Exhibition review: William Blake: Apprentice and Master

An exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum Oxford, until March 1st 2015
By Polly Marshall Taplin

This peerless exhibition, at the Ashmolean until 1st March 2015, is laid out in three rooms representing key phases in Blake’s career. There are prints, books, paintings, copper plates, sculptures and thoughtful, unpatronizing gallery texts, which explain parallel evolutions in Blake’s thought process and engraving technique.

We start with Blake’s education. “Thank God I never was sent to school,” he said, instead attending Henry Pars’s drawing classes from the age of 10. Young Blake had an allowance from his father to buy casts of antiquities for drawing practice, and prints at auction.

At 14, Blake was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire. An identifiable work from this time is an engraving after Michelangelo of “Joseph of Arimathea among The Rocks of Albion. Engraved by W Blake 1773 from an old Italian drawing. This is one of the Gothic Artists who build the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages Wandering about in sheep skins & goat skins of whom the World was not worthy.” Blake returned to this engraving in around 1818 and the two are displayed side by side.

Blake was sent out of Basire’s workshop to draw Gothic monuments in Westminster Abbey for five years, and drawings, possibly by Blake, of Medieval effigies, are on display. In May 1774, permission was given to open King Edward I’s tomb. The drawings arising are here, unattributed but part of the Society of Antiquaries of London: Blake Westminster Abbey collection.
Dominating the first room is an enormous copper plate 660mmx1220mm of Le Champ du Drap D’Or, with Henry VIII in his pomp, the largest engraved plate made in the eighteenth century.
Blake’s engravings after Hogarth, with scenes from the Beggar’s Opera, are a particular delight.

Towards the end of this first room/period of Blake’s career, we see his first foray into published writing, with a copy of his Poetical Sketches, published privately in 1798. A sheet of pen and ink horses and lions intrigue, entwined with Blake’s early attempts to sign his name in mirror-writing, essential for the creation of his illuminated books.

The second room displays mostly prints. The first is Blake’s The Approach of Doom, a deeply moving artwork inspired by the death in 1787 of his younger brother Robert, aged only 24. The technique Blake invented in 1788 was inspired by a “visionary imagination” in which the dead Robert appeared to him and described a new process, enabling Blake to etch his poetry with an illustration, on to copper plate. Also on display are books from Blake’s collection that inspired this process.

The exhibition is laid out so that the development of technique is reflected in the choice of work on display, which reveals the evolution of Blake’s craft as both engraver and poet.
Here are inter al. Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, Visions of the Daughters of Albion; here not only The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but also Blake’s own manuscript notebook for it, open at a drawing from Paradise Lost. Hard by, a computer screen displays the British Library’s digital copy of the manuscript, allowing a virtual flick through this masterpiece.
At the centre of the exhibition is a reproduction of Blake’s workshop in Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, with its engraving press and tools seemingly waiting for Blake to burst through the door and start printing.

The exhibition then progresses through a display demonstrating the development of colour printing, showing how LeBlon split colour into the cyan, yellow and magenta we still use in printer ink today.

Blake’s large colour work simply takes one’s breath away. Newton and Nebuchadnezzar are here, and three versions of The House of Death, which lend a close insight into Blake’s artistic thinking.

In the last room, we come to the big tempura canvasses of the Heads of the Poets commissioned for the library in Felpham, Sussex where Blake had decamped from his native London. Milton and Dante are on loan from Manchester City Galleries.

In the corner, Blake’s life mask meditates upon his huge engraving of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, and a beautiful selection of late wood engravings that show a style that evidently influenced Samuel Palmer.

In the section called The Interpreter and the Ancients are examples of work by Palmer, and George Richmond, Blake’s latter disciples who hint at the man’s long reach into history.
This exhibition is refreshing in its focus on Blake as craftsman rather than ‘mad mystic’, though we see some notes damning Swedenborg from the margins: “LIES AND PRIESTCRAFT.”
There persists a received narrative of Blake’s career, that he was regrettably obliged to make a living as an engraver, due to his ‘real work’ of poetry and painting being ahead of its time, casting Blake as some autodidact idiot savant with a direct line to God.

This erudite exhibition gives the lie to this snobbish notion that a craftsperson is lower down the food chain than a ‘proper’ artist. Indeed, as you emerge from the exhibition with a headful of Blake’s genius, you come across a man in the gift shop, patiently, slowly dobbing blue-black ink on to intricate copper plates, then passing them through a real, old-style press with huge handles powered by nothing but human muscle. This craftsman in his brown apron is none other than the curator himself, Michael Phillips, a visiting scholar at Wolfson College, Oxford, who also trained as a printmaker to replicate Blake’s illuminated books.

There is so much more to wonder at here. I will be back for a second viewing, as this is a rare exhibition of one of Albion’s greatest creators, brought together with rare perception. I cannot recommend Blake: Apprentice and Master highly enough.
Polly Marshall
Polly Marshall is a writer and playwright with an obsession for the
Romantics. She received the Arts Council New Writing Drama Award 2000 for
her play Allegra on the brief life of Byron’s lovechild with Claire