Blake was born in Soho, London, to a middle-class family; his father was a hosier. Though he stopped formal schooling at the age of ten, he was intellectually curious and read widely on subjects that interested him. His favorite poets included Edmund Spenser and John Milton, and he was strongly influenced by the Bible, though he was hostile to most organized religion. At fifteen, Blake began an apprenticeship to a local engraver, and seven years later enrolled at the Royal Academy. He was pessimistic about the Academy and the contemporary art world in general, though he felt a certain kinship with the medieval past. While oil painting and the pursuit of “general beauty” (often depicted through landscapes) were fashionable at the time, Blake despised these modes and felt that narrative particularity, especially through history painting, was far more effective. While younger artists like J.M.W. Turner and John Constable were acclaimed for airy, naturalized paintings of the environment meant to grapple with man’s smallness in a precarious, modernizing world, Blake tried to make sense of the present via medieval wisdom and mythology.
After Albion Rose, the show unfolds mainly chronologically. Prints, books, and paintings are on view through five rooms, each of which introduces viewers to a different aspect of Blake: his earliest artistic formations, his foray into printmaking, the role of patronage in his artistic production, his temperamentality and despair, and the productive period at the end of his life. Throughout, Blake’s political inclinations are apparent. Suspicious of empire, he was inspired by the American and French revolutions, viewing the former prophetically, as an aperture into revolutions to come. He devised a complex personal mythology through which Albion, a primeval man, falls and is divided into four embattled factions, or Zoas: instinct, reason, love, and the imagination. This conflict is expressed in several of his epic poems, which were often richly illustrated. Take a print of Milton: A Poem, in which Milton sets off on an “immortal journey” to rescue Albion by the power of the imagination. The language is vivid, alarmist, at times even bizarre, interwoven with narrative details from Blake’s own life. It’s illustrated with exaggerated, heroic renderings of the male form—often, Blake turned to archaic renderings of the classical male nude for contemporary social critique. Contorted forms in dark jewel tones are met with Blake’s evocative depictions of the material world, which he regarded with anxious reverence as “nature’s cruel holiness.”
Many dismissed Blake at the time, questioning his mental health. Indeed, Blake suffered an intense spiritual loneliness for much of his life, and this is palpably reflected in a number of works, including plates from the The Book of Urizen (Urizen represents reason and a cruel God). These haunting images feature a ghostly, haggard figure often crouched or writhing in anguish alongside luminous red spheres. In one, Urizen, in the blackness of night, pushes against the boundaries of the image while lugging a shining, blood-red orb. Scrawled beneath the image are two lines: “Fearless tho’ in pain / I travel on.”