William Blake etchings shown for the first time

When viewing the tiny hand-coloured etchings of figures being burned alive and hair being washed in blood it is fine, the curators say, to be bemused and baffled.

“They are strange,” said Philippa Simpson. “Impenetrable, really, even for scholars.”

The eight hand-coloured works by William Blake, an artist as bizarrely eccentric as he was visionary, are also remarkable. They recently went on display at Tate Britain in London as part of a rehang that sees nine rooms and 170 works devoted to the Romantics.

The Blakes are being displayed as part of the national collection for the first time after being acquired for the nation last year and their history is almost as eye-catching as their content. For years their whereabouts were unknown, until someone bought a box of second-hand books at a north London sale and discovered the etchings in the leaves of an old railway timetable.

That was in the 1970s, when they were thought to be facsimiles, and it took a further 15 years or so before experts fell off their chairs and declared them the real deal.

“Not only are they images by Blake but they have these handwritten lines of poetry under each one,” said Simpson, who has curated the Blake display. “That is what makes them so extraordinary.”

Blake, who died in 1827, was not really appreciated in his lifetime, always considered eccentric—which, as he and his wife sat naked in their garden reading Milton aloud, he probably was.

But he always tackled big and existential themes. What the themes are in the eight Blakes on display is open to long and possibly fruitless debate.

One shows a man, possibly, washing his hair in a vat of blood while the flesh on his lower body appears to be melting away, leaving just bones and
muscles.

The pictures shine a light on Blake as the difficult, indefinable artist. Simpson said: “A perennial problem with Blake is that we tend to isolate him because he doesn’t belong to any system or movement, so he doesn’t get looked at in a broader context.

He’s seen as an anomaly. So what I’m hoping with this display is to start teasing out connections with different artists and to show that he did not exist in a vacuum, however strange his images are.”

Asked to choose a favourite—perhaps the one with the far-from-jolly caption “Vegetating in fibres of blood”—Simpson said it was instead one with an image from Blake’s work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, showing a bearded man and four robed women with the artist’s handwritten words, “Who shall set the prisoners free”.

“It is so delicate and contemplative,” she said. “You can spend a lot of time with it. For something so tiny to be so touching is amazing.” The small Blakes are displayed in a room alongside full-sized paintings. “I’ve had various sleepless nights worrying that they would be too small and not hold the space,” said Simpson.

“But now that they are up it’s overwhelming how powerful they are for such tiny, tiny images.

“They show that being monumental is not to do with the size of your canvas, it’s to do with the intensity of the image and the subjects you tackle.”—

 

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