This summer we decided to stay in the UK for our holiday. I’ve always felt a little ashamed of how little of my homeland I’ve actually seen. We stayed in the beautiful lake district, drove to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games and spent a couple of days soaking up history around Hadrian’s Wall.
In Glasgow we stayed in Pollok County Park, close to the beautiful Pollok House, ancestral home of the Maxwell family. During a stroll around the house I was surprised to find that as well as a large collection of Spanish art, there were a number of paintings by GCSE Literature Anthology stalwart William Blake. I say ‘surprised’ as I had no idea that Blake was a painter. I’d only every known him as a poet, though I’m sure this isn’t news to all the clever folk reading this blog
One of his paintings was particularly interesting, not least because of the details of its creation.
William Blake’s painting, finished around 1808/1809, is still shrouded in a certain amount of controversy. According to Blake, the idea for this painting and the later engraving of the same subject was his own, and Blake was incensed when an incredibly similar painting was commissioned by Robert Cromek to be painted by Blake’s friend Thomas Stothard.
Here’s Thomas Stothard’s painting of the same title:
It’s easy to understand Blake’s contempt for Stothard’s creation – which he firmly believed was a blatant copy. In fact, the painting caused a feud which appears to have ended a long working relationship between the pair.
But unfortunately for all you Blake fans, there is a twist to this tale. Although Blake claims to have had the original idea for this painting, it was actually Stothard who produced the work first, in 1807. Blake claimed that Robert Cromek stole the idea from him when visiting his studio in 1805, then hurried to finish his own version as soon as possible. But, contemporary accounts indicate that Stothard had been toying with the concept as early as 1793, producing a similar watercolour from which the later painting appears to have been derived. (More information on this can be found here)
It’s easy to feel sorry for Blake when considering this information. The work by Stothard bought him great respect and fame among his contemporaries, whereas Blake’s work did not enjoy the same critical response. Maybe Blake did have a similar idea, but it takes a certain kind of character to devote years to work on a project which had already been completed by another artist. Was Blake a liar? Obsessive? Paranoid?
Another thing I learned on this trip, was that throughout his life Blake claimed to have seen visions of angelic and religious figures. At one stage he even claimed to be conversing daily with his deceased brother. These visions also influenced his paintings, with religious themes dominating much of his work.
Pollok House was also home to these two his paintings:
Now, with every piece of knowledge I picked up on this visit, and from my subsequent googling, the same few words have been gently swimming through my memory:
Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
(Opening Stanza of William Blake’s 1794 poem Tyger)
I taught this poem for the first time this year. Although I enjoyed it, and felt I had a pretty decent understanding of the poem, I’m not sure I did a particularly good job at helping my students understand it. But at that time I hadn’t seen any of Blake’s paintings. I had no idea of his religious views, or his seemingly absurd claims of religious visions. I didn’t know about his paranoid completion of the probably copied Canterbury Pilgrims. In sum, I knew very little about William Blake. But now, when I consider the poem alongside the evidence for Blake’s personality, it all seems to make such perfect, absurd sense.
My experience here seemed to fit clearly with the messages espoused by Daniel Willingham in his fantastic book Why Don’t Students Like School. Firstly, because I already knew William Blake as a poet, my interest in his paintings was heightened. Not only this, I found recalling the information I read about Blake much easier, as it linked neatly to my existing Blake knowledge. Lastly, I was surprised at how the connections between my Blake knowledge helped me think about his poetry.
Blake may have been an ‘unfortunate lunatic’, but I still find him fascinating. Next time I teach his poetry, I’ll have a good story to share with my pupils. Hopefully it’ll help their thinking as well.