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4 December 2014 – 1 March 2015


About the Exhibition

This major exhibition focuses on the extraordinary life and work of William Blake (1757–1827), printmaker, painter and revolutionary poet of the prophetic books. It examines his formation as an artist, apprenticeship as an engraver, and his maturity during the 1790s when he was at the height of his powers as both an artist and revolutionary poet. We also explore his influence on the young artist-printmakers who gathered around him in the last years of his life, including Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert.

One of the most popular English artists, William Blake is still one of the least understood. His radical politics were reflected in his extraordinary technical innovations, especially in the field of printmaking and the illuminated book. This exhibition brings together more than 90 of Blake’s most celebrated works and offers new insights into his remarkable originality and influence.

At a young age William Blake showed artistic promise and, at the age of 15, was apprenticed to James Basire, the official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. Under Basire’s tutelage, Blake was sent out to study London’s gothic churches and, most particularly, the monuments and decorations in Westminster Abbey – an experience which was to prove formative for his later style and imagery. The first section of the exhibition looks at Blake’s early work, exemplifying his already unorthodox approach.

After studying at the Antique School of the Royal Academy, Blake opened a print shop with his former apprentice colleague, James Parker, and from this point he began to associate with the leading writers and intellectuals of radical politics such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine, who gathered at the house of publisher, Joseph Johnson. Blake was soon producing prints of startling originality, which anticipate by nearly a century the monotypes made by artists such as Edgar Degas from the 1880s onwards. The exhibition examines Blake’s technical innovations in the creation of his illuminated books, which brought a new sophistication to colour printing. Among the works on display are several of the most extraordinary illuminated books, including The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and a complete set of the plates from Europe: A Prophecy, together with some of the finest separate plates, among them Nebuchadnezzar and Newton.

Apprentice and Master will also look at Blake’s later career when, encouraged by his friendship with the young artist, John Linnell, he developed an interest in the great artist-printmakers of the Renaissance such as Albrecht Dürer and Lucas van Leyden. It was Linnell who commissioned the last of Blake’s great series of watercolours, the illustrations to the Book of Job and to Dante. It was these works, and above all the small woodcut illustrations to Virgil’s Pastorals, which inspired the young artists Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, and Edward Calvert, known as the Ancients. During the last three years of his life, they visited Blake and his wife in their two-room flat off the Strand. This exhibition juxtaposes many of the works the Ancients would have seen on these visits, with their own early works. Among the most notable are Palmer’s greatest creations, the six sepia drawings of 1825; and Calvert’s exquisite woodcuts of the late 1820s.

William Blake: Apprentice and Master has been curated by Dr Michael Phillips, Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies, University of York; and Mr Colin Harrison, Senior Curator of European Art, Ashmolean Museum.