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Everything Is Illuminated

False revolution: William Blake at the Tate Britain

The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan, a painting by William Blake, c.1805-1809 .

At the turn of the nineteenth century, the publisher and bookseller William Faden was well known in London for his printing of maps. His first work of note was the North American Atlas in 1777; its success, and that of later projects, allowed him to hire a larger and more skilled crew of artists to make ever more elaborately illustrated books. It was fitting, then, that when the newly established Ordnance Survey, an agency dedicated to mapping the entirety of Great Britain at a scale of one inch to one mile, sought a publisher for its first map, which depicted the county of Kent, they chose Faden.

Why was such a map needed? The presenting issue was military: the threat of a French invasion loomed—which is why mapping began in the country’s southeast. The first serious calls for a scientific mapping of Britain had come a generation earlier, from British soldiers frustrated by their inability to navigate the convoluted landscapes of the Scottish Highlands well enough to fight the rebels supporting the cause of the Young Pretender to the British throne, Charles Stuart. But perhaps deeper than the demands of the military was a sense that, in an age supposedly seeking Enlightenment, the world should be made legible, open to all eyes, measured and fixed. A similar mapping project in France underlay the idea, much loved by some leaders of the French Revolution, to ignore the irregular and peculiar geographical divisions of the country and replace them with a series of squares.

As Rachel Hewitt explains in her fine book Map of a Nation, the men of the Ordnance Survey used the most precise instruments of their time—especially the theodolites designed by the brilliant but maddeningly meticulous instrument-maker Jesse Ramsden—to record the key features of the British landscape, information which draftsmen in the Ordnance’s offices at the Tower of London then turned into detailed maps. But while the leader of the Survey, William Mudge, was a military man, he also wanted the information recorded to be made public, available to anyone who had the money to purchase it; and thus he turned to Faden.

It would be decades before Ordnance Survey maps were made affordable, because the process of creating them was so complex and labor-intensive. In his shop at 6 Charing Cross, Faden employed a crew of highly skilled engravers, who would prepare copper plates, coat them with wax, etch into the copper with a burin, cover the engraved area with ink, and then, with a heavy roller press, transfer the image to paper. (You can watch a brief video about copperplate engraving, featuring Andrew Stein Raftery of the Rhode Island School of Design, here.) Such a workshop could be a crowded and busy place. Faden and his engravers worked away, map by map, exposing to the world the instrument-guaranteed topography of an island whose shapes and forms had always been subject to impression, rumor, and myth.

Meanwhile, a half-hour’s walk away, across the Thames in Lambeth, an artist named William Blake and his wife, Catherine, had been working away for a decade with precisely the same engraving tools—copper and wax, burin and press—to produce a radically alternative topography, an anti-geometric mapping of the spiritual world. (In the last years of his life, Blake lived in what was then called Fountain Court, off the Strand, ten minutes or so from Faden’s shop.) The Blakes’ house and Faden’s workshop are matter and antimatter, absolute contraries. But as Blake himself said, “Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.”

In December I went to London to see the largest exhibition of Blake’s work in a generation, at the Tate Britain, a short walk from Lambeth Bridge. I found it fascinating but also disappointing—disappointing for two reasons.

The first reason is simply this: in his long career as an artist, Blake produced very few works that were meant to be hung on walls. His chief productions are what he called “illuminated books,” with images and text alike engraved by him and then colored using a unique process that he developed over time. The artist and historian Michael Phillips has closely studied and meticulously reproduced Blake’s technique, as can be seen in this video. Watching Phillips at work, one cannot help being struck by the process’s complexity and physicality: the way the printmaker must alternate the most delicate of motions—minutely adjusting the copper plate while holding the burin firmly against it, then dabbing gently at the engraved plate with an inked leather pad—with the hard pulling on the crank of the press. And then delicacy is required once more with the coloring of the images, which, contemporaries reported, Blake’s wife, Catherine, did with great skill and grace. One peculiarity of these works—impossible to represent in a show such as the Tate’s—arises from Blake’s habit of keeping his engraved plates around and, as the years passed, developing varying ideas about how they should be colored. The same engraving could have significantly different emotional connotations depending on whether Blake was in the mood to use the pastels that characterize some of his work or the deep, dark reds and browns and ochers that at other times seemed right to him. (It is difficult to know whether Catherine shared the decision-making in these matters or just carried out her husband’s instructions.)

All this was typically done on a small scale: many of the prints displayed at the exhibition are five-by-seven inches or even smaller, which, when they’re presented on walls or in glass cases, makes for an awkward experience in a full room (and when I was there, the rooms of the exhibition were quite full). Often in a museum people gather in a semicircle around a painting; here, you could only really see one of Blake’s prints by getting close enough to it that no one else could view it at the same time.

The second problem with this exhibition was its creators’ insistence on portraying Blake—so the YouTube trailer for the exhibition tells us—as a


Well, yes and no. Blake spent a good deal of time in the company of political radicals and probably shared many of their political views, but his tendency to what he called “Nervous Fear” kept him relatively quiet in public about such matters. And if he ever doubted that political discretion is the better part of valor, doubt would have been banished when, during the brief period he was living outside London, in a cottage in Sussex near the sea, he was accused by a British soldier named Scofield of sedition and brought to trial. (It is noteworthy, for my narrative of contraries, that the only time Blake lived outside London was the very period when Faden commenced his work for the Ordnance Survey.) As Blake told it, Scofield, a feckless and ornery type who had already been reduced in rank for his indiscretions, wandered into Blake’s garden one day and refused to leave, in response to which the artist—middle-aged and short, but strongly built and of a tempestuous nature—promptly frog-marched him down the road and deposited him unceremoniously in a pub. An embarrassed and aggrieved Scofield then accused Blake of making seditious comments about King George III, and while Blake was readily acquitted—other people who heard the whole dispute declared that Blake had said nothing about the king, or about politics at all—he was profoundly shaken by this encounter with the law. His best biographer, Peter Ackroyd, calls the Scofield affair “the gravest crisis of his life” and contends that “the effect of the trial stayed with him for the rest of his life.”

This experience so shook him because he did not perceive it as simply a “political” or “legal” matter in the ways that we might comprehend those terms. For him, the political was shot through with spiritual energies, both for good and ill. The Scofield incident was to Blake a sign that vast forces—what Saint Paul called the “principalities and powers”—were arrayed against him. The visitor to the Tate’s exhibition could get a sense of this by looking at two paintings of contemporary political figures, the prime minister William Pitt the Younger and Admiral Lord Nelson. But this is inaccurate—Blake does not portray Pitt and Nelson. Instead he gives us works he calls The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth and The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan—Behemoth and Leviathan being two forbidding creatures that, at the end of the book of Job, the Lord God celebrates having made. Anyone could see Pitt or Nelson; only a visionary such as Blake could see their spiritual forms, their power on a plane of being other than what the mortal eye can see. For Blake was a visionary not in the metaphorical sense with which we typically deploy that term: all his life he actually saw visions. Angels in a tree on Peckham Rye, the spirit of a flea manifesting before him in his sitting room—these were his common companions. And after his death, Catherine said that she sat and conversed with his spirit for several hours a day and that she could make no significant decision without first consulting Mr. Blake.

Among the few works Blake made that might properly go on the walls of a museum is a Vision of the Last Judgement, which he may or may not have completed and is, in any case, lost. Of this painting Blake wrote,

If the Spectator could enter into these Images in his Imagination approaching them on the Fiery Chariot of his Contemplative Thought if he could Enter into Noahs Rainbow or into his bosom or could make a Friend & Companion of one of these Images of wonder which always intreats him to leave mortal things as he must know then would he arise from his grave then would he meet the Lord in the Air & then he would be happy.

Then would he meet the Lord in the air, and then he would be happy. These are indeed the words of a “REBEL, RADICAL, REVOLUTIONARY”—but not in any sense readily comprehensible to a viewer today. A note on one wall of the exhibition tells us that Blake was deeply interested in “politics and identity,” and indeed he was; but he understood both politics and identity in ways wholly alien to our moment.

To their credit, I suppose, the curators are quite explicit about their disregard of this side, the “meet the Lord in the air” side, of Blake’s imagination, though in a very important sense it is the only side of Blake’s imagination. In the introduction to the exhibition catalogue, Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon acknowledge that Blake has been widely appropriated for pop-cultural and commercial purposes. As a relatively early example—offered by Leo Damrosch in his excellent guide to Blake, Eternity’s SunriseLee Lawrie’s relief sculpture Wisdom, poised over the entrance to 30 Rockefeller Plaza, in New York, is a straightforward appropriation of Blake’s famous etching The Ancient of Days. As Damrosch points out, this is Blake’s work with “the ambiguity left out,” which allows an originally complex image to adorn a temple of commerce. About this kind of thing Myrone writes, with a candor I find slightly distressing,

It is precisely Blake’s association with creative freedom, his perceived resonance with the array of socio-economic types identified by media teams and marketeers, that has had to be embraced to justify the time, money and energy expended on putting together a show of an eighteenth-century British artist when such historical figures risk being disregarded in the context of “the current head-long rush towards the contemporary and the concomitant celebration of the products of a now fully globalized art market.”

The quotation in this passage is from the Marxist art critic Warren Carter: Myrone notes the Marxist critique of the commodification of art even as he and the other exhibit curators embrace that commodification as the very circumstance that makes an exhibition like this one possible. Exit through the gift shop, please.

Myrone attempts to reestablish his art-critical bona fides by going on to say that “the approach taken there is determinedly historicist and materialist”—though not materialist enough to reckon seriously with the mismatch, already noted, between Blake as a maker of illuminated books and the modern museum as a set of walls to hang things on. But if being historicist and materialist is at least in aspiration reconcilable with embracing Blake’s status as an icon of what “media teams and marketeers” call creativity, Blake’s religious passions apparently are not. You could read through the entire catalogue without ever grasping the centrality of visionary experience to Blake’s mind and life, without understanding that he would have thought a “historicist and materialist” approach to his work as misbegotten as an approach could possibly be. Myrone writes, “Blake was able to negotiate an oppositional stance towards empire,” which is true. But here one should ask, Which empire?

Blake’s description of Vision of the Last Judgement may be found in the catalogue of his work he produced for an exhibition he put together in 1809—an exhibition that failed utterly. Hardly anyone came to see it. Blake knew that his visionary experiences, and his attempts to render them in art, were out of keeping with the character of his age, which led him him to write in that catalogue, “A spirit and a Vision are not, as the modern philosophy supposes, a cloudy vapour or a nothing: they are organized and minutely articulated beyond all that the mortal and perishing nature can produce. He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing mortal eye can see does not imagine at all.” Blake would have found the account of his work given by the Tate’s curators lamentably attentive to what is “perishing” while oblivious to the imperishable. But nothing about that description would have surprised him, because he was accustomed to being misunderstood. One may think Blake mistaken in his passions, or even mad—many of his contemporaries, including William Wordsworth, thought him mad—but it is worth knowing what he actually thought. Once he wrote to a friend, “What it will be Questioned When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

One wall of the Tate Britain exhibition displays two famous images. The first is his portrayal of Isaac Newton—tautly muscled, gloriously beautiful, applying his compasses to paper, but also turning his back on the irregular complexities of the natural world. Indeed, his own beauty exemplifies those complexities: he has been made by a God whose preferences in geometry are quite different from Newton’s own. A human body is proportionate and exhibits bilateral symmetry, but, the circle Leonardo drew around his Vitruvian Man notwithstanding, you can’t do figure drawing, or even sketch a pile of rocks, with a compass. Newton preferred regularity to irregularity, simplicity to complexity, but that preference took him away from reality. As Blake writes in the poem “Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau,”

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.

Blake’s Newton is angelic in appearance but is on his way to becoming a fallen angel: his glory, like that of Milton’s Satan, will become diminished, because he has turned from the Ultimate Source of reality to bow down before something of his own making. This is idolatry; this is also a kind of madness. One of the key figures in Blake’s mythology, Urizen, a great maker but one who makes in order to control, also wields a compass. Blake once wrote in a notebook, “If you have formed a circle to go into, / Go into it yourself and see how you would do.”

Therefore it is fitting that this exhibition juxtaposes the image of Newton with another of the same size and with an almost identical composition: Nebuchadnezzar. This illustration comes from the fourth chapter of the book of Daniel:

There fell a voice from heaven, saying, O king Nebuchadnezzar, to thee it is spoken; The kingdom is departed from thee. And they shall drive thee from men, and thy dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field: they shall make thee to eat grass as oxen, and seven times shall pass over thee, until thou know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever so he will. The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.

Thus the penalty intrinsic to idolatry. Newton: beware.

With these reservations about the exhibition and its official interpreters noted, it is pleasant and comforting to acknowledge that the accompanying catalogue is informative, and its dozens of color plates ravishingly beautiful. A number of images are reproduced at their full size, and a few even larger. To observe them closely at leisure, in a form—the codex book—for which Blake created them, seems something like a miracle after the time I spent trying to peer around the heads of people who were themselves peering at images they dared not get close enough to see clearly.

The essays that accompany the gorgeous images vary in quality—there is an excellent text by Myrone on the development of Blake’s workshop and technique—but they generally take some pains to avoid confronting Blake’s visionary experiences. At one point, Myrone writes, “When late in life Blake told the journalist Henry Crabb Robinson of his choice of the life of the artist, he represented it in visionary terms: ‘The spirit said to him “Blake be an artist & nothing else.”’’” But as the quote clearly indicates, Blake wasn’t “representing” a “choice”: he didn’t think his career as an artist was a choice, but rather than it was obedience to a divine command. Clearly finding the whole business embarrassing, Myrone follows this by insisting that “we don’t need recourse to the language of imagination” to explain Blake’s peculiar career. Maybe not; but Blake himself did, with the proviso that he understood imagination in a far more robust sense than we do—as images of the infinite given by the divine.

Given the emphases of the catalogue as a whole, it is good to find an afterword by Alan Moore, the comics artist and dark mystic. Moore understands what is really going on in The Ancient of Days (a “windswept creator” making “moral measurements”) and the image of Newton (“the celebrated scientist and chief designer of the stock market [who] binds all existence in an arc of regimented rationality”): which is to say, Moore grasps that Blake’s critique extends beyond “conventional religion” (though certainly Blake had no patience with that) and to the whole developing apparatus of commerce, politics, and Newtonian science. Blake once wrote of the idea of rational religion, that in such a scheme “the same dull round even of a univer[s]e would soon become a mill with complicated wheels.”

When those predecessors to the Ordnance Survey sought to map the Highlands, they looked for help from Charles Mason, who had worked with Jeremiah Dixon to map a part of North America that had been subject to a border dispute among some of Britain’s colonies. Mason at first agreed, and then backed out, leaving the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne, to do some of the more strenuous work himself. But Mason’s name doesn’t appear here in vain. In Thomas Pynchon’s great novel Mason & Dixon, the narrator, the Reverend Wicks Cherrycoke, explains what is at stake in such mapping:

Does Britannia, when she sleeps, dream? Is America her dream?—in which all that cannot pass in the metropolitan Wakefulness is allow’d Expression away in the restless Slumber of these Provinces, and on West-ward, wherever ’tis not yet mapp’d, nor written down, nor ever, by the majority of Mankind, seen,—serving as a very Rubbish-Tip for subjunctive Hopes, for all that may yet be true,—Earthly Paradise, Fountain of Youth, Realms of Prester John, Christ’s Kingdom, ever behind the sunset, safe til the next Territory to the West be seen and recorded, measur’d and tied in, back into the Net-Work of Points already known, that slowly triangulates its Way into the Continent, changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,—winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.

Blake perceived these matters just so. What he feared, and sought through his art to overcome, was a mechanistic model of thought that eliminates the subjunctive in favor of the declarative and reduces a world of (spiritual) Possibilities to (material) Simplicities that serve the ends of all governments, including those which would govern art itself by putting it in the safe context of a walled museum. They all together are but building “a mill with complicated wheels.”

In February of 1920, T. S. Eliot published in the Athenaeum an essay on Blake which gets at something that the Tate Britain’s exhibition tried assiduously, with only partial success, to obscure:

Blake . . . knew what interested him, and he therefore presents only the essential, only, in fact, what can be presented, and need not be explained. And because he was not distracted, or frightened, or occupied in anything but exact statement, he understood. He was naked, and saw man naked, and from the centre of his own crystal. To him there was no more reason why Swedenborg should be absurd than Locke. He accepted Swedenborg, and eventually rejected him, for reasons of his own. He approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions. There was nothing of the superior person about him. This makes him terrifying.

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