This is an edited version of a talk given at ‘Exhibiting Blake, 1780-2020’, at The Paul Mellon Centre, London, 16 January 2018
1876 was a significant year for William Blake. It saw the appearance of a massive exhibition at The Burlington Fine Arts Club, Savile Row, a highly important organisation at the heart of London clubland. Here connoisseurs, collectors, academics, writers, members of Parliament and other representatives of polite society assembled to discuss the fine arts with artists and cultural administrators. The Burlington was an eclectic environment, at once traditional and radical. Ralph Nicolson Wornum, who had been Sir Charles Eastlake’s deputy at the National Gallery, was its secretary, but other members included leading exponents and supporters of Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism, such as the Rossetti Brothers, Ruskin, Swinburne, Whistler and the painter, engraver, poet, art teacher, and Blake collector William Bell Scott. Evidence of the inventive nature of the institution is confirmed by the extraordinary range of exhibitions it held throughout this period.
The Blake event included 333 works in different media and was accompanied by a short catalogue written by Scott and Wornum. Scott’s terse and tense introductory essay is worth examining in some detail. Caution haunts his somewhat tepid appraisal of Blake’s art; sometimes, he seems to fear the prospect that visitors to the show might find nothing but a peculiar incendiary intensity in Blake’s idiosyncratic designs; at other times, he seems worried that his assessment might give the impression that Blake’s creative energy amounts to little more than solipsism:
Writing these few… pages … is a task of some … difficulty. All the former collections brought together in these rooms have consisted of works recommended to the connoisseur by certain pleasing qualities, regarding which there was but little debate … But the name of BLAKE suggests other themes, and warns us that we must endeavour to do what is not very easily done at an hour’s notice — to enter the thought of one of the most [unusual] natures that have ever appeared in English Arts or Letters.
To a degree, Scott identifies with Blake, which is unsurprising as he produced his own versions of some of Blake’s best-known designs. Although it is never made explicit in what becomes an increasingly nervous performance, Scott implies that Blake has little control over his formal inventions. At one point he declares that Blake’s originality arose from his ignorance, a judgement that might explain his discomfort in showcasing the nature of Blake’s body-driven art:
…[T]o understand … BLAKE’S works we must, somehow or other, divest ourselves of several fixed ideas … and we must recognise… the fact that [for Blake] the human body is the standard of beauty and power, and that beside the body and the soul within it, and operating through it, there ought to be nothing of very great interest….
The implication is clear: Blake’s disturbingly intense art confirms his inability to engage with traditional models of worldliness. The key to this matter is found in the final segment of the brief essay where Scott states that, as Blake’s intellectual character ‘defeated itself’, too many of his designs confuse the relationship between ‘extreme vitality’ and ‘violence.’ In other words, Blake’s figures, at once archetypal and maniacal, express their relationship only as an insoluble antagonism.
What is at stake here is the problem about how one should respond to works that want the viewer to identify with them bodily. Visual experience itself, apparently, is something of a problem as Scott seems unable to isolate Blake’s works when they appear together. The open space of the picture gallery, Scott suggests, exacerbates the sense of restless motion in the individual designs. What he seems to describe, or intensely imagine, is an art world where the tensile strength of the body is never converted into compositional wholeness, socialised action or true human communication. With Blake, the abstract ideal of mankind, which is known through discursive reasoning, is crowded out by instinctual force, the display of raw physical power.
There were some positive reviews, however. In Macmillan’s Magazine, H. H. Statham claimed that Blake’s designs ‘form probably the most deeply interesting collection that the Burlington … has ever gathered …’ In The Academy, WM Rossetti called the exhibition an ‘extraordinary… spectacle … we see before us the most exalted, creative and solitary spirit in British art … paintings instinct with divine energy, pathos and terror…’ Nor should it be forgotten that Ford Madox Brown rallied to Blake’s defence via letters and lectures. In one way or another, these figures agreed that Blake was a beacon of the future. Nonetheless, Scott’s half-articulated assertation, that Blake’s art exemplifies a condition of neurotic restlessness, would be developed into a fully formed thesis in other influential accounts of the Burlington show.
Scott aside, the principal exponent of the view that Blake’s aesthetic inflicted violence on works of art, was the art critic John Beavington-Atkinson, best known for his writings on the history of German painting. He felt obliged to point out that as Blake was chronically defective when it came to relate pictorial form to sense cognition, his images were little more than brutalised projections of mental energies.
[A]pology must be made for Blake’s want of drawing and technical skill … his pictorial designs fail in composition and in form … [and] this touches on the … recurrent breakdown in this artist – that incongruous transit from the sublime to the ridiculous … [With Blake] the grotesque … reduces grandeur to caricature…
A variation on this theme – that the Burlington show confirms Blake’s identity as half-zealot, half-savant – was put forward by other well-placed commentators. According to Coventry Patmore, Blake produces ‘drivel’ rather than ‘consecutiveness and complexity of thought’. Hence, the Burlington show is a ‘great blow to the fame which had grown up from a haphazard acquaintance by his admirers with a few sketches or an illustrated poem… the effect of the whole collection was dejecting and unimpressive.’ For Francis Thompson, the works were ‘nearly all utter rubbish’. In his hands, Blake is made to appear at the head of a topsy-turvy system where failure is recuperated as cultural value, and where the authentic artist is replaced by the muddled or gullible consumer of his own fantasies. He continues in the same vein: ‘[Blake seems] … to have assumed a sort of voluntary madness of freedom from convention in order to make himself original.’ Blake’s individualism negates coherence: in creating his artistic identity he denies the conditions in which he might be related to, or communicate with, others. Although his images might be symbolic of trauma, they are little more than mechanisms of self-promotion, or publicity devices.
Even F. T. Palgrave, the eminent civil servant, critic, anthologist and Blake collector, who had played a modest, but important, role in the development of Blake’s reputation in the 1850s and 1860s, concluded that the Burlington show confirmed that Blake’s career was one long search for the appropriate advertising slogan. He felt obliged to inform none other than Gladstone that he, like Thompson, had come to see Blake as no more than the Patron Saint of Rebellious Posturing: ‘If you have not seen this exhibition, I think you will certainly be much interested by it: although, I confess, with pain, that the high place which Blake had held with me on the strength of a few of his works is not sustained by the sight of his collected ‘Opera.’ There is … much … sensational spiritualism, much even (I suspect) of commonplace concealed by eccentricity of manner.’
In conclusion, the Burlington show played a pivotal role in Blake’s contested legacy. For most commentators, it was a watershed moment: it confirmed the nature of a modern art world where the artist is obliged to follow a formula, to project a message – or to produce stunts. What made Blake stand out was his position at the confluence of three core strands of cultural modernity: the idea of the self-expressive image; the vision the artist as outsider, iconoclast or dedicated misfit; and the fear that the artist might be little more than the performer of something resembling self-emptying, narcissistic pleasure.