Fierce visionary

25th February 2000 at 00:00
Artist and poet William Blake saw the imagination as a divine gift. Richard Humphreys looks at why he made this print of Isaac Newton

illiam Blake was the son of a Soho hosier. From a young age he drew, wrote - and had spiritual visions. He was non-conformist in his religion and believed in direct revelation by reading the Bible and by cultivating his visionary faculty. As a young man he was a follower of the cult of scientist, philosopher and theologian Emmanuel Swedenborg, and throughout his life was fascinated by all things occult. For Blake the imagination was a divine gift and creativity a kind of worship. He was apprenticed as a teenager to an engraver, James Basire, in Covent Garden and made drawings from the medieval paintings and monuments in Westminster Abbey as part of his apprenticeship. This experience was important in his development because it introduced him to a world of national antiquity and artistic religiosity which was to inform his attitudes for the rest of his life.

In the 1780s he attended drawing classes at the recently founded Royal Academy where Sir Joshua Reynolds was the highly influential first president. Blake was a talented draughtsman and his early drawings are often of Biblical or historical scenes in conformity with the requirements of academic art. However, he was not trained as an oil painter and his later annotations to the Discourses of Reynolds (the published versions of his lectures to the students) show that he was violently opposed to almost everything the president believed in. Blake took a poor view of oil painting as an overly material and deceitful medium which was, he believed, inferior to the techniques of medieval art; he objected in principle to Reynolds's emphasis on generalising from nature and instead insisted on the visionary depiction of what he called "minute particulars"; finally, he saw Reynolds as the representative of a corrupt and exploitative ruling class and accused him of being "hired to depress art".

Blake was a republican in politics and by the 1790s was connected with radical artists such as James Barry and writers such as Tom Paine and Mary Wollstencraft. In 1790 he moved to Lambeth, then a rural suburb close to a rapidly expanding London, and lived and worked in a house with his wife and assistant, Catherine, in Hercules Buildings. It was in Lambeth, against the background of the wars with revolutionary France and the oppressive measures taken against radicals such as himself, that he produced most of his celebrated "illuminated books".

These were produced in small editions and show his unique colour printing technique. This involved etching the words and images on to the printing plate and then working over the impressions individually with pen and ink and other media to create different effects for each plate. The richness of the forms and colours and the intricate relations between words and images make these among the most extraordinary products of Romantic culture. In works such as Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Urizen, America and others, Blake created a mythical world of his own which was simultaneously a commentary on the political, social and cultural forces of the contemporary world. These are complex and demanding works which nevertheless are utterly beautiful and also full of simple and moving images and concepts. Poet and artist have perhaps never been so effectively united in one individual.

Although he avoided persecution in the 1790s Blake did face a sedition charge, for which he was acquitted, after an altercation with a British soldier while living in Felpham in Sussex in the early 1800s. This was the only occsion he lived outside London and after his return to the capital he remained there until his death. He continued to make his own work, such as the epic Jerusalem and also watercolours and what he called "tempera" paintings, for a small group of admiring collectors. His final years, living in some penury off the Strand, were spent making watercolours for an edition of Dante's Divine Comedy which was never published. Many of these are now in the Tate Gallery in London.

Blake was relatively obscure in his lifetime but due to the interest of the Pre-Raphaelite artists, a biography published in 1863 and an enormous surge of interest in the late 19th century, he has become one of the major figures in both literature and art in Britain and internationally.

his colour print, (Newton, 1795-c1805) finished in ink and watercolour on paper (600x460mm), is one of a remarkable series at the Tate collectively known as the "large colour prints". Their theme and purpose is not entirely clear but most deal with aspects of the fall of man. Blake believed man lived in a divided state and his art sought a form of reintegration of the fragments of the self's shattered being. The material world and the body constituted a kind of anti-existence and Blake believed the imagination offered the only form of escape from this.

His image of the great 17th-century mathematician and scientist Sir Isaac Newton shows this almost deified man in British history as a naked muscular figure (derived from Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling) sitting on a lichen-encrusted rock, probably at the bottom of the sea (the element of materiality in Blake's scheme of things). He peers at the geometrical diagram he is inscribing and the image seems to make a critique of the myopic and repressive constrictions imposed by rationality on modern man. Blake viewed science and technology with great suspicion and this work encapsulates his fierce criticism of the dominant ideologies of his day.

The work uses the techniques Blake employed on his illuminated books on a large scale and without text. It is a monoprint (in effect a "one-off") using a strange mixture of pigment and carpenter's glue, applied to a piece of board rather than a copper plate, and which has then been finished (in two or three versions for most of the series of 12) with watercolour and pen and ink. The effect is a stunningly rich surface suggesting intricate vegetable and human forms within a superb overall deep translucency.

A major William Blake exhibition will open in November at Tate Britain, Millbank, London. Tel: 020 7887 8767 Richard Humphreys is head of interpretation and education, Tate Britain


For primary and secondary students up to key stage 3, the prints can be an inspiring introduction to printing methods and the simple tactic of making potato or even finger prints can give an insight into the reversal and other effects of making an impression.

Moving from a rough first state to something worked up to a fine finish is very satisfying for the initiate and offers a stress-free introduction to the working methods of one of the great British artists.

For all students, the themes of science, imagination and the ethical aspects of the modern world can be "read off" the image of Newton. The idea that scientific knowledge is contested is easily pursued once it is realised that this heroic figure is under attack from the artist.

For older and A-level students these themes can be extended across the curriculum to give a deeper understanding of the complex relationship between art and science in the Romantic period, which they study in other subjects.

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