The house which contained the studio of William Blake; the impressively named 13 Hercules Buildings, in Lambeth, south London, was demolished in 1918. But 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 a massive wooden press is being recreated for an exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; 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.
The cramped studio space in which the artist and poet Blake created some of the greatest prints in the history of art will be rebuilt for the exhibition next month. In 1790 the artist and his wife, Catherine, moved to the modest Georgian brick terrace. 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’.
Apart from the works remaining and a single fragment of one of his relief-etched copper plates, no trace remains of Hercules Buildings, or his press or the plates he made to reproduce his works during the revolutionary decade of the 1790s. However, it is possible to build on a few surviving records to reconstruct the circumstances of his life at this extraordinary time – and now thanks to Phillips we can explore Blake’s studio for the first time.
Phillips will also work in the galleries on certain days, producing new prints of Blake’s work. The prints, combining his images with his poetry or prose which the artist had to write freehand in mirror writing on to the plates, 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.
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.”
Ashmolean senior curator Colin Harrison said the exhibition would afford a fresh perspective on Blake’s working practice. He went on to describe the experience of the blockbuster at Tate Britain in 2000, which was the largest ever mounted exhibition with more than 500 works on display, as “walking into a three dimensional stamp album – wonderful for the aficionado, not very illuminating for the general public”.
William Blake: Apprentice & Master – Ashmolean Museum Oxford – 4 December 2014 to 1 March 2015