Issue Number: 94
William Blake continues to exert a profound influence over modern artists and writers, says Alex Butterworth
Samuel Palmer, The Sleeping Shepherd, 1854–57.
Two-hundred-and-fifty years after his birth in 1757, William Blake still expresses the revolutionary spirit of his age with a fierce purity. A commercial engraver by trade and under constant threat of persecution for his radical sympathies, the Soho-born artist pursued his visionary exploration of the spiritual struggle for freedom to the limits of his sanity.
Is it his subversive integrity – his urge to defy all kinds of oppression – that has inspired such a following? Many of the contemporary artists and writers – including Patti Smith, Benjamin Britten and Philip Pullman – whose manuscripts are displayed alongside Blake’s in the British Library exhibition certainly share his dissident streak.
For others, such as novelist Tracy Chevalier (above), it might be the luminous character of Blake’s imagery that compels, or his ceaseless innovations in style and technique. Indeed, though much of his poetry shares a longing for pastoral innocence, it took only one sequence of his masterful wood-engravings to inspire an entire tradition of English neo-Romantic artists, from Samuel Palmer to John Minton, as an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery demonstrates.
Yet even in Blake’s idyllic creations, the canker lurks in the bud, waiting to consume innocence and imagination. Freedom is perpetually threatened: by Newtonian science, sexual prejudice or colonial occupation. So it is appropriate that Ferens Art Gallery has chosen to celebrate the coincidence of Blake’s anniversary with that of the abolition of slavery – a cause he championed. It reminds us that his unending fight against ‘mind-forged manacles’ applied both to art and life.
William Blake: Under the Influence, The British Library, London (0870 444 1500), until 21 March; Poets in the Landscape: The Romantic Spirit in British Art, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (01243 774557), 31 March–10 June; Mind-Forg’d Manacles: William Blake and Slavery, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull (01482 613902), 7 April–20 May