The first major exhibition ever to be held in New York to address all aspects of the work of the important British Romantic painter, printmaker, and poet, William Blake presents more than 175 works drawn from public and private collections in Britain, the United States, and Australia. The broad range of Blake's artistic and poetic vision is represented, with special attention to his innovative printmaking techniques, his visionary imagination, and the implications of his radical politics for his art.
William Blake was born in London in 1757 into a working-class family (his father was a hosier) with strong nonconformist religious beliefs, and was trained as a commercial engraver. Assisted by Catherine Boucher—a grocer's daughter whom he married in 1782—Blake produced a remarkable series of color-printed books using his relief etching process. William Blake never traveled outside of Britain and remained poor all of his life. Aside from a brief period on the southern coast of England (where he worked for the poet William Hayley in Eartham from 1800 to 1803), he spent his entire life in London. At his death in 1827, Blake was mourned by a small group of intimate associates, some of them followers who called themselves the "Ancients"; today, he is celebrated as one of the most original and important artists and poets of the Romantic era.
Arranged thematically, the exhibition begins with an exploration of the artist's lifelong engagement with medieval art. Among the highlights of this section are the vivid early studies of tombs in Westminster Abbey, richly colored in watercolor and gold, the monumental engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims (ca. 1820, Yale Center for British Art), and Blake's imaginative designs for Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1779, The British Museum).
Engravings such as Job (1793, The Keynes Family Trust) and Edward and Elenor (1793, The British Museum), and illuminated books including America, a Prophecy (1793, The British Museum, National Gallery of Art, and the Library of Congress), The Daughters of Albion (1793, Library of Congress), the Book of Thel (1789, The Pierpont Morgan Library), and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790, The Pierpont Morgan Library), among others, reveal the broad scope of Blake's imagination and illustrate his unique iconography. Blake listed them, and more, in his 1793 Prospectus of works offered for sale in his Lambeth workshop. At the time, Lambeth was a poor London neighborhood where Britain's most radical politics found expression in the age of the French and American revolutions. Blake's illustrated books, which have traditionally drawn wide appeal—including The Songs of Innocence and of Experience—are included in this exhibition, interpreted within the context of the political upheavals and social concerns of the era.
Blake's dark prophetic vision is represented by a series of large color prints, ca. 1795–1804. Each of these majestic monoprints is unique, pulled from a design painted on copperplates or millboard, and worked up in pen and ink. Presented without texts, these powerful images take their monumental figures from literary sources such as the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare, as well as Blake's own imaginative universe.
The Songs of Innocence and of Experience—which contains the celebrated poems The Tyger, London, and The Sick Rose—is the best known of Blake's works. Originally, Blake produced this minute and colorful volume as two separate books; he combined them in 1794, and continued to print copies from the original relief-etched copper plates throughout his life. Blake claimed to have learned this innovative printing technique in a vision—one of many he said he experienced since childhood—of his deceased younger brother, Robert.
In The Songs, as in all of Blake's illuminated books, the artist and poet took unprecedented control over every aspect of production. He composed the poems, drew the designs, transferred each onto the copperplate, exposed the plates to an acid bath, and, with Catherine's assistance, printed the plates using a large rolling press he kept in his home. Blake mixed his own colors and painted each sheet by hand; his wife bound the pages together in boards. In this way, Blake not only saved the expense of a printer, he was able to work discreetly, avoiding the scrutiny of government spies and censors, as well as the very real possibility of imprisonment for publishing seditious material.
The exhibition is supported by The Isaacson-Draper Foundation.
The exhibition was organized by Tate Britain.
On November 28, William Blake is born in Soho, London, to the haberdasher and hosier, James Blake, and his wife, Catherine; William is the third of their seven children.
Blake enters Henry Pars' drawing school in the Strand, London.
Robert Blake, William's favorite brother, is born.
Blake trains as an apprentice to the reproductive engraver James Basire (1730–1802), with whom he resides in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London.
Blake is admitted to the Royal Academy Schools (as an engraver), where he meets Thomas Stothard (1755–1834) and John Flaxman (1756–1826).
Blake first exhibits at the Royal Academy.
Blake witnesses the Lord George Gordon "No Popery" riots in London.
On August 18, Blake marries Catherine Butcher, or Boucher (1762–1831), the daughter of an impoverished market gardener.
Blake's Poetical Sketches are printed, financed by the Reverend and Mrs. Harriet Mathew (hostess of a progressive salon), and John Flaxman.
Blake opens a short-lived print shop with James Parker (1750–1805), a fellow apprentice of Basire.
Robert Blake dies, probably of tuberculosis, attended by his brother William.
Blake begins to experiment with relief-etching.
Blake publishes the Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel.
The Blakes move to 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth.
On October 10, Blake publishes a Prospectus advertising ten works available for sale at his house and workshop: two engravings (Job, and Edward and Elenor), six illuminated books of relief etchings (America a Prophecy, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Innocence, and Songs of Experience) and two books of engravings (The History of England [lost], and The Gates of Paradise).
Blake publishes the illuminated books Europe a Prophecy and The First Book of Urizen.
Blake publishes the illuminated books The Book of Los, The Song of Los, and The Book of Ahania.
Blake is commissioned by the London bookseller Richard Edwards (1768–1827) to prepare 537 designs for an illustrated edition of Edward Young's Night Thoughts; forty-three of Blake's engraved plates are published in 1797.
Blake receives his first commissions from Thomas Butts (1757–1845), a minor civil servant and Blake's most important patron, for a series of designs from the Bible.
At the invitation of the poet and man of letters William Hayley (1745–1820), the Blakes move to Felpham, on the Sussex coast.
On August 12, Blake confronts Private John Scofield, a drunken soldier loitering on his property in Felpham. Scofield accuses Blake of having cursing the King during their altercation, and Blake is charged with sedition.
In September, the Blakes return to London.
On January 11, Blake is acquitted of the sedition charge in Chichester.
Blake begins work on Milton and Jerusalem.
Blake is commissioned by the London publisher Robert Hartley Cromek (1770–1812) to prepare the designs and engravings for an illustrated edition of Robert Blair's The Grave; the book, with engravings by Louis Schiavonetti (1765–1810) after Blake's designs, is published in 1808.
Blake is commissioned by Thomas Butts to prepare illustrations to Milton's Paradise Lost.
Blake holds an exhibition of his own paintings at his brother James's shop, 28 Broad Street, London, which attracts little notice.
Blake publishes the engraving after his painting of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims.
Blake exhibits four works as a member of the Associated Painters in Water Colour, London.
Blake meets his last great patron and friend, the artist John Linnell (1792–1882).
Blake begins to draw "visionary heads" at seances held by the artist and amateur astrologer, John Varley (1778–1842).
The Blakes move to Fountain Court, the Strand, London. Blake's illustrations to Thornton's Virgil, his first wood-engravings, are published.
Blake sells his collection of Old Master prints to Colnaghi's.
Blake is awarded aid in the amount of twenty-five pounds sterling by the Royal Academy to relieve the distress of his poverty.
Blake is commissioned by John Linnell to engrave twenty-two designs for The Book of Job.
Blake is commissioned by John Linnell to prepare illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy; he engraves seven of the 102 watercolor designs.
On August 12, William Blake dies at Fountain Court, London.
Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion, 1773–79/ca. 1810
Engraving printed in brown ink; 9 x 4 11/16 in. (22.8 x 11.9 cm), 10 3/8 x 4 11/16 in. (26.5 x 11.9 cm), platemark 10 1/8 x 5 1/2 in. (25.7 x 14 cm)
Lent by the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
[cat. #2, 273]
Illustrations to John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a Five Years' Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (London, 1796, 2 vols.)
William Blake after John Gabriel Stedman (1744–1797)