William Blake was above all else a revolutionary, writes Jacqueline Mulhallen
An exhibition opened at the Tate Britain on 11 September of the wonderful work of William Blake, perhaps the English artist who most deserves to be described as a genius since his work was equally brilliant in poetry and in visual art - and he even composed music for his poems and sung them too! Certainly he was an original and independent thinker and although he has since had many admirers no one else has succeeded in combining the arts in the way he did.
Blake was born in 1757 and his father was a hosier, living in Broad (now Broadwick) Street, Soho. Therefore they were not labouring people, but artisans, skilled people who valued their independence and their trade. In the early years of the nineteenth century, hosiers were among those whose skilled work was taken over by machinery, stocking frames, which could mass produce the work but at a lower standard. It was these stocking frames that the Luddites were to break. Blake was against the alienation and loss of skills which the industrial revolution was to introduce, not to mention the suffering that he saw as an adult when people were forced into the ‘dark, Satanic’ mills and factories.
Blake showed artistic talent as a child and was apprenticed aged 14 to an engraver. At the time, the division between the crafts of printing and engraving and the fine arts of painting and sculpture were just coming into existence, and Blake suffered from this division, although he did study for a while at the Royal Academy. But as a student he did not like criticism and he wanted to form his own opinions.
He did not consider his own art inferior to that of Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous portrait painter. At the time, fine artists admired Rubens and Rembrandt but the Renaissance artists Michelangelo and Raphael were not yet fashionable. Blake, however, admired them and his work reflects the strength of the great master, Michelangelo, particularly in the strongly muscled figures, the expressions of the faces and the mysterious backgrounds. Blake illustrated his poetry with these wonderful images and created books where the paintings complement the poems, his ‘illuminated books’. He also painted in water colour, as he did not like oils, works which he described as ‘frescoes’ and he attempted to fix the colours with carpenter’s glue. This is a method which has not survived perfectly, but once again he was using an innovative technique.
As a poet, Blake also broke new ground. He rejected the classical couplet used by Pope and Johnson and as a result he has been described as ‘in lyric metres [...] revolutionary and a master’. Wordsworth and Coleridge are usually credited with introducing the Romantic style but Blake was ahead of them by some 20 years although they did not know his work until years later . His poems such as London, The Chimney Sweeper, The Little Black Boy, refer to political conditions and the last-named condemns slavery. In the 1780s, the campaign against slavery began to gather pace, and Blake knew Josiah Wedgwood, who created its emblem, the famous medal ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’.
London shows how little has changed over the last 200 years:
I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charteríd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear
How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls
But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.
When he mentions the Marriage hearse, Blake was not speaking of his own marriage, as he and his wife, Catherine, were happily married for 45 years. He often said he thought an angel was with him and on his deathbed he identified the angel as Catherine. He supported the rights of women and in his poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion he condemned the patriarchal attitudes which inflicted forced marriage or, alternatively, chastity, upon women. He was employed by Joseph Johnson, a printer, to whom he supplied engravings for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life, and at Johnson’s dinners he met other radicals, William Godwin, Thomas Holcroft, Joseph Priestley. An old story, now unfortunately discredited, has it that Blake said to Thomas Paine after a speech to the Friends of Liberty ‘Do not go home or you are a dead man’ and helped him escape to France. This probably reflects his closeness to the radicals and to the London Corresponding Society at this time.
Typographical printing in England in the mid-eighteenth century was not of the standard that it was in Continental Europe, and in fact as printing was the first mass-produced industry, this was a factor in Blake’s own choice of production. He wanted to make books which would reflect the beauty of his visions and his poetry. He therefore created a form of etching, ‘relief-etching’, to bring this out more fully, and since he was able to do this ‘no writer has ever controlled so much of the process [of publication] himself.’ He could transfer on to the plates for etching the words and the drawings which he did by hand, and they became a whole, overseen by the creator of the work. He and Catherine also coloured them by hand, although Blake later developed a process for colouring directly on to the plate. These hand coloured books were produced in the 1790s but by 1818 Blake had reverted to monochrome printing. Although the plates could be, and were, used again, and although it was possible for Blake to make the books identical to the previous ones, they are not and this is perhaps a deliberate choice, as variations in colour and size allowed him to include extra detail or emphasise expression. This is why it is important to see the works themselves in the exhibition.
There is an excellent archive online showing the images, but they are divorced from the books themselves and it is important to see the whole work in context. The poetry is complemented by the painting and Blake saw many things as complementary, so it reflects his philosophy. The text can be seen to have different layers of meaning which are enhanced by the visual aspect of Blake’s art and which are absent when we read the poems separately.
Even as a child, Blake was a mystic - he saw God looking in through the kitchen window. He did not see this as something which set him apart but as something others could equally well see if they tried. In fact, he said he saw things with his imagination and through his work he is encouraging others to see things as vividly as he does. Blake was against the hierarchical and patriarchal elements of Christianity, although he loved Christ. He cannot really be described as a rebel against the established churches since it does not appear that he belonged to any, and E.P.Thompson has suggested that his parents may have had links to a Muggletonian or dissenting church of the 17th century. Certainly, Blake did not have the prudery or suggestive salaciousness of his (and our) contemporaries and thought nakedness and sexuality perfectly natural, and this is what his art conveys. He was never going to be the kind of portrait painter which Reynolds was. He also hated the hypocrisy which, while claiming an admiration for art, allowed an artist to starve. He said, “Peace & Plenty & Domestic Happiness is the Source of Sublime Art, & prove to the Abstract Philosophers that Enjoyment & not Abstinence is the food of Intellect’.
Although Blake never became famous and wealthy, like Reynolds, he did have a circle of admirers when he was a young man who bought his work and helped him while he was experimenting with the illuminated books. As an old man, he was surrounded by younger admiring artists, among them Samuel Palmer, and although his reputation was not large in the early and mid-nineteenth century, by the end a number of works had been written about him. In the late twentieth century, there have been studies of his techniques, philosophy, art and poetry.
Since Blake’s day, work has become more and more alienating and the capitalism which he resisted has become completely dominant. To go back to Blake’s work, and, although it is not always easy to understand, appreciate his distaste for slavery and penury, and for mass production and the working conditions it brings is very rewarding.
The establishment’s appropriation of Blake - principally through the sanctification of his ‘And did those feet in ancient times’ poem into the hymnal anthem ‘Jerusalem’ - must be resisted by our side at every chance. Blake was a revolutionary, rooted in the most emancipatory aspects of the Jacobin period, a seer of transformation forged by the materiality of poverty and industrialisation, a champion of the oppressed who saw human liberation as at once marvellous and the stuff of everyday life.
Prisons are built with stones of Law,
Brothels with bricks of Religion.
The pride of the peacock is the glory of God.
The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.
The wrath of the lion is the wisdom of God.
The nakedness of woman is the work of God.
Jacqueline Mulhallen, actor and playwright, has co-ordinated King’s Lynn Stop the War since 2003 and initiated and organised 14 Women for Change talks for King’s Lynn & District Trades Council (2012/2013). Her books include The Theatre of Shelley (Openbooks, 2010), and a Shelley biography (Pluto Press, 2015). Her plays include 'Sylvia' and 'Rebels and Friends’.
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