William Blake: Apprentice and Master
4 Dec 2014 – 1 Mar 2015
Exploring the life and work of the revolutionary painter, printmaker and poet of prophetic books.
While today's audiences may hold William Blake in high esteem, many of his contemporaries regarded him as a mad eccentric with outlandish views. Comprised of more than 90 of Blake’s works, this exhibition celebrates the remarkable originality that failed to gain him appreciation in his own lifetime.
Blake showed artistic promise from a young age and was apprenticed to James Basire, the official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, at just 15. Basire sent Blake to study London’s gothic churches, including the monuments and decorations in Westminster Abbey – motifs of which are evident in his later style and imagery.
In 1784 Blake opened a print shop and on visits to the house of his publisher Joseph Johnson, he met some of the leading figures of dissident politics, including theologian and scientist Joseph Priestley, philosopher Richard Price, artist John Henry Fuseli and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.
During this period Blake began experimenting with new printing techniques – such as relief etching – which provided alternative forms of expression for his outsider views. He produced a series illuminated books, combining poetry and prose with decorated letters and borders and miniature illustrations.
Among the works on display are several of the most extraordinary examples, including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. While Blake's text imitates biblical prophecy, it actually expresses his personal Romantic and revolutionary beliefs. The plates were coloured by the artist and his wife Catherine.
Blake's watercolours and woodcut illustrations inspired a group of young artists known as the Ancients – Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert. When Blake was in the final years of his life, the group visited him at the tiny two-room flat he lived in with his wife just off the Strand. The exhibition displays many of the works the men would have seen on these visits, which are shown alongside their own early pieces. Included are Palmer’s six sepia drawings of 1825 and Calvert’s woodcuts of the late 1820s.