Robert Campbell Henderson becomes our latest contributor, beginning a series of posts for Finding Blake with this intriguing account of an unexpected French connection with the legacy of William Blake, through an accidental discovery at a scrap yard…
Proverbs of Hell: a French connection
It’s not so easy to find or write something new about William Blake. Hopefully, this might just be an exception. A few weeks ago I made a visit to a scrap metal yard in Sarlat, France, looking for material for my printmaking. Boy did I get lucky! I bought some copper plate destined for the furnace and it turns out I’d bought 27 etched copper plates by deceased French artist Serge Arnoux, based on some of the ‘Proverbs of Hell’ from Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell from 1790.
The plate above, and my print from it, is labelled “Les comptes, les poids et les mesures, c’est bon pour un temps de disette”, which in Blake’s original is:
Bring out number, weight and measure in a year of dearth
All the plates are in a surrealist style and from my initial research seemed to have been destined for a book. I can’t be certain at this stage but I believe they were made in the seventies. Looking at the plates, I think only around a dozen of them were actually ever printed.
La sexaphysique du texte
Arnoux often collaborated with other artists, including French poet and composer Leo Ferre and American poet M.S. Merwin, making illustrations in a similar surreal vein. He also made and published books under his own name.
The images above are from one of his own books, La sexaphysique du texte. Interesting title! The booklet was printed in large folio format, 23 double pages with typography and layout in the manner of the surrealists.
From plates to an exhibition
For me as a printmaker, to find etched plates by another printmaker, the late Serge Arnoux, and discover that they were based on work by poet, writer and of course printmaker William Blake seems like fate. It can only be an interesting journey of discovery!
I am going to print all the plates, with full accreditation to the artist. I am writing a blog about the project and the ultimate goal is an exhibition of the work — hopefully in the UK, but certainly France.
Here are a few more of the prints from my initial proofing exercise, as a taster for what is to come. The original titles in French, and what I believe to be the corresponding line from the Proverbs of Hell in English, read from left to right. Of course, I assume being from the Blakean world you already figured that out.
“La prudence est une vieille fille riche et laide que l’incapacité courtise.” Prudence is a rich, ugly old maid courted by incapacity.
“Des pierres de la Loi on a fait des prisons des briques de la Religion on a fait des Bordels” Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion.
“Femme nue, chef d’oeuvre de Dieu” The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Robert Campbell Henderson is involved in printmaking and photography, just for the fun of it. Before 2000 he never really made any art as he was, in his own words, busy with the “day job.” At the age of fifty he did an MA Photography, followed by a burst of activity participating in exhibitions and setting up an art gallery in Norwich, UK. He retired to the South of France in 2006 where he taught himself printmaking and set up his own darkroom and print studio. You can explore his work at www.photokennel.com
Robert wants to share his experience of researching, printing and hopefully exhibiting these plates over the coming months. You can read Robert’s blog at his site (which also includes more on Serge Arnoux) and we will be sharing more of his accounts of this intriguing French connection here at Finding Blake.
As the Wikipedia entry on Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell notes, “In the most famous part of the book, Blake reveals the Proverbs of Hell. These display a very different kind of wisdom from the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The diabolical proverbs are provocative and paradoxical. Their purpose is to energise thought.”
Several of his proverbs have become famous:
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.
The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction.
Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead
has given the title to a recent translation of Olga Tocarczuk’s 2009 novel, Drive your plow over the bones of the dead, which the Guardian’s review describes as not just a murder mystery but “also a primer on the politics of vegetarianism, a dark feminist comedy, an existentialist fable and a paean to William Blake.” Another reminder — as with the plates of Serge Arnoux — that Blake’s importance and influence travel beyond the borders of his own place and times.