Insights / Shows We Love

BY Ashley Eldridge-Ford on May 19, 2009
© Tate

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When the poet William Blake held the first exhibition of his artwork 200 years ago, in Soho's Golden Square, he portrayed himself in the accompanying "Descriptive Catalogue" as a painter of historic genius who would redeem London's wayward art world. It was a turning point in his career. The show--which he ever-hopefully kept up for two years--was scantly attended, and the one review it received was violently hostile. Writing in the Examiner, the critic Robert Hunt described Blake's art as, among other things, "a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain."

In this thought-provoking, informative, and borderline reverential exhibition, Tate Britain resurrects the 1809 show so modern audiences can judge for themselves. While only ten of the original 16 works have been included--nearly all the others have been lost--the missing pieces are evoked by blank outlines of their dimensions and text from the "Descriptive Catalogue." Displayed alongside Blake’s work are other paintings from 1809 by J.M.W. Turner, William Mulready, and Francis Towne, providing a parallel reference of the kind of art that captivated exhibition-goers that same year. The style of this work and Blake's couldn't be farther apart--in fact, their style was exactly what Blake sought to overturn. He considered Turner's The Garreteer's Petition, for instance, to be a mess of broken lines, and condemned the artist's Harvest Dinner, Kingston Bank in the "Descriptive Catalogue." While these contemporaneous paintings are oil-on-canvas landscapes or portraits composed with a soft realism, Blake’s works--such as The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth--are mostly in heavily-worked tempera and depict obscure mythological and biblical subjects.

Remarkable for their flatness and contained emotional drama, Blake's works--which the Pre-Raphaelites later seized on as a touchstone--have a naive simplicity of style recalling 16th century etchings, Greek friezes, and Renaissance paintings. He had anticipated that the exhibition would yield invitations to become Britain’s next great public fresco painter. Instead, embittered by the show's reception, Blake retreated into semi-seclusion and never exhibited his work again.

Further Reading:

"Blake Retrospective: Tate Stages 1809 Show" [via the Guardian]

"William Blake: The Art of a 'Lunatic'?" [via the Independent]

"William Blake Exhibition - Tate Britain, Review" [via the Telegraph]

"William Blake at Tate Britain" [via the Financial Times]

"William Blake show at Tate Britain" [via the Times of London]

William Blake's "Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels" (1805). ; © V&A Images/Victoria and Albert Museum, London

William Blake's "Jacob's Ladder" (1799-1806). ; © The Trustees of the British Museum

From the Article: Artists

William Blake

From the Article: Artworks

The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth
by William Blake
Jacob's Ladder
by William Blake
Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels
by William Blake

From the Article: Shows

TATE Britain
Apr 20 - Oct 4

From the Article: Venues

From the Article: Techniques & Media

Print , Painting