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A “Mad” but Compelling Vision
At the heart of the British Art Center’s collections is a trove of delicate works on paper by the English poet and artist William Blake. A show opening this month illustrates the breadth and depth of his durably disturbing appeal.

The collections of the Yale Center for British Art constitute a repository of such richness and depth that their rapid accumulation, primarily during the third quarter of this century, is a feat which astounds visitors and specialists alike. Two names dominate this exceptional story: Paul Mellon ’29, whose benefactions in the arts are fabled, and William Blake (1757–1827), the visionary poet and artist whose own world of archetypal giants largely inspired the program of acquisition that culminated in the founding of the BAC. However, the centrality of Blake to the Mellon collection is rarely apparent. Because of the extreme fragility of Blake’s works, only one of them is ever on permanent view in the Center’s galleries. The casual visitor to the museum is treated to the serenity of George Stubbs’s sporting art, to a banquet of landscape painters of which J. M. W. Turner and John Constable fix the parameters of romantic excellence, to an unexpected ensemble of Ben Nicholson’s abstract constructions. But only scholars tend to venture beyond the Center’s public spaces into the Study Room for prints, drawings, and rare books, where the whole of Blake’s universe awaits a more intimate reading. A unique opportunity to see that universe unfolded is being provided this month when the Yale Center for British Art celebrates its 20th anniversary—and Paul Mellon’s 90th birthday—with a major exhibition, “The Human Form Divine: William Blake from the Paul Mellon Collection.”

When Paul Mellon began to acquire British art in the 1960s, he ventured into an area of collecting that was much undervalued internationally and very much the private preserve of a handful of passionate but aging British gentlemen. Possibly as many as one-third of the Center’s 50,000 watercolors, drawings, and prints and 20,000 rare books originated in a discrete number of private collections. But the one group of graphic works that weaves the many strands of Paul Mellon’s personal interests and experiences—his formative years at Yale, when he was privileged to study with such legendary mentors as Chauncey Brewster Tinker; his passion for illustrated books and for British art, which dates from the 1930s; and his admiration for esoteric traditions in Western intellectual thought—is not the legacy of some other collector. Rather, it is the remarkable collection of William Blake’s books, paintings, and engravings, which Mr. Mellon assembled piecemeal and entirely according to his own tastes. The trove might be viewed as the core collection of the BAC.

Paul Mellon began to build a private library while studying at Cambridge University in the 1930s. His initial purchases were “color-plate” and sporting books. Of Blake, he has recalled that “his haunting poetry with its arcane mythology and his beautiful illuminated books have always held a special appeal to me,” and it was perhaps inevitable that he would begin collecting Blake at an early date. Blake was one of the most singular of all romantic geniuses, having equal claim to renown as a poet, a painter, an experimental engraver, and a philosopher. This genius is nowhere more evident than in his so-called illuminated books. Coincidentally, Mellon’s first Blake purchase, in 1941, was also Blake’s first illuminated book, There is No Natural Religion (1788). From that moment, hardly a year passed when the collector did not acquire some Blake opus. The harvest is impressive, consisting as it does of four tempera paintings and several hundred prints and watercolors. But it is the 12 illuminated books that confer on Mellon’s collection its eminence.

Blake first used the term “Illuminated Book” in a 1793 prospectus advertising his published illustrated poems. The allusion to medieval manuscript illumination was intentional. Beginning with There is No Natural Religion and Songs Of Innocence (1789), Blake invented a unique printmaking technique that enabled him to print both his text and designs from the same copper plates. Conventional publishing of the period employed letterpress and engraved plates, each of which was printed separately. Blake’s technique, now referred to as “relief etching,” involved painting an illustration and writing the text, in reverse, on the surface of one copper plate with an acid-resistant varnish. Acid was then poured over the plate to etch away the exposed areas and leave in relief the designs and verse. Blake would then ink the raised areas and print the plate on paper using a standard engraver’s rolling press.

Blake’s earliest illuminated books were usually printed in one color of ink and then further hand-colored with watercolor. In about 1794, and for several years after that, the artist began printing the plates with a variety of thick, colored inks that yielded effects of stunning richness. The print for the famous poem “The Tyger” from Songs of Experience (1794) or the plates from The First Book of Urizen (1795) are exemplars of that advanced process. By means of this novel technique—his “infernal method,” as he called it—Blake created a composite of poetry, painting, and printmaking without precedence or parallel in Western art.

In the mid-1940s, Paul Mellon was able to purchase copies of the Book of Thel, several copies of Songs, and the copy of Europe, A Prophecy that had belonged at one time to Benjamin Disraeli. These were joined in the 1950s by Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and America, A Prophecy from the celebrated library of William A. White, as well as by one of the few copies of The First Book of Urizen with a full complement of 28 plates. The final illuminated book to enter the collection, in 1972, was a second copy of Urizen, thus bringing together two of only eight known printings of that magnificent prophetic work.

Mellon’s pursuit of Blake would introduce him to a distinguished group of senior bibliophiles who had made it their business to transfer the great Blake collections from private to public ownership—in particular, Lessing J. Rosenwald in America, and the renowned Blake scholar, Sir Geoffrey Keynes, in England. They had begun collecting Blake much earlier, and while the Mellon collection does not match their comprehensiveness, it ultimately ranks with them because of two stellar acquisitions: the 116 watercolor illustrations of the poems of Thomas Gray, and the most coveted of Blake’s illuminated books, the unique, watercolored copy of Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion.

Jerusalem occupied Blake from 1804 until the last years of his life. It is an epic poem that tells an abstruse story of spiritual redemption in which all opposing forces within humankind are reconciled in the eternal unity of Christ’s sacrifice. Blake printed only five copies of this masterwork in the 1820s. The Mellon copy was printed in orange-red ink and, by Blake’s standards, lavishly finished with watercolor and gold paint (a commodity of amazing value to an artist whose daily sustenance was never guaranteed!). The remaining four copies, uncolored and printed in black, lack both the enchanting lyricism of the delicately tinted pages of text in the Mellon copy, and the majesty that Blake’s coloring imparts to certain formal elements in its illustrations. The labor involved in printing and coloring the 100 plates was tremendous, yet sadly this copy remained unsold at Blake’s death, in 1827. As with so much of Blake’s writing, the poem was considered unintelligible, if not actually mad, by most of his contemporaries.

Today it is recognized as the consummation of his genius as a poet, artist, and prophetic revolutionary, his longest and most personal testament of beliefs, his most brilliantly designed and technically innovative work of art. And until now, it has never been exhibited publicly in its entirety.

With regard to the commission and destination of the watercolor illustrations for Thomas Gray’s Poems, no such uncertainty exists. Blake was blessed in having many generous friends, among whom the sculptor John Flaxman occupied an esteemed position. Flaxman helped subsidize the publication of Blake’s first poems, Poetical Sketches (1783), and he later introduced the artist to many other patrons. In 1797, Flaxman paid Blake to illustrate the popular odes of Thomas Gray for his wife as a birthday present.

Blake had no reservations about illustrating another poet’s work; rather, he treated Gray’s verse as a starting point for his own imaginative flights. More often than not, his designs are replete with allusions and inventions of whimsical genius that remain as wondrous and delightful to us as they no doubt had been to Ann and John Flaxman. “Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” was Gray’s most famous poem, but Blake was more interested in “The Bard,” perhaps fancying himself a modern incarnation of this mythical Welsh poet. The ode inevitably inspired the most monumental and heroic of his designs for Mrs. Flaxman. “The Bard ‘Weaving the Winding Sheet of Edward’s Race’” is a riveting example of imaginative interpretation. The loom of King Edward I’s fate is envisioned as a harp of huge strings weeping droplets of blood, on which the Bard chants his augury of the king’s demise.

The desire to preserve intact collections or groups of objects has always been a characteristic of Paul Mellon’s collecting designs. It informed his purchase in 1959 of the 800 surviving volumes of John Locke’s library and its subsequent donation to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and his purchases for the British Art Center, well after it opened in 1977, of George Stubbs’s Comparative Anatomical drawings and J. M. W. Turner’s breathtaking “Channel” sketchbook, both of which were destined by the art trade to be disbound and sold by the sheet. It is highly probable that Mellon’s acquisition of Jerusalem in 1953 and of the Gray watercolors in 1966 saved both from similar desecration and dispersal.

Blake’s earliest training had been as a reproductive engraver, and he practiced that trade throughout his career. Paul Mellon was no less attentive to this underestimated dimension of Blake’s oeuvre than to any other, and the works he collected reveal how varied Blake’s craftsmanship could be—from the polished professionalism of the illustrations for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts to the archaism of the great Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims. He was equally comfortable with new or experimental techniques of his own or of another’s creation, such as his relief etchings and the large monotypes he produced between 1795 and 1805. The popular technique of lithography entered his repertoire in the 1820s. He sortied into wood-engraving only once, but with seductive originality. All of these fascinate, but the Illustrations of the Book of Job, executed in 1825, stand apart as a tour-de-force of the engraver’s art, intentionally evocative of Northern renaissance engraving yet thoroughly modern in their delicately incised brilliance.

In 1979, Paul Mellon made his last Blake purchase to date: “The Man Sweeping the Interpreter’s Parlour” (c. 1822). It is, coincidentally, also one of Blake’s last engravings. The subject is a passage from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in which an old man, reminiscent of Urizen and representing moral law, stirs up the dust of corruption in the soul of a man as an angel attempts to calm the clouds, billowing with Goya-esque demons, by sprinkling the floor with the cleansing grace of the Gospel. We alight once again on Blake’s favorite theme of redemption, borrowed from another author but recast with simplicity in the visual language of his own peculiar mythology.

Any visitor to the British Art Center will gain an overview of the accomplishments of a number of artists who were profoundly gifted or whose contributions proved seminal to the development of the art of their epoch. Exceptional groups of oils, drawings, and prints—by Bonington, Gainsborough, and Hogarth, to name but a few artists—elicit admiration for the national school and the individual celebrities it produced. But William Blake invariably commands a different respect, for although most of his contemporaries were accomplished in several media and some even dabbled in writing verse or composing music, none produced a body of work quite as radical in its meaning and intriguingly unorthodox in its means as Blake’s.  the end


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