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“For Blake, visionary art is not mysterious or fuzzy or soft. Visionary art is something which actually very precise and crisp.”
Painter, poet, draftsman, and printmaker William Blake was born in London in 1757, a time when England’s art scene was growing and transforming dramatically. Blake trained as an engraver, eventually developing his own technique that allowed him to combine word and image in colorful works. Blake used this approach to illustrate poems he composed and began to publish limited editions of books on his own, without the assistance of publishing houses. While Blake enjoyed a small number of followers and patrons during his lifetime, he also had a reputation as an eccentric who experienced visions and was not always easy to understand or get along with. His early biographers, some of whom knew him personally, emphasized this aspect of Blake’s personality, creating a narrative of Blake as a mystic and dreamer that persists to this day.
In this episode, British art historian Martin Myrone, Convenor of the British Art Network at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and former senior curator of Pre-1800 British art at Tate Britain, discusses Blake’s work and reputation during and after his lifetime. Myrone wrote the introduction to Lives of William Blake, a book of early accounts of Blake’s life from Getty Publications.
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JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
MARTIN MYRONE: For Blake, visionary art is not mysterious or fuzzy or soft. Visionary art is something which actually very precise and crisp.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak about the artist and poet William Blake with British art historian Martin Myrone.
William Blake, painter, poet, draftsman, printmaker, was born in London in 1757 into a middleclass trading family. He trained and worked as an engraver, reproducing drawings designed by others. Then in the late 1780s he developed an eccentric printing technique, which he called relief etching, and which had the special effect of printing texts and images that resembled watercolors. At his death in 1827, Blake was valued as much for his eccentricity as for his poetry, paintings, and prints. An early account of his life quoted the Romantic poet Wordsworth as saying, “There is no doubt this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man that interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”
Recently the British art historian Martin Myrone, Convenor of the British Art Network at the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and former senior curator of Pre-1800 British art at Tate Britain, wrote the introduction to a book of early accounts of Blake’s life. I spoke with Myrone about Blake and his art on the occasion of Getty Publications’ release of Lives of William Blake in advance of the Getty’s presentation of the exhibition, William Blake: Visionary.
So thank you, Martin, for speaking with me today. William Blake was born in London in 1757, a child of a hosier and haberdasher. He trained as an engraver, attended the strong drawing schools of the Royal Academy, and appeared as a painter in the 1780s. Fill us in on his early years and what the London art scene was like for him in the late eighteenth century.
MARTIN MYRONE: Yeah. As you said, Blake was born in London, in Broad Street in Soho, in central London, in 1757, into a family that was sort of a middleclass trading family. So not wealthy, but not poor either. The family ran a hosiery shop on the corner of Broad Street. And Broad Street itself was quite a smart street. There was a mixture of private residential houses there, with a few gentlemen and ladies and retired vicars; but then also, a lot of commercial activity.
On Blake’s little street, there are a number of music shops, music sellers. There were a number of specialist piano and harpsichord makers, and there were shops selling quite glamorous wares—mirrors and frames and gilt objects. And alongside that, a few paintings and prints. So even on Blake’s doorstep, there was a sense of a burgeoning material culture.
When Blake was born in 1757, here were no public art exhibitions. There was no central form of art education or any obvious opportunities for a young person to imagine themselves as an artist, project themselves as an artist. So the London art world when Blake was born in 1757 was a pretty small world. Maybe 300, 400 individuals, largely working around the West End, around Covent Garden, the studios there, and with not much in the way of a public profile. They were, you know, serving their patrons, their clientele by word of mouth.
But in 1760, when Blake is just three years old, there’s the first public art exhibition. And organized by artists. And that really begins a re-definition of the London art world and creates a new sense of possibility. And this is a really crucial transformation within Blake’s lifetime, and Blake sees this unfold.
As a young man growing up, training as an engraver in the 1770s, going to the Royal Academy of Arts, where he studies, for a while at least, and being close to a London art world which growing in confidence, growing in profile, becoming much more visible, getting talked about in the press, getting talked about in a kinda national context, in a way that that really never happened before.
CUNO: Now, Blake was a printer, an engraver, a craft and an art that reproduces the works of others and illustrates the books of others. How he feel as and engraver? What was his identity like, public identity like?
MYRONE: Yes. Blake’s original training and his apprenticeship— He was formally apprenticed to James Basire, quite a well-established engraver, in 1772, and he serves a seven-year apprenticeship, learning the craft of engraving. This is a laborious, exacting craft.
And this is a crucial foundation for Blake’s identity, for Blake’s professional standing, for Blake’s self-definition. In practical terms, that training as a reproductive engraver, over many years, provides him with a skill set which serves him well throughout his life. Throughout his life, his main source of income, the activity that he could turn to to, you know, put bread on the table, as they say, to put money in his pocket, was commercial engraving, was engraving reproducing other people’s designs sometimes reproducing his own designs in engraving for publishers and printers. He worked repeatedly for a range of publishers, being paid by the job and as a kind of freelancer.
But also, it provided him with a sense of identity. As much as we think of Blake as a sort of wild and imaginative figure, he also really valued the craft of his art. He really valued what copper plate engraving taught him, which was about the precision, the importance of precision, the importance of the precise line; the idea that engraving demands exact draftsmanship.
With engraving and with drawing, once you create a line, you can’t change it. Once you cut into the copper plate, that line stays. And this is really important. I mean, this, he talks about in his poetry and in his prose writings, as a fundamental skill, that it expresses, that it sets out with boldness and clarity, your vision. So for Blake, visionary art is not mysterious or fuzzy or soft. Visionary art is something which actually very precise and crisp.
CUNO: Now in the 1790s, he develops a special printing technique, which he called relief etching. Describe that for us, especially in the context of the remarks you were just making about his engraving and the exactness of his engraving.
MYRONE: Yeah. What Blake dubbed relief etching is a process that he created himself around 1788, and then used to produce a succession of illuminated books through the 1790s, which have really been the cornerstone of his modern reputation. Because they are really quite unlike anything that had been produced before. They’re really unlike anything that’s been produced since.
Blake never explained in any clear terms what was involved in relief etching, how he actually produced these books. And crucially, this method allows him to incorporate text in the image, and it allows him to create colored images.
So in standard book publishing in the eighteenth century, the task of creating an engraved image and the task of setting the type, setting the lettering, there were different people involved, there’re different techniques involved, and even different printing presses involved. So producing a book which is illustrated, producing a book which has pictures and text, is complex and it’s costly, and it involves lots of different people. And it involves, particularly, a publisher who’s going to employ those different people.
What Blake’s relief etching does is allow him to produce his books on his own. So the text and the images are combined. Instead of being prey to publishers, instead of having to invest in people—you know, the typesetters and the binders and all the different people who are involved in making a standard book—he does that all himself. It’s a cottage industry. He and his wife produce these books together.
And it’s the vehicle for him to create a union of poetry and imagination and the visual, which has proved to be both mysterious and mystifying, but also hugely influential.
CUNO: What were the edition sizes of his books?
MYRONE: Well, that’s an interesting question. I mean, how many of these was he able to produce? I mean, we know that the best-selling, as it were, of his books was The Songs of Innocence and Experience. But even that sells only in dozens, right? A standard book, you’d expect to produce hundreds or thousands. But there are illuminated books which exist in only one or two copies.
So there’s every indication that he was only able to produce in a rather small number, any of these books. So although he boasted that, unlike Shakespeare and unlike the great poets of the past, he was gonna be able to print his own books, and therefore, make, you know, make a great fortune and become famous and celebrated forever more.
It’s clear that just wasn’t the case; that there were quite complex things to produce. And you know, there wasn’t the market. These were, you know, relatively expensive, and because there are revolutionary political sentiments at play within these books, if they’ve actually spread much more widely than they did, he would’ve got in trouble with the authorities.
So there’s a moment in the 1790s when the form, and indeed the content, of these books is very radical. And they are circulating among a very small circle of friends and supporters, and not being noticed, not being talked about much more widely than that.
CUNO: Yeah. Now, he was a painter and a poet, as well. At least he made paintings and he wrote poetry. How are his poems and paintings received?
MYRONE: In the history of Blake’s reputation and scholarship around Blake, it’s tended to be a literary legacy that has been focused on, and it’s literary scholars who have focused on Blake most intently. And I think that’s created something of a skewed picture of what Blake was within his own lifetime.
Blake’s poetry was really not very well-known at all. The illuminated books, which contain his most imaginative and original poetic work, were not much read. And there’s a sense that even people who admired the books, even people who purchased the illuminated books and were fascinated by Blake, they didn’t necessarily digest the poetry or understand the poetry very much.
That’s one of the very striking things when you see the illuminated books in the flesh, as a physical object, you realize how tiny they are and you realize how hard they are to read. I mean, these are things which are really dense with text. And the text is often colored. There’s a kind of visual dimension to the poetry, which is enticing, but also makes it quite hard to read. It’s reading somebody’s handwriting rather than reading a, you know, a printed text.
So I think that even Blake’s admirers found the poetry quite difficult; whereas he was known as a commercial engraver, as a reproductive engraver. He got work through most of his life on that basis. He was known as a designer. He was known as somebody who design illustrations for books, and he gets employment, intermittently at least, in that capacity at various points in his life. And he does exhibit a few works. He holds the one-man show in 1809, which is disastrous. But he wishes to present himself as a painter.
And it’s a— Blake’s reputation as a poet in the modern age has rather distorted what Blake set about himself or how Blake identified himself as— well, primarily as somebody who was pursuing the imagination. But also as somebody who is primarily a visual artist.
CUNO: Now, he dies in 1827. What was his posthumous reputation like?
MYRONE: Well, when Blake dies in 1827, he’d enjoyed something of a renaissance. I mean, but preceding that, there’s a period after, of a very badly-received one-man show of 1809, and after some failed projects, where he disappears for a few years. But 1817, 1818, he’s rediscovered by a younger generation of artists. John Linnell, Samuel Palmer, John Varley, who looked at him as this sort of prophetic figure. They give him work, they start to promote an idea of Blake as this prophetic, wise, eccentric, fascinating figure.
He never had great commercial success. He struggled to make ends meet sometimes. But the last decade of his life, he was being talked about. So you know, he’s not overlooked completely. He gets obituaries in the mainstream press. He gets newspaper coverage. And he gets lives written, published, within a few years. So in Allan Cunningham’s Lives of the English Painters, which was a very influential kind of compendium of artists’ lives, Blake is in there. Blake is one of the lives, alongside much more famous artists—you know, Reynolds and Romney and Flaxman—you know, figures who have a much higher profile during their lifetimes.
John Thomas Smith writes about Blake in his Nollekens and his Times, his rather kind of bitter account of the sculptor Joseph Nollekens, but also includes a number of biographical accounts and anecdotal accounts of the early nineteenth century London art world. And so the materials are there at Blake’s death, and within a few years of his life, to set out at least a version of who Blake was.
CUNO: Now, we’re here to discuss not only the life of William Blake, but the lives or biographical sketches of Blake, a selection of which you’ve edited, in a recent book published by the Getty. It begins with Henry Crabb Robinson’s reminiscences of Blake, 1809 to ’27. Tell us about Robinson and why he knew so much about Blake.
MYRONE: Henry Crabb Robinson was a lawyer and journalist, who had the good fortune of having sufficient independent income to release him to pursue his literary interests and his society interests, and was very well-networked, very well-connected with the cultural worlds of London and of Germany, where he is based and studied for a number of years in the early 1800s.
He knows about Blake’s work and he’s introduced to Blake, and he is among the most important sources for Blake’s life and for understanding Blake’s reputation, because he keeps a very detailed, very full diary of his encounters with literary figures and artistic figures of his day. And this provides a kind of firsthand account of meeting Blake, hearing about Blake, of reporting is speech, reporting what he said, and providing a relatively immediate sense of Blake’s identity, his presence in the literary and artistic world of the early nineteenth century. And those reminiscences and the diaries were published in the 1850s and have been republished and drawn on repeatedly since then.
He also, importantly, wrote one of the very first biographical accounts of Blake that was published not in England, but in a German literary magazine, in 1810. And this cast Blake as a mystical figure, as a mystic. And again, it’s one of those moments where an account of Blake not as a kind of ordinary figure, not as a normal part of the art world or a normal artist, a kind of standard figure, starts to be crystalized. The idea of Blake as a mystic, as a dreamer, as someone who represents a different way of making art, a different way of thinking about the imagination.
CUNO: Now, Robinson addressed Blake’s alleged madness, or mysticism, as you call it, quoting the remarks of Wordsworth, that “There is no doubt this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man that interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”
Then Robinson described a dinner he had with Blake and a few others, after which Robinson wrote that, “It was unmethodical, rhapsody of art, poetry, and religion. He’s saying the most strange things in the most unemphatic way, speaking of his visions as many would do for the most ordinary occurrences.” Was this a common view or image of Blake near the end of his life?
MYRONE: Yeah. The reputation of Blake as a eccentric, as a unusual figure, was common within Blake’s lifetime, and certainly after his death, and has come to be definitive, not only of Blake himself, but also of a new kind of artistic creativity, a new sort of artistic persona. He wasn’t the only artist of the day to be accused of being so eccentric, or even, you know, in the terminology of the time, to go mad or crazed or crazy. Other figures had the same reputation.
Now, for Blake, what’s important and interesting, I think, is how clearly his life, his work, his way of working stood at the absolute vanguard of artistic identity, and started to crystalize into a new logic, a new of way of thinking of what the creative imagination was.
The implication, in their commentary on Blake, is that you can judge his authenticity, you can judge his genuineness as an artist, his depth of imagination, by the degree to which he is not understood, by the degree to which he did not earn money, by the degree to which he did not have public success. So you have a kind of— the beginning of the upside down world which defines the modern artist, you might say. His supporters, what they value in Blake is a sense of creative independence, the way he pursued his own course, even though his work was not necessarily understood or appreciated in the way that he wished.
CUNO: Well, that’s certainly the way Robinson wants us to see Blake. He quotes Blake or refers to Blake’s opinion of Wordsworth as saying, “His delight in Wordsworth’s poetry was intense. Nor did it seem less, notwithstanding the reproaches he continually cast on Wordsworth for his imputed worship of nature, which in the mind of Blake, constituted atheism.”
It’s as if Robinson wants to contrast Blake with Wordsworth as two different kinds of artists, poets. One a kind of individualist, and the other a romantic.
MYRONE: Yeah. I think that’s right. The— The sense of Blake pursuing his own course and representing creative authenticity, even where that creativity leads to self-harm or leads to disappointment or dismay or isolates him, that—
You talk about reporting reporting of a dinner. There are a number of accounts of Blake in company, where he just doesn’t sort of know how to behave around other people. You get that feeling. And if you’re going to be an artist in the early nineteenth century, if you’re gonna be a commercially successful artist, you need to get on with people and you need to network. He does have a network but it’s a very small network of people who really believe in him.
And that I think is something to think about, to reflect on, how because the way Blake draws, the way that he designs the figure, doesn’t really stand up to standard tests of academic draftsmanship. What Blake does with the human figure, like James Barry, an artist he admired to a degree, but certainly Henry Fuseli, an artist he admired a great deal—what they do is that they compress the figure, they elongate the figure. If you try to measure it by the standard of nature, or if you try to measure it by the standard of conventional academic drawing, most of his figures fall down. The muscles are not in the right place. The joints don’t join up in the way that they should do; it’s not anatomically correct.
So either you believe that such is Blake’s genius, such is his outstanding imagination, his creativity, that he should be permitted to distort and extend and transform the human body so that it serves his imaginative will; or you’re a skeptic and you say, “Well, he can’t draw properly.” And both those things are in play.
Which is, you know, a kind of motif for thinking about art in the modern age; that either you invest in the idea of creative independence, the autonomy of the artwork, or you expect standards which can be in play and which the artist can be judged by.
CUNO: Yeah, I think this is important because Robinson is giving us a picture of Blake in Blake’s lifetime. He says in this case of Blake, “Of all the conditions which arouse the interest of the psychologist, none assuredly is more attractive than the union of genius and madness in a single remarkable mind. Of such is the whole race of ecstatics, mystics, seers of visions and dreamers of dreams. And to their list, we have now to add another name. That of William Blake.”
For whom was Robinson writing this remark and his life of Blake, his account of Blake’s life? What was the text and when was it written?
MYRONE: Well, this is an essay on Blake that’s published in 1810 in Germany, in a German literary magazine by Robinson. Robinson had spent time in Germany, he studied in Germany in the early 1800s and he was well connected in the German literary world. And so this is a piece which is presenting a obscure figure in English culture to a German literary audience, and presenting him as a oddity, as an eccentricity, but one who reflects emerging notions of creative depth and authenticity, which were, I suspect, rather more current in progressive German speaking and culture than they were in mainstream English culture at that point.
CUNO: Well, the third life of Blake in your book, John Thomas Smith’s biographical sketch of Blake, was published in 1828. We’ve been talking about Robinson, and now we’re talking about Smith. Who was Smith? And what kind of credibility did he have?
MYRONE: So John Thomas Smith was a artist and an engraver—like Blake, in that sense. But did topographical and antiquarian imagery, and was also a writer. He ended up as curator-keeper of prints and drawings at the British Museum. And was a kind of observer of the London art world, which was reflected in his biographies of contemporary artists that were included in his book Nollekens and his Times.
It’s rather a bad-tempered account of the sculptor Joseph Nollekens that Smith wrote about and published in 1828. And the life of Blake there was, along with Allan Cunningham’s life of Blake, published in 1830, among the most widely read and kinda defining texts for the nineteenth century, which emphasized Blake’s oddness, his eccentricity, his inspired nature, which referred to his production of illuminated books, but made it pretty clear that there was not necessarily a great deal of sympathy or understanding for the literary content of those books, and was really kind of presenting Blake as a interesting, but oddball figure within London’s art world.
CUNO: Well, Smith tells a very charming story of the artist John Flaxman—a friend of Blake—securing for Blake a commission to produce engraved images to accompany the life of Cowper, which is published in 1803, 1804, and which Blake acknowledged with a letter to Flaxman, whom he addresses as, “Dear sculptor of eternity.” Tell us that story.
MYRONE: Yeah. Well, this is an anecdote that relates to one of, one of the key turning points in Blake’s professional career, his kind of working life, where he was engaged by a publisher, Richard Edwards, to produce a very long series of illustrations for what were promised to be a kind of luxury publication of Young’s Night Thoughts, a melancholic poem that had a kind of popularity, had an audience.
He was paid very little for the illustrations. He produced hundreds of these designs, margin illustrations that would go around the poem. But the project, which started in 1795, fell apart after a couple’a years, and Blake was left without the payment that he was expecting, and frustrated that the whole project had fallen about.
And it’s a kind of pointed reminder of one of the kind of great motivations for Blake creating the relief-etched books and creating his own method for publishing, was you know, how vulnerable an engraver was to commercial failure. That they were dependent upon employment by publishers like Richard Edwards; they were dependent upon quite complex projects that needed investment and that could fall apart, that would never be realized. And that’s what happened there.
And Flaxman, as already a friend of Blake and a long-term supporter of Blake, sees this transpire, and he helps point Blake towards William Hayley, the poet, wealthy poet and enthusiast of the arts, who provides him with a good body of work in the following years. And he also, together with his wife, gets Blake to produce another long series of illustrations, margin illustrations, alongside Thomas Gray’s poems.
And Flaxman and Blake have their differences, and Flaxman, you know, is on record expressing his frustration about Blake’s unwillingness to kind of make life easy for himself, really, by taking on the right kind of work and behaving in a less idiosyncratic way. And that frustration surfaces sometimes; but the friendship endures. So, you know, Flaxman is a key figure in supporting Blake, and another one of these figures in Blake’s life who clearly doesn’t quite understand Blake, but feels the passion and feels the authenticity of his creative imagination.
CUNO: Now, although Smith’s work is entitled A Biographical Sketch of Blake, it reads more like a catalog of Blake’s known works, accounting for them by title and in order of production. Was Blake an artist that collectors wanted to collect? And did he make prints editions at the request of collectors?
MYRONE: Blake was collected in his lifetime. There were people who were intrigued and engaged by his illuminated books. There were a limited number of patrons, Thomas Butts, most importantly, who collected his works and commissioned works from him over an extended period.
So although he’s an overlooked figure and isn’t part of the mainstream art world in many ways, he did have people who supported him. And he did have people who were intrigued and fascinated by the illuminated books. That audience shifts a bit. I think in the 1790s, there are people who are buying the illuminated books and seeing them as an expression of a— an original imagination. Probably not understanding much of the content of the poetry.
Later on, moving into the last decade of Blake’s life, his work is clearly starting to appeal to rare book collectors, to people who are interested in the history of printing, interested in medieval manuscripts, which are starting to be collected and acknowledged as works of art at this period.
Blake, in response, reprints his works, produces new versions of his old illuminated books, decorating them more richly. And he kind of prints versions of the illuminated books, or plates from the illuminated books, with the text removed. So they become much less books of poetry with illustrations; they become much more visually led. So he composes for Isaias Humphrey[sp?], the artist, he composes books of designs which are Blake sort of reediting his work and reworking his existing work
There’s a puff[?], a piece of kind of newspaper advertising, for his great illuminated book Jerusalem, which he works on for many years and he finally completes in 1820. And when I say publishes, he produces a number of copies. And this is his, you know, his longest, his most kind of expansive and extraordinary work of imagination. And it’s puffed by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, who’s a artist and journalist, and a admirer of Blake.
And he publishes in the London magazine, a little notice saying that this book is coming out. And he casts it as a— as a rediscovered manuscript, as some sort of archaic, mysterious thing from the past, which is being transmitted through to the present day and is utterly baffling. And I think that’s rather intriguing, that here is one of Blake’s admirers looking to puff a work which was not going to be published commercially or conventionally, but it was gonna be available from Blake, and casting it as a sort of runic document, or something from a different age, from a different world, that nobody’s going to be able to understand, which is baffling and bizarre, and it’s something that would be of interest to antiquarians.
CUNO: Now you mention Isaias Humphrey. What was his relationship to Blake and why did Blake write him a letter in 1808?
MYRONE: Yeah, Blake wrote a letter—actually, kind of drafted it several times—about a painting of the Last Judgment that he’d produced for the Countess of Egremont. And Isaias Humphrey was an artist and supporter of Blake, a collector of Blake, had been sort of the agent, the middleman, in getting this commission.
The Egrements at Petworth House in Sussex, which is a county in the South of England, owned one of the great country houses and were great patrons of contemporary British painters and artists, including Blake. So Blake had this commission. And the letter is important because it does something which doesn’t happen often at all in Blake, which is that he sets out to explain the imagery.
So it’s the Last Judgment. It’s quite a small picture, but it’s completely crammed with figures. Inspired, obviously, by Michelangelo, in the treatment of the figures, but also, you know, a kind of Michelangeloesque, you know, towering scene of activity. And he explains in the letter that it’s necessary to give some account of it and its various parts, for the accommodation of those who give it the honor of attention. So he sets out his iconography, describing all the elements and the patterns.
And so what he says needs decoding and is open to interpretation. But you have in that letter the chance to look at an image to see, well, okay, there in the top of the picture is Christ seated on the throne of judgment. And there, there’s the dragon with seven heads and ten horns, and there’s, you know, the harlot seized and bound and so forth. So he’s, you know, he’s setting out his iconography in a way which you know relates to the Biblical text and the Biblical imagery, but which also suggests his ways of kind of organizing a symbolic universe in patterns and in numbers and in sequences, which the Blake scholars have been able to pore over and interpret.
CUNO: Well, Blake dies nineteen years later, in 1827. How was his death noted in the press or among artists?
MYRONE: By that date, Blake’s reputation is getting renewed. He is being appreciated by younger artists. He is covered in the press, in the mainstream press, with a number of obituaries. But those obituaries rather emphasize his idiosyncratic, his eccentric nature. So he’s being treated as an oddball figure, and not as somebody who is a part of the art world or the public world of art. So that’s, you know, that’s certainly in play.
But I suppose what’s striking, what’s noteworthy there, is that he’s noticed at all. Blake, we can say he’s a forgotten figure or an overlooked figure or marginalized; but you know, he was no— by no means, as sort of forgotten as many hundreds of other people who were trying to make their way in a very competitive, expanding, but also very precarious art world of the early nineteenth century.
Saying that, you know, Blake was born into a London that was rapidly expanding and changing, where art institutions and where the public culture of art was flourishing very rapidly, expanding rapidly, over the years of his youth and as he started to imagine himself as an artist.
But all that expansion went beyond what the market could support. So the Royal Academy, as a new training institution, was producing hundreds of young men expecting to be great artists, and yet there isn’t the market to support them. And then with the loss of America and financial crisis and the French Revolution, the long wars with France from 1793 to 1815, that creates financial crisis. It creates austerity, as we call it today. And Blake is very much at the sharp end of that.
So he embodies, really, both the new sense of cultural aspiration, which is encouraged by Britain’s growing status, by the institutionalization of art in the late eighteenth century, by a new public for art that’s emerging. But he also represents very sharply the precariousness of that situation and the way that people were not going to be supported as extensively as was promised.
So there’s a kind of disappointment in Blake’s life, and moments of deep despair. And that despair overcomes him in the 1810s; he disappears. He disappears from the world for a period. He’s rediscovered in the last few years of his life by a small circle of friends, and he resurfaces; but never as part of an art establishment, never as part of a public art world.
CUNO: Well, he’s alive in the presence of Alexander Gilchrist in 1863, who wrote a brief account of Blake’s life, commenting on the rarity of his work and saying, “He neither wrote nor drew for the many, hardly for workaday men at all, himself a divine child whose playthings were sun, moon, stars, moon, stars, the heavens and the earth.” Does that sum up Blake today?
MYRONE: I think it does. I think Gilchrist’s biography is really the moment at which Blake’s reputation starts to be renewed for a much later generation of readers and viewers. Gilchrist kinda sets in motion a reassessment of Blake, so that he is brought into the fore as a significant cultural figure. And there are myths and there’s fictions within Gilchrist’s account, but it does a lot of work in providing a sense of who Blake was and why he might be interesting.
And I think in that quote that you’ve given us there, the kind of cultural logic which underlies Blake, the idea of the artist pursuing their art regardless of a market, regardless of what’s commercially viable but pursuing it because of a passion and because of a desire to create— And that certainly has been the facet of Blake, the aspect of Blake which has inspired and enthused and fascinated, but also, you might say, kind of exposes what’s involved. What are the costs of being an artist in a kind of modern art world?
You know, the art world that existed when Blake was born was a small art world, without much public profile, where artists were kind of a small network of professionals working in reliable ways, with dependable patrons, dot dot dot. You know, the art world that Blake dies in, in 1827, is a whole different makeup, where the idea of the inspired artist, where the idea of the creative artist, where the idea of creative struggle is starting to be instated as a core cultural myth.
CUNO: Well, we’re certainly looking forward to having the Blake show here in Los Angeles at the Getty in a couple of years’ time. Until then, we’ve got your book, and we’re grateful to have been able to publish your book bringing to life this art, this great artist, William Blake. So we thank you very much, Martin, for joining me on the podcast this morning, and we look forward to having more time with you.
MYRONE: Thank you, thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts, and more resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts/ or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
MARTIN MYRONE: For Blake, visionary art is not mysterious or fuzzy or soft. Visionary art is somet...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824