On the eve of a major exhibition on the printmaker, painter and poet, Fiona Maddocks chooses her 10 favourite works
Friday 21 November 2014
1 The Angels Hovering Over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre, c1805
This watercolour with pen and ink is one of around 80 biblical topics commissioned by Blake’s patron Thomas Butts, a civil servant. It depicts the moment Mary Magdalene visited the tomb of Jesus after the crucifixion and found two angels hovering where the body had lain. Blake’s imagery comes from the Old Testament book of Exodus, when the Israelites make a “mercy seat” flanked by golden angels. The colours are so delicate that the picture is almost monochrome. Aged eight, Blake told his mother he had seen a tree full of angels “bespangling every bough like stars”. The vision occurred on Peckham Rye, one of south-east London’s more ethereal green spaces.
2 The Ancient of Days, 1794
Blake loved this image, the frontispiece to Europe a Prophecy, and made several copies. The old man is Urizen, in Blake’s mythology the embodiment of reason and law and a repressive, satanic force trying to bring uniformity to mankind. (In America a Prophecy, Urizen is the evil god who rules during the Enlightenment.) Here he is seen kneeling in a flaming discus surrounded by dark cloud, hand held over a compass, apparently measuring the black void. A copy was commissioned from Blake during the final days of his life. He worked on it, tinting the colours, as he was propped up on his sickbed.
3 Adam Naming the Beasts, 1810
A youthful Adam, who closely resembles portraits of the curly-haired young Blake, names the beasts after the fall. The serpent is entwined, in surprisingly friendly fashion, around Adam’s left arm. He stares out, as if deep in thought. The animals, behind him, graze in a pastoral landscape, as if still unscathed by man’s transgression in the garden of Eden. Above Adam’s head, an acorn indicates winter, but in Blake’s mythology the oak is also the druidical tree on which Christ was crucified. The fall of man, the serpent, Adam and Eve are central to Blake’s vision. This tempera-on-wood painting is in Pollok House, Glasgow.
4 Newton, 1795-c1805
5 Satan, c1789
Satan, who looks like a man tortured in hell, with gagging mouth and rolling eyes, is an undated engraving after Henry Fuseli. The flames of hell, depicted by fine wavy lines, show Blake experimenting with the oval-pointed echoppe needle, a French engraving method of the 18th century. Satan’s flesh is made with “flicks” – tiny incisions enmeshed in the crosshatching in a dot-and-lozenge pattern. Blake was apprenticed to an engraver aged 14. He is regarded a master of the medium, but in 2005 an art historian, Mei-Ying Sung, claimed Blake’s plates show evidence of endless toil, bungles and repeated error.
6 Blake’s Cottage, c1804-10
An angel floats above Blake in the garden of his thatched cottage in Felpham, Sussex, his home from 1800 to 1803: “Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven is there/ The ladder of Angels descends through the air,” he wrote. Only two of the nine properties in which he lived have survived.The Blake Society is fundraising to buy this house, where he is reputed to have sat naked in the garden reading Paradise Lost to his wife.Among campaigners is the novelist Philip Pullman, who names Blake as a key influence on His Dark Materials. £520,000 has to be found by 28 November; see blakesociety.org/blakecottage for ways to help.
7 The Ghost of a Flea, c1819-20
Obsessed with the supernatural, Blake claimed to have seen visions daily since his boyhood. He and his astrologer friend John Varley used to try to summon spirits. This monstrous creature appeared to Blake in a seance, stating that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were “by nature bloodthirsty to excess”. The scaly, vampire-man creature is salivating over a cup for blood-drinking. The curtains between which he stands add drama. Painted in Blake’s own special tempera method mixed with gold leaf on wood, it measures only 214 x 162mm. The art world of Blake’s day assumed he was mad.
8 Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1789
Songs of Innocence and Experience is a double set of illustrated poems showing “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, the childlike and pure versus the angry and disillusioned. The most famous “song of innocence” is The Lamb (“Little Lamb who made thee/ Dost thou know who made thee… ?”), its counterpart The Tyger (“Tyger Tyger burning bright”). Blake’s implied question is how could one God have created both creatures, the one benign, the other ferocious? The Lamb was set to music by Vaughan Williams (who claimed to hate the poem), John Tavener and Allen Ginsberg. The Tyger has inspired songs by Joni Mitchell and Tangerine Dream.
9 The Dance of Albion, c1796
A naked youth, part Christ figure, part Vitruvian man, stands on a rock, casting aside worldly shackles to greet the radiant dawn. Also known asAlbion Rose or Glad Day, and existing as drawing, engraving, colour printed etching and watercolour, this utopian image dates back to 1780: the American Revolution was in mid-flow. Blake had been caught up in a street mob in the anti-Catholic Gordon riots. Albion is the ancient name for Britain and is central to Blake’s own mythology, via his Four Zoas (characters called Urizen, Tharmas, Luvah, Urthona), created by the fall of Albion, obscure to all but the most hardened Blake fans.
10 Jerusalem, c1804
William Blake: Apprentice and Master is at The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford from 4 December 2014 to 1 March 2015