The best known of Blake’s works is that bit of his poem on Milton which we know as Jerusalem – the anthem of the Women’s Institute, the raucous bit of the Last Night of the Proms. And being familiar, it’s quite probable we don’t actually register the words: “And did those feet in ancient times / Walk upon England’s mountains green?” Right there you get something of the problem of Blake, that very London poet: the localism of his visions. Had Blake asked whether the Holy Lamb of God was on the pastures of Israel seen, no one would have turned a hair. But because he has the sheer effrontery to locate Christ in the dark Satanic Mills of Birmingham, he seems like a lunatic.
The reason we are thinking about him now is of course the big new exhibition on Blake at Tate Britain, reviewed on p29. It shows more than 300 of his works, and usefully reminds us of his perfectly respectable upbringing in Broad Street. Soho, in his father’s hosiery shop, and his perfectly conventional artistic formation at the Royal Academy.
Blake’s religion is of course touched on – you cannot actually engage with him without discussing it. There is an allusion to his frequent visions (his expression in one famous portrait is attributable to having just seen the Archangel Gabriel). But the exhibition lets his distinctive beliefs speak through his works. Yet there is no escaping the reality that, as the author Peter Ackroyd points out, William Blake was the last truly religious artist in Britain.
He was a Swedenborgian. His mother, like Swedenborg (himself a visionary), was a member of the Moravian Church. Many of Blake’s ideas about sex as a route to the divine seemed to have come from just this source. It’s hard not to enjoy the recollection of one of his patrons who called on the Blakes in Kennington only to find them sitting naked in their garden. Blake chirruped hospitably: “Come in! It’s only Adam and Eve, you know.”
We are told in Scripture that “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” (Acts 2:17). Blake saw visions when he was only a little boy. He came home to tell his mother he had seen the prophet Ezekiel in Peckham sitting under a tree, and his mother smacked him. These vision were an aspect of his life which critics today prefer to gloss over, and would probably be glad to attribute to epilepsy or a neurological condition. But Blake had no inhibitions in discussing them. No sooner had his engraving master sent him to Westminster Abbey to draw the monuments than he saw Christ followed by a troupe of angels. GK Chesterton put it thus:
“There was nothing of the obviously fervid and futile about Blake’s supernaturalism. It was not his frenzy but his coolness that was startling. From his first meeting with Ezekiel under the tree he always talked of such spirits in an everyday intonation. There was plenty of pompous supernaturalism in the 18th century; but Blake’s was the only natural supernaturalism. Many reputable persons reported miracles; he only mentioned them. He spoke of having met Isaiah or Queen Elizabeth, not so much even as if the fact were indisputable, but rather as if so simple a thing were not worth disputing. Kings and prophets came from heaven or hell to sit to him, and he complained of them quite casually, as if they were rather troublesome professional models. There have been other witnesses to the supernatural even more convincing, but I think there was never any other quite so calm.”
Interestingly, Blake only once saw a ghost, and fled from it in terror; he was quite clear about the distinction between the two. And he was perfectly frank about the link between his visions and his art: he saw (I think) the famous figure of the Ancient of Days in his house in Lambeth.
And there we find the problem. Blake had no difficulty seeing the prophets, angels and archangels and the deceased great figures of history in perfectly commonplace parts of London. For us, schooled to think of post-Reformation England as a place from which visions and miracles disappeared with the advent of Protestantism, Blake’s visions in Broad Street and Piccadilly are both startling and incongruous. Similarly, he had no difficulty in treating the politicians and military people of his own day as potential saints. In this exhibition we see a projection on to the walls of St James’s Church in Piccadilly of his planned enormous frescoes of The Spiritual Form of Nelson guiding Leviathan or The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth. The fact that we find the very idea funny may be less to Blake’s detriment than ours.
Melanie McDonagh works for the London Evening Standard
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