Little appreciated in his time, William Blake was an English painter, poet, and printmaker today considered one of England’s greatest artists, and who created a unique visual perspective on the world through explorations of philosophy and mysticism. His career began in the world of art prints as an apprentice engraver, creating images of Gothic churches such as Westminster Abbey, hugely inspiring his mature style which would produce many great art print series.
He attended the Royal Academy in London during his 20s, finding numerous ways to rebel against the conventional thinking of the school, and joining political activist groups and taking part in the Gordon Riots that led to the creation of a police force. He went on to open a print shop, mixing with a range of radical thinkers and artists, and began producing his own artworks, manuscripts, and poems, starting to experiment with other mediums of art.
Intaglio engraving would make up most of Blake’s commercial work, but for his best known and most admired art print series, illustrations, and books, he turned to the technique of relief etching. Mimicking the approach of illuminated manuscripts, he produced poetry in a way that saw the text of the poem engraved on the plate, and images drawn into the blank spaces around the words. This approached emerged alongside some of his most admired work, collectively known as his prophetic books, that began to create his own personal mythology.
Blake’s prophetic great art print series, and his journey to Jerusalem
Created from his home in London over the course of over 30 years, Blake’s illuminated poems and prophecies leaned heavily on Biblical references and contexts but elaborated many personal thoughts and views. He explored a wide range of themes such as society, revolution, sexuality, oppression, psychology, and morality, and often shifted in perspective as Blake’s own ideas and thoughts matured over time. The last of these prophetic books, and the longest and most expansive, was Jerusalem; The Emanation of the Giant Albion.
Widely considered his masterpiece, in his time it was very little known; only six copies were produced during his lifetime. Visualising the fall of Britain and the western world through the dense symbolism of his own mythology, the poem was also full of psychological concepts mirroring different aspects of the human psyche and the spiritual stages of human history. It had much in common with the book of Revelation, destroying all to enable a rebirth, calling for societal and religious reforms, and in many ways summarising and reinforcing the many themes Blake’s work had explored through his career.
One hundred art prints were relief etched to illustrate the work, which have been poured over and analysed with increasing depth over time, with entire books produced to try and explain or comprehend it in the modern era. A chaotic mass of names, characters, places and meanings, mostly focusing on the words of the poem itself, the introduction to which have, over time, shifted into the collective British subconscious as a sort of secondary national anthem. Yet the imagery is crucial to the experience and the telling of the story, creating what some modern reviewers have described as a visionary theatre more than a poem or series of art prints.
Aunique visual language and style that heralded avant garde modern art
Just as Jerusalem brought together much of Blake’s societal and religious ideas, it also brought together his matured artistic style, in a set of art prints that, like much of his work, was almost impossible to classify or force into any particular genre or movement. He admired the ideas of Romanticism but rejected the formality of Neoclassicism that dominated his time. He embraced symbolism warmly, diverging from the norm with his use of highly personalised symbolism, and embraced spiritual creativity and tools such as séance just as a surrealist embraces dreams.
The result of all this is a unique quality; though his work rarely has the finish and refinement of many of the great art printers, feeling almost like sketches at times, the depth of ideas and purpose in the work gives it a seductive allure; it is a mystery to be explored and considered, but perhaps never fully understood.