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Room: William Blake

This video brought to you by Tate.org.uk

Curator Martin Myrone explores the work of William Blake. To learn more about Blake's life and work, check out our resource here.

Learn more about the art featured in this video:
- William Blake, Newton, 1795
- William Blake, The Ghost of a Flea, 1819-20
- William Blake, The Spiritual Form of Pitt Guiding Behemoth, 1805
- William Blake, The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan, 1805.
Created by Tate.

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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Ealcyone
    William Blake believes that modern science is destroying the imagination? But wouldn't science improve it? Did he have any personal grudges against it?
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user Camille @ Tate
      Blake stood against the values of science, rationalism, and the Enlightenment because he believed they were in opposition to the creative, spiritual, and the imaginative. For Blake, science was seen as reductive and wrong because it could never account for the creative impulse (remember that he was subject to hallucinations and visions which served as inspiration for many of his works.)

      It's quite a different perspective from the one many of us have today, that science, innovation, and creativity can go hand in hand. But Blake was a spiritual Romantic who believed that his art came from a world beyond this one.
      (9 votes)
  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Jennifer 13
    Are the walls in the room purple?
    (1 vote)
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    • starky tree style avatar for user Chelsea
      At the time of Blake's exhibition, the idea of a gallery space would have been very different to how we set them out today (clutter and coloured walls, vs pure white- the 'white cube'). I imagine the curators adopted the colour to fit in with the presentation history of the paintings.
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Zuzanna Glamowska
    Some time ago I've read that William Blake was called "mad Blake" . Could you explain why ?
    (1 vote)
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Video transcript

The figure of Newton appears in Blake’s poetry and thought as the kind of representative figure of materialism and empiricism, so what Blake seems to be doing is representing Newton not through a portrait, but through this emblematic figure, to suggest how modern science is perhaps destroying the imagination. For me, this is one of the key works in Blake’s oeuvre and in the Blake collection at Tate, because on the one hand it is incredibly powerfully visual and I think of Blake as a visual artist as well as a poet, but at the same time it’s mystifying, it’s mysterious, and despite the fact that you’ve had generations of philosophers and scholars and art historians and thinkers about Blake trying to unpick this image we still can’t quite make sense of it, and that, to me, kind of encapsulates why Blake is so fascinating and so appealing. This is an enigmatic little painting created towards the end of Blake’s life, about 1819–20 inspired supposedly by a vision that Blake had of a spiritual form of a flea a ghost of a flea, when he was working with John Varley, a watercolour artist and astrologer We’re not quite sure whether Blake genuinely had those visions, or whether he was playing up to what Varley expected him to see as a visionary artist. But either way, Blake has created a very memorable and influential embodiment of evil. These three works were among the paintings that Blake included in his one-man exhibition held in the upstairs room of his family hosiery shop in Golden Square, Soho in 1809. The paintings that he showed there dealt with themes of national importance. This work is the spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth, and is a partner to the work on the far right the spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan. Both show figures from public life, recently deceased, guiding biblical monsters of destruction. Here we see the spiritual form of Pitt, Pitt was the Tory prime minister who had died a couple of years before guiding Behemoth, the biblical monster that brings destruction on land. But Pitt, rather than being represented as a contemporary figure is shown as a Christ-like figure in a robe, with this extraordinary gigantic halo the halo probably taken from Asian art, rather than from Western tradition. Blake is not an easy artist to interpret. His work deals with strange and often very personal and rather arcane themes. What I hope is that the Blake Room will help, kind of, reassert Blake’s role not only in the history of poetry or the imagination, or in Britain’s cultural life but also as a visual artist, and someone who used visual forms in a very original and very powerful way.