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.

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.

Expressing Blakean Interconnectedness

Finding Blake welcomes Yana Trevail, an artist preoccupied with interconnectedness. Last November — at the Blake Society’s evening entertainments in honour of Blake’s birthday — Yana gave a talk on recent artwork she’d produced. Here is her presentation, as part of a lively occasion of art, poetry, music, drama, wit and dancing held in a pub off the Strand.


I’m a painter and a printmaker and my work generally at the moment is concerned with the interconnectedness of all things and I’m particularly interested in expressions of energy.

My connection with Blake is rather tenuous in a way. My husband joined the Blake Society about a year ago. He has a very deep interest in Blake. So I’ve been along to various Blake meetings and events. I particularly enjoyed going along to the Cardozo Kindersley workshop to see the stone that was created for Blake and subsequently I went to the very moving event of the unveiling of the stone at Bunhill Fields in August. I didn’t think that I was particularly interested in Blake, although there were certain things that I was drawn to. I found the event very moving event, though I wasn’t inspired to do anything about it until my husband expressed to me his feelings about his experience, which also moved me very much. So that, coupled with the fact that I’d been there, actually prompted me to create an etching.

A minute’s silence 

A minute's silence for William Blake, art by Yana Trevail
A minute’s silence for William Blake. Art © Yana Trevail 2018

This piece of work is an aquatint (a tonal variety of acid etching). I don’t like to talk too much in depth about what I produce; I would hope that people are able to respond in a more visceral, less intellectual way, without verbal prompts to what is a purely visual artwork. However, what I would say about this is that it is a very direct representation of the energy that my husband experienced and that I also experienced at the unveiling. It was entirely intuitive how I came to make this piece of work, as quite a bit of my work is now. This is how I expressed that very moving time and I feel it expresses entirely what I’m interested in: expressions of energy and all of us and the universe. So I’m just pleased to be able to share with you what I and my husband and probably many more of you experienced, in different ways perhaps, at that event.

Interconnectedness 

But this led on to other snippets I’d heard from my husband; for example, the ‘four zoas’. So although I can’t claim to know very much about the zoas I do have a certain understanding of them. This is a very intuitively produced aquatint etching. It came from my own experience which I had whilst doing some yoga overlooking the sea near Plymouth.

Urthona, art by Yana Trevail
Urthona. Art © Yana Trevail 2018

I live on the edge of Dartmoor and feel I have a very strong connection with nature. I spend a lot of time on the moor, running and cycling and swimming. It’s what nourishes my soul and keeps me sane. So this print can be regarded as representing spontaneous intuition and imagination and therefore can be connected to Blake’s zoa of Urthona. I don’t plan any of my work. It comes into me; I’m like a conduit. Years of experience of course; nothing comes of nothing.

Manifestations 

Urizen, art by Yana Trevail
Urizen. Art © Yana Trevail 2018

This is a study for a much larger plate that I’m working on at the moment. It’s a two-plate print; one plate is an aquatint and the other plate has a grid etched on it. So I had to put the paper through the press twice with the two different plates.

This image is rather evil, I think, in a way; and also a rather sad image. It’s provisionally titled ‘Urizen’. That is how I see the manifestation of Blake’s mind-forged manacles we are prone to, due to our overactive left brains. The grid is an expression of that rigidity.

The etching also reminds me of that awful image in Abu Ghraib, of that Iraqi prisoner standing on a box. That notion came to me after I’d made the etching; so that’s not what it’s about. Various things feed into the work: it’s very cross-referential. But that idea of being totally tied up, of being a prisoner, trapped in the world of the left brain, is essentially what this is about.

Previously I had said to my husband, “No I’m not interested in Blake, but I’ll go along to some of the meetings when we’re in London.” So from not having had any particular interest in Blake, subsequently I found I’d created these aquatints which are very directly concerned with him. I’m glad to have been able to share my work with you.


Notes

Yana Trevail is a painter, printmaker and performer preoccupied with the interconnectedness of all things and, through the exploration of internal and external topographical themes, developing idiosyncratic expressions of energy.

Yana won the Chairman’s Prize in 2000 and the Meynell Fenton Prize in 2002 at the Discerning Eye Exhibition, Mall Galleries, London for which she was also an Invited Artist in 2003 and 2008.

​Her work has been selected for numerous exhibitions including the BP Portrait Awards, National Portrait Gallery; The Hunting Art Prizes, Royal College of Art and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Her work is in many private collections in the UK and internationally.

In 1975 she met the painter Robert Lenkiewicz with whom she studied and sat for. She was his studio assistant from 1997 until his death in 2002. She lives and works on Dartmoor and you can find more of her work at yanatrevail.co.uk

You can read about the ceremony for William Blake’s new gravestone at Bunhill Fields in our post, The Unveiling — and see Finding Blake film footage of the event by James Murray-White: Apocalypse — Unveiling the Stone