News - William Blake at Tate Britain

A portrait of William Blake, thought to be his only self-portrait, will be exhibited in the UK for the first time in a major survey of his work at Tate Britain this autumn...

Press Release

Created when Blake was around 45 years old, the work is thought to present an idealised likeness. Rather than showing Blake as a painter or engraver, signs of his creative intensity are conveyed in his direct hypnotic gaze. This compelling image was produced after 1802, at a turning-point in Blake’s life. Having lived in Sussex for three years and been falsely accused of treason, Blake returned to his native city of London and was re-establishing himself as an artist. The portrait shows Blake as an isolated and misunderstood figure.

In the 200 years since its creation, the detailed pencil drawing only been shown once before and never in the artist’s own country. It offers a unique insight into the visionary painter, printmaker and poet responsible for some of Britain’s best loved artwork and will be displayed alongside a sketch of Blake’s wife Catherine from the same period, highlighting her vital contribution to his life and work.

A crucial presence in Blake’s life, Catherine offered both practical assistance and became an unacknowledged hand in the production of his engravings and illuminated books. His visual art and poetry began to develop in original ways only after their marriage in 1782. At the time she was illiterate but learnt to read and write with her husband and became an accomplished printmaker in her own right. Together, these rare examples of Blake’s portraiture highlight the ways in which his extraordinary vision was dependent on the domestic stability of his life with Catherine.

Alex Farquharson, Director of Tate Britain, said: ‘We are thrilled to have an opportunity to shed new light on William Blake as a visual artist, bringing together a truly remarkable array of rarely seen works, alongside a great many of his most celebrated images. This intriguing portrait has been held in private collections for over 200 years and I am delighted that it will be exhibited in the UK for the first time at Tate Britain.’

These are two of more than 300 paintings, prints and drawings that will be shown in Tate Britain’s major autumn exhibition William Blake. 

Tate Britain will reimagine the artist’s work as he intended it to be experienced. Blake’s art was a product of his tumultuous times, with revolution, war and progressive politics acting as the crucible of his unique imagination, yet he struggled to be understood and appreciated during his life. Now renowned as a poet, Blake also had grand ambitions as a visual artist and envisioned vast frescos that were never realised. 

For the first time, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan c.1805-9 and The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth c.1805 will be digitally enlarged and projected onto the gallery wall on the huge scale that Blake imagined. The original artworks will be displayed nearby in a restaging of Blake’s ill-fated exhibition of 1809, the artist’s only significant attempt to create a public reputation for himself as a painter. Tate will recreate the domestic room above his family hosiery shop in which the show was held, allowing visitors to encounter the paintings exactly as people did in 1809.

The exhibition will provide a vivid biographical framework in which to consider Blake’s life and work. There will be a focus on London, the city in which he was born and lived for most of his life. The burgeoning metropolis was a constant inspiration for the artist, offering an environment in which harsh realities and pure imagination were woven together. His creative freedom was also dependent on the unwavering support of those closest to him, his friends, family and patrons. Tate will highlight the vital presence of his wife Catherine who offered both practical assistance and became an unacknowledged hand in the production of his engravings and illuminated books. The exhibition will showcase a series of illustrations to Pilgrim's Progress 1824-27 and a copy of the book The complaint, and the consolation Night Thoughts 1797, now thought to be coloured by Catherine.

Blake was a staunch defender of the fundamental role of art in society and the importance of artistic freedom. Shaped by his personal struggles in a period of political terror and oppression, his technical innovation, and his political commitment, these beliefs have inspired the generations that followed and remain pertinent today. Tate Britain’s exhibition will open with Albion Rose c.1793, an exuberant visualisation of the mythical founding of Britain, created in contrast to the commercialisation, austerity and crass populism of the times. A section of the exhibition will also be dedicated to his illuminated books such as Songs of Innocence and of Experience 1794, his central achievement as a radical poet.

Additional highlights will include a selection of works from the Royal Collection and some of his best-known paintings including Newton 1795-c.1805 and Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20. This intricate work was inspired by a séance-induced vision and will be shown alongside a rarely seen preliminary sketch. The exhibition will close with The Ancient of Days 1827, a frontispiece for an edition of Europe: A Prophecy, completed only days before the artist’s death.

William Blake will be curated by Martin Myrone, Lead Curator pre-1800 British Art, and Amy Concannon Assistant Curator, British Art 1790-1850. The exhibition will be accompanied by a catalogue from Tate Publishing and a programme of talks and events in the gallery.

Open from 11 September 2019 – 2 February 2020, the show will be the largest survey of work by the artist in a generation and will rediscover Blake as a visual artist for the 21st century. It is supported by Tate Patrons and Tate Members.


Portrait of William Blake 1802
Pencil with black, white, and grey washes 243 x 201 mm Collection Robert N. Essick

Catherine Blake 1805
Graphite on paper 286 x 221 mm Tate. Bequeathed by Miss Alice G.E. Carthew 1940
Jerusalem, plate 28, proof impression, top design only 1820
Relief etching with pen and black ink and watercolour on medium, smooth wove paper 111 x 159 mm Yale Center for British Art (New Haven, USA)

Pity c.1795
Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper 425 x 539 m Tate

'Europe' Plate i: Frontispiece, 'The Ancient of Days' 1827
Etching with ink and watercolour on paper 232 x 120mm The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

Albion Rose c. 1793
Colour engraving 250 x 211 mm Courtesy of the Huntington Art Collections

The Ghost of a Flea c.1819
Graphite on paper 200 x 153 mm Private Collection

Newton 1795-c. 1805
Colour print, ink and watercolour on paper 460 x 600 mm Tate
Capaneus the Blasphemer 1824-1827
Pen and ink and watercolour over pencil and black chalk, with sponging and scratching out 374 x 527 mm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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