December 4th saw the start of a new exhibition featuring the paintings of the C19th poet and artist William Blake. Staged at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford, the exhibition runs until1st March 2015.
Born in 1757, in London’s Soho, Blake only briefly attended school, being mainly educated at home by his mother.
The Bible had a profound influence on his life (it is claimed that at the age of 10 he had his first vision of a tree full of angels) and it would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life, influencing his poetry and paintings with intense spirituality.
Blake’s artistic ability became evident at an early age and by age 10 he was enrolled at Henry Pars’s drawing school where he sketched the human form, working form plaster casts of ancient statues. In 1772, aged 14, he was apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street where he trained for the next 7 years before becoming a professional engraver, aged 21. During his apprenticeship he was sent to copy images from London’s gothic churches and it was his time spent at Westminster Abbey that cemented his artistic Gothic style.
Among Blake’s best known work must be Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. Both works were published together in 1794 with the subtitle, “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.” The poems of Songs of Innocence describe the natural purity in childhood using delicately beautiful lyrics which reveal a child’s unspoiled view of life and human nature. The poems in Songs of Experience show the darker side of life suggesting the corruption and disillusionment which awaits the innocent. This contrast is perhaps most obvious in the poems, The Lamb and The Tyger, the latter expressing wonder at the co-existence of good and evil. Both books were beautifully illustrated with Blake’s own etchings ranging from idealised and romantic images in Songs of Innocence to the dark and gothic in Songs of Experience.
William Blake died on August 12 1827, leaving unfinished watercolour illustrations to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and an illuminated manuscript of the Bible’s Book of Genesis.
Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered to be a seminal figure in the history of art and poetry of the Romantic Era. The 19th century writer and critic, William Rossetti characterised him as a “glorious luminary”. He has continued to inspire countless artists, writers and poets to this day.
William Blake: Apprentice and Master
4th December 2014 – 1st March 2015
For the prints illustrated here please refer to the ‘Art’ section of the website