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SPOTLIGHT: William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

William Blake and the Pre-Raphaelites 

William Blake was born today, two hundred and sixty years ago. He was a poet, painter and visionary who was virtually unknown in his lifetime. 
Nowadays he is widely celebrated, even being named No 38 in the BBC’s 2002 poll of 100 Greatest Britons. 

Yet few know that it was another young British painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was instrumental in saving him from obscurity. 

        

     William Blake, painted by Thomas Phillips (1807)  

                      

      A self-portrait of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, drawn in 1847 


Rossetti first became interested in Blake after reading about him in Allan Cunningham’s The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1830. He was intrigued by this man who saw angels and devils, and who implored humanity to cast off their ‘mind-forg’d manacles.’ Like Rossetti, Blake was educated at home by his mother, showed extraordinary early promise as an artist, wrote poetry as well as painted, and was interested in the work of such unfashionable artists as Raphael, Michelangelo and Durer. 

One day Rossetti heard that an attendant at the British Museum had a battered old notebook in which Blake had drafted poems and scribbled sketches, mostly in pencil. On 30 April 1847, when he was just nineteen years old, Rossetti purchased the manuscript from the attendant, William Palmer, whose artist-brother Samuel had been a pupil of Blake’s in his final years. Rossetti paid ten shillings for it, which he borrowed from his long-suffering younger brother William Michael Rossetti. 

              

Blake had begun writing and drawing in the notebook in February 1787, and continued to work in it for the next thirty years. When he reached the end of the notebook, probably around 1793, he turned it upside down and began working from the end on the back of each leaf, over-writing earlier drafts and illustrations. 

The closely-filled pages give a fascinating insight into Blake's creative process, allowing readers to follow the composition of some of his best-known work, including one of my own personal favourites, 'The Tyger'.

            

The notebook was to have a profound effect on Rossetti’s work and life, and rippled out to influence the art and poetry of his friends and family, including Christina Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne. 

Rossetti was intrigued with Blake’s rebellious reputation and with his rejection of conventional morality. The notebook is full of poems that promote free love and radical politics, including the humorous epigram ‘When a man has married a wife, he finds out whether/her knees and elbows are only glued together’, which accompanied a sketch of a man and a woman rising from a rumpled bed. 

              

The book also contained attacks on such well-known artists such as Sir 
Joshua Reynolds which chimed with Rossetti’s own rebellion against the establishment (Rossetti famously nicknamed the Academy’s first president Sir Sloshua). It was after reading Blake’s manuscript that Rossetti and his friends William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais decided to form the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in 1848.

Rossetti showed the notebook to Alexander Gilchrist in the 1850s, which helped inspire him to write what would become the first major biography of the poet and visionary. And after Gilchrist died from scarlet fever, Rossetti helped his widow Anne Gilchrist to finish the magnus opus. 

  
Rossetti also edited Blake’s poems for publication. He has since been criticised for making changes to make the poems more palatable for a Victorian readership, but the fact remains the poems may have been lost if he had not done so.

Blake’s interest in the occult, in the Gothic and in the spiritual can all be seen to chime with the Pre-Raphaelites’ work, and his clearly delineated outlines and rich prismatic colouring can also be seen as influences. 

         

William Blake "Glad Day", c. 1794 


          

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Damsel of the Sanct Grael' c.1857  

The literary critic Arthur Symons has written: ‘it is to D.G. Rossetti that we owe the recovery, if not also the discovery, of Blake.’ 

I went to see the notebook (often called The Rossetti Manuscript) at the British Library when I was in London last June. They have very kindly microfiched each page so you can scroll back and forth as you please.

I really loved looking through the pages, seeing William Blake’s swift deft sketches and scribbled poems, and seeing Rossetti’s handwritten note on the inner cover, describing how he bought it. And, yes, of course, I had to put  reference to it in my novel about the Pre-Raphaelites, Beauty in Thorns, to be published July 2017. 

You can see the whole book at the British Library’s website

Here is the final manuscript version of 'Tyger, Tiger, Burning Bright', with the words below for ease of reading. 



Tyger Tyger, burning bright, 
In the forests of the night; 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Could frame thy fearful symmetry? 

In what distant deeps or skies. 
Burnt the fire of thine eyes? 
On what wings dare he aspire? 
What the hand, dare seize the fire? 

And what shoulder, & what art, 
Could twist the sinews of thy heart? 
And when thy heart began to beat, 
What dread hand? & what dread feet? 

What the hammer? what the chain, 
In what furnace was thy brain? 
What the anvil? what dread grasp, 
Dare its deadly terrors clasp! 

When the stars threw down their spears 
And water'd heaven with their tears: 
Did he smile his work to see? 
Did he who made the Lamb make thee? 

Tyger Tyger burning bright, 
In the forests of the night: 
What immortal hand or eye, 
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?


William Blake

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