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.

Reflections on A Poison Tree

Poet Clare Crossman was one of our first contributing authors at Finding Blake, and we welcome Clare back with her reflections on A Poison Tree, a key poem in William Blake’s work, published in Songs of Experience in 1794.


I re-read A Poison Tree again recently because I run the south Cambridgeshire Poetry society, Stanza, and was looking for poems about Truth, which is the theme of this year’s national poetry day.

Adrian Mitchell, a great lover of Blake, was a necessary poet in the mix. The lyrics of his song The Truth were just what I needed and then there was Emily Dickinson, Don Patterson, WH Auden, and all the other poets on the National Poetry Day site.

I was reminded of A Poison Tree by one of the members during our discussion. The more we looked at poems the more it seemed that there was a very thin line between truth and lies, as we felt the truth can sometimes be unbearable. A Poison Tree was discussed because it was the one poem we all knew in which the effects of not saying how you feel or addressing anger can cause self-destructive anger and, as in the poem, death — or murder as some have suggested.

Directness and honesty is a tone that can be relied on in Blake. It is interesting to note that the original title of the poem was Christian Forbearance, an irony of course from Blake: a criticism of the buttoned-up and the easy Good. He disliked hypocrisy. 

The poison of soft, deceitful wiles

Blake stares into the face of what anger does to us by setting his thoughts in a simple balance.

I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not my wrath did grow.

There is difficulty in speaking to the enemy and so, full of resentment, he nurtures the Poison Tree inside him (I imagine capillaries through which a cancer is spreading):

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears:
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles.

Blake notes that how he responds to the enemy is to pretend to be pleasant: ‘soft deceitful wiles’. He smiles through his anger. As Shakespeare wrote, “A man may smile and smile and be a villain”.

Hand-painted copy B of William Blake’s “A Poison Tree”, 1794 currently held at the British Museum.

In the third verse there is an elegant reversal, the apple in the Garden of Eden becomes a glittering object as if it has been touched by King Midas, not a beautiful piece of fruit:

And it grew both day and night
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine.

This apple does not belong in the Garden of Love, it has been created by things left unspoken and has become a symbol of deception and anger (‘My precious, my precious’). This apple does not cause the fall of man by being picked and eaten; it causes death destruction and an eerie acknowledgement of the way evil can fascinate and entangle.

Then there is the last verse.

And into my garden stole,
When the night had veiled the pole:
In the morning glad I see;
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.

I don’t agree with literal interpretations of the last verse. I think it is too deliberately ambiguous, and my feeling is that it means more that the evil has somehow spread and been recognised by both the foe and the speaker in the poem. In the dark ‘night had veiled the pole’ both people in the poem have become part of the destructive anger.

A destructive anger

I wonder what started this poem off? We have all had relationships that end in anger and silence, with both people involved feeling damaged. The singer-songwriter Beth Orton has written a wonderful melancholic setting for this poem which can be found on one of her finest albums, Sugaring Season.

But the poem I think is about real hatred and real dislike, where those involve dissemble and pretend to be opposite to who they are while harbouring a deep, destructive anger… The scenes in the last series of Peaky Blinders, showing Oswald Mosley at full throttle come to mind. In that instance, hatred of the other is masquerading as good sense and decency — which is in his case fascism.

Blake seems to be saying that however difficult we find it we must stand up to our real foes, and express our angers because if we don’t the consequences are terrible. Courage and forgiveness are also required, which can be found for a friend — but someone you really don’t like? That’s another matter. It is easier with a friend but maybe not impossible with a foe.

Good advice from 225 years ago. Oh, William Blake you were wise. You looked directly at hatred and what it does.

As Adrian Mitchell  (a great admirer of Blake) wrote 150 years later:

The truth is the truth it’s a strange kind of animal, so I stay awake listening for the truth.


Notes

Adrian Mitchell’s The Truth is published in Come on Everybody – Poems 1953-2008, published by Bloodaxe Books. And you can read The Guardian’s obituary for Mitchell, “in whom the legacies of Blake and Brecht coalesce with the zip of Little Richard and the swing of Chuck Berry…” who wrote Tyger for the National Theatre in 1971, “a time-travelling musical about a visionary 18th-century poet in today’s fallen times, with music by long-term collaborator Mike Westbrook.”

You can hear Beth Orton’s song, Poison Tree, on YouTube – and of course Finding Blake guest contributors Astralingua and Mick and Kate Stannard have also shared their own adaptations of Blake’s poem with us.

Clare has previously shared her reflections on Blake’s poem London with us here Finding Blake. And you can find her own poems at Clare Crossman – Poet & Writer as well as on ClimateCultures and the website for her project with James Murray-White: Waterlight — A Journey Along the River Mel.

You can explore more of Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with summaries, analysis and images of the original illustrations, at The Tate’s pages.

New Songs for Mr Blake

Musician and songwriter Mick Stannard is 69 years old and has, in his words, “been doing music most of that time, in bands and solo”. Ever since an operation meant singing was no longer possible, he’s been recording instrumental albums, but when he recently came across his forgotten copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience Mick wanted to set some of these poems to music — and asked Kate, his daughter, if she’d like to sing them. Their album, Visions of William Blake, was released earlier this year, and Mick and Kate Stannard now share their experience of working with Mr Blake.


Mick:

I think William Blake has been in my DNA for quite a long time. It feels as if Jerusalem has always been there. And of course it’s the same with The Tyger. Mind you, I’m only a beginner and don’t really know much about his ideas. My first musical influences were Vaughan Williams and traditional English folk; people like Shirley Collins and Sandy Denny. Finding out that artists like The Doors and Nick Drake were quoting him in their songs is probably what drew me to him. To be honest I never knew he was that big in ‘popular culture’.

I go mainly by instinct and to be honest I’ve taken a few liberties with the text of his poems (adding some words of my own and taking some of his out) so I’m not sure if a purist would necessarily approve!

Encounters with Blake

As far as Blake himself is concerned, I’m no expert or indeed scholar. Some years ago I went to an exhibition of his watercolours and it was like a kind of worship. The place was dark and each work shone out from its case like a little jewel. The detail in his paintings fascinated me. It was fantastic. That’s where I picked up Songs of Innocence and of Experience. This in turn (about thirty years later!) led me to the idea of setting these poems to music.

I guess it was pure chance. Kate and I had just finished an album, Welcome to Our World, and I was thinking about what to do next. I was looking in our bookcase for something (I can’t remember what it was) and just happened to come across the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Bingo! The more I delved into it, certain poems leapt out at me from the pages and I could hear the music straight away. With Visions of William Blake, it all seemed to make perfect sense. 

Visions of William Blake, by Mick and Kate Stannard

To take one example, I was amazed at how prescient the words to Holy Thursday are, speaking of poor folk living “in a rich and fruitful land”. I almost re-named our track Holy Food Bank Thursday. It seems that nothing much had changed since Blake’s day! Also I found the words to Earth’s Answer particularly powerful and The Lamb appealed to my sense of pastoral England. That’s where I tried to write music in the style of my hero, Vaughan Williams. Lots of strings, a harp and an oboe. Always an oboe for bucolic stuff!

A creative process

I don’t normally talk much about the creative process but I’ll have a bash. I’m basically a songwriter (of sorts) and love the challenge of writing lyrics and fitting them to music. Obviously with the ‘lyrics’ already taken care of by Mr Blake the process was a bit easier but no less of a challenge. I wasn’t aware which of his poems are well known and which others less so, and I think I chose the ones to have a go at by some kind of instinct — and of course those which appealed to me emotionally. They also had to scan pretty well and have a rhythm I could work with.

I’ve been listening to music for a long time and my influences are very diverse, stretching from traditional English folk to 60’s psychedelia, punk, new wave, classical, thrash metal and avant garde. So I guess my selection was in part dictated by my broad musical taste, which allowed me to devise a particular setting for each poem. Earth’s Answer for instance is very much influenced by Pink Floyd, whilst The Echoing Green is (hopefully) pure Vaughan Williams and strange to say, some of the music in The Door of Death now reminds me (in retrospect) of the last scenes in 2001: A Space Odyssey … Where the hell did THAT come from?

Messing around with the texts may seem a bit sacrilegious but it was the only way I could make the finished songs work to my satisfaction. It was simply a case of composing the music and making the words fit even if I had to add or subtract some. I hope William wouldn’t have minded! The Garden of Love wasn’t long enough so I added quite a lot of extra lines, and in The Lamb I took Blake’s lead when he says in Auguries of Innocence “the lamb misused breeds public strife and yet forgives the butcher’s knife”, and wrote an additional verse with that in mind.

In Holy Thursday I saw a direct parallel between the times Blake talks about and today’s austerity Britain so I wrote a final verse about homelessness. I couldn’t possibly have done a different melody for Jerusalem as it already has the best ever tune so I just put in a bit of Brexit chaos at the end to reflect what’s currently happening in our green and pleasant land!

So, many reasons for changing the texts, I guess, and I think it occurred to me as I was going through the poems, kind of spontaneously. The process of making words and music fit is indeed pretty mysterious. That’s why when you hit on something special, it’s really exciting. I’ve no idea where it comes from. A higher place?

Kate:

Dad has always been interested in poetry, so I’ve been aware of William Blake among others for some time. Dad even used to write silly poems for me when I was young to make me laugh, and has always been creative. However I wasn’t very familiar with William Blake’s poetry before we started the album, and I didn’t know about his artwork either! But it’s been a really interesting project to work on together, and fun exploring both the light-hearted and the more sinister.

The poems and songs are all so different. I feel like I take on a different persona for each song on Visions of William Blake, and in a way sing as a different person. I think of them in a very separate way.

Usually we sit down and Dad gives me the poem to read through. I try to visualise and interpret the words quietly on my own, and then Dad plays me the music he’s recorded so far in headphones. Whilst the music is playing, I carry on visualising scenes or images and think about the words and then we go from there. We talk about what kind of tone of voice will work. For example, on Earth’s Answer the inspiration for my reading of the words was Gandalf from Lord of the Rings!

For me, with A Poison Tree it’s the storytelling of the poem. The scene I picture by the end of the poem is both chilling and beautiful, and it’s interesting (to me anyway) how peaceful it is, despite the hatred.

Visions of William Blake for the 21st century

I’ve been surprised at how many people my age and younger know of Blake, and have relatives who have studied his work or have a real interest.

I found it very interesting on first looking at Finding Blake to discover that the website and its users want to ‘re-imagine William Blake for the 21st century’. This very much articulated to me what I felt like we had also been doing with the album, whilst unaware at first of the Finding Blake site. By putting Blake’s words to music in 2019, and particularly for myself as someone who didn’t know very much about him before, I felt like I was in a sense ‘finding’ Blake.

To me, some of his poems are still very relevant now in 2019. For instance, like Dad has mentioned, the ideas behind Holy Thursday are still an issue now and it very much feels like nothing has changed in all these years. That poem could have been written in the 21st century.

Mick:

Blake seems to have had a larger influence on people’s general way of thinking than I had ever imagined. I think this new Extinction Rebellion movement which is currently growing is something that Blake would have enthusiastically espoused. Also, areas of mysticism and spirituality, something I had never considered.


Notes

Mick Stannard and his daughter Kate have been recording music together for about a year. Mick has been playing for longer than he cares to remember and has many influences ranging from The Velvet Underground to Vaughan Williams. He has recorded ten solo albums and three with Kate, Visions of William Blake being one. Kate has a degree in photography and is currently working for a cancer charity in London. She also designed the cover art for all the albums.

Kate and Mick Stannard

Visions of William Blake by Mick and Kate Stannard features twelve of William Blake’s poems: The Garden of Love; A Poison Tree; Auguries of Innocence; The Tiger; The Echoing Green; The Sick Rose; The Lamb; Earth’s Answer; Holy Thursday; The Door of Death; The Angel; Jerusalem. It’s available on Spotify, where you can also find their previous albums, and also available at Amazon as a download. You can buy the CD of Visions of William Blake direct from Mick: email him at mstannm[at]ntlworld[dot]com for details.

You can also discover another version of A Poison Tree in A Pocketful of Riches: Adapting Blake to Song, Joseph Andrew Thompson’s post about Astralingua’s own adaptation of Blake’s poems. And Strange Mystery Flower from Roger Arias describes his own Blakean musical adaptation.