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William Blake

Angels and Imagination 7 October 2008 — 4 January 2009

Exhibition guide


A Short introduction William Blake Angels and imagination William Blake (1757-1827) is perhaps best known today for writing the words to the popular hymn ‘Jerusalem’ and familiar poems such as ‘The Tyger’ ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright’. However, he is equally important as a painter and printmaker. This exhibition takes the figure of the angel as the starting point for this exploration of William Blake’s ideas about the body and spirit. Blake often had visions of angels and even claimed to converse with them, he felt imagination was the uniting principle of men and angels. The exhibition draws on works from three of Blake’s great series of book illustrations for private patrons; Dante’s Divine Comedy, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, and the series of bible illustrations for Thomas Butts one of which – Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop – is in The New Art Gallery Walsall’s Garman Ryan Collection.

Cover Image - Satan in His Original Glory ‘Thou wast Perfect till Iniquity was Found in Thee’, circa. 1805 © Tate: Presented by the executors of W. Graham Robertson through the Art Fund 1949


Blake reinterpreted these texts in the light of his own highly personal religious mythology. His visions of angels were intimately linked to his artistic explorations of theology and his personal beliefs and developing visual iconography and he perceived no division between them and reality. These illustrations convey something of the ecstatic, overwhelming quality of his visions. In Blake’s work the classical rules of composition and ‘realistic’ perspective gives way to a much more instinctive style. For Blake, visions were themselves a form of reality. He believed that the ‘rules’ and ‘reason’ of science and art were something that turned people into mechanistic rather than spiritual being’s and it was only through art and the imagination that the earthly and the spiritual could be united.


Extended study Blake and illustration This exhibition takes the figure of the angel as a starting point for an exploration of William Blake’s ideas about the body and spirit. William Blake (1757-1827) is perhaps best known today for the words to ‘Jerusalem’ (words from a much longer poem set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916) and his Songs of Innocence and Experience, which include such familiar poems as ‘The Tyger’ (‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright’) and ‘The Sick Rose’. However, he is equally important as a painter and printmaker. The son of a London hosier, Blake was sent to drawing lessons instead of more formal schooling, before being apprenticed to an engraver, James Besire, where as part of his training he was sent to draw tombs in Westminster Abbey. Engraving was very much perceived as a trade, rather than an art, and especially in his early career, Blake earned a living through commercial work, which included illustrations for everything from catalogues for Wedgwood china to a children’s stories by the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft. However Blake also had aspirations as a painter and took lessons at the Royal Academy, where the classical theories of Sir Joshua Reynolds held sway.


Blake’s major works are a series of engraved illuminated books which combine prophetic poetry with detailed illustration entwined around the text. Blake felt these books - based around a highly personal religious mythology - had an important public purpose, but the expense of their production and the complexity of their ideas meant that they hardly reached an audience in his lifetime. Instead, Blake became increasingly dependent on private patrons who commissioned paintings and drawings illustrating well-known texts. The most important of these was Thomas Butts, a London civil servant for whom Blake painted around a hundred and thirty five bible scenes from around 1795 onwards, several of which are included in this exhibition and one of which – Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop – is in The New Art Gallery Walsall’s Garman Ryan Collection. Other significant series included illustrations for Edward Young’s hugely popular ‘gothic’ poem Night Thoughts, commissioned by the bookseller Richard Edwards, again around 1795; and Dante’s Divine Comedy, commissioned by the artist John Linnell towards the end of Blake’s life. These are both featured here. In both cases, the intention was to engrave the drawings to produce luxurious editions of the poems, but the first volume of Night Thoughts sold badly and the project was abandoned, and only seven plates of the Dante were ever engraved. Nevertheless, the watercolours Blake produced remain some of his most vibrant, engaging and accessible work.


Angels and imagination The figure of the angel has a central place in Blake’s visual iconography. In part, this is because the subject of both his original works and his illustrations is overwhelmingly religious and spiritual. But famously, Blake often had visions of angels and even claimed to converse with them. Such visions were not uncommon in Blake’s time. Outside the established church, religion was often a highly personal matter, which existed in many different shades, and Blake mixed in circles which combined political radicalism with religious individualism. Other religious visionaries, such as Emmanuel Swedenborg, who Blake followed for a time, recorded similar experiences. One of Blake’s earliest visions, of a host of angels in a tree in Peckham Rye, which he saw at the age of ten, seems directly influenced by Swedenborg. Later, when he was working on the illustrations to Night Thoughts – he saw an angel speaking to him, answering the poet’s question, ‘Who can paint an angel?’: Voice: Blake: Voice:

Michael Angelo could. And how do you know? I know, for I sat to him: I am the arch-angel Gabriel.

Blake recounted that:

‘As I looked, the shape dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun and beckoning to me, moved the universe [...] it was the arch-angel Gabriel’.


Many of Blake’s representations of angels convey something of the ecstatic, overwhelming quality of these visions. Several of the watercolours illustrations of Biblical texts painted for Thomas Butts provide excellent examples, such as the David Delivered Out of Many Waters (c.1805, Tate Collection) fig. 1, where the single cherub described in psalm 18 becomes seven angels carrying Christ to David’s rescue in a blaze of light. David is seen arms outstretched against the bottom of the image, pressed back not only by the waters but by the magnificence of the vision which simultaneously floods the frame. Similarly, in Blake’s depiction of the Death of the Virgin (1803, Tate Collection), a luminous Christ appears in a rainbow of cherubim above the radiant body of his mother. fig. 1

David Delivered out of Many Waters, 1757 - 1827 Pen and ink and watercolour © Tate: Presented by George Thomas Saul 1878


It is noticeable that in these images – and in Blake’s work as a whole – the classical rules of composition and ‘realistic’ perspective taught by artists such as Reynolds give way to a much more instinctive style.Imagination was intimately linked to Blake’s idea of God. Many of Blake’s angels take on a ‘gothic’ form, perhaps going back to his youth spent in Westminster Abbey, which he connected with the imagination and a sense of uncorrupted Englishness. The flowing, stylised , decorative forms in the Night Thoughts illustrations fig. 2 are typical of Blake’s enduring feeling for this style. Night Thoughts itself – wildly popular at the time though now largely forgotten –was a gloomy poem where the poet meditated on the deaths of those near to him before finding hope in Christian salvation. The poem was associated with the new fad for ‘gothic’ or graveyard literature, which evoked the unknown and the life beyond. Blake’s other angels are more classical in form, indicating the march of reason and the constraints of organized religion. The Recording Angel (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) fig. 3 from the Dante illustrations sits solid and impassive, a figure of the Law.


fig. 2

Night VII, page 72, ‘This is Man’s Portion, while no more than Man, c.1795-7 Pen and grey ink, with grey wash and watercolour, over graphite. © Trustees of the British Museum fig. 3

The Recording Angel, 1824-1827 Watercolour with pen and ink over pencil © Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery. Presented by the Trustees of the Public Picture Gallery Fund with assistance from the National Art Collections Fund and the Feeney Trust, 1919


fig. 4

The Good and Evil Angels, circa 1805 Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper © Tate: Presented by the executors of W. Graham Robertson through The Art Fund 1949

Blake’s large monoprint, The Good and Evil Angels (c. 1795, Tate Collection) fig. 4, shows what he believed to be the ‘error’ of a split between the mind and the body, which brought fear and torment. The ‘good’ angel on the right represents ‘reason’ or the soul, which separated from ‘energy’ represented by the ‘evil’ angel on the left, leaves the body shackled and blind. Blake’s images of devils – both the Satan in his Original Glory from the Thomas Butts series, and in several of the images of Dante’s Inferno – should be seen in this light. Although Blake’s illustrations of Dante engage closely with the text, they are clearly influenced by the artist’s perception that heaven and hell were expressions of human appetites and desires. Blake did not accept these traditional oppositions between good and evil, between angels and devils, between the flesh and the spirit: ‘the forms of all things are derived from their Genius, which by the Ancients was call’d an Angel & Spirit & Demon.’ For Blake, these were all aspects of what had once been whole before the Fall of Man, and imagination was the uniting principle. Men and angels were thus intimately linked. Text by Emily Marsden Curator, Hatton Gallery, Newcastle


For more information on William Blake and the Permanent Collections at The New Art Gallery visit the Art Library on Mezzanine level or visit artatwalsall.org.uk to search the collections online. There is also a selection of William Blake publications available to purchase in the Gallery Shop.

Select Bibliography: John Barrell, The Political Theory of Painting from Reynolds to Hazlitt (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1987) Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, William Blake (London: Tate, 2001) Ralph Pite, The Circle of our Vision: Dante’s Presence in English Romantic Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon, 1994) Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason (London: Penguin, 2004) The British Museum. A Partnership UK project.


The New Art Gallery Walsall Gallery Square Walsall WS2 8LG 01922 654400 artatwalsall.org.uk


William Blake Exhibition Guide  

Information about the Wiliam Blake Exhibition

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