William Blake at the Ashmolean Museum – Apprentice and Master

William Blake is acknowledged as a visionary and skilled draughtsman.  What is less well known is that he invented not just one but several new printing processes in order to achieve his masterful integration of image and text.  This revelatory new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, examines Blake’s career from both a social and technical aspect, from his early apprenticeship to his radical independent works, to his final years as the ‘Interpreter’ to the group of young artists known as the ‘Ancients’.

Blake’s training was rigorous.  And yet from an early stage in this arduous regime he was single-mindedly aware of his own style and what he wanted to achieve.  Lines scrawled with passionate frustration bring alive Blake’s tense relationship with his academic peers – and especially with the President of the RA, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who encouraged the style of Le Brun and Rubens, while Blake preferred the sober ‘truthfulness’ of Raphael and Michelangelo.

Meanwhile, the information on gleaming copper plate-style panels reveals the techniques that Blake gradually mastered – stippling, crosshatching, dot and lozenge, burnishing – alongside examples that illustrate their usage and effect, most impressively the vast copper plate and the finished engraving of the Le Champ du Drap d’Or by Blake’s master, James Basire, published in 1774. Nearby, Blake’s pencil drawings of the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey sit alongside proofs and finished engravings produced in Basire’s workshop for Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments.  The mastery of these techniques of copy engraving brought commercial success as Blake gained lucrative commissions, such as that for a large engraving of The Beggar’s Opera Act III after Hogarth (published 1790 by J. & J. Boydell).

 

The frontispiece and facing title page from 'Songs of Innocence', 1789, relief etching printed in brown ink with watercolour, 10.8 x 6.9cm; 12 x 7.3 cm, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

The frontispiece and facing title page from ‘Songs of Innocence’, 1789, relief etching printed in brown ink with watercolour, 10.8 x 6.9cm; 12 x 7.3 cm, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford

 

However, luckily for posterity’s sake, Blake was not satisfied with copying other peoples’ work.  The second and central exhibition space displays the gloriously experimental output of his independent career. First Blake sought a way to print his poetry and imagery simultaneously, without the need for a letterpress. He claimed that inspiration came to him from his dead brother in a vision – and, surrounded by the heavenly and mythical beings that populate his illustrations, one is tempted to believe him.  This method of ‘Illuminated printing’ (based on the integration achieved in medieval manuscripts) was a reversal of the traditional one, so that the text and decoration rather than being etched into a wax ground were painted onto the copper-plate with an ‘impervious liquid’, the remaining plate then left to be eaten into by the acid.  Once printed in a single colour, the prints were then painted by hand – a ‘multi-media’ approach that Blake would build upon in years to come, culminating in the great colour prints of 1795.

 

Nebuchadnezzar', c.1795-1805, colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, 54.3 x 72.5 cm, Tate, London.

Nebuchadnezzar’, c.1795-1805, colour print, ink and watercolour on paper, 54.3 x 72.5 cm, Tate, London.

 

The resulting works, The Book of Thel and Songs of Innocence, look charmingly naïve compared to the slick precision of his copy engravings; yet this belies the skill both in material and in concept.  The precision of the handwriting is incredible considering that it had to be written backwards, ‘& that with a brush dipped in glutinous liquid’ as John Linnell recorded.  The integration of the poetry amidst the swirling imagery – almost Art Nouveau in its sinuous curlicues and arabesques – was utterly different from anything seen before.Blake’s second innovation was the monotype; this is put in context by an explanation of the development of colour printing up to this point which was achieved either by layering plates of different colours, requiring great precision and knowledge of how colours combined, or more simply ‘à la poupée’, applying coloured inks to different parts of the plate by hand.  Blake instead painted broad areas of glue-based pigment freehand onto the plate; after printing pen and ink were used to define the image, with watercolour adding a final glaze of colour.

The result was the large colour compositions of 1795 Pity, Newton, Nebuchadnezzar and The House of Death – the process allowing for deep sepulchral shadows, fiery skies and apocalyptic scenery as well as the precision of musculature and expression that gives these images an unforgettable emotional power.

"Newton", 1795, large colour print finished in watercolour, 44.2 x 57.8 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“Newton”, 1795, large colour print finished in watercolour, 44.2 x 57.8 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

 

The recreation of Blake’s studio in the corner – from newly discovered plans that show the exact dimensions of no.13 Hercules Buildings in Lambeth, where such masterpieces were produced – looks too neat and tidy.  It lacks the clutter and character one imagines surrounded such vivid outpourings of a dark and prophetic imagination; but it is sobering to see the simplicity of the tools by which such images were created.

The final gallery sees a return to the values of Renaissance masters such as Dürer, whose Melancholia I hung upon Blake’s studio wall.  In the illustrations to the Book of Job Blake resumes a monochrome palette and a precision of design – a piety mixed with inventiveness that echoes the text.  He then takes up the even more austere process of woodcut to produce minute yet highly evocative illustrations to Virgil’s ‘Pastorals’.  These especially are the images that inspired Samuel Palmer whose richly sepia ‘Oxford series’ drawings in dark brown ink textured with gum Arabic are a tremendous postscript to Blake’s career.  After the flights of fantasy, we are once again in England, a land with just as much mystery and esoteric lore as any imaginary kingdom.

William Blake – Apprentice and Master, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 4 December 2014 – 1 March 2015.

About the author

Kitty completed an MA in modern British art at the Courtauld, before studying for a PhD at the University of East Anglia on the subject of satire in 1920s British art.  Having previously worked at Christie’s, she is now a cataloguer and picture specialist at Jubilee Auction Rooms in Wiltshire as well as writing articles and exhibition reviews on a freelance basis. She enjoys etching and photography when time allows and hopes to one day build up her own modern British art collection.

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