William Blake ‘The Master’s Eyelash’ at Ashmolean, Oxford. Part 1

Michael Phillips attention to detail is such that he said the bristle from a brush he found on a Blake print in an American collection might have been one of Blake’s eyelashes, then he extemporised, “Wouldn’t it be good? They could then extract DNA from it and behold, LITTLE NEW BILLY BLAKES!” Am not sure if they let even one more William Blake loose in the modern world it would be a good thing? I think the one and only did leave enough for us to ponder upon ad infinitum, and we still won’t squeeze it dry of the Inspiration & Imagination the great man passed down to those of us willing to try to walk the path awhile with him. And as all who have trodden the path all know Blake is both hard to understand and greatly mis-represented but for those who walk with him and his spirits of fleas and Albion the path is full of surprising little miracles and revelations. Phillips has walked a long way with Blake and has found out a great deal about the master’s methods which in turn he is keen to pass on to us lesser mortals. For myself I am willing to drive to London or Oxford to hear him and watch him demonstrate Blake’s techniques because I believe an artist learns more by ‘doing’ than just watching. Ever since I caught the Art-Bug aged about 17 in the late 1960’s I have always created art of my own and made my own paltry attempts at ‘writing’. My efforts opened many doors for me and one day my own ‘doors of perception’ may be flung wide open too. One man in the audience asked Michael why folk like The Door’s Jim Morrison didn’t know about Blake being the source of Huxley’s quote about the doors of perception, which I think belittles the Door’s frontman unnecessarily as he too wished to be seen as a poet of note and is by some. http://zoamorphosis.com/2011/03/how-much-did-jim-morrison-know-about-william-blake/ The reason for the link to Huxley was because Aldous was known to have taken some hallucinogenic substance (of which Blake also almost certainly partook?) and written a vivid account of his experiences whilst LSD etc were in vogue when Morrison was writing his lyrics for the Doors. http://healthland.time.com/2012/01/24/magic-mushrooms-expand-the-mind-by-dampening-brain-activity/ the American erstwhile Punk princess Patti Smith too is a great fan of Blake as she recounted and demonstrated when she read and sang some of his poems along with her own at an Annual lecture of the Blake Society.

michael phillipshands

I have been going to Exhibitions like the massive show at Tate (now Britain) in 1978 and this exhibition for me equals if not betters that show with its scope. I’m no aficionado and there’s much I need to read in his own write and about him but this exhibition is the best I’ve seen on Blake. Phillip’s insights grounded in his working knowledge of Blake’s printing techniques underpin the theme of this literally wonder-full show which both informed me and clarified some things and has led to a breakthrough in my understanding of Blake.

It has to be said that the first room of the show seemed dull to me but it became apparent that it was there to illustrate the feel of the time when Blake entered the hands of Benjamin Malkin who, in the spirit of the recently formed Society of Arts, opened doors for Blake the son of man from ‘the middle ranks, a hosier’. He entered the Par’s school of drawing in 1767 whilst still only 10 years old and was encouraged to attend auctions at Langford & Christies and view the works ‘to become familiar with the different styles of the recognised masters of the day’ (like Durer’s engravings). Blake also collected books and prints cheaply and was attracted to satirical books printed in unorthodox styles like George Townshend’s ‘Political & Social History Of 1756-7’. Although the norm was to print words and images in separate process he probably decided, early on, that he wished to print word (letterpress) & image (engraving or etching) at the same time in one pull/take.

 press

The next room sees Blake taken on for an apprenticeship by James Basire in 1772 where he learned the ‘Secrets’ of the engravers’ techniques, the tricks of the profession and saw pencil copies from Raphael & Michelangelo that his master had done in the Sistine chapel & St Pauls.

By 1783 Blake’s first letterpress book of poems revealed his ‘absorption in …the bible, Shakespeare, Jonson & Milton’. Blake indicated early on that he was not afraid of courting controversy and challenging society norms when he empathised with the disgraced poet Chatterton, whose had tried to pass off some of his own compositions as 15th century poems before taking his own life thinking his pursuit of recognition was in vain.

Basire sent him to draw the tombs and sculptures of dignities in Westminster Abbey which were then printed and we see some of the results in this show. He would have been allowed to peruse illuminated manuscripts in the Abbey. Blake learned to write backwards/words with facility like the engravers of his day and the exhibition shows his delicate effort to move from individual letters to cursive style. He learned to master both engraving & etching but that was not the end of it. He created a form of printing totally original to himself so that he could put his words and images onto one plate and print it with one pull. (Phillips is going to be demonstrating these techniques at the Ashmolean on Tuesday thru Thursday 9-11th December {check times} on a press similar to the one Blake would have used. His demos are very insight-full!)

michael phillips

This was probably because for Blake print was only a means to an end, the end being to get over his thoughts, ideas and dreams, whereas most others in the print trade were craftsmen paid to do the work of others. Blake called his new method Illuminated Printing not only in a nod toward the Illuminated manuscript but also, as Phillips pointed out, because of his use of pure pigment and the type of paper he used which allowed his early books to reflect light through the inks not just back off them thus giving a look of illuminated light, much as we see on the computer screen nowadays.

Blake sucked in ideas from all the sources he revered and his fertile imagination kept on developing both him and his ideas as his own personal view and vision grew exponentially along with his consummate skill. Because he was not from an aristocratic or high society background fashions had no hold on him and he would not conform his ideas to suit anyone. He was a grafter who came from a working class tradition of dedication to task yet he had been allowed in to a world of the privileged and on entering it had the penetrative eye of somebody untamed by societal convention and expectation. Blake, like Leonardo, was to experiment with methods of creating his imagery throughout his life. Unlike that other Renaissance master, Michaelangelo, Blake could draw the female form with consummate skill showing slenderness and grace.

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There is still much more to say about the Ashmolean show, the things it has re-awakened in me and also inspired but for the sake of you who have only limited time to peruse blogs I shall finish here and continue this Blakean piece in my next blArt! If you wish to see the next installment just hit the ‘follow’ button and you’ll be sent notification when i post it. Namaste.

and a big thanks to all the folks who have already ‘liked’ this post, the best is yet to come (I think)

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