William Blake review: a strangely utilitarian portrait of a visionary

William Blake lies in Bunhill Fields cemetery in London, a couple of hundred yards away from the Catholic Herald’s office. His grave was recently rediscovered, and a new memorial stone laid a year ago, bearing lines from his poem Jerusalem. Touchingly, there is always a vase of freshly cut flowers at his grave.

The new exhibition at Tate Britain, the largest in nearly 20 years, features more than 300 of his paintings and prints. By trade William Blake was an engraver, by talent an artist and poet. He was deeply spiritual, more leftfield than orthodox; his mother attended the Moravian Church, and he was also influenced by the mystical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Although he is known for his esoteric paintings, many in this exhibition cover traditional religious topics: the Crucifixion, the conversion of Saul, Moses striking the rock.

Many of Blake’s engravings were illustrations for books or poems, both his own and other people’s, including Thomas Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. His own books, such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Songs of Innocence and of Experience, were all individual copies, hand-coloured by himself or his wife, Catherine. Considering their size, the books themselves and individual pages from them are well displayed at the Tate – and plastic magnifiers are provided to help see the detail.

Blake continues to inspire both writers and artists today, and is co-opted by a wide range of radical political, social and spiritual causes. But oddly, the visionary aspect of his work is barely mentioned in this exhibition. Instead it roots Blake in his own time; the focus throughout is on his relationship with his financial supporters. Although this helps us see him as a struggling artist, it seems a strangely utilitarian approach, ignoring the content of Blake’s work, his motivations, his drives, his beliefs: why he created the amazing works that he did.

Falling out with his supporters, and at odds with the London art world, Blake struggled for some years. But in the last decade of his life (he died in 1827, aged 69) he was taken up by a group of young artists who were largely responsible for creating our image of him as a Romantic genius. He worked on two series of astonishingly powerful illustrations, for Dante’s The Divine Comedy and The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, who is buried in the same cemetery as Blake. The latter series is rarely seen and is displayed prominently in the exhibition.

Blake’s final book, which took 17 years of work, was Jerusalem – The Emanation of the Giant Albion. Above the display of its pages are comments from critics, including this rather backhanded assessment: “We dare say they may be fine; but they are also too sublime for our comprehension.”

Despite its odd framework, this is a wonderfully comprehensive exhibition, enabling us to see so many of Blake’s works, both familiar and rare, close up.

William Blake is at Tate Britain, London, until February 2, 2020