Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

William Blake, artist in Paradise

Fine Arts

"The Virgin Hushing the Young John the Baptist" (1799) by William Blake. Pen and ink and tempera on paper on linen, laid down on canvas. Signed with monogram and dated 1799 at lower left. Photo: Courtesy The William Blake Gallery
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Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? – William Blake

The first stanza of "The Tyger," a poem by the late-18th/early-19th century English Romantic poet, painter and printmaker William Blake published in 1794, is one of the most famous in the English language. Blake, the progenitor of the livre d'artiste, who created hundreds of innovative engraved illustrations, original writings, watercolors, and illuminated books exquisitely hand-colored and heightened with gold, at last has a gallery dedicated to him. It's the only one of its kind since he launched his own in 1809, an unsuccessful venture that failed to sell a single work and closed after only a year. One wag pronounced the contents of its catalogue "the wild effusions of a distempered brain."

"I must be stark raving mad, too," concedes antiquarian book dealer John Windle, owner of The William Blake Gallery, which opened on the second floor of 49 Geary in San Francisco last month. Windle, a 40-year veteran of the book trade, also runs the Blake Library and a shop specializing in medieval illuminated texts and illustrated books, and children's books, just a few steps away from his newest venture. With perhaps the largest collection of Blake available for purchase and clients from around the world, from students offering up $5 for a pocket Blake to venture capitalists willing to drop $100 million, the place has the comforting feel of an old study lined with treasured volumes and rare artistic finds. "Blake was a visionary who saw how to create art that had never been created before, and the first man in the history of Western art to combine art and craft," says Windle.

"The Death of the Strong Wicked Man"by William Blake, from Blake's illustrations for Robert Blair's The Grave (London: Cadell and Davies, 1808). Single plate, etching on wove unwatermarked paper. Photo: Courtesy The William Blake Gallery

Blake's mystical visions and the rueful wit and wisdom of his words have inspired innumerable scholarly books and studies, influenced everyone from the Romantic poets, the Transcendentalists and the Beats to commercial advertisers, and still cast a spell on viewers three centuries later.

Blake, the man, was a creature of dualities. Though the subject matter of his powerful imagery could be religious in nature, he staunchly opposed organized religion and never set foot in a church; his spirituality was all-embracing, not judgmental; his politics, inspired by the American and French Revolutions, were radical; his goal was no less than the redemption of a woefully flawed human race; and he was a proponent of free love.

Always in Paradise: A William Blake Chrestomathy, the gallery's inaugural exhibition, is one of several shows that will draw from the collection in coming months. Among the works is a pristine suite of 22 plates, issued in 1825/26, of The Book of Job, described by Windle as "arguably the greatest engraved book in English artistic history"; "The Complaint of Job" (ca. 1785), a rare preparatory ink sketch conveying the suffering of a ghostly white, inconsolable Job and his wife, his weeping friends kneeling beside them; and tortured illustrations to Dante's Inferno (1838), a project for which Blake taught himself Italian but never completed. Working from 102 pencil sketches and watercolors he had created for The Divine Comedy, the seven unfinished copper engravings here include "The Circle of the Lustful; Paolo and Francesca," where tormented souls, trapped by a fate they cannot escape, are ferried downriver to their destiny.

The exhibit's only color image, the splendid, remarkably well-preserved "The Virgin Hushing the Young John the Baptist" (1799), is part of a commission for 50 pen-and-ink tempera paintings, of which only 30 survive. In a style influenced by early Renaissance panel paintings, the golden figures of the Virgin Mary, the Christ child sleeping near her and an impish John glowing in the foreground are contrasted with a dramatic crimson backdrop. Lush in comparison to the starkness of some of his prints and done in an experimental technique the artist called "portable fresco," it combines the linear clarity of watercolor with the density of an oil painting.

Modeled on a medieval emblem book, the tiny intaglio etchings that comprise For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise (ca. 1825) depict the arc of human life from womb to grave and the various emotional states in-between. Some are inscribed with aphorisms, others with a single word: Earth, Water, Air, Death's Door, etc. But a pair of prints from the series seems particularly emblematic of Blake's idiosyncratic cast of mind. In one, a man on the edge of the planet mounts an impossibly tall ladder, attempting to scale a crescent moon in the night sky, with the inscription: "I want! I want!" while the text accompanying the next image, a fellow in the final desperate throes of drowning in choppy waters, reads: "Help! Help! So much for Robert Browning's musing, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp," when climbing a stairway to the stars is a ticket to oblivion.

According to Windle, Blake couldn't sell his work during his lifetime and was constantly broke. He died in "genteel" poverty and would have languished in obscurity if not for his rediscovery by the Pre-Raphaelites in the 1860s. But the reasons for his enduring appeal run deep. "Blake's ability to connect to the infinite, to the spiritual, and to transcend time gets into people and they don't even know it has happened," he says. "There's nothing like him."


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