William Blake at Tate Liverpool


Satan smiting Job with boils

Tracey Emin’s bed was being shown as part of an exhibition which is meant to explore the connection between this controversial work and the paintings of William Blake.

According to the Tate

This new display affirms Blake’s Romantic idea of artistic truth through existential pain and the possibility of spiritual rebirth through art, shared in the work of Tracey Emin.

I have to say I found it difficult to see any real connection – if there is one it is rather tenuous. But it was great to see a significant collection of magnificent prints and drawings by Blake, most of which I hadn’t seen before “in the flesh”, displayed together in Liverpool. A real treat.

William Blake is something of a hero of mine. As well as a visual artist – a painter and printmaker – he is also well known as a poet. He was a political radical – a supporter of the French Revolution – and a religious visionary.

 File:William Blake by Thomas Phillips.jpg

(Picture source : Wikipedia)

He was also an innovator, developing a printing technique known as relief etching and used it to print most of his poetry. He called the technique illuminated printing and the poetry illuminated books. Many of the works on display in the exhibition were created using this process.

This is just a small selection of them


Pity (c 1795)

This image is taken from Macbeth: ‘pity, like a naked newborn babe / Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim horsed / Upon the sightless couriers of the air’. Blake draws on popularly-held associations between a fair complexion and moral purity. These connections are also made by Lavater, who writes that ‘the grey is the tenderest of horses, and, we may here add, that people with light hair, if not effeminate, are yet, it is well known, of tender formation and constitution’. (Tate website)


The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve c.1826

This work shows Adam and Eve discovering their dead son. His brother Cain, the murderer, flees the scene. Despite his evil deed, Cain, appears as an ideal male figure. (Tate website)


Nebuchadnezzar 1795–c.1805



The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (formerly called ‘Hecate’) circa 1795

Enitharmon is an important female character in Blake’s mythology, playing a main part in some of his prophetic books. She is the Emanation of Los, and with Los gives birth to various children, including Orc. Although symbolising spiritual beauty and poetic inspiration (some critics have argued that Blake’s wife Catherine was the inspiration for the character) she is also used by Blake to represent female domination and sexual restraints that limit the artistic imagination (Tate website)

Bunhill Fields


A few weeks ago we visited the revamped Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. The main exhibition featured works by Cornelia Parker. One of the exhibits was ‘Black Path (Bunhill Fields)’, a bronze cast made of the cracks in the pavements of the cemetery, where William Blake, one of my heroes, is buried. It’s an interesting work.

So, last Saturday when I had a couple of hours to spare in the afternoon, as it was a reasonably fine day, I decided to go and have a look at the cemetery, pay homage to Blake and see if I could locate the pavement Cornelia Smith had cast (yes, quite sad, I know!). The cemetery is a green oasis in amongst a heavily built up area just outside the boundaries of the City of London, and if’s close to Moorgate station which was on a direct tube line from Edgware Road, which was across the road from where I was staying. It looked particularly attractive with the spring flowers blooming and fresh green leaves appearing on the many trees.






There is a memorial headstone to William Blake and his wife, Catherine Sophia.


However, it’s not actually located over his grave, which was several yards away. It was relocated when a section of the cemetery was turned into a lawn. The site of the grave was rediscovered following work by the Blake Society. The location of Catherine’s grave isn’t known.

The cemetery was principally used for the burial of dissenters (William Blake being a prime example). Other well known “residents” include John Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress)


Daniel Defoe, who has a memorial obelisk, next to which Blake’s memorial was relocated


and the Reverend Thomas Bayes, whose claim to fame, Bayesian statistics, has become very much the “in thing” for analysing data in my profession. Indeed, there was a tutorial on the topic taking place prior to the conference at the very time I was visiting his grave.


I spent a pleasant hour mooching around. As for Cornelia Parker’s cracks in the pavement, despite walking around the cemetery staring at the ground (other visitors must have doubted my sanity) I never did manage to locate the exact section.

William Blake at the John Rylands Library


While we were over in Manchester a couple of weeks ago we called into the neo-gothic John Rylands library on Deansgate. Built in the 1890′s as a memorial to a local millionaire cotton master, today it’s part of the University of Manchester. Although it’s a serious academic resource containing many thousands of rare books, the library welcomes visitors to view the magnificent architecture and they also host  exhibitions, usually book related.

John Rylands Library

Currently, one of the exhibitions focuses on books containing prints of engravings by William Blake and others, such as the Pre-Raphaelites and members of the Arts and Crafts movement who were influenced by him.

File:William Blake by Thomas Phillips.jpg

(Picture source : Wikipedia)

The University set a group of students, supervised by art historian Colin Todd, on detective work to find examples of books containing designs and engravings by Blake amongst the library’s collection. They succeeded in locating about 350 engraved plates designed by Blake in the collection, many of which are included in the exhibition.

The books containing the engravings include Edward Young’s poem Night Thoughts, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories Robert Thornton’s, Virgil and Blake’s own Book of Job.

Image from The Book of Job, William Blake, 1825

Blake was a highly skilled engraver and the prints are incredibly detailed. He was inventive too, developing a technique known as relief etching which allowed him to print words and images from a single plate.


The library have had The Book of Job and Night Thoughts digitised and they can be viewed online.


A copy of the leaflet accompanying the exhibition can be downloaded from here.

Newton by William Blake

2012-05-11 14.09.03

William Blakes’s iconic monotype print of Isaac Newton is one of the works selected by Marianne Faithfull  for the DLA Piper Series: Innocence and Experience, exhibition  being shown at Tate Liverpool until 2 September.

I really like this work – the composition, the draughtsmanship and the use of colour. At first glance Newton appears as a heroic figure – like a Greek God. He is sitting on a rock, apparently under the sea, concentrating intently on his work, leaning over a scroll, using a set of compasses, producing geometric drawings. But  he is ignoring his surroundings, turning his back upon the beauty of the natural world.

According to the Tate’s website:

Blake …….. was critical of reductive scientific thought. In this picture, the straight lines and sharp angles of Newton’s profile suggest that he cannot see beyond the rules of his compass. Behind him, the colourful, textured rock may be seen to represent the creative world, to which he is blind.

For Blake, Newton personified a materialist world view where everything can be investigated, measured and categorised in opposition to his own belief in the importance of imagination, emotion, and mysticism.

I could describe myself as a “scientist” (although I always think that sounds pretentious), but although I don’t subscribe to his belief in mysticism I have some sympathy with Blake’s view. I think that many people who work in pure or applied science do tend to concentrate on their data without putting it into a broader context.  But science can’t be divorced from society. It isn’t “neutral”. It’s expensive and requires funding. And governments, private enterprise and other organisations will only provide money and employ people if it’s in their interests to do so. Too often people conducting scientific research and development don’t think about the consequences of their work or question the motivation of the organisations providing the funding.

Blake’s picture remains popular today but I think that many people don’t appreciate the point that he was trying to make. They only see the heroic figure and miss the message. It is perhaps ironic then, that a statue by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi based on Blake’s image stands proudly outside the British Library in Kings Cross London.

Paris 001

According to this source,

“Paolozzi was inspired by the union between two British geniuses, both representing nature, poetry, art, and architecture.”

I wonder whether the average passer by appreciates that?