I had assumed I knew the basic facts about William Blake’s life – that he was an experimental poet who also hand published his own work during the eighteenth century – but once I was through the doors of the Ashmolean’s most recent exhibition I quickly realised how little I actually knew. The exhibition focuses on Blake’s career as an engraver and how these skills allowed him to create such unusually presented poems. Blake was apprenticed to an engraver because the profession was thought to be more profitable than painting and also ensure a steadier income as there was always such a high demand for engravings from a range of sources. However, Blake did not remain rich as he could not always submit to the requests of his clients. He would rather terminate a commission than change something against his will. Since he was taught at home and then apprenticed to an engraver in his teens he was rarely constrained by the strictures of accepted thought or beliefs. He was often thought to be blunt and charmless as he refused to bend to social niceties or manners, instead holding the truth to be the most important goal. Nevertheless, despite these apparent difficulties in character, Blake could inspire deep devotion – his marriage to Catherine Boucher lasted for 45 years and was by all accounts a happy one and as Blake grew older his followers treated him with great reverence.
Engraving was intricate work and pieces could take months, or even years, to complete. An image would first be planned through several sketches, which would perhaps be shown to a patron, before a final design was decided. Then a sheet of metal would be prepared and the difficulty of this stage would depend on the size of the intended engraving. While Blake was still an apprentice he helped with an engraving of the Field of Gold that was the largest ever. The sheet of metal had to be specially made as it was over a metre long and is on show at the exhibition. It was amazing how gleaming the metal was and I could hardly imagine it was just a tool to create the engraving that was framed above it as it felt like a finished piece of art itself. Blake later took two years to complete the engraving of a scene from The Beggar’s Opera (above) and could buy himself a house with the fee. The scene is incredibly detailed and it is hard to imagine that this is all done through careful cross-hatching and shading. Throughout the work Blake would make prints of the work to check how certain aspects were progressing. The exhibition has one of these on show and it was fascinating to observe how the tableau developed – over half the work is near completion but the two women are merely blank outlines.
Throughout his early career as an engraver Blake had always written poetry and painted but it was only following the death of his brother, Robert, that he really began to experiment with how he could present his work to the world. Following a vision of his dead brother Blake discovered that he could adapt the tools he already had to produce colourful editions of his poems. At first the technique had unreliable results but this spurred Blake on to continue experimenting until each print would be as he envisioned it. The first prints were created by directly applying colour to an engraving and resulted in an ethereal washed out effect as the ink quickly ran out. The exhibition documents how Blake gradually learnt mirror writing as his poems became unique in both subject and presentation since he could now incorporate words and images into one print, something which had not been done before. In particular, I found his print of the myth of Laocoön (right) unbelievably modern as it created an almost scrapbook effect with the central image surrounded by a mixture of phrases in different languages. It did not fit with the style that I have always associated with Blake, of dramatic angels and blazing fires, but it epitomized his efforts to mix images and words in an unexpected manner to frustrate an easy viewing.
The exhibition ends with an exploration of how Blake’s followers adapted his methods and themes to continue his legacy but I felt that none appears as innovative or daring as their inspiration. The exhibition continues until March 1st so there is still just enough time to visit.