Reviewed by Ian Lipke
The tome that arrived on my desk was very attractively presented in hard cover and, in combination with its muted tones, breathed academia. It was meant to tell all who came in contact that it was not a frivolous document and would be treated on its own terms. Affixed to the very centre of the front cover was William Blake’s Ascent of Days, an image, so powerful and mysterious, that it reduces Man to awed silence.
Any study of William Blake, almost by definition, has to be granted serious status…visual artist beyond compare, poet of major reckoning, and commentator on cultural affairs and contemporary lifestyles, Blake had something to say. He could write poetry that was exquisite and gentle:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
and a heaven in a wild flower,
hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
and eternity in an hour.
(from Auguries of Innocence)
Lovely and complex as Blake’s poetry is, Princeton University Press and Tate Publishing had the emphasis correct when they made the decision that Blake’s visual artistry is more representative of the artist than his poetry. They do not dwell on the matter but, through the hands of Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon, deliver a publication of intelligent scholarship and considerable beauty. The authors have recognised the abstract complexity of Blake – how could they not? – the strength of his individual vision, and the personality that colours our perceptions even today.
Many of us pay lip service to Blake without really understanding the man’s work. The Tate publication, through the use of Blake’s Albion Rose print (9) on the very first page of the Introduction, shakes us from our state of ignorant contentment with the contextual statement that Blake has been subject to a century and a half of dedicated scholarship. “Sometimes speculative, often highly technical, occasionally inscrutable, each word of his writings, each printed sheet, each drawing and painting, has been catalogued and described, analysed, interpreted, and argued over” (9).
Myrone and Concannon are specific about where their book should take its readers. They want to introduce a note of reflection, by which they hope their readers will learn more specifics about each piece of art in the collection. The material they have supplied will generate a great deal of talk, I am quite sure of that. It is so extensive, has so many illustrations – very good quality objects at that. The introductory material supplies the key to the reason for the book. The intention of the exhibition and the book is to de-mythologize Blake, and accordingly, draw attention to David Erdman’s “exposure of the specificities of time and place which are threaded through Blake’s visionary poetic work” (16). In another place, the authors agree that Blake has proved to be a problem figure when surveys of British art have been conducted (20), and reveal concern that the current Tate Exhibition risks reaffirming his isolation.
The concern is ill-founded. The early pages (up to about page 35), are a biographical exposé of the main events in Blake’s life. It is beautifully illustrated with a photograph of the poet and with samples of Blake’s work. The words then cease and the viewers are transported into Blake’s world, carried along from painting to etching by means of the flowing gowns and lithe bodies of his models. This is a section of the book lovingly loaded, meant for visual enjoyment. It was a delight to discover (42) that the authors had reproduced a hand-written copy of the poem Tiriel.
A new aspect of Blake’s professional life opens on page 50 with a full page depiction of Joseph of Arimathea among the rocks of Albion. It is an engraving, ink on paper, from about 1810. This beautiful engraving introduces a new chapter in Blake’s life, his printing interests, inseparable as so often from controversy. Of little value to this paper, we need not dwell on it other than to reflect that, “how spontaneous he could be in utilising the distinctive process of relief printing which became the main vehicle of his poetic output” (52).
As we move through the book, new aspects of this complex man are revealed. Illustrative images normally remain in isolation from the text, but Blake integrates text with colours. Books with coloured inks, books that are illuminated in various ways, books that provide much visual information on these methodologies. Myrone and Concannon cover this section with just the right amount of text to support the breathtaking illustrations.
The section on patronage and Blake’s independence contains several pages of textual information and identifies Thomas Butts as a consistent supporter. However, the chapter is distinctive for its overwhelming display of Biblical figures in various poses. They are breathtaking. The colours are amazing, the positioning of the bodies is just so right, and the pages, one after the other, simple and moving, are a delight wholly unexpected. There is magic in the land.
To continue revealing the treasures within this book would introduce unsightly repetition, but particular mention must be made again of the famous Ascent of Days, which is first seen on the book’s cover and later on page 198, the page that immediately precedes a scholarly written Afterword. The painting is magnificent beyond words.
Princeton and the Tate have made available an extensive discovery of William Blake that leaves me highly enthused.
By Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon (Eds)
Princeton University Press and Tate Publishing