William Blake: apprentice and master

While the English language is gifted with many great poets, William Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. Now a new exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum is celebrating his visual and literary work in tandem. 

Philip Pullman
29 January 2015
3. Songs of Innocence (c) Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.jpg

'Songs of Innocence' image via Bodleian Museum, University of Oxford

The following is adapted from two speeches given by Phillip Pullman at the launch of the William Blake Festival at the Ashmolean Museum on 18 January 2015. The exhibition will run until 1 March 2015.

The more we look into the curious case of William Blake the more curious he seems, and the more we find to discover. A great poet, undeniably; a print-maker, designer, graphic artist, of huge originality and power. A maker of vast and complex myths, and a master of the tiniest morally explosive aphorism. A religious and philosophical thinker whose insights into those fields and into human psychology are only now beginning to be fully recognised and understood.

But this is a museum. A great museum of art, and it’s not easy to put together an exhibition of thoughts and insights and myths. We need things to look at, and that’s where writers and poets are disappointing, exhibition-wise: a couple of manuscripts, a lock of hair, a pen, a walking stick that he might once have used, a tea cup that she possibly drank from—that’s the sort of thing that an exhibition devoted to most writers or poets must consist of.

But Blake! 

'Newton' seated nude with a compass, deep in thought

'Newton' image via the Philadelphia Museum of ArtHe left us a whole world of visual splendour. Images that once seen are unforgettable: the great picture known as ‘The Ancient of Days’, depicting Urizen, the embodiment of law and reason, leaning down from a cloud with his measuring compasses; the vision of ‘Albion Rose’, sometimes called ‘Glad Day’; Newton, seated on a rock, with compasses again, a version of which rendered in bronze by Eduardo Paolozzi stands outside the British Library; ‘The Ghost of a Flea’ … any of those images, or of many others, would have ensured the immortality of an artist who never wrote a word or said a memorable thing.

This image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote.

But the thrill of this exhibition is that it shows us how this image-making aspect of Blake’s life and work was so intimately bound up with the unforgettable poetry he wrote. They were conceived as one thing. They were printed from the same plates. The words were written—backwards—in the same varnish as the design, to stop out the areas of the copper plate that he didn’t want the acid to bite into. It was all one thing. Both the words and the design, the illumination, both together were the anvil on which he hammered out the meaning of his thoughts.

And in this marvellous exhibition we can see the stages by which Blake arrived at the extraordinary integration of word and image, from his apprentice work drawing the tombs in Westminster Abbey through his increasing familiarity with all kinds of print-making and the work of the great artists of the past whose paintings were reproduced in engravings, discovering what he favours, what he finds full of truth, clear lines, that is to say, and what he dislikes: anything fudged or blurred or obscure.

6. House of Death (c) Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.jpg

'House of Death' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

It’s fascinating to look at the stages of a print emerging gradually from the first marks made on the wood or the copper, and to look at the hefty machinery involved in printing it on paper, to imagine the sheer toil involved in working at a relatively minute size, poring closely over the plate in the light that struggled in between the tall buildings outside the window, and then going through all the processes of inking the plate and putting it through the massive press and then working on it further with colours until it was ready; all that lovely physical stuff that people who do nothing but write feel such envy for. I do, anyway.

Visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years.

And all that is fully and richly represented here. The catalogue is a treasury of information that I know I’ll be consulting for years to come. I think that visitors to this exhibition will go away astonished at the sheer volume of work that William Blake got through in his 70 years, with all the difficulties, financial and otherwise, that crowded around him. But most of all, for me anyway, it’s a sense of the grandeur of what that extraordinary imagination conceived and brought forth. Blake is all of a piece; his enormously complex mythology wasn’t just made up at random—all the parts do fit together, and the more we see, the more we marvel at its richness and beauty and truth.

1. Young Blake (c) Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.jpg

'Young Blake' image via Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

We are lucky in this country, in this Albion, with our mongrel language that is so flexible and so friendly to all kinds of utterance, to have more great poets than perhaps we deserve. But Blake was alone in writing so simply, and so powerfully, and so unforgettably. He was a friend of language: it did what he wanted it to, it fell gracefully into his hands, he had a sense for the sinews and the muscles, the bones and the structures of the language that was as sure and firmly founded as his knowledge of the structure of the human body, a knowledge formed in the course of a long and diligent apprenticeship. He knew how to draw a clear line around a figure: whatever tormented or contorted position he put it in, the figure works, the shoulders and the arms meet each other convincingly, the feet grow firmly from the legs.

And when he put words together, he did so in such a way that they are now inseparable, unforgettable: 

I wander thro’ each charterd street

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow,

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.


In every cry of every Man,

In every Infant’s cry of fear,

In every voice, in every ban,

The mind-forg’d manacles I hear. 

12. Abel and the Shepherd (c) Tate, London.jpg

'Abel and the Shepherd' image via Tate Museum, London

We certainly don’t show our poets as much gratitude, or celebrate them as a smaller, poorer nation would. But here, at the Ashmolean, is our chance to pay our respects to, and wonder at, the genius of one of the greatest, and certainly one of the strangest of all the poets who’ve ever written in English; and certainly the greatest who ever drew, and etched, and printed, and coloured the illuminations that make his work unique.

The exhibition 'William Blake: apprentice and master' runs until 1 March 2015 in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. openDemocracy is grateful for permission to share these images. 

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