William Blake wouldn’t have dared to dream that almost 200 years after his death, his work would be exhibited in one of Britain’s most prestigious art galleries, Tate Britain.
Back in 1809, William Blake’s artwork was not chosen for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. While JMW Turner’s works were judged by The London Chronicle as “one of the most perfect performances in the Exhibition”, Blake accused the RA of excluding him. His retort was to present and advertise his own personal exhibition above his brother’s hosiery shop in Soho.
At the time, Blake was famous not for his art, poetry nor engravings but for his madness. Indeed, his polemical retort to the RA was to posture that members should at least “inspect what they have excluded” before judging them a “madman’s scrawls”.
Now, a new exhibition at Tate Britain will recreate the small domestic room in which Blake showed his art in 1809. In contrast, another room makes Blake’s creative wishes come (belatedly) true. Using digital technology the Tate will show his works at enourmous scale, allowing his vision the impact it deserved but was once precluded.
During his lifetime, Blake found neither nor fame nor fortune. The son to a hosier and Dissenting parents, Blake was born in a terrace house at 28 Broad Street and lived most of his life in Soho. A Londoner through and through, he spent only a couple of years away from the city and died at the age of 69 in 1827 close to the Strand.
Encouraged throughout his childhood to collect prints of the Italian masters, ten-year-old William Blake was sent to Mr Par’s drawing school on the North Side of the Strand in Castle Court. At the age of 14, Blake was apprenticed for seven years to the engraver James Basire, before studying at the Royal Academy School. It was at this time that Blake first started writing poetry, yet his first book was not published until 1783.
After marrying Catherine Boucher in 1783, William set up a print shop at 27 Broad Street with his brother, Robert. Sadly, this venture failed when Robert died in 1787. In 1790 the Blakes moved south of the Thames for the first time, to Lambeth. This was where he was most prolific, writing most of his illustrated poems such as Europe, America and Newton.
Another change of scene occurred in 1800 when Blake was patronised by William Hayley, travelling to his home in the village of Felpham in Sussex, where he lived by the sea for three years, writing his poem Milton.
During this time an altercation with a soldier landed Blake with a charge of sedition for which he was put on trial and eventually acquitted. By then, Blake had grown tired of his country life and moved back to London, living at 3, Fountain Court until his death. His poem to the city may beg to differ, but Blake – on the whole – must have felt at home, or at least had an affinity for, the disease-ridden, racket of his home town.
He admitted himself that he lived ‘in a hole’ in his latter years, though he did enjoy views over the Thames. Fountain Court no longer exists but you can visit the Coal Hole Tavern, which was just in front of his red-brick property. From 1818, interest in his work was growing – a little stiltedly – but he died in 1827 (although very poor, he had no debts) and was buried in the Dissenters’ Graveyard at Bunhill Fields alongside his father, brother and other writers, John Bunyard and Daniel Defoe.
Even soon after his death, the tides had turned a little further in Blake’s favour. Wordsworth commented: “There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”
Indeed, he was onto something with this verdict, as now over 300 of Blake’s original works, including his watercolours, will be on show at the Tate, rediscovering him as a visual artist for the 21st century. The exhibition will run from 11 September 2019 until 2 February 2020.