William Blake was a revolutionary in poetry, engraving and politics. John Walker reviews a new exhibition of his artwork in Oxford.
William Blake was a revolutionary. One of the funniest things, for those in the know, is to hear Conservatives singling Parry’s hymn “Jerusalem”. The words to this are taken from the Introduction to Blake’s prophetic poem Milton and clearly, in context, concern the establishment of a republic in England. That’s what Blake meant by “Jerusalem”. But the Tories sing on, in blissful ignorance, while those who know their Blake snigger behind their backs.
Blake himself lived in revolutionary times, witnessing and writing about both the American and French Revolutions. Not only did he hark back to the English Revolution of the seventeenth century, with his poem Milton, but he also wrote a poem America, about the American Revolution, lauding the “warlike men who rise in silent night”, the leaders of the Revolution, “Washington, Franklin, Paine & Warren, Gates, Hancock & Green”. And his fragment “Let the Brothels of Paris be opened” expresses his rage at a former leader of the French Revolution, Lafayette, who sold out. He says this directly: “Fayette, Fayette, thou’rt bought & sold,” he wrote.
Revolutionary messages demand revolutionary techniques of delivering the message. Every new technological development in the last few centuries has added new techniques to the revolutionaries’ arsenal. The English revolutionaries of the seventeenth century used the printing press, with the Levellers producing their own regular newspaper – something that was, at that time, a new development. In the late nineteenth century, the revolutionary socialist William Morris used his skills as an artist to design new and popular forms of the printed message. And, more recently, we have seen the internet used for revolutionary purposes, whether the pioneering use of emails by the Zapatistas in the 1990s or Russell Brand’s YouTube videos twenty years later.
Blake, too, invented new ways of passing on his message. An engraver by trade, he invented the technique of relief etching. His technique of colour printing was equally unorthodox. And he independently invented the technique of monotyping.
Blake showed his artistic talents from a very early age. He was drawing at the age of three and so, at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire. Basire was one of the best-regarded engravers of his generation, and Blake’s father paid the princely sum of £52/10/- (almost £10,000 today) for his son’s apprenticeship. It was a good time to become an engraver, the massive expansion of the book market having lead to a demand for engraving, the only way in the late eighteenth century that illustrations could be printed.
Basire was also a suitable choice in view of Blake’s own artistic interests. Not one to become enthusiastic about the new for its own sake, Blake was far more interested in Renaissance art than in contemporary styles. He preferred, for example, the outlines of Michelangelo to the shades and colours of Reubens. With Basire, Blake learned the attention to detail necessary for this kind of work, a skill he further developed as a student at the Royal Academy.
While training as an artist and as an engraver, Blake also developed his skills as a poet. In this he was entirely self-taught. His early poems, dating from when he was 12 until he was 20, were published as Poetical Sketches, printed by friends from plates he produced himself. These were formatted in the traditional manner, text on one page and the illustration on the facing page. But this format was to change in Blake’s later works as he began to experiment more with technique.
As a qualified engraver, Blake had financial success. He constantly obtained commissions from commercial publishers to reproduce works from artists such as Hogarth and Fuseli. An extremely lucrative commission to provide a plate of a scene from The Beggars Opera took him two years to complete. As a result of these commissions, Blake, by now married, was able to move into a house of his own and to start work on his own projects.
In his projects Blake was motivated by his own philosophy. He was opposed to the idea of John Locke, highly influential during the eighteenth century, that the human mind at birth was a blank sheet on which experience, obtained through the senses, writes. Blake, on the contrary, believed that we all have innate ideas, present when we are born. Instead of being taught by adults, therefore, he thought that children should teach adults.
The outcome of this philosophy was his collection Songs of Innocence. To publish this, Blake wanted to be able to include text and illustration on the same page, a problem he solved by the invention of relief etching. Traditional etching involves scratching grooves into a plate covered with an ink-resistant solution. Ink, applied to the plate, accumulates in the grooves, so that, when it comes under pressure against paper in a printing press and the paper is forced into the grooves, the drawing etched on the plate is copied, in reverse, onto the paper.
It is possible to write on reverse on the plate with an etching needle – thus enabling text to be printed on the same page as an illustration – but this is difficult and time consuming. So nobody did it. Blake’s technique of reverse etching made combining text and illustration considerably easier. He would draw and write, in reverse, on a plate using an acid-resistant solution. Next he applied acid to the plate to eat away the surface, leaving the text and illustration in relief. He then applied ink to the relief, which was used for printing. This technique also made printing easier, since less pressure has to be applied to the paper to get the ink onto it.
Blake also developed his own technique for colour printing. The standard methods of printing colour were either to apply coloured ink onto the drawing on the plate (a long, tedious business) or to print red-, blue- and yellow-inked plates onto the paper in succession. Blake did it differently. For his large colour prints, such as the famous portrait of Newton, reproduced above, Blake applied coloured ink to the plate then finished off the print with water-colour.
As if that weren’t enough, Blake also independently invented monotyping. Montyping is a form of printing in which a drawing is painted directly onto a plate, which is then printed onto paper. This gives the illustrator much more freedom, but can only be used for a single copy. This technique is now recognised as having originally been invented by Castiglione in the seventeenth century, something Blake was apparently not aware of. Blake’s invention, too, was lost with his death, and it was Degas, later in the nineteenth century, whose independent invention of it made the process more widely known.
The exhibition currently running at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford tells the story of William Blake as an engraver and artist. Ignoring, as much as it can, Blake’s politics, it is organised chronologically, beginning with his childhood, moving on to his apprenticeship and then to his mature works.
The exhibition focuses on Blake’s revolutionary printing techniques, but it can’t ignore his politics. It points out, for example, that his Visions of the Daughters of Albion, printed using relief etching with hand-colouring in water colours, was a as radical in its content as in the method of printing, challenging colonialism, slavery and sexual repression.
What the exhibition only hints at, but really is at the heart of any appreciation of Blake, is that the creativity that leads a person to be a revolutionary can’t be confined to one category. The independence of mind that leads William Blake, or William Morris, of Pablo Picasso to be a revolutionary in one field is equally likely to lead them to be a revolutionary in others. It’s not inevitable, but it happens a lot.
The exhibition ends on Blake’s artistic legacy. He had few followers amongst artists, although Fuseli – not quoted in the exhibition – described him as “Damn’d good to steal from”. The exhibition focuses on three of his disciples – Edward Calvert, George Richmond and Samuel Palmer – who styled themselves the “Ancients” and Blake the “Interpreter”. His influence on them was first and foremost his insistence on clarity of form and outline. These, for him, revealed the truth. As a consequence he disliked oil painting, with its emphasis on light and shadow. He would not have liked the Impressionists.
Blake’s political legacy is yet more diffuse. Although he had very definite political ideas, he never attempted to gain a following for them. He just put them out there, as art, poetry, or both, for all to see. He was deeply involved in the radical movement of the 1790s – he knew Tom Paine and other leaders of the movement personally – but his influence was no greater or lesser than any anonymous individual involved.
Yet his art and poetry still exists to delight, inspire and provoke us. If we are to be creative as revolutionaries – and revolution demands creativity – then it behoves us to engage with the creativity of our predecessors.
► William Blake: Apprentice and Master runs at Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford, until 1 March. Tickets cost £9 full price and £7 concessions.
[If you are interested in Blake as a political radical, have a look at EP Thompson’s Witness Against the Beast. Jacob Bronowski’s introduction to the Penguin selection of Blake’s poetry is also worth a read.– JW]