Monday 28 July 2014

William Blake: Visions of Heaven and Hell

William Blake: Visions of Heaven and Hell
Some consider him England’s greatest ever artist but it is an opinion far from universally shared, and his legacy remains as controversial today as he was conflicted in his own lifetime.
Indeed, too much of a maverick to be great perhaps he could only ever be a genius.  
William Blake was born in Soho on 28 November 1757, the son of a hosier which was not a lucrative profession by any means but his family appear to have been affluent enough to indulge their son’s love of art and books.
He had little in the way of any formal education however, and like many autodidacts with an inquisitive mind the views he developed were often contrary to the accepted norms of the time and he was always to be sceptical of the taught rather than the learned.
In 1772, aged fifteen he was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire where he was sent to sketch London’s many Gothic Churches spending endless and not always happy hours within the confines of Westminster Abbey and other such places of not so quiet contemplation for the tortured soul.  
Having completed his apprenticeship as an engraver in 1779 he studied fine art at the Royal Academy where he opened a printing shop which brought him into contact with many of the leading radicals in the city.
In 1782, he wed Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a market gardener on the rebound from an earlier failed relationship which despite its somewhat unpromising beginnings and his own unorthodox views on the institution of marriage which he often referred to as a form of slavery with an unnatural monogamy at its core was to be a long and happy one.
The following year he published his first book of poetry.
Blake is often thought of as a of radical  but his politics were never coherent and he participated in the anti-Catholic and essentially reactionary Gordon Riots before later embracing and then rejecting the ideals of the French Revolution which he decided had simply been the replacement of one, oppressive orthodoxy for another.
In truth, he always opposed the abuse of power and it seemed to him that those who wielded it were invariably corrupted by it regardless of fine words and any professed ideals.   
So despite being a vocal critic of slavery and indeed of war he was never truly trusted either by the radicals or the political establishment.
The one constant in his life from birth was the Bible and it was both his inspiration and his guiding star but its interpretation was all his own and many people considered his work profane, even blasphemous.
He had little time for orthodox religion believing it negated passion and removed joy from the world. God, he said, had provided mankind with a passion that was to be, expressed, and even indulged:
“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governed the passions or have no passions but because they have cultivated its understanding”. 
He claimed to have had visions all his life, to be in direct communication with God, to have visited Heaven and to be always accompanied by angels but he also feared that Satan walked the Earth.
So he took instruction from Angels and sought comfort in conversations with the dead:
“I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than they were apparent in our mortal part”.
Some, among them the poet William Wordsworth, merely thought him mad.
Though Blake was not renowned for his verse during his lifetime but rather for his engravings and the beauty of his many illuminated manuscripts it is for a poem untitled but known to us as Jerusalem that he is best remembered today.
Since it was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1915, Jerusalem has become the unofficial anthem of England:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my bows of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O cloud unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
Blake is often associated now with the Romantic Poets but unlike Byron, Shelley and the others his work has a dark fatalism which like his art rich in symbolism and Biblical allegory has an intensity of anguish and desire that is often uncomfortable but can rarely be ignored.
He rarely dreamed - he had visions and nightmares.
William Blake died on 12 August 1827, in the presence of his wife, singing hymns late into the night and accompanied it is said by a chorus of angels.

Thursday 24 July 2014

John Martin: Painting the Apocalypse

The early Victorian artist John Martin, was born in Haydon Bridge, Northumberland on 19 July, 1789.

A devout Christian imbued of fire and brimstone he drew inspiration for his paintings from the New Testament, the rugged landscape of his home, and his experience of the great forges and ironworks of nearby Tyneside.

Though it was also said there was madness in the family and his older brother Jonathan was indeed to be committed to a lunatic asylum.

Extremely popular in his day Martin was courted by Royalty and had a great many prominent patrons, and as a result was to go from the one bedroom cottage of his birth to grand houses and great wealth.

Following his death on 17 February 1854, he quickly went out of fashion however, as his work was derided for its bombast and absurd theatricality.

Indeed, with his paintings locked away in storerooms and no longer exhibited for many years it became possible to purchase a John Martin art work for little more than a few shillings.

Christ Stlleth the Tempest

The Great Day of His Wrath

The Destruction of Herculaneum and Pompeii

The Eruption of Vesuvius

Belshazzar's Feast


The Experience of Adam and Eve

The Deluge

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Scotland and Freedom

On 22 July 1298, at the Battle of Falkirk, William Wallace, better known to history as "Braveheart" was defeated by an English Army led by Edward I in person. With his reputation as a battlefield commander in tatters in September of that year he was stripped of his title as Guardian of Scotland.

He was now a man on the run.

On 5 August 1305, he was captured by the English after being betrayed, possibly by Robert the Bruce, and taken to London in chains to stand trial as a traitor.

He said little in his defence speaking only once when he indignantly replied to the charge of treason:

"I cannot be a traitor, for I owe him no allegiance, he is not my Sovereign, he never received my homage".

It made no difference and later that day (23 August) he was tied to a hurdle and dragged through the streets of London to Smithfield where he was stripped naked, forced to wear a laurel crown, and hanged, drawn, and quartered.

In 1314, Robert the Bruce decisively defeated the English at the Battle of Bannockburn and was to seal Scottish Independence six years later with the famous Declaration of Arbroath:

"For as long as a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honour we are fighting but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself".

On 22 July, 1706, Commissioners from both Parliaments agree the terms and conditions for an Act of Union of England and Scotland.

Scotland still reeling economically from the aftermath of the disastrous Darien Expedition of seven years previous was attracted by England's promise to open up her colonial markets to Scottish trade, to share her national debt, and moreover to compensate them for the losses incurred at Darien.

 But they were also prepared to wield the big stick and if Scotland declined Union then the border would closed and a trade embargo imposed.

The Scottish Parliament through a combination of bribery and intimidation had been seduced and the Declaration of Arbroath had been forgotten.

The decision for Union caused much lamentation and it prompted the poet Robert Burns to write:

"We were bought and sold for English gold
 Never were there such rogues in a nation".

On 18 September 2014, the Scottish people will decide if they wish that Union to remain?

Friday 18 July 2014

Magna Carta

"No free man will be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions or outlawed or exiled or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him or send others to do so except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land".

Magna Carta (The Great Charter) issued at Runnymede on on 15 June 1215, and still the foundation of English liberty and justice.

King John Lackland: The Idiot Son now published on

Sunday 13 July 2014

Gustave Dore: Images of Victorian London

Victorian London was the largest, the most prosperous, and the most fashionable city in the world. A vibrant and flourishing place, the hub of commerce from around the Empire the streets of which it was said were paved with gold. But it had a dark and sinister underbelly.

Whereas the residents of the West End luxuriated in their wealth, attended their clubs, visited the theatre, frequented the boutiques and salons of Oxford Street and were waited upon by servants within walking distance of the peacock pomposity of gilded grandiloquence lay the East End of the city, a place of filth, squalor, and degradation..

A place in the popular Victorian imagination of beggars, drunkards, opium addicts, prostitutes, and thieves. Somewhere best forgotten about let alone visited.

One man thought otherwise and was determined to frequent its narrow streets, dark alleyways, and illicit dens of vice and sin, and to record what he saw, though he did so wearing rough working men's clothes and under police escort.

He was the French artist and engraver, Gustave Dore.

The result of Dore's excursions into the lesser known London was his book of 180 images and engravings - London: A Pilgrimage (1872).

It was to prove a commercial success but it was not to be without criticism:

Why did Dore focus so much on poverty? Was it the natural antipathy of a Frenchman towards the English?

He was accused of not depicting what he saw but rather scenes from his own clearly disturbed imagination.

Friday 11 July 2014

Julia Margaret Cameron: Early Photographic Portraiture

She did not receive her first camera until 1863 when she was already 48 years old and she was to be active for only eleven years, but Julia Margaret Cameron is now widely recognised as a pioneer of modern photography.

Many of her portraits saw her models posing in scenes from Arthurian legend, classical mythology, or in depictions of a rural idyll.

The rapid industrialisation of the previous century had seen British society transformed and with it a subsequent nostalgia for a past often more imagined than real.

It was not however considered right or proper for a Victorian woman of privilege to work at all let alone get ink on her hands and beneath under her fingernails and the passion with which she threw herself into this "Poor Man's Art" was frowned upon by many.

Despite this her reputation was such that many of the great and good of Victorian society including Charles Darwin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edward Holman Hunt, the Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the future actress Ellen Terry all posed for her in her studio on the Isle of Wight.

In 1875, she returned to the Indian sub-Continent where her husband had previously served in the Colonial Administration settling in Ceylon.

She was to continued her photographic work but with materials hard to come by it was at a much diminished rate. In the meantime, she was quickly forgotten back in England.

She died suddenly on 26 January 1879, aged 63, having earlier contracted a chill.

Monday 7 July 2014

Lincoln's Assassins Executed

On 7 July 1865, four conspirators involved in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln were hanged in Washington before jeering Union soldiers.

In the absence of the assassin himself, John Wilkes Booth, killed earlier in a shoot-out with his pursuers there could be no mercy.

The Government would have its revenge.

Mary Surratt owned the Guest House where the conspirators met and stored arms. She was to be the first woman executed in the United States for crimes other than witchcraft.

Lewis Thornton Powell was a Confederate soldier from Alabama who had earlier escaped captivity. He forced his way into Secretary of State William H Seward's home and stabbed him repeatedly as he lay in his bed. Powell was later arrested when he was unlucky enough to return to Mary Surratt's Guest House at the very moment when she was being questioned by detectives.

George Atzerodt was a German immigrant who could barely speak English and was assigned the task of murdering Vice-President Andrew Johnson but as Booth had feared he lost his nerve at the last moment.

David Herold, the Maryland pharmacist, was the only one of his fellow conspirators that John Wilkes Booth felt he could truly trust and accompanied him on his flight from Washington but once cornered he was to surrender himself without a fight with Booth's tirade of Traitor and Coward ringing in his ears.