Catherine Blake brought out of shadows in exhibition also featuring artist’s self-portrait
William Blake’s wife, Catherine, is to be brought out of the shadows and celebrated as a lifelong creative influence, in the largest exhibition in a generation devoted to an artist believed by many to be one of Britain’s greatest.
Tate Britain has announced details of its big autumn Blake show, bringing together more than 300 works. It will include the first UK display of a piece thought to be Blake’s only self-portrait, and the recreation of a solo exhibition he staged in 1809 that he hoped would bring him fame and fortune. Sadly, only a handful of people turned up.
There will also be watercolours from a hoard of 19 works lost for 165 years and found in 2001 in a Glasgow secondhand bookshop. Two book dealers bought them for £50 each; the set was later controversially broken up and sold for $7m.
Curators said Catherine, Blake’s lifelong companion, would feature heavily in the exhibition. “It is only in the last 15 years that Catherine as a huge stabilising, supporting and level-headed influence on Blake’s art and his domestic life has really come to the fore,” said Amy Concannon, a co-curator of the show.
On a practical level she made sure the family did not descend into poverty, always keeping a certain amount of money hidden in the house and occasionally serving her husband an empty dinner plate to buck his ideas up.
But she also coloured his prints and was a hugely important creative force in his life, said Martin Myrone, another co-curator.
Blake was an artist ahead of his time, unappreciated for much of his life. A pivotal moment came in 1809 when Blake staged a show of his own work in a drawing room above the family hosiery business in Soho. “This was Blake’s attempt to take control of the presentation of his work and to be taken seriously as a painter of historical subjects,” said Concannon.
He included fantastical paintings showing Lord Nelson directing a sea monster and the prime minister William Pitt as an angel guiding Behemoth. They would have baffled people at the time, and in any event hardly anyone came and not a single work was sold. Soon afterwards Blake retreated from the world.
Fortunately, he compiled a lengthy catalogue for the show, in which he talked about wanting people to recognise “real art”, and it will allow curators to recreate the domestic Georgian room in the Tate Britain show.
One hundred years ago in 1915 a Derbyshire collier gladly joined the army to escape the mines. But in the Great War the 18-year-old former Heanor schoolboy George Bissill unwittingly encountered another life underground which proved more hellish than anything he endured at the coal face. Like many mine workers he was made a ‘Sapper’ – a Private in the Royal Engineers – and set to work in France tunnelling under No Man’s Land towards enemy lines.Although spared the horrors of the battlefields above, the Sappers’ subterranean labours held additional terrors. Potentially digging just yards from their German counterparts – who were tunnelling the opposite way – the sense of the unknown for the ‘sewer rats’ was chilling. Tunnel collapse, gassing, flood, explosions and unexpected enemy encounters were ever-present dangers – in an environment that even hardened miners found horribly uncomfortable.Bissill survived the ordeal but suffered lasting emotional trauma. Yet from those darkest days emerged something remarkable. Ten years later at a smart London gallery 28-year-old artist George Bissill held his first solo exhibition. The art world cognoscenti heaped gushing acclaim on the ‘Pitman Painter’ for the ‘raw emotion of his touchingly fresh talent’ and ‘his inner consciousness of what is truly real’. The show caused quite a sensation, and collectors snapped up Bissill’s work. How his world had changed – he soon travelled to Paris where he received similar praise. His career as an artist blossomed.
But only for a time – Bissill died in 1973 largely forgotten. The ever-fickle art world had dimmed his spotlight to almost nothing. Yet there are now signs of a revival. His remarkable story is being used in educational material, and salerooms are achieving improving prices for his work. Time to illuminate his name once more… Continue reading →
Kelvingrove’s new Charles Rennie Mackintosh exhibition shines a welcome light on the architect and artist’s Glasgow peers, but struggles to convey the profound influence, legacy and genius of the man himselfWhen is a rose a Mackintosh rose? They are ubiquitous in Glasgow, on birthday cards and earrings and tea towels. Can they be traced back to a single rose, preferably by Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s hand, a rose against which all the others can be measured? [ . . . ]