By the Tate Gallery
This is not so much a review of this book, good though it is, rather it’s a review of William Blake himself. Before you think that sounds a bit presumptuous I’ll explain. This isn’t actually a book, it’s the catalogue for the William Blake exhibition at the Tate Gallery between November 2000 and February 2001. This year, 2020, there was another Blake exhibition at the Tate and I’d hoped to get to it but I didn’t make it.
It’s been something of a regret that I bought this book in November 2000 and it’s sat on my shelf quietly nagging me to read it for the last 20 years. Therefore, when the Blake exhibition came up at the end of last year I thought I really ought to read the book before going. My feelings were made more complex by the fact that I’d been to the previous Blake exhibition at the Tate in the mid eighties but had not known what I was seeing. However, I was knocked out by the print of Nebuchadnezzar and having learned to acid etch print at school I was fascinated but knew nothing of his work. Since then I’d begun to understand that Blake was a sort of Christian mystic but that was about all I knew.
I have many books that I’ve bought with good intentions of reading. I’m a bit like a child with eyes bigger than his belly when it comes to books and recently I’ve developed a policy of trying to make every other book I read one from my shelves. Every time I do this I’m struck by the experience or knowledge that’s been at my fingertips all that time waiting to be tapped into. This book on Blake was a prime example.
The book is a catalogue of the millennium exhibition but it stands alone without the reader needing to be at the exhibition. It took me months to get through as my reading style is to dip in and out in short bursts but being a gallery catalogue it was well suited to that. However, despite reading a bit most days it still took months to read and the recent show was well over by the time I finished the book earlier this year. Heaven knows how you would read it if you were using it as a guide at the actual show; you’d need to come back many times over and even then you might not manage to read all the accompanying essays. I would really love to have done that, got a season ticket at the start and visited each day to view a few pictures and perhaps read one of the essays. If you devoted full days to it you might get through it in a week or so but it is 300 pages and larger than A4. I suppose you’d find a comfy bench or even the coffee shop to read the essays. Of course there are many illustrations so there are not that many words but you’d not want to spend all your time reading; rather you’d be there to look at the pictures.
The book contains a caption for every piece in the exhibition (as far as I was able to tell) but not every piece in the exhibition is included as an illustration in the book. I guess if you were at the show you’d not need every image. The book was available to purchase for a couple of years after the show closed so I guess it was intended to be read as a stand alone work.
The captions, though, were not the best part of the book. More fascinating, to me, were the essays and this is where I learned so much about Blake and his ideas. These essays are peppered through the book about Blake, his life, his techniques and the nature of the stories he tells. The book, and I guess the exhibition, started with some choice examples to whet your whistle, but what followed was a series of essays, supported by the works shown in the exhibition.
Early on the book discussed Blake’s life and work while he lived at Hercules Buildings in Lambeth. There is a description of his home and an explanation of his workshop, life and relationships. The early essays give a thorough description of his techniques in some technical detail. This is against the backdrop of the history the time, late 18th Century concurrent with the American and French revolutions going on and the industrial revolution just taking off. This is important as the reader learns that Blake was something of a radical, or at least a non-conformist and his political views put him in conflict with the establishment. The book describes how he moved from London to Felpham in West Sussex partially to avoid the attentions of the authorities but he was arrested while he was there and tried for sedition. He was acquitted but it is an indication of his relationship to the establishment.
Of course Blake is known for writing the poem that later became the hymn Jerusalem although the music wasn’t added until 100 years later. He’s also known for the line ‘Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forests of the night,’ but I imagine many people won’t know who wrote the line.
It’s striking to see the engravings of the tiger and understand that he would be drawing and engraving from descriptions by others having never seen a tiger. It’s only seeing this that we are able to fully realise how lucky we are having access to photographs of every creature, plant and place in the world. If we only had knowledge of things by word of mouth it’s easy to imagine how perceptions can become mistaken.
These poems were presented in hand printed books in extremely limited print runs, each plate individually inked, often with variations in inking between copies then bound and sold as books. The writing is hand engraved on the plates and, of course, written in mirror script so as to be printed the right way around. The poems that the images accompany are challenging to read, in a handwriting script rather than a typeface. If you wanted to read the poems alongside the images it might be easier to find a book that has transcribed the poems into a modern typeface. I’m sure such volumes exist as I can’t be the first to think of this.
One discovery that I’d not expected was that Blake invented a pantheon of characters to populate his writings. As well as historical, biblical or literary characters such as from Shakespeare or Dante, Blake’s own characters appear again and again throughout his work. For example Albion, as well as being a personification of Britain, is a primeval man who experiences a fall (as Satan might have fallen) to result in the existence of four Zoas, Urizen (the embodiment of reason and law), Tharmas (sensation), Luvah (love and passion) and Urthona (inspiration and creativity). These last two are further divided into Orc (the spirit of rebellion and freedom) and Los (the eternal prophet). From these, and at this point it gets a bit had to keep track of all the characters, some or all of them also have emanations or paired opposite sex equivalents.
It’s when you read about these characters that it becomes apparent that Blake must have been on some pretty good drugs. He is known to have openly had visions. Reading each of these essays was not really sufficient to begin to grasp that nature of these characters but if you were to devote some time to study them, and their interrelations, you’d probably find something close to a magical system in the same way that others have built the same using pantheons such as the Greek/Roman or Norse gods. Of course all of Blake’s writings are to be understood against the background of Christianity but if you consider Christianity as just another mythology then you could have as much fun with Blake as you might with the Greek or the Norse gods.
What is interesting, although shouldn’t be surprising, is that the fall of Albion, and his division into his four Zoas is a metaphor for the industrial revolution. Any of us who are familiar with the words of Blake’s Jerusalem will know the line about the dark satanic mills. Blake’s Urizen, reason, isn’t necessarily thought of as on the side of good or the benefit of the people. Blake’s print of Newton, almost bent double studying the universe by means of a compass has been explained as Newton not seeing the big picture with his limited mathematical understanding of the universe focussed on only that which was in front of his nose and his scientific instruments. (This might have been a bit unfair as Newton was also a bit of mystic but we don’t think that of him today.) So Blake is saying that reason, exclusively, is not the only way, or perhaps the best way, to see the world. The application of the scientific method (reason) results in the industrial revolution (the fall of Albion) and eventually the creation of dark satanic mills and a population unable to relate to the world of nature as we might have once have done.
Four out of five stars.