“And there, right in the middle of his life, is this machine: this large, lumping, huge, wooden, heavy machine with its great star wheel that takes enormous pressure to turn and it creaks like a sailing ship and is absolutely at the centre of his life.”
So says Michael Phillips, the curator of ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ (Ashmolean, until March 1st). And right in the middle of the exhibition, inside a detailed reconstruction of Blake’s study, looms the great machine, a reproduction of the copper-plate press Blake used to create his stunningly and painstakingly illustrated books. This exhibition is a quietly radical re-evaluation of William Blake, who is often written and talked about as an artist, a writer, an intellectual, a man who struggled with mental illness, but almost never as a craftsman.
The exhibition elegantly presents a large number of Blake’s works in chronological order, using contemporary writings and paintings together with his own correspondence to provide context. His biography and the spirit of the time are made to inform our viewing of his art, and vice-versa. A huge number of loans to the Ashmolean have made it possible to display many of the most famous of Blake’s works (the Ancient of Days, Newton, two copies of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience), but there are rich selections from the less well-known prophetic books too, as well as works in media other than copper-plate printing, like the woodcuts of Virgil’s Pastorals.
But, as its title suggests, the central focus of the exhibition is Blake’s development as a technician, from his apprenticeship under James Basire through the years at the Royal Academy, his career, ambition, and technical breakthroughs in copper-plate printing. This new approach to Blake allows us to consider his life and work without letting the eccentricities of his life and thought dominate. It’s the story of a man honing his craft over a long career, and it turns out that this story is the perfect starting-point from which to consider his poetry and his radical ideas. The link between the craft and the philosophy is made most strongly in one striking corner of the exhibition, where we are told about Blake’s innovation of ‘painting’ with varnish on the metal surface, which allowed him to draw the positive (i.e. inked-in) forms, while letting the acid eat away what would become the negative (empty) spaces. Then we are presented with an excerpt from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
“This I shall do by printing in the infernal method by corrosives, which in Hell are salutory and medicinal, melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.”
Michael Phillips, an expert in Blake’s printing methods, has triumphantly recast the artist’s story, giving the fantastical work of this difficult genius a “human heart”. You must see this exhibition. Please, go. GO! It’s free with your Bod Card. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to catch Michael Phillips outside afterwards, to discuss Blake’s life and work with him. You may be able to watch him demonstrate on a replica press, or simply—as I did—thank him for this exquisite exhibition. I give him the last word:
“He’s not a Shelley, or a Wordsworth or a Keats, with a fine quill pen and ethereal thoughts, staring up to heaven and glancing through his manuscripts and leisurely leaning back and contemplating what he’s written and then passing it to his publisher to print it into press. Blake is a mechanic … he was enormously strong, enormously powerful, yet the creator of these extraordinary ideas and these extraordinary poems that go right to the quick of our imagination, of our heartthrob as human beings.”