear choices between ascent and descent — strong arms to pull upward, glittering spiral staircases or watery graves, Job, Joseph, a heavenly Jerusalem, inspiration from Milton … and so much more.

from a Blake exhibition
Epitome of James Hervey’s ‘Meditations among the Tombs’
William Blake: 1820-25

from a Blake exhibition

It was great to see the portrait of Blake at the start of the exhibition attributed to Catherine: this has been highlighted by the media, for the first time acknowledging her place side-by-side with him, as both his support, his muse, and oftentimes co-creating or finishing the artwork for him (certainly the etchings). Those of us who have been studying Blake a while welcome this, and hope this acknowledgement serves as a significant nudge to recognise the role of partners in artists’ lives.

I recalled the big exhibition at the Ashmolean some years ago, which really kick-started my nascent interest in Blake. That went out of its way to place him in the context in the wider world; devoting the first room to Blake as student to James Basire, and having a series of stones that Blake took rubbings from; and then the end room being a collection of Samuel Palmer’s works, showing the beautiful lineage being passed along — as well as Michael Phillip’s recreation of Blake’s printing press as well, with the man himself on hand to make replicas. So, having these three exhibitions in my mind, I thank these great repositories of art and their curators for having provided me and the public with opportunities to see great Blakes gathered together (although the Tate has been pretty difficult to engage with — ignoring emails and then being less than forthcoming about sharing material on the recent projection on St Paul’s).

So now it is incumbent upon me to go away to get editing our film and bring ‘Finding Blake’ out into the world!

I’ve not been slack. I’ve been limbering up with my software, gathering materials and footage, conversing with a master editor overseas, and reaching out in advance to plan screenings hither and thither (including an exclusive preview for all the project’s sponsors and website friends), and letting Blake and this current stage of the Anthropocene swirl within my molecules reflectively through the solstice in quiet and wilder spaces and places: walking with the fox and ascending to Jerusalem from ‘England’s Green & pleasant land’.

If you’ve been to the Tate, we’d love to hear your reflections on the Blake show. Please send us in a comment or a post. If there’s one image in particular you didn’t know before, or one you’ve been wanting to meet ‘in the flesh’, or were disappointed with, or take issue with the thrust of the show overall — do share.


Notes

Tate Britain’s William Blake exhibition ends on 2nd February, You can find out more and read the exhibition guide here.

In an earlier post, The Unfolding and Unveiling, James shares some of his other encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present — including the Blake exhibition at Petworth House, Blake in Sussex, which he mentioned above.

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