April 20, 2009 / 4:44 PM / 10 years ago

Tate recreates fateful Blake show held in 1809

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - London’s Tate Britain gallery has recreated the only solo show staged by printmaker, poet and artist William Blake 200 years ago, when it was ignored by the public and ridiculed in a single, stinging review.

A visitor to "William Blake's 1809 Exhibition" at the Tate Britain gallery views "Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels", a pen and ink and watercolour painting created in 1805, in London April 20, 2009. REUTERS/Stephen Hird

The 1809 show, held above Blake’s brother’s hosiery shop in Soho, central London, marked a turning point in the life of Blake, whose art, as opposed to his poetry, was largely overlooked until recent decades.

“The 1809 exhibition was Blake’s most significant attempt to present himself as a public artist,” curator Martin Myrone said at a press preview. “But he was damned as an idiot, as a madman, a fool.”

The sole review of the small, 16-picture show by Robert Hunt in The Examiner said:

“... the poor man fancies himself a great master, and has painted a few wretched pictures, some of which are unintelligible allegory, others an attempt at sober character by caricature representation and the whole blotted and blurred and very badly drawn.

“These he calls an Exhibition, of which he has published a Catalog, or rather a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain.”

That reaction, and the fact that so few people showed up to see his works, made Blake increasingly introverted and bitter about the state of British art.

It also influenced the way we think about Blake today, Myrone added.

“If Blake had won plaudits from the broadsheets of the time, it is hard to imagine we would rank Blake in the same way,” he said. “We expect the artist to suffer that exclusion.”

Alongside 10 of the 11 surviving works from the original exhibition on display at the Tate are paintings by contemporary artists J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Stothard which Blake had been quick to criticize.

Blake targeted Turner for his painting “The Garreteer’s Petition,” for example, writing of “the broken line, broken masses and broken colors characteristic of Rembrandt’s style.”

Several of Blake’s works in the new exhibition, including “Christ in the Sepulchre, Guarded by Angels,” were studies for what the artist hoped would end up as giant frescoes above altars in churches.

Blake, who lived from 1757 to 1827 and is now considered one of the key figures of the Romantic movement for his painting and poetry, wanted to recreate some of the great altar pieces he felt had made Italy the envy of the art world.

Myrone said critics today still struggled to interpret Blake just as they did 200 years ago.

His representation of naval hero Horatio Nelson as a semi-naked classical hero and of prime minister William Pitt as a Christ-like figure are ambiguous, possibly serious representations or caricatures.

The exhibition, part of the BP British Art Displays, will be held at the Tate Britain gallery from Monday to October 4, 2009. Admission is free.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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