Artists From The Edge
Portrait of William Blake. Thomas Phillips. 1807. ©National Portrait Gallery, London.
Rebel. Radical. Revolutionary. Anti-Racist. William Blake was all these things, and more. Yet in his day he was ignored and regarded as mad. A contemporary of Turner and Constable his art, whilst appearing to be from a different age, is as relevant today as 250 years ago. That’s the enigma of William Blake.
Albion Rose or Glad Day. 1793-6. British Museum. London
Albion Rose or Glad Day
Albion is England, a personification of this island nation. This picture – also known as Albion Rose or Glad Day –symbolises England's political awakening and liberty. A naked man stands on a rock welcoming the dawn. This painting was created at a time of revolution and repression, and Blake added captions later to focus his meanings.
Albion’s body is flung outward. His limbs unbend and reach out as far as they can, and each limb is free of others. He is absolute liberation. The figure is innocent. It has no sophisticated classical complexity, no graceful twisting of torso, and stance. The naked body lies on a single plane, and it faces full frontal. Its arms are not raised in victory either, but level and opened to the world. The figure is at the point of maximum unfolding.
The body's weight is uneven. The foot begins to lift. The head is slightly turned. Action enters the figure. He is in the middle of a dance step, and his level arms are keeping his balance.
This image has a radiant structure, which incorporates the whole figure. Arms and legs emerge like the spokes of a wheel, roughly centred on the diaphragm, but it's not merely a matter of the anatomy. The crucial device here, never used by Blake elsewhere (or by anyone else) so explicitly and so strongly, is the equation between the body and its background.
The open-armed stance of Albion is picked up and drawn out by the radiating beams around him – his shining aura which is a multi-coloured flame, an opening flower, and a butterfly wing. His head explodes into a flare.
Albion represents a uniquely utopian figure. His body itself speaks an abstract language. This nude is delivered from all bondage and all untruth. It is beyond conflict, beyond struggle and inner turmoil. And yet this figure isn't stuck in final utopian lifelessness. He holds an interplay between static and dynamic tension.
Blake engraved a version in 1800 with the words:
Albion rose from where he laboured at the Mill with Slaves
Giving himself for the Nations he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death.
These lines politicise the image. Blake has paraphrased lines from the American Declaration of Independence in his work America. ‘Albion’ is not a place-name but refers to the ‘people’ reflecting his participation in the support for those fighting for American independence. ‘Albion’s dance’ is a rebuttal to Edmund Burke, the Whig supporter, and opponent of the American Independence and democracy who talked about the ‘death-dance of democratic revolution’.
How Blake made his Illuminated Books
About William Blake
Blake was born in 1757 in the heart of London. His life, with one exception, was spent in London. His father was a small shopkeeper and involved in dissenting radicalism. This tradition influenced Blake who throughout his life remained sceptical of the established church and politics.
Blake’s outlook on the world was framed by three major events: The American and French Revolutions and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution. He never lost his belief in the power of revolution and maintained a hostility to the establishment in politics, in his art, and at prayer. He positioned himself as a man of the people. His art offers in complex ways views of the world from the perspective of the ordinary person. As often this is couched in Biblical terms it can be difficult to interpret.
Blake was an engraver, subsidising his experimental work with his commercial income. Engravers were viewed as skilled workers rather than artists and, for a long time, could not be members of the Royal Academy because that was “incompatible with justice and due regard to the dignity of the Royal Academy”. When Blake was finally admitted, he called them “a pack of Idle Sycophants”. He reserved particular venom for Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Academy, saying, “This man has been hired to depress Art”. Blake’s illuminated books are widely read particularly Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, America: A Prophecy, and Jerusalem for the unique ways they combine poetry and images.
Newton. William Blake. 1795-c1805. Tate Britain, London.
In this, perhaps Blake's most famous visual artwork, the mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton is shown drawing on a scroll with a large compass. He sits on a rock surrounded by darkness, hunched over and entirely consumed by his thoughts. The deep, consuming black surrounding Newton is generally taken to represent the bottom of the sea. It indicates his ignorance of this world. The compass is a symbol of geometry and rational order. It represents a tool and emblem of the stultifying materialism of the Enlightenment.
Blake was not against science but how it had been appropriated by the Whigs, a ruling party in 18th century Britain. They saw scientific advances not as a tool for discovery but as a way of confirming the established order of things.
For Blake, Newton was the living embodiment of mechanical rationality and reductive scientific inquiry. Isaac Newton is shown with sharp angles and straight lines are used to mark out Newton's body. This emphasises the repressive spirit of reason. The organic textures of the rock, apparently covered in algae and living organisms, represent the world of nature, where the spirit of human imagination finds its true mirror.
Blake's Isaac Newton has been the subject of numerous reproductions. In 1995, the British pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi created a large number of bronze sculptures inspired by Blake's work, including a huge sculptural homage to Blake's Newton (below). It sits outside the British Library in London.