Fearful Symmetries: Framing William Blake

British poetry and painting over the last few centuries can boast few visionaries of the calibre of William Blake. As a new retrospective of his visual art opens at Tate, MutualArt look at 5 important works

Thomas Phillips, Portrait of William Blake (1807) 

“What immortal hand or eye / Could frame thy fearful symmetry?” William Blake asks, addressing the Tyger in his famous poem of that name. And the form here enacts the content. The half-rhyme of ‘eye and ‘symmetry,’ as well as the strange, ghostly internal rhyme of ‘thy’ in the second line, means that the poem itself is unbalanced, asymmetrical, failing to ‘frame’ the form of the immortal creature it attempts to describe.

And Blake’s own visionary power, perhaps immortal itself, is equally difficult to frame. The paintings and drawings with which he illuminated the world created in his poems represent some of the weirdest and most potent images in British art. But they’re a difficult thing to handle in a gallery context, curatorially and as a viewer. The complexity of Blake’s vision, and its reliance upon a variously populated system of inter-connected zones, mean that presenting and appreciating the significance of the pictures is a tough task.

The Tate goes about that task in their new retrospective, which opened this week in London, with an energy and a penchant for innovation which appears fitting. The exhibition “reimagines the artist’s work as he intended it to be experienced,” the press release claims.

“For the first time, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan (c.1805-9) and The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth (c.1805) have been enlarged and projected onto the gallery wall on the huge scale that Blake imagined.The original artworks are 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 has recreated the domestic room above his family hosiery shop in which the show was held, allowing visitors to encounter the paintings exactly as people did over 200 years ago.”

Whether or not the exhibition delivers on its own tall order - and some critics have already questioned this - it brings into the artistic mainstream fold the work of a truly unique image-maker whose vision became the bedrock for much of Britain’s creative consciousness in the years since he lived and worked. Here, MutualArt takes a look at five defining works which will be on show in the Tate’s exhibition.


The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819)

Image courtesy Tate 

Often described as a ‘visionary’ in the broader sense of the term - someone who can look beyond their own time and circumstance into some broader, more intuitive zone - Blake apparently also experienced literal visions. According to an account by his friend, the astrologer John Varley, Blake was once visited by the spirit of a flea’s ghost, which revealed to him that all such insects were the embodied spirits of bloodthirsty men. He duly conceived and painted this strange, hulking figure, an insectoid human, treading the boards of a celestial stage and peering into a bloody goblet.


‘Europe’ Plate i: Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient Days’ (1827)

Image courtesy Tate 

“Visually, Europe is the most elaborate and powerful of the Lambeth books,” says W.H. Stevenson, editor of the respected Longman edition of Blake’s complete works. By this he means the books that Blake wrote, illustrated, and sold from a studio at Lambeth, Surrey in the south of England from 1790 onwards. Stevenson’s claim for Europe as the finest among them in terms of visuals is a fair one, and not least because of the iconic frontispiece.

The design, known as the ‘Ancient of Days’, depicts an aged figure kneeling down with a pair of compasses or dividers in his muscular hand, engaged in circumscribing the world. Blake’s mode was one of peering through the material world into a realm of totemic giants, allegorical figures but with beating hearts and vascular muscles which comprise a mythopoeia describing our own world in epic terms. This picture is perhaps the most iconic example of Blake giving a heart and a soul to the enormous forces which control our universe.


Newton (1795 - c.1805)

Image courtesy Tate 

Alongside mythic figures like Enitharmon and Urizen, Blake’s universe is populated by heroic versions of real life figures, from Thomas Paine to John Milton. Here, the scientist Isaac Newton appears as a muscular youth, apparently sitting on a piece of coral or algae-covered rock at the bottom of the ocean. The setting means he is borne down by an immense gravitational pressure due to the weight of the water above him. Perhaps this is why his otherwise healthy form is arched and pressed downward. Blake depicted Newton as a fact-obsessed scientist, and so his attention is riveted downwards on his compasses and calculations.


Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824 - 1827)

Image courtesy Tate 

Blake also turned his hand to illustrations of other poems, perhaps most notably Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy. In this episode of Inferno, Virgil leads Dante through the seventh circle (third round) of hell, where they meet Capaneus. As one of the seven Kings who laid siege upon Thebes, he is a condemned blasphemer. He is doomed to lie upon the sand and bear the thunderbolts of Jove, but his pride is undimmed.

Blake renders him in a sexually suggestive odalisque, hedonistic in his luxuriance, even in the face of his own punishment. The flames girt his legs around, and the bolts of electricity seem merely to frame with greater emphasis the defiantly upturned eyes, staring heaven down. Blake would have seen such defiance as a crucial human archetype, and an important one to emphasize in his imagined landscapes. He once said that John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” because he had inadvertently written such an attractive character in Satan. Dante’s Capaneus gives off a similar vibe to Milton’s Satan, striving to “make a heaven of hell” through sheer will power. Blake admires both.


Albion Rose (c.1793)

Image courtesy Tate 

Once assumed to be an illustration of a scene from Romeo and Juliet describing the break of “jocund day,” this plate is now known to depict Albion, the primeval man. He divides into four, becoming the four Zoas which are integral to Blake’s entire mythology. This picture takes some anatomical cues from Leonardo’s sketch known as the Vitruvian Man, but brings into play an expressive power and chromatic color. Blake looks inward beyond the current form of things to play around in their fundament; their mucky, magical formative movements. This picture represents the fall and division of Albion which eventually resulted, in several mythologies, in the creation of Britain.

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