Published  21/03/2024

William Blake’s Universe

William Blake’s Universe

The English eccentric meets his German peers in a treasure-strewn exhibition that makes Blake seem stranger than ever

William Blake, Thus wept the Angel voice from America a Prophecy, 1793-1821 (detail). Relief-etching, printed in colour, with hand colouring and heightened with gold, 30.4 x 23.1. cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
23 February – 19 May 2024


In 2018, I spent a summer afternoon at Bunhill Fields, a former burial ground just north of the City of London. It was occasioned by the unveiling of a new ledger stone to mark the resting place of William Blake (1757-1827), the great eccentric of English poetry and printmaking. It was a motley gathering. Authors, underground-scene stalwarts, television actors, a controversial comedian and the lead singer of Iron Maiden took turns to explain what Blake meant to them. It turned out that almost everything could be Blakean, even – or perhaps especially – things that contradicted each other. But for the speakers this mattered naught. Blake’s art had a profoundly personal meaning for them.

William Blake’s Universe might ruffle some feathers. The Fitzwilliam Museum has tackled the difficult task of inserting Blake within his historical and cultural context, tethering the heavenly poet to his earthly ties. Worse, by placing him alongside the great German Romantic painters Caspar David Friedrich and Philipp Otto Runge, there is a risk that Blake comes off as parochial, an English eccentric cut off from the prevailing canons of European art. How will his prophetic books, where Blake illustrates dense wodges of his own poetry, stack up against Friedrich’s sublime sepia drawings showing a pair of lovers throughout time (c1826)?

William Blake, Albion Rose, 1974-76. Engraving and etching, colour printed with hand colouring on paper, 27.2 x 20 cm. Image: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The exhibition approaches this through a broad thematic purview. It looks at the aesthetic and moral debate between antiquity and the gothic, the political eruptions of the French Revolution and the colonial conflicts in the western hemisphere, and the awakening of a new spirituality. There are detours into artistic education, Romantic nationalism and the early modern German mystic theologian Jakob Böhme. Blake’s Universe might be too laden with ideas. Artworks are accompanied by extensive explication; this is one of those exhibitions where the tail sometimes wags the dog. But the texts are well thought-out. And they illuminate a bevy of masterpieces by Blake, Friedrich, Runge and others.

William Blake, Frontispiece to Jerusalem, 1794-1808. Relief etching on paper, 26 x 19.5 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Fitzwilliam presents Blake alongside two groups of artists: those with whom he enjoyed a direct relationship and those whose ideas developed in parallel. In his own life, Blake was an outsider, variously patronised and marginalised; Wordsworth thought him mad, though he respected his poetry. But he was no hermit. He studied at the Royal Academy, where he admired the professor of painting, John Barry, earned the respect of Henry Fuseli and made lifelong friends with fellow student John Flaxman. Later, Blake would inspire devotees, including the very different landscape painters John Linnell and Samuel Palmer. The latter co-founded a group of young artists, the Ancients, who regarded Blake as their guide. They would meet at his home to receive drops of wisdom.

Philipp Otto Runge, Self-portrait with Brown Collar, c1802. Oil on canvas, 37 x 31.5 cm. Hamburger Kunsthalle. © Hamburger Kunsthalle/bpk. Photo Elke Walford

An initial section of the exhibition captures these figures as they represented themselves, creating a lively who’s who of their age. A self-portrait of Barry (c1777) is pugnacious and bleary-eyed. An Irish patriot with “avowed democratical opinions”, he was expelled from his Royal Academy post for reasons now unknown. Fuseli draws himself brooding and contemplative, his face held in his hands (1780s); Flaxman captures himself caressing a skull (1779). Most striking is Palmer’s chalk self-portrait (c1824). The artist presents himself as a young Romantic of a spiritual bent, glowing with inner light.

Catherine Blake. Probably posthumous portrait of William Blake as a young man, c1830. Graphite on paper, 15.5 x 10.4 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

By contrast, Blake appears relatively unassuming. We see him throughout his life. His wife, Catherine, now believed to have been his collaborator, draws him from memory as a young man with an unruly shock of hair (c1830?). Flaxman’s 1804 chalk drawing of Blake in his mid-40s shows him as plump and prim, though perhaps with a hint of mania in the eyes. And three works on paper by Linnell (1820, 1821, c1825), who supported Blake in his old age with handsome commissions, show the poet still wide-eyed and animated. A life mask (1823) by the phrenological sculptor James S Deville instead shows Blake with his eyes closed, as if he is receiving one of his prophetic visions.

James S. De Ville, Life mask of William Blake, 1823. Plaster, 29.5 x 17.3 x 26 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The exhibition goes on to explore Blake’s schooling in the Royal Academy, then helmed by Joshua Reynolds, who held that art was a rational endeavour rather than a divine gift (Blake disagreed). It is fascinating to see Blake put in the classical legwork conventional for his time. He imitated Raphael and drew from Pierre d’Hancarville’s tomes of ancient sculptures. He also found work creating engravings of contemporary drawings. An early highlight of the exhibition is a horrified, reeling head (c1789–90) viewed from below the chin, based on a Fuseli sketch and thought to be an illustration of a damned soul in Dante’s Inferno.

William Blake after Henry Fuseli, Head of a Damned Soul, c1789-90. Engraving and etching on paper, 47.3 x 38 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Blake lived through the inflection point in the battle between classicism and the gothic. But the two aesthetics were not an either/or. Flaxman would become famous internationally for his neoclassical engravings illustrating literary classics. Yet he was also capable of creating work closer to Blake’s in style and spirit, such as his delicate drawing The Ascension of a Soul (c1783). The central figure’s arms are outstretched, a posture Blake would himself use in various works such as Albion Rose (1794-96) and his illustrations for Milton’s Paradise Regained (c1816-18).

William Blake, Laocoön, c1825. Graphite, pen and watercolour, 53.7 x 43.5 cm. The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. © The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Blake’s view of classicism soured over his life as he became more concerned with Christian spirituality. Yet his muscular deities and kneeling angels still owe a debt to his training. These ambiguities continued throughout his life. In the late etching Laocoön (c1826-27), Blake relabels the celebrated sculpture as a depiction of “Jehovah and his two sons, Satan & Adam”, which was then copied by the Greeks. Blake’s reproduction is surrounded by text that lays out something of an artistic, political and religious manifesto. The classical world is but a refraction of the true Christian one. Yet Blake cannot escape the visual excitement of the ancient sculpture.

Runge also had a complicated relationship to the classicism of his training. A dynamic depiction of Achilles fighting Scamander (1801) was blasted by a critic for deviating from Homeric orthodoxy. He responded by moving further from classicism. His unfinished masterpiece, the Times of Day (1802-10), began as a set of four enigmatic engravings that convey his Christian mysticism through dancing arrangements of goddesses, cherubs and flowers. He later created two preparatory paintings for the first in the series, Morning, with the aim of eventually creating a monumental wall cycle.

These are works of determined imagination and astonishing grace. Runge has often been considered Blake’s closest German analogue. Yet as esoteric as his vision is, his work retains a formal kinship with the art of his time. The same cannot be said of Blake, whose prophetic books intermingle image, text and design to convey an often-shifting personal theology, mythopoeia and political theory. Indeed, the more we discover about what Blake shared with others, the more the singularity of his oeuvre becomes clear. Blake shared a universe but remains in a world of his own.

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