The Metropolitan’s Blake exhibition originated at the greatly enlarged Tate Gallery in London, and included over twice as many items as its American version; such a vast sampling, served up scarcely more than two decades after another comprehensive show at the Tate in 1978, reveals an inordinate British affection for Blake. He represents, if we may presume to extrapolate an English view, an innocent religiosity, both ardent and nonsensical; a triumph of eccentricity, the Englishman’s cherished privilege and informal purchase on freedom; a plea and protest on behalf of the bejeweled old England buried beneath the grime of industrialism, “the dark Satanic mills” erected on the rational, mechanical, heartless premises symbolized by Newton and Voltaire; and a thrilling voice, like that of his contemporary Robert Burns, from the lower classes, lending proof of the progressive righteousness of Britain’s curious democracy.
Blake, born in 1757, was one of five children of a London hosier; his artistic leanings were placated by apprenticing him to an engraver, and Blake for the rest of his three score and ten years was a craftsman, an engraver, redolent of acids and inks—“still poor, still Dirty,” an observer commented of the artist and his faithful wife, Catherine. Not only did he engrave his own work and that of others in the painstakingly linear, “dot-and-lozenge” intaglio style of the time, but he developed his own method of relief engraving, painting onto the copper with an impervious liquid and then subjecting the plate to a double acid bath which left his marks standing. The process involved his laboriously writing his self-published poems in minute backward lettering, and produced an integrity of text and illustration not seen since medieval manuscripts, if then. The visions and rapt enthusiasms to which he was prone at times did distract him—he wrote, “My Abstract folly hurries me often away while I am at work, carrying me over Mountains & Valleys, which are not Real, in a land of Abstraction where Spectres of the Dead wander”—but a great deal of close, intent work was nevertheless accomplished.
The scaled-down but still ample American version of William Blake is housed in the lower level of the Robert Lehman Wing, beyond the medieval hall, beneath a farewell exhibit to Balthus. It is shadowy down there, and the conscientious viewer emerges with smarting corneas. Blake’s largest surviving works are watercolors, with pen and ink, two feet wide; his booklets Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (combined in 1794) were printed from plates measuring less than three by five inches, often in a pale ochre ink. In the large room containing a spread of these rare pages the Metropolitan has thoughtfully supplied magnifying glasses. In the nineteenth century, Blake loosened up: his watercolor illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Lost (1808) have a stately, flowing, flamelike grace; the figures, mostly of Albion, in his Jerusalem (1820) possess a largeness that only with much strenuous foreshortening fits into the spaces left to them by the …