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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 441-445
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William Blake, Tate Britain (9 November 2000-11 February 2001), Robyn Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, curators. Robyn Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, eds. William Blake (London: Tate Publications, 2000). Pp. 301. 250 illus. £29.99. Michael Phillips, William Blake: The Creation of the Songs From Manuscript to Illuminated Printing (London: The British Library, 2000). Pp. xi + 180. 36 figures + 72 plates. $55.00 cloth; $29.95 softcover.
On 9 June 1818, responding to a question about the illuminated books and individual color prints he had produced during the 1790s, William Blake wrote his correspondent, "The few I have Printed & Sold are sufficient to have gained me great reputation as a Artist, which was the chief thing I intended." Although Blake did not enjoy that reputation during his life, the exhibit and books under review here demonstrate how fully he deserved it. Blake no doubt would have taken great pride in what he would have seen as the Tate Britain's appropriate choice of his career and works as the first major exhibit marking the evolution of the former Tate Gallery into the Tate Britain, still housed in the old building on the northwest side of the Thames, and the newly opened Tate Modern, opened this year in a redesigned power plant on the southeast side.
And a very major exhibit it is. With more than 500 separate items from 45 international sources, this is the largest Blake exhibit ever offered anywhere. Just under half the items in the Tate Britain exhibit will be on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, from 27 March to 24 June 2001. In addition to the curators, contributors to the catalogue entries include Christine Riding, David Blayney Brown, Elizabeth Barker, Ian Warrell, Lizzy Carey-Thomas, Martin Postle, Martin Myrone, and Noa Cahaner McManus. The catalogue is introduced by Peter Ackroyd's brief "William Blake: The Man" and Marilyn Butler's longer "Blake in His Time," both of which will reward both general and scholarly readers. Despite the exhibit's overall size, however, because of its strategic conception and tactical presentation it does not overwhelm the viewer. Without denying Blake's creative genius and originality, Hamlyn and Phillips present [End Page 441] us with Blake the romantic artist, one concerned with the past and tradition, which he freely revises and appropriates for his own present ends, and with Blake the man of his times, very much engaged with his economic, political, social, and religious contexts, rather than with Blake the Romantic figure of isolated idiosyncracy located in the visionary company of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats. To be sure, some attention is paid to the vatic, prophetic Blake celebrated by many literary critics, and some attention, especially by Hamlyn, is also given to Blake's myth-making. And similarities between Blake's definition of the role of the imagination and those of Coleridge and Keats are rightly noted. But textual exegesis never threatens to submerge the visual pleasures of the art. The exhibit successfully represents the range of Blake's activities as an illustrator, painter, engraver, printmaker, and poet. The curators' strategy reflects the recent growing interest in Blake as a historical figure as well as a technical innovator, an artist as much as a writer, and a pragmatist as much as a dreamer. As Butler notes, "The notion of the Romantic Blake has done him a disservice by making him too eccentric and too private, as though dwelling in a world of his own imagining. He has too easily been made a naive artist, perhaps a depressive" (15).
Any notion of Blake's supposed naivety is quickly dispelled by entering "One of the Gothic Artists," the first of the four sections of the exhibit, which introduces the exhibit's repeated pattern of presenting works arranged chronologically within a topical frame, a pattern that renders each of the four sections of the exhibit a sort of biographical microcosm of...