ALBION


  


WILLIAM BLAKE (1757 - 1827)
Albion Rose (also known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion),  ca. 1794




 

This picture was earlier known as Glad Day or Jocund Day, because Blake's biographer Alexander Gilcrest assumed that it illustrated a passage from Act III, Scene v of Romeo and Juliet. Romeo prepares to leave at dawn after their wedding-night and says:
 
    Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
    Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.

Whatever the original inspiration for the picture, sometime after 1800 Blake turned it into a line engraving with the addition of two lines of poetry beginning with "Albion Rose ..."





(black and white engraving of "Albion Rose" from 1804)



 

There are two paintings by William Blake which are essential viewpoints for his life and art. „THE ANCIENT OF DAYS“ deals with the upheavals of Blakes own time. Under the influence of the law-giving deity Urizen, Europe develops a repressive and materialistic society that eventually provokes the violent reaction of the French Revolution. It shows the god Urizen measuring out a material world. Urizen is in the center of the sun which is surrounded by darkening clouds. The workings of this god are the workings of reason. 

 
 

William Blake, The Ancient of Days

 
 

The second one is the painting presented above: „GLAD DAY“ or „ALBION ROSE“. The ecstatic resurrection figure clad only in a beaming colorful light is Albion (who is the symbol for England) but he is also Blakes „One Man“ - the archetype rising from bondage. It was created in a time when in England the rights of the citizens were reduced in a countermovement to the French Revolution. England at the time was in a state of industrial exploitation and injustice.
 

Blake was fascinated by both Urizen and Albion for a lifetime. These two paintings symbolize the tension in which he lived and worked throughout all his life: A Christ figure and the god of the old testament, a young man and a wise old man, light and darkness, freedom and restriction.
 



 

In his time, William Blake was known as a painter and mostly as an engraver. But he was also a poet, a visionary, a revolutionary, even a musician. He had a very eccentric character and did not care much for the institutions of the state or the rigorous social conventions.

Blake was born in 1757 as the third child (of seven) of a hosier and therefore he was part of the lower middle class. When he was fifteen years old, he was beginning his apprenticeship as an engraver. It was this profession which made him known in the public and through which he could barely afford a living. But his private art that only few connoisseurs knew was his true passion. Not much is known about his education but he taught himself to read and write, later he read books in different languages and knew the works of the writers and philosophers of his time.

In 1779 he became a student at the Royal Academy and made some friends with fellow artists, also he had a small exhibition there, but later, the president of the academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds, rejected his workings which were not in the style of the time. Blake became very critical of conservative, academic, successful art which adapts to the taste of the public.

In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher. Not much is known about her except that she was just as eccentric and unconventional as Blake with whom she always had a very close and loving relationship. Like him she was politically radical and also had visions. She was also helping him with drawing and engraving his art and completed some of his works after his death.

One year after his marriage, his first book was published, the “Poetical Sketches”, and there seemed to be a successful career ahead of him. He set up a printing office and invented a new printing method called “illuminated printing”. He engraved the handwritten text and the image on a plate and then coloured the print afterwards so that there would never be identical versions. With this method, William Blake was able to produce his art himself which made him independent but it also separated him from the public. Not many were interested in “his illuminated books” although they were a singular combination of both painting and writing which no artist before had connected so closely.

In his “Songs Of Innocence And Experience”, Blake contrasts joy of living with sorrow and bitterness. The poem “The lamb” portrays a woollen lamb whose creator is a lamb himself: Jesus.
 
 

On the other side, there is “The Tiger” – one of the most famous works of Blake.
    Tiger, tiger, burning bright,
    In the forests of the night ...
 

The tiger can be viewed as the evil in the world which even the creator cannot restrain. But Blake never thought of “good” and “evil” as fitting descriptions of life. He sees the tiger as the symbol for a positive energy which is cast into a form through creation.

After the decapitation of King Louis XVI in France, England declared war on France. The prime minister became fearful that revolution would happen in England. Therefore, sympathizers of the revolution were declared as enemies of the state and new laws were passed restricting freedom of speech and pamphlets. So, the English radicalism fell apart and many idealist radicals like William Blake lost contact to each other and lived lonely lives.
 

The most striking feature of all his art work is its visionary character. He was a “seer” in the literal sense of the word who was always led from the material world into the realm of the spirit by beings and thoughts (it is said that as a child, he saw angels in a tree). He felt that it was through artistic intuition, that the deeper reality could be perceived.
 
Quote from “Auguries of Innocence”:

    To see a world in a grain of sand
    And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
    Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
    And Eternity in an hour.
 

He was a religious man but he was very critical of the orthodoxy of the church and their abuse of power. In his esoterical work “The marriage of heaven and hell”, he shows us that “good and evil” are twisted distortions of “reason and energy” – the two basic principles of nature which must be united. In the nineties and in the early nineteenth century, he set out to create his his greatest works with their own mythology, with new gods like Urizen (a name which reflects the words “Your reason” as well as “Horizon”). Urizen is the divider and limitationer of the world. His son Fuzon is the rebel who leads an insurrection against the oppression. Their final conflict is an action-loaded fantasy worthy to be a special effects extravaganza by Peter Jackson or a monumental opera by Richard Wagner.
 

In some of his works, Blake also reflected feminist writings by Mary Wollstonecraft. His political allegory “America” ends with the image of the sexual revolution. In his later years, he separated himself from the world, rarely saw his friends, but he remained extremely productive and never rested for a day. Still, he saw himself as an outsider as this poem shows:
 
    To Thomas Butts, 16th August 1803

    Oh why was I born with a different face?
    Why was I not born like the rest of my race?
    When I look each one starts! When I speak, I offend;
    Then I’m silent and passive & lose every friend.

    Thus my verse I dishonour, My pictures despise,
    my person degrade & my temper chastise;
    And the pen is my terror, the pencil my shames;
    All my talents I bury, and dead is my fame.

    I am either too low or too highly prized;
    When Elate I am Envy’d, when Meek I’m despis’d.
 
 

When he died in 1827, a few months before his 70th birthday, his paintings, his literary works and his prophetic poetry were regarded as insignificant. The obituary in the Monthly Magazine read “William Blake, engraver” – which hardly does him justice. He was forgotten for many decades or merely regarded as chaotic and insane.
 

He was only rediscovered in the early twentieth century by the Irish poet Yeats and again in the Sixties by beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Although William Blake has found his way into popular culture through quotes in films like “Blade Runner” or “Dead Man”, his true significance and importance is yet to be discovered – possibly through nothing less than a renewal of our society …