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Sohoitis V: Hovering For Sweet Goodbyes

I Still Go On Till The Heavens and Earth Are Gone.
William Blake – London’s Artist.
Tate Britain. Ends 1 June 08, free.

By Sophie Parkin.

Just so that you know where I stand from the beginning, I am an unapologetically devoted fan of Blake. From the first moment I saw his oil painting, The Ghost of a Flea, I was bitten. The fact that its first owner, a painter named John Varley, kept it in a secret drawer, added to its dark and mysterious power. Aged 12 I wanted it for my own, I still do. I bought a postcard.

William Blake, poet/painter, engraver, visionary/religious maniac, political Republican, cantankerous madman, outstanding Genius and inspiration. Tate Britain celebrates 250 years since his birth, in Soho, in November 1757, with a few delicious extras — a beautiful Francis Bacon head of Blake and Eduardo Paollozzi’s bronze from Newton, to Blake’s large colour prints. It is hard to put on a bad show of William Blake as long as his work is included, and though the show only takes up one room, it is filled with treasures, from both his paintings and writings, so though I think he deserves more space (think how much space the Turner Prize takes up!) I can’t quibble.

Being as multi-talented as Blake is never easy; it causes consternation in others. They want you to make a choice, as if you can only plough 100% passion and creativity into one thing otherwise it gets divided up, and you are a dilettante, you must make a choice if you are to be taken seriously. Also, the artist must take a vow of silence if his work is to achieve any depth, and not contradict what the critics make of it. As with the recent Martin Amis beating, (he’s a novelist how can he know anything of politics!) the same happened to Michelangelo, Wyndham Lewis, Dali, Warhol, Bunuel and Blake (to say nothing of Tony Curtis, Anthony Quinn and Paul McCartney’s foray into the world of art!).

Seriously, William Blake thought it a God sent vision when Robert his deceased younger brother appeared to him, he finally “revealed the wished for secret” — none other than Relief Etching, enabling Blake to publish his pictures and words together. The words balancing the pictures, and visa-versa, they were not meant to be separated. During his seventy years, Blake had only one show that not many attended, probably because it was at his brother’s hosiery shop in Soho. Sixteen works of Chaucer’s Pilgrim’s Progress and an accompanying 72 page booklet, that critics decried as sheer vanity, exhibited amongst the socks and stockings.

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The four walls of the Tate given over to Blake’s work rage, full of passion, struggle, battling the world as well as his own beliefs with contradictions and duality, darkness and lightness, simplicity and complexity of detail and depth. His surety of line connects to his heroes of Michelangelo and Raphael rather than the Venetian and Flemish artists in fashion then, to be seen prettily hanging in the adjoining rooms. Blake focuses on the pain of Job from the old Testament who also had more than his fair share of discouragement from God but kept his faith. As for his The First Book of Erizah — “Fearless though in pain I travel on” — it seems a projection of his own rejection. He was regularly shunned from exhibitions, mocked for his visions, derided for his art. One critic said of his A Midsummer Night’s Dream watercolour: “Grace does not consist in the sprawling arms and legs”. To which Blake replied that they are “hand and hand with fairie grace”. Fairies don’t comply with human attributes! Even he said in 1785, “I was looked upon as incapable of employment”. When was an artist ever truly employable?

He was too modern or too ancient, looking for his inspiration in the Elizabethans of Spencer and Shakespeare and always the Bible. God’s guiding light of revelation appears so brightly in his, David Delivered Out of Many Waters, He Rode Upon the Cherubin of 1805. When souls leave his bodies in these gentle drawings, they don’t fly off in desertion but hover for sweet goodbyes. It is hard to understand how he could have been so devalued during his life that he had only a handful of patrons that supported him, and in the end, a few young artists hailing him. Perhaps luckily he never had children, just his beloved Catherine to see him through the hardships, but what would he have thought of his acclaim, with the likes of Rossetti editing/rewriting his poems, to present to a new generation? Tate Britain have beautifully displayed five editions of the famous “The Tyger” but only one is true to the original; other editors having taken liberties.

There is also the wonderful collection of copper prints from the knowing collector W.G Robertson (“This represents one of my few excuses for existence,” he wrote) bequeathed to the Tate, watercolours, drawings and original books from The British Library collections and much more. Possibly the most famous are the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience hand printed by Blake and hand stitched by his wife: this was the book he sold most of in his lifetime, all of 54 copies. Yet now his work is equally sought after and divided between America and Britain, mostly in museums and universities, the establishment.

A critic famously said Blake’s art was “the conceit of a drunken fellow or madman”, and William Wordsworth claimed his poetry was “undoubtedly the production of insane genius”. He was attacked for his Swedenborgian religious fervour and visions, yet didn’t attend church for his last forty years and was finally buried in the Dissenters’ Burial Ground, Bunhill Fields. He lived his life almost exclusively in London amongst the “dark satanic mills” (there never was a hymn so misconstrued as “Jerusalem”), rejected the establishment’s authority at every turn, from Church, politics to social conventions, and worked doggedly hard for little reward.

Blake lived his life in poverty, his work never celebrated except near the end by a coterie of young artists including Samuel Palmer. Seeing this exhibition it seems unbelievable, but maybe the establishment’s acceptance means being reasonable, and he was never a reasonable man, Blake wrote “Reason constrains creativity and passion” and this exhibition is joyously full of both of these things.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sophie Parkin has written seven published books. Three grown-up novels (you can’t say adult otherwise people think they might be pornography): All Grown Up, Take Me Home and Dear Goddess. For teenagers there is French for Kissing, Best of Friends, and Mad, Rich and Famous. She has also contributed to four other books, from short stories, true stories, long stories, to poetry. Mothers by Daughters, Sons and Mothers both published by Virago, Girls Just Want To Have Fun: the Cosmopolitan book of short stories, and POT 05 – Anthology of Poetry ed. Michael Horovitz. Her new book, Bazaar Nights and Camel Bites (Piccadilly Press), a teenage novel set in Tangiers and London, is out now.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, February 17th, 2008.