“The Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, the first major exhibition in nearly twenty years, shows 300 of his prints and paintings, with manuscripts and printed books, gathered from galleries and libraries across the world,” writes Jenny Uglow. “There have been other, smaller Blake shows with particular emphases, but this one sets out bravely to guide us through the whole range of his ideas, his art and his working life. A lot to see, a lot to take in. To corral this, the curators have imposed a chronological arrangement, setting Blake’s work in the context of the French Revolution, the spread of industry and the growing British empire, and devoting rooms to his patrons and his career as an engraver to show how he scraped a living until the relative freedom of his final years.
This is, of course, exactly the kind of crisp, rational, time-bound framework that Blake himself railed against so passionately. Yet, on the whole, it works well. Far from being dwarfed by the vast Tate rooms, within these controlling boxes Blake’s shining art explodes with energy, sometimes mystical, sometimes rippling with anger, sometimes leaping with delight.
The tone is set by the small print of Albion Rose (1793). Also known as Glad Day, this is the first thing we see, blazing against a rich blue wall. The slender figure balanced on a crag, arms spread wide, with wild rays of color bursting behind him, has often been adopted as an emblem of freedom, creativity, and resistance to constraint. Rightly so, as Blake was a rebel from the start. His parents, successful shopkeepers in London’s Soho district, recognized his talent and paid for drawing classes and for his apprenticeship to the engraver James Basire. When Blake entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1779, aged twenty-two, he drew diligently and, harboring ambitions to become a famous history painter, exhibited his historical, biblical, and literary drawings—several of which are shown here—at the Royal Academy in the early 1780s.”
For more information, visit tate.org.uk.