William Blake emerges, not as a mad visionary, but as a fan of progressive Christianity in a new show at the Ashmolean

William Blake: Apprentice & Master
Ashmolean Museum, until March 1

According to the somewhat self-defeating advice of The London Tradesman in 1757, “a painter must be born, not made”. The William Blake exhibition at the Ashmolean etches a different story. Subtitled “Apprentice and Master”, it celebrates the artist’s genesis rather than his genius.

Blake’s training was lengthy and rigorous. In 1779, aged 22, and after seven years under the master engraver James Basire, Blake had already worked on engravings of death masks for Richard Gough’s The Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain, and on illustrations of anatomy, astrology and paleontology, among other disciplines, for the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He had also worked on watercolour drawings of the eight-foot paintings kept in the sanctuary next to the high altar of Westminster Abbey, and the largest-ever plate to be engraved on a single piece of copper and printed on one page, Le Champ du Drap d’Or. The scale of the metal and its printed mirror image makes your stomach turn at the thought of one slip of the chisel.

The Blake of the exhibition is not the mad visionary we’re familiar with, the fan of progressive Christianity and flexible marital arrangements. Rather, he is an expert and pioneering craftsman. The exhibition is chronological, with a recreation of his studio in Lambeth at its centre. It focuses on his technique rather than his subconscious. Blake’s night-time visions of his dead brother had practical consequences: it is told that Robert imparted the instructions for the most revolutionary of techniques, “Illuminated printing”. Drawing on copper plate with impervious liquid, then dipping in acid, left the raised outline to catch the ink. Blake could now print drawings next to his text and elaborate with charcoal, pen and colour.

The results are the Blake we recognise: fantastical creatures; tygers burning bright; Urizen separating dark and light. For the first time, three versions of The House of Death are displayed side by side. In the curved lines and different washes – mouths gape open more gruesomely, toes curl in rigor mortis, muscles gleam green – you can see how the versatility offered by this new technique gave him the freedom to turn prints into art. The tortured face of Los Howl’d on the front of the catalogue is a progenitor to Goya’s Saturn.

Blake was a mentor to the Ancients, a group of Romantic artists, notably Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert and George Richmond, whose work is displayed at the end of the exhibition. This irrelevant visual addendum shows how Blake avoided the twee. Although the general public never really recognised him in his lifetime, now he is the only artist the punters are paying to see.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Herald magazine (5/12/14)