‘William Blake Apprentice & Master explores how some of Blake’s best-known works were created and individually produced. It traces how Blake himself developed, from apprentice to master, poet to artistprintmaker, and then how he inspired a new generation of visionary artists.’ Michael Phillips, Guest Curator
Including more than ninety of his most celebrated works, Apprentice & Master examines the three key phases in the life and work of one of Britain’s most influential and original artists, William Blake (1757–1827). The exhibition looks at his formation as an artist and apprenticeship as an engraver; his maturity during the 1790s when he was at the height of his powers as both artist and revolutionary poet; and his final years, when he came to inspire and guide a younger generation of artists which included Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, and Edward Calvert.
William Blake was born in Soho, London, into a dissenting household, the third of seven children. At a young age he showed artistic promise which his parents encouraged by purchasing Old Master prints and plaster casts for him to copy. He was apprenticed, at the age of fourteen, to the engraver, James Basire and sent out to study London’s gothic churches – an experience which was to prove formative for his later style and imagery. I n 1779, Blake was accepted as a student into the Antique School of the Royal Academy, where he was an outspoken enthusiast for Michelangelo and Raphael. The first section of Apprentice & Master brings together a representative selection of Blake’s early work, exemplifying his already unorthodox approach, whether in the depiction of Gothic monuments or the human body, closing with his remarkable etching after Henry Fuseli’s Head of a Damned Soul (c.1789–90).
By 1789 Blake had become established professionally and was at the height of his powers, producing work of startling originality. His principal employer was the liberal publisher, Joseph Johnson, who published Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, Joseph Priestley and other leading writers of radical politics with whom Blake became acquainted at Johnson’s gatherings. The exhibition’s central gallery examines how, during this period, Blake composed his poems and prophecies and invented the method he used to publish them that he called ‘Illuminated Printing’. His innovations in colour printing, by their daring and freedom, anticipated the monotypes of Edgar Degas and his successors from the mid-1870s onwards. At the heart of this section is a recreation of Blake’s printmaking studio in Lambeth, based on recently discovered scale drawings. This is complemented by a careful examination of Blake’s technical innovations. Among the works on display are several of his most extraordinary illuminated books including The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Europe a Prophecy; and examples of the Large Colour Prints of 1795, including Nebuchadnezzar and Newton.
The focus of the final gallery is Blake’s later career when, encouraged by his friendship with the young artist, John Linnell, he reawakened his interest in the great artist-printmakers of the Renaissance such as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden. It was Linnell who commissioned the last of Blake’s great series of pure line engravings, the Illustrations to the Book of Job and to Dante. It was these works, and above all the small woodcut illustrations to Vi r g i l ’ s Pastorals, which inspired the young artists Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, and Edward Calvert, who called themselves ‘the Ancients’. During the last three years of his life, they visited Blake and his wife in their two-room flat off the Strand. Apprentice & Master juxtaposes many of the works by Blake that the Ancients would have seen on these visits with their own early works. Among the most notable are Palmer’s greatest creations, the six sepia drawings of 1825; and Calvert’s exquisite woodcuts of the late 1820s.
Mr Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art, Ashmolean Museum, says: “William Blake is one of the most popular of English artists, yet still one of the least understood. His radical politics were reflected in his extraordinary technical innovations, especially in the field of printmaking and the ‘illuminated book’. This exhibition offers new insights into this remarkable genius.”