Visitors to a new William Blake show opening in Oxford will learn much about a “strange and marvellous creature”, not least that the possibly 5ft 4in artist must have had considerable strength to have operated the heavy oak wooden press which took up so much of his small London studio.
“It’s a hefty great thing,” said the writer and Blake fan Philip Pullman admiringly. “It must have been a real struggle to use.”
Pullman, president of the Blake Society, was speaking at the opening of a new exhibition at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford which reconstructs the studio Blake had at No 13 Hercules Buildings in Hercules Road, Lambeth.
“It is absolutely fascinating to see,” said Pullman. “You get a real sense of how big the room was – or how small it was.”
The three-storey house was demolished to barely a whimper in 1918 and the ground floor studio has been reconstructed thanks to the chance discovery of floor plans by the show’s curator, Michael Phillips.
Phillips said he made inquiries at the Guildhall library and, remarkably, a librarian discovered a surveyor’s original plans for Hercules Buildings. It showed that there were two ground floor rooms, one 10ft by 9ft which would have been Blake’s painting room and one 14ft by 11ft where he would have done his printing.
The press would have needed a lot of physical strength but Phillips said there was evidence that Blake had it. He said Blake once looked out of his Lambeth window and saw that a local circus manager had chained a boy to a log. Blake is said to have stormed out and lifted the boy until he was freed from his chains.
On another occasion at his cottage in West Sussex, Blake had a set-to with a soldier who had been stationed nearby because of fears of a French invasion. Phillips said: “There was a confrontation and Blake took the man from behind under the armpits, lifted him and walked him all the way up the road to where he was billeted, and plonked him down. And then he was tried for sedition.”
The exhibition traces Blake’s apprenticeship as an engraver, his maturity in the 1790s when he was at the height of his powers as an artist and poet, and his final years when he inspired and guided a younger generation of artists such as Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert.
More than 90 works are featured, with some very Blakean subjects and titles: The Approach of Doom, The House of Death and Head of a Damned Soul, to name a few.
Reconstructing the studio brings Blake closer to us, the Ashmolean’s senior curator of European art, Colin Harrison, said. He said the point of the show was not to demystify Blake. “He will always be a strange and marvellous creature.”
Harrison said: “The whole emphasis is on how Blake made his imagery, and we do learn a great deal on the technical side and we see just how original he was.”
Blake remains a fascinating figure who inspires fierce loyalty. “He was a man of utter, complete artistic and moral integrity,” said Pullman. “It’s an inspiration to see someone who worked so long and so hard and with such a firm purpose, for so little reward.”
Pullman, who is currently writing a follow up to His Dark Materials, said he first came across Blake via Allan Ginsberg – another Blakean. “I was overwhelmed when I first read him.”
The exhibition in Oxford comes as the Blake Society continues to raise money in its attempt to buy Blake’s former cottage at Felpham, West Sussex – the place where he wrote his most famous poem, Jerusalem – and convert it into a public centre to celebrate Blake and continue his legacy.
The project is unlikely to raise the entire amount, unless a Blakean millionaire comes forward at the last minute, but Pullman said the hope was that the society gets a mortgage on the property.