13 Hercules Buildings, in Lambeth, south London, was demolished in 1918; it was the house which contained the studio of William Blake, lost to the nation forever it would seem – now with the opening of the Ashmolean museum Oxford’s exhibition ‘William Blake: Apprentice & Master’ the general public is getting a taste of what Blake’s studio was actually like.
Curator and print-maker Tom Phillips recently discovered the floor plans, made for a Victorian survey of the estate, which were recently discovered in the Guildhall library. Now the narrow work space housing the large wooden press has been recreated for the exhibition; including descriptions by younger artists who made a pilgrimage to Blake’s studio and home, as well as later accounts by art lovers who tried to save the studio and Hercules building in 1918.
Phillips has also been working in the galleries on certain days, producing new prints of Blake’s work. Blake would create prints combining images with poetry or prose which the artist had to write freehand in mirror writing on to the plates, which were often worked and reworked by Blake, and elaborately hand coloured by the artist and his wife. Phillips will be working with replica ones he has created as the originals no longer exist.
In 1790 the artist and his wife, Catherine, moved to the modest Georgian brick terrace, and the cramped studio space in which the artist and poet Blake created some of the greatest prints in the history of art. It was on the narrow staircase that the artist experienced visions including one that inspired ‘The Ancient of Days’, his front-cover design for his 1794 book ‘Europe a Prophecy’. Elements of which can be seen in the thorough exploration of the artist’s oeuvre on display in the exhibition.
Blake lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich oeuvre, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself”.
Yet no trace remains of Hercules Buildings, or his press or the plates the artist made to reproduce his works during the revolutionary decade of the 1790s, nothing has remained from the demolition, However, it was possible to build on a few surviving records to reconstruct the circumstances of his life at this extraordinary time and create the replica space for the viewer to examine.
The show is the largest since the blockbuster at Tate Britain in 2000, which was the largest ever mounted exhibition with more than 500 works on display, the Ashmolean affords the viewer an illuminating experience in the the practice of the great artist, poet, and print-maker; now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.
Philip Pullman, author and president of the Blake Society, told the Guardian: “William Blake was a complete original: his power, his tenderness, his wit, his graphic line are like no one else’s, and it’s good to remind people ever so often about his colossal imagination and his moral vision, which are just as potent now after two hundred years as they were when he brought them into the world.”
William Blake: Apprentice & Master – Ashmolean Museum Oxford -Until 1 March 2015