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William Blake – Apprentice and Master, at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
January 9, 2015
Largely unrecognised during his lifetime William Blake is an English poet, artist and print maker with a staggering imagination. This exhibition at Oxford’s Ashmolean museum recreates Blake’s legacy in three stages; his formation as an artist through apprenticeships as an engraver, his artistic maturity during the 1790’s where he became a prolific poet and image maker and his final years where he was surrounded by a group of artistic disciples whom he inspired.
Born in Soho, London, into a dissenting household, Blake was the third of seven children and from a young age he showed a promising artistic talent. Purchasing Old Masters’ prints to copy, Blake soon found himself in love with art and print making as an art form. At age fourteen he was apprenticed to an engraver and set out to study the Gothic architecture of London – something that would come to have a profound influence on his later passions. He was quickly accepted to study at the Antique School of the Royal Academy where he was an outspoken fan of the (somewhat unfashionable at the time) Italian Renaissance Masters. The exhibition contains many of these early engravings, clearly defined in a context of the process of engraving and printmaking. The artworks and artefacts allude to the painstaking process with which Blake familiarised himself – first becoming a master of his craft before he could let his imagination run loose. Work’s such as his etching after Henry Fuseli’s Head of a Damned Soul c.1780-90 show the beginnings of Blake as an artist in his own right; the characteristic broad facial features and defined sweeps of the body, created caringly and with the precision that came to epitomise Blake’s style, begin to emerge as he progresses into his adolescence.
By 1789 Blake had established a name for himself as a professional artist. He began to self-print books of poetry using innovative colouring methods and gained a reputation for his highly-fluid mythological and religious imagery with which we associate him today. Often depicting fear and suffering, his work twists the human condition and elicits an unease from within the viewer. A recreation of Blake’s studio within the gallery places the audience firmly within the context of his practice, while the prints adorning the walls detail his creative process and passion for his art. Blake’s works are idiosyncratic and whimsical – dreams being printed from machinery to disperse among his followers. Some of his most famous pieces, including Nebuchadnezzar and The Songs of Innocence, capture the essence of the darkness of his work.
The final gallery room details the last decades of Blake’s life, placing his works alongside those of his inspired contemporaries. It becomes clear here how much sway he held over artists such as Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert. They shared with Blake his love for Renaissance print makers and depicting mythological subjects in all their symbolist glory. This group, which named itself The Ancients, continued Blake’s tradition and style for many years after his death.
Curated by Michael Phillips – himself both an art historian and print maker, this show fills in the gaps left by previous Blake exhibitions. Rather than represent a collection of his works, the show firmly sets his practice at the centre of his craft. Following the trend for adopting an academic approach to artists when exhibiting their materials, this show carefully depicts Blake as someone who harnessed the technology at the time to disseminate his works among the public. Combining his art and poetry through a series of books Blake was presenting himself as a multidisciplinary visionary. His tortuous images capture the minds of the public, often playing on the appetite of human curiosity for mental anguish. Through his use of word and image, Blake has become one of the true genius artists who cultivated the power to stir raw emotion within the masses.
William Blake: Apprentice and Master is on at the Ashmolean in Oxford until March 1st 2015. For more information go to www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions/williamblake