William Blake at Tate Britain

As soon as I heard that the Tate was exhibiting a “once in a generation” collection of William Blake’s work, I knew it was an event I simply couldn’t miss. I’ve read a great deal of Blake’s poetry and taught Songs of Innocence and Experience a couple of times – but I’m sure I’ve never actually seen any actual art. It’s always been reproductions.

While Blake’s art certainly didn’t disappoint, the exhibition itself was a little… flat… and somewhat dull. While you get a good sense of Blake’s growth as an artist – the exhibition is set out chronologically (with a recreation of his 1807 one-room exhibition as well as a huge digital display) – what you don’t get is any sense of attempting to interpret his poetic vision or any sense (other than a passing reference to his concerns about slavery and ambiguous comments about Pitt and Nelson). There’s neither sense of Blake’s politics presented at all (bear in mind was involved in the Gordon Riots, supported the French Revolution and was prosecuted for sedition) nor in his innovations in printing. Aside from Blake’s mythologising and obsucre symbolism, I’ve become incredibly interested in how Blake engraved and printed. Nothing at all about the process of engraving. Not even a video played in a cubby-hole. Maybe I expect too much. After all, Jerusalem has quite a complex relationship with English people. In the Age of Brexit maybe it’s less controversial to simply appeal to an audience looking for Tyger Tyger, Jerusalem and old English stuff. Among the books sold in the extensive exhibition shop were works by Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Philip K Dick, which I understand, but find odd being sold in such a thoughtless, visionariless, prosaic (here I’m struggling for better adjectives) exhibition.

What I found most striking about Blake’s work was the size of the pieces. The pages of Songs of Innocence and Experience, for example, were tiny: smaller than postcard size. To view the exhibition took two hours and felt like a slow-moving Post Office queue. Only one person at a time could really look at each piece. I was also struck by how Blake’s personal style of engraving (which often seems quite primitive and rough) was put into sharp relief by his few incredibly detailed commercial pieces. Blake’s colouring also left an impression: the dark tones and rich reddy hues particularly.

The final piece of the exhibition was Europe: A Prophecy. It’s the central image of the exhibition and used on the Tate’s publicity material. I’m not sure if it was placed at the end as some odd Brexit comment. It was a very small work and left me bemused about what the curator/s wanted to say about Blake.