Curator recreates William Blake's studio following discovery of previously unknown plans

By Richard Moss | 07 November 2014

Recently discovered blueprints of a house in Lambeth are enabling the Ashmolean in Oxford to recreate William Blake's studio of the 1790s

a black and white photo of a terraced house with a blue plaque on it
Hercules Buildings, Lambeth. Photograph by the Topical Press Agency (October 20 1913). Photographer unknown© Collection of Michael Phillips
The words, images and ideas of William Blake (1757–1827) continue to fascinate on a number of levels, but aside from the revolutionary poetry and mystical mind set, it's Blake's innovations in illuminated printing that still captivate artists, printers and public alike. 

Now a new exhibition at the Ashmolean in Cambridge is about to unlock some of these secrets and explore how some of Blake’s best-known works were created and individually produced.

At the centre of William Blake: Apprentice & Master will be a recreation of Blake’s 1790s studio in Lambeth.

The reconstruction follows the discovery of plans dating to the 19th century that show the footprint and exact dimensions of No.13 Hercules Building, Hercules Road, where Blake created the majority of his illuminated books and developed his unique method of colour printing.

According to the Blake Society, Blake lived at Hercules Building with his wife Catherine throughout the 1790s. But despite having a plaque attached above the doorway in photos dating to around 1913, the flat was destroyed when the building was razed in 1918.

Frederick Adock No. 13 Hercules Buildings [then re-numbered no.23] Pen and ink drawing Reproduced from A St John Adock Famous Houses and Literary Shrines of London (1912)
Today the exact location of the house is marked by a blue plaque on the wall of what is now the “William Blake Estate”, Hercules Road, London SE1.

Guest curator Michael Phillips aims to recreate the original studio using a combination of the archival blueprints and contemporary descriptions of the interior.

The plans should give him a good start; they clearly show the ground floor and Blake’s etching and painting studio - referred to as “Blake’s atelier”, looking out onto the back garden and the outside privy. The front ground floor of the building is marked as a printmaking workshop with rolling press.

Phillips, who is a printer himself, says he aims to provide a "unique insight" into the working environment of one of Britain’s most original and influential artists. Using facsimiles of Blake’s etching plates, he will also demonstrate the artist’s printing techniques at special events during the exhibition.

Apprentice & Master examines the three key phases in Blake’s life, beginning with his formation as an artist and his apprenticeship as an engraver, and then moving on to his maturity during the 1790s and his final years.

During the latter period he came to inspire and guide a younger generation of artists which included Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, and Edward Calvert. And it was Palmer who arguably carried the Blake mantle into the later centuries when he himself was discovered by a new generation of British printmakers in the 1930s.

The exhibition juxtaposes many of the works by Blake that Palmer and his group, who dubbed themselves the Ancients, would have seen on their visits to the artist-poet and his wife towards the end of his life, together their own early works.

Among the most notable are Palmer’s greatest creations, the six sepia drawings of 1825, and Calvert’s exquisite woodcuts of the late 1820s.

Other key works are several of Blake’s most extraordinary illuminated books including The Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Europe a Prophecy and examples of the Large Colour Prints of 1795, including Nebuchadnezzar and Newton.

Early works include his depictions of Gothic monuments, depictions of the human body and his remwrkable etching after Fuseli’s Head of Damned Soul (circa 1789–90).

Describing Blake as “Albion’s strangest genius”, President of the Blake Society, Philip Pullman CBE, said: “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 every so often about his colossal imagination and his moral vision, which are just as potent after 200 years as they were when he brought them into the world.”

  • William Blake: Apprentice & Master is at the Ashmolean's Special Exhibition Galleries from December 4 2014 – March 1 2015. Tickets £4.50-£10 (free for under-12s and members). Book online.

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Should the exhibition dates at the bottom read Dec 2014 - March 2015 and not March 2014?
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