William Blake: Apprentice & Master
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
4 December 2014 — 1 March 2015
¬£9/¬£7 concessions or free with Oxford University student card
Marginalia is enjoying something of a moment at Oxford, as witnessed by the New Yorker’s recent feature  on the Oxford University Marginalia group, founded by sometime Oxonian contributor April Pierce . It is no surprise, then, that some of the most rewarding aspects of the Ashmolean’s latest special exhibit, William Blake: Apprentice & Master, guest curated by Blake scholar Michael Phillips from the University of York, are several of the artist’s own comments, handwritten in the margins of influential books of the period: Blake’s own copy of The Works of Joshua Reynolds (3 vols., 1798, on loan from the British Library) and two of Blake’s copies of Emanuel Swedenborg’s The Wisdom of Angels Concerning The Divine Providence (1788 edition, on loan from the British Library, and the 1790 edition, on loan from the Cambridge University Library).
Blake’s marginalia allows visitors to see Blake’s mind at work, inspired by, and in reaction to, his contemporaries as he developed his ideas as an artist, poet, philosopher, and political animal. Notably, in his notes on Reynolds, on the title page of the first volume, he writes, “This man was Hired to Depress Art [.] This is the opinion of Will Blake[. M]y Proofs of this Opinion are given in the following Notes[.]” Later in the volume, Blake records his first reading of Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) as well as his encounters with the polymath Francis Bacon and the philosopher John Locke. Indeed, one can see Blake’s reaction to Bacon’s emphasis on observation in his scientific method as developed in the Novum Organum (1620), and Locke’s argument for tabula rasa in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), in lines like:
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
(Plate 7, ‘Memorable Fancy,’ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern
(Plate 14, ‘A Memorable Fancy,’ The Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
and of Burke’s understanding of the sublime in the “fearful symmetry” of ‘The Tyger’.
Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789
What these instances of marginalia also show is that the exhibition is very much a collaborative one. Most of the works it features are from the Bodleian Library, but there are many on generous loan from the Fitzwilliam Museum and University Library in Cambridge, from the British Library and British Museum, from Tate Britain and the V&A, from the Hunterian Art Gallery and Glasgow University Library, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a number of private lenders “who wish to remain anonymous”. Phillips worked for two years gathering material for the exhibition—work funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the British Academy. If anything, this shows the importance of cooperative work and funding to such an immense and detailed exhibition. It also shows that Blake is demonstrably an international treasure.
For many people, however, Blake remains the poet of ‘Jerusalem’ from the ‘Preface’ to his Milton: A Poem (1808), adapted as a hymn by Sir Hubert Parry and adopted by the Suffragettes more than a century later; the creator of beloved children’s poems ‘The Lamb’ and ‘The Tyger’ from Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1789); or the man behind anarchic expressions such as the “mind-forg’d manacles” from ‘London’. However, during his lifetime, as this exhibition takes pains to present, Blake was also a successful engraver, a radically innovative print-maker, and a singularly influential artist. His father, James Blake, regarded him as a genius from a very young age and, were it not for the sheer amount of extant evidence, one might not believe that Blake was really the son of an encouraging and supportive hosier. The exhibition details Blake’s early life, with special attention to his father’s forethought and patronage: he gave Blake an allowance to buy prints and engravings so that he might learn from the Old Masters; he paid for Blake’s apprenticeship to James Basire so that he might have the practical skills of an engraver should he wish to become an artist later in life. At the end of the first room of the exhibition there are two excellent examples of Blake’s mid-career commission work. The first—a proof and print of Blake’s engraving (1788, 1790) after William Hogarth’s scenes from The Beggar’s Opera—shows how he develops his preference for the strong outline of forms rather than simply reproducing the chiaroscuro effect of Hogarth’s paintings as the etching progresses. The effect is that some of the nuance is lost, but more emphasis is gained. The second, the Head of a Damned Soul (also known as Satan) after William Fuseli (c. 1789-90), is an especially fine example of Blake’s dot and lozenge work, and demonstrates the grotesqueness of the human form.
Head of a Damned Soul, c. 1789-90
Both those new to and conversant with Blake’s art will be interested in the second room in the exhibition, which is dedicated to the artist’s innovation in printing and displays a vast array of materials that catalogue his developing technique. Beginning in the late 1780s, he began to experiment with a new manner of printing that combined etching with painting.
Using stop-out varnish, he would draw on his already-etched plates so as to produce colour prints—themselves a rarity in the Eighteenth Century—of the same engraving that were similar yet individualised. This method he described as “Illuminated Printing”. During this period of experimentation, Blake was incredibly productive as a poet-printmaker, for by 1793 he had produced many of his most influential works, as detailed in his prospectus “To the Public” issued in that same year: America, a Prophecy, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. As Blake’s techniques evolved, his use of colours and washes became more painterly and he became more interested in the surface texture of the print, discernible in the series of plates from Europe a Prophecy. The Large Colour Prints of 1795, especially Nebuchadnezzar (c. 1795-1805) and the three triptych-like versions of The House of Death/The Lazar House (c. 1795), are striking illustrations of Blake’s dedication to his artistic project. “Quite simply”, as Phillips asserts in his lavishly comprehensive exhibition catalogue, “and working alone, Blake had invented the most extraordinary innovation in this history of printmaking and painting.” This invention—the monotype—would go on to influence Edgar Degas and, more notably, Pablo Picasso.
Nebuchadnezzar, c. 1795-1805
The final room of the exhibition is split between Blake’s later works and those of his disciples, also known as the Ancients: Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, and Edward Calvert. The later Blake comprises some of the most spectacular but often overlooked pieces of Blake’s oeuvre, such as the epic Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (1810), the plates from Jerusalem (1804-1821) and the Illustrations form the Book of Job (1826), the Illustrations to the Divine Comedy (1824-7), and his woodblock prints for Thornton’s The Pastorals of Virgil (1821/c.1830). It is also illustrative of his continuing struggle for artistic integrity, with a tension between the need for commissioned work and his desire to communicate his vision in the work he undertook. What is striking about these later pieces is not only their scale but also Blake’s return to the myths and stories that inspired him to create his own, at a time when Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge were turning away from—or like Shelley, Byron, and Keats, were reinterpreting—their relationship with the classical.
Dante and Statius, from Illustrations to the Divine Comedy, 1824-7
However, though the scope of the exhibition allows for a certain consideration of Blake’s nachtleben, few beyond those with a particular interest in Blake’s influence as an artist will find much of value in considering the works of the Ancients. This is not because their work lacks merit or is inherently uninteresting, but because of the place in which they fall in the structure of the exhibition: their engravings and paintings take on a penumbral quality, like an afterimage or a vestige of one of Blake’s preceding images. Richmond’s Abel and the Shepherd (1825), for instance, not only revisits a subject already approached by Blake but is actually the product of Blake’s own hand—he helped Richmond shape the form of the body in the preparatory sketch for the painting. This is the difficulty with Blake, for he is invariably superior to, and more saturate than, those who succeed him.
Abel and the Shepherd, 1825
Still, the underwhelming final stage of the exhibition does little to detract from the impressiveness of its scale and detail. And while it is designed to reward a patient, attentive, and repeat visitor, there is much to delight and engage those with only a passing interest in, or a novice knowledge of, Blake or printmaking.
Laura Ludtke  is the Executive Editor of the Oxonian Review. She is a final-year DPhil candidate at St Anne’s College, Oxford.