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.

William Blake & the Doleful City of God: 4 – Path and Goal

Adriana Díaz Enciso. Photographer: Teresa EspinasaIn her previous posts, Adriana Díaz Enciso recalled how finding Blake on a family shopping trip out of Mexico sparked a series of puzzling encounters with the poet and artist and eventually caused her to embark on her own Blakean novel. Ciudad doliente de Dios would take her from horrific events in Mexico and a writing residency in the USA to Blake’s London. Here, Adriana completes the series, discussing her role in the work of the Blake Society, the publication of her novel and the meaning of Blake’s art as both path and goal. 


Around the time I started rewriting the novel, I finally decided to get close to the Blake Society. So close in fact, that I became a Trustee for several years, then its Secretary. This is not the space to say what went wrong, which is documented elsewhere. I’d rather focus here on what nurtured me, what I learnt and what I enjoyed.

It was a joy and a source of renewed inspiration to see how Blake’s work and spirit are still alive for many people, including younger generations. I’ve found amazing, amusing or even daunting the passions that he can still stir — and I am fully aware that some might make similar comments regarding my own passion for Blake. Wondering who he really was in his homeland is very different from doing so in Mexico. The approach back there is by necessity more sober, focusing mainly on his work. Here in Britain, there are layers upon layers of symbolic dimensions touching on the aesthetic, the religious, the philosophical, the metaphysical, the social and the political.

Of course, all these were issues Blake touched upon through his life and work. And it says much about the power with which he did so that so many years after his death, throngs of people are still seeking his meaning, finding new interpretations… sometimes with such a fierce feeling of appropriation of Blake that it borders on worship. I’ll get there later.

Blakean encounters and wounds

In the Blake Society I got to hear the most wonderful talks … and the most bizarre as well. Involved in organising several events, I’ll always be grateful for the chance to channel through them my wholehearted enthusiasm. There was a walk I led in Peckham Rye looking for Blake’s angels on trees; a midnight vigil in Blake’s surviving home in South Molton Street, waiting for our own Visionary Heads to appear as we echoed Blake’s gatherings with artist and astrologer John Varley; then there was the spirit of Orc, embodied in poet Jeremy Reed at the Occupy London encampment on a freezing December evening outside St Paul’s Cathedral; or taking children from Kids Company to read The Tyger to the tigers in London Zoo, the nonstop rain never dampening the children’s zeal.

There were also projects which met failure, such as that of founding Golgonooza, the City of Imagination built by Los, in the streets of London. I had envisaged having Blake’s images projected on buildings all over the city, making true his never materialised dream of being commissioned to paint murals. Then London would be, albeit briefly, a true visionary city. A completely unaffordable project, it was transformed into an illuminated talk at King’s College Arts and Humanities Festival: Golgonooza as the sacred city of the imagination; as the human body; as a reflection on failure. I said goodbye to the Blake Society, inviting Maitreyabandhu, a Buddhist poet of great insight, to talk about Blake and about the imagination as the supreme human faculty.

To be involved in all these projects in Blake’s London was a joy, and a privilege — something I would have never imagined possible when I bought that Penguin edition in a noisy shopping mall. And for that, I am grateful.

Peckham Rye
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

It’s impossible not to mention here as well the 2014 Blake Cottage appeal. Part of its leadership, I gave myself to it with full devotion and hope. It was a beautiful project; the support it received from the public was the most poignant certitude that Blake’s spirit is still alive and touching many. Working on it, I am sure, kept me alive during rather trying times.

Part of the plan was to make Blake’s cottage in Felpham, Sussex, a ‘house of refuge’ for persecuted writers. This, I thought, would be quite a concrete way of honouring what Blake stood for — and precisely in the place where he was accused of sedition. The appeal’s original conception meant for the cottage to be the materialisation, through collective effort, of what Blake believed in as a man and an artist.

True, things didn’t go that way, and the problems that ensued nearly killed me (in compensation, perhaps, for the project having kept me alive for a long while?). Yet I don’t regret one bit having invested so much of me in the dream. I believed in what we were doing, and as far as my own experience goes, the path walked with faith becomes the destination. The ordeal also gave me the chance to have a first-hand experience of a Blakean prophetic poem unfolding live, with all its acute drama. It might have been trying, but no one can say it wasn’t interesting. If I lost my Innocence in the Blake Society and the Blake Cottage appeal, I gained loads of Experience. I am therefore grateful.

Finding Blake again: Ciudad doliente de Dios

For a while, the wounds were so bad that I couldn’t even hear William Blake mentioned without my stomach hurting, and so I walked away from him for the first time in over thirty years. My Blakean novel was finished but not published, and finding a publisher was proving hard. But healing came. I knew I’d be alright the day when, out of the blue, I decided to visit Bunhill Fields again. I sat there, by the fig tree and the old stone with its chipped corner — a place which has become hallowed by the pilgrimage of so many — as I had often done while writing the novel. I wasn’t thinking of anything in particular. I just sat there, watching the trees, the pigeons flying, people passing by. It was a very happy day.

I’m now ready for Blake again.

Which is a good thing, because, after a long wait, Ciudad doliente de Dios was finally published last December in Mexico, by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Things therefore became quite intense. The novel had to go to print in October, which gave me the shortest time I’ve ever had to read the proofs of a book of mine (and this is my longest one).

It being a book I finished five years ago, I was at moments tempted to rewrite again. It wouldn’t have been wise though, as it would have meant more destroying than building. On the whole, I decided to trust the writer I was then. It has been twenty-one years since I started working on this novel. I believe it has indeed reached the point when it has to go out into the world.

On reading the proofs, I was reminded of what a strange novel it is. I liked that. As a dialogue with Blake’s prophetic poems the visionary mattered more than any conventions of modern fiction, and it feels right to have been loyal to that intent.

I was struck too by the degree to which this is a Christian book, in the sense that Blake was Christian (I hope!). I felt somewhat melancholic. I’ve talked before of how I’d been a Christian who responded to the symbolic power of the myth while struggling with the dogma. Precisely in the years I was finishing the novel, I started to walk away from the remnants of my identity as a Christian, as I discovered Buddhism. There aren’t so many contradictions, and I even find much that sounds utterly Buddhist in Blake himself. Ultimately, the quest of my characters for the meaning of the cross and the figure of Christ is a quest for understanding of suffering, and it’s moved by compassion. The questions in it remain utterly genuine and alive for me.

Another matter I pondered on while reading the proofs is the extent to which the tragedies endured by the country where I was born take centre stage in the novel. Set on the visionary rather than the mundane side of reality, it doesn’t take place in any ‘real’ geographical spot. Its characters walk towards the sacred city, led by an image of St Paul’s Cathedral. However, the unfathomable suffering of a country called Mexico has been woven around the cosmogony of William Blake, in an effort to understand and to find meaning. I do hope, therefore, that Ciudad doliente de Dios honours all the people who have endured such suffering with courage and even — as is the case of the community Las Abejas, members of which were the victims of the Acteal massacre — with hope.

Revising the manuscript Image by Adriana Díaz-Enciso
Revising the manuscript
Image: Adriana Díaz-Enciso © 2018

Blake: art as path and goal

It must be clear by now, the importance that William Blake has had in my life, as a writer and a human being. He’s an artist and poet who talks to me. One whom I honour and admire for the way he lived the extremely hard battle it was his lot to fight. A sublime and truly inspired but misunderstood artist who endured mockery, incomprehension and poverty.

However, William Blake is not a saint, and in coming closer to some other people’s appreciation of him, I believe that the kind of fanaticism encountered around him now and then is a great loss: a deviation of what really matters in his legacy.

There is no doubt that he lived an exemplary life, as a courageous human being who remained steadfastly faithful to his call, his passions and his principles, against all odds. He believed in the power of art and the imagination to transform human life by helping us break through the veils which hinder our awareness of transcendent reality. And he considered this power the essence of divinity in human existence. He devoted his life to that vision, and therefore to create beauty and meaning. What else can we possibly demand from him?

He gave us more than enough, and like any true artist, he demands in turn our full regard for his work, our full responsiveness. Any other extraneous meaning whimsically projected onto him is a deviation from this. Blake’s belief in being able to communicate with certain spirits (his brother Robert’s; the sages he saw on the shores of Felpham; and his angels) wouldn’t be more interesting than any other person’s perhaps unusual beliefs, had he not linked that faith to a greater, encompassing one: his faith in the human spirit, capacious enough to hold within it God, the universe and all the questions hence derived.

Furthermore, he was adamant about art’s paramount importance in the life of man, believing that a society which stands with its back to the arts is impoverished, lame and crass. Art was, to him, the vehicle, the path and the goal: what he dedicated his life to. If we make any claim to having accepted his gift for posterity, it is to his images and his poetry that we must turn — and they are certainly not for the literal-minded.

We live in times of confusion, when the arts are often understood either as a commodity, novelty, entertainment, a sorry mirror for the vacuous existence of the consumer society, or (with good but misguided intentions) as a by-product of sociology, which then becomes surreptitiously an instrument for social engineering.

All these approaches strip art of its transcendent principle, and when that happens, art is dead. The death of art means the death of a society’s spirit, of human freedom. That is why artists such as William Blake are important, and it is a thing to celebrate that there are many individuals in younger generations who understand this and want to make Blake’s art and poetry a part of their lives.

The art and the poetry of a man who lived on earth. Nothing more and nothing less. 


Adriana Díaz-Enciso is an author of poetry and fiction, as well as a translator. She was born in Mexico, and has been living in London since 1999. She has been a Trustee and Secretary of the Blake Society. Work she has written on William Blake can be found on her website: diazenciso.wordpress.com

'Ciudad doliente de Dios' cover, Adriana Díaz-Enciso
‘Ciudad doliente de Dios’ cover

Adriana’s novel, Ciudad doliente de Dios (Doleful City of God), is published in Mexico by Alfaguara, a Penguin Random House imprint, in co-edition with the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

You can read her three earlier posts in this series for Finding Blake: William Blake & the Doleful City of God Part 1 – McAllen, Texas, Part 2 — London, England and Part 3 — Visionary City

Finding Blake – Our First Year

We start the New Year with a timely update from Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White. As well as looking back at our first year, a highly eventful journey and the successes for Finding Blake, James also shares a couple of sneak previews of what’s coming up next. 


Blimey, as Blake might have said. It’s January 2019 already — a year on from having raised the funding through our crowdfunding campaign and cracking into the Finding Blake Project.

Albion Rose by William Blake (1793-6)
Albion Rose
William Blake (1793-6)
Source: the William Blake Archive
http://www.blakearchive.org

And what a year it’s been on the Blakean trail! From that first interview with poet David Whyte in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford — where Blake was right there with us — all the way through to the ceremony to set Blake’s new ledger stone in Bunhill Fields, London, on the 12th August. And, in-between: journeys down into the underground quarry where that piece of Portland stone came from; coming face to face with Blake’s paintings and words, and with Blakean scholars and creatives of all hues; and a deep encounter with the stone itself, which now bears his name, dates, a quote, and the words ‘Poet – Artist – Prophet’.

The ledger stone is a huge focus of the film I am making: Blake, his stone and its creation by a master-craftsperson of this age and, I hope, the themes of his vision — infinity, eternity, time, and hope.

No simple answers

Have I found Blake? That’s the question that is spinning around me now, and has been for the last few weeks as I’ve been focusing intensely on editing the material. Well, thinking hard on that, I don’t think I have — not in a rounded shape that I can put in my pocket and say, yes, here’s Blake. But of course poetry, mysticism, articulating a vision — these aren’t and shouldn’t ever be that simple or clear-cut.

Life itself isn’t clear-cut (if it is, you’re doing it wrong), and the journey is never about the destination. For me definitely, it’s about the meanderings on the road and the twists and turns. So alongside the cutting and splicing, and the giant jigsaw of the filmed story of the last year that I have in front of me, I’m reflecting upon a year in search of William Blake: his extraordinary words, images and overall vision; the physical life he lived over 70 years; what the impact of all this is, what folk say and feel about him and that vision now; and ultimately, the impact of Blake for today’s world, for today’s Britain.

Folk have asked me recently, ‘Tell me about Blake’, and I can’t articulate his life and work into a sentence or paragraph. Maybe I can with poets like Philip Larkin, Ted Hughes, WB Yeats, or John Clare — all of whom I’ve had a longer engagement with over many years and a physical affinity to the places they inhabited: Hull, Yorkshire, Ireland, and the Northamptonshire / North Cambridge territory that John Clare tramped around. Maybe my antipathy towards the city of London has hampered me on the Blake trail (sorry Londoners! I always will be a village lad).

A simple resonance

Walking on concrete constantly creates that physical disconnection. I deeply resonate with Blake’s three nearly harmonious years in Felpham, where he was surrounded by the elements, able to see and sense the sea, and grow things in his garden. I’ve never been interested in trying to ‘explain’ Blake. But filming Carol Leader’s rich lecture on how she uses Blake’s work in psychoanalysis, and the presentations by Reverend Malcolm Guite and Reverend Christopher Rowland on Blake as a Christian icon, have both been wonderful experiences for me, a witness to inspiring efforts to explain or understand him in specific, focused ways.

I would recommend Will Franken’s deep and visceral film Red, White & Blake for his efforts to engage with some of the specifics. And, on the subject of connection to land, friend of Finding Blake Matt Wilmshurst is in the thick of producing Blake in Sussex, a feature drama about William and Catherine’s three years in Felpham. We’re greatly looking forward to seeing that and wish Matt and the team great success.

My film and this project are not about ‘me’ finding Blake. It’s about a shared journey, for all of us: exploring. I’m steering and mediating it, and my voice is there asking questions, commenting and reflecting. I ask a lot of questions of everyone I’ve met along this road; I’m good at asking questions, though in interviews we’ve stuck rigidly to three simple ones:

  • How has William Blake influenced you, personally and professionally?
  • What examples of his work — poems, engravings, images — or his life resonate with and inspire you?
  • How do you feel William Blake is most relevant to the current day: as artist, spiritual visionary, political inspiration?

And I have been delighted when interviewees go wildly off with their answers: there is no right Blakean answer!

Finding Blake  — the film

But back to the product: the intangible tangible thing that this project has been created around is and is nudging toward in this chunk of Blakean time. I have a file full of sections and rough cuts, and an overall structure that I’m slotting sections into. I’m thinking about where interview clips go, and which sections resonate with others and with which words, and how much to mess around with linear time.

I’ve done a big chunk of this initial editing and structuring up in a quiet cottage in Cumbria, thanks to a great friend of and contributor to the project, Clare Crossman. While there, I discovered that Kathleen Raine — probably the single person who did the most to promote Blake into our era — had a house nearby. So in seeking the quiet places for inspiration and focus, Blake comes with me and crops up again, not just in written word and image (I had a big box of books to keep me going), but in the most wonderful ways.

The plan is that I’ll do some test screenings here in Cambridge in a week or so, mainly to invited critical eyes and those closely involved in the project, and then there will be the first public screening with the Blake Society in London on Wednesday 16th January. Anyone is welcome to this event, but please check with the Blake Society, of course.

Following this, we’ll take in some of the comments and feedback, think about further ideas we have in mind to film, and then take it forward. Any ideas you have for screening opportunities, please shout!

Blake's new gravestone unveiled - a key moment in our first year
Blake’s new gravestone unveiled
Photograph: Lida Cardozo Kindersley © 2018
www.kindersleyworkshop.co.uk/

So a huge shout to all who chipped in a year ago: your sterling efforts have helped get the project to this point! Thank you! Your funds have been spent on travel, paying for filming and a tiny bit of my editing time, hard drives, memory cards, the odd Blake book or four, and hosting the website.

Without your support, ‘Finding Blake’ could never have started out on this Blakean journey …

We made that start without attracting all the funds we needed, because it was important to begin the journey and to share the benefits of our exploration through our film and website. We are actively seeking further funds to complete all the activities we set out to do. If you would like to make a donation, please use the button on the site or get in touch. And if you have suggestions for other funding ideas, we’d love to have them!

Our first year — and beyond

I just want to end this post with some further thank yous for Finding Blake’s first year: two specifics and a general one. To Mark, for astonishing perseverance and clarity in progressing with this website, dealing with words, images, layout, and fielding questions and responding. To Linda, who has been a marvel: digesting, processing Blake, driving us, interviewing, providing emergency sausage rolls, liaising, and more. And to so many in my technical and feedback crew, who respond to my questions and calls for help, and give the critical feedback that keeps me semi-sane and on the creative meander in this crazy world. And finally, to Mr William Blake: poet — artist — prophet …

A happy New Year to all. May it bring us clarity, deep visioning, and the energy to live richly.

The Sun at His Eastern Gate
William Blake
Watercolor, over traces of black chalk
Source: The Morgan Library & Museum www.themorgan.org

A few extra things to look out for soon:

  • In a few weeks, we’ll start posting a regular series of extra footage and material that is additional to the film, a kind of ‘DVD extras’ bundle if you like.
  • I’ve really resonated with one or two of Blake’s images when I’ve met them in the flesh this year (see The Unfolding and Unveiling, about the exhibition at Petworth and in particular Blake’s image, The sea of time and space), and of course there have been some I haven’t connected to. This year, Finding Blake wants to start a mini-series of posts from you telling us about the images you love, or hate, and why.
  • The wonderful Tyger painting by Linda, from her residency at a Cambridgeshire school, will shortly go on sale online by auction to raise further funds for this project. More details will be announced here soon.

 


Notes

You can find a 2018 review by Jason Whittaker of Will Franken’s film Red, White and Blake at Zoamorphosis | The Blake Blog 2.0

There is more information about Blake in Sussex, the forthcoming film from Matt Wilmshurst at the Blake in Sussex site.

James will be discussing the Finding Blake project and film, and presenting material from his film at a screening after the AGM of the Blake Society at Waterstones Bookshop (82 Gower Street, London WC1E 6EQ) on 16th January (6.30pm). See the Blake Society events page for info (scroll down to January and mention of ‘Finding Blake’).