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Art against Empire: William Blake, J M W Turner and the age of revolution

From the mid seventeenth century the revolutionary period in Europe and America saw turbulent political and social changes. These changes were also reflected in, and driven by, the arts, not least in Romanticism’s extolling of the “individual” and insight. One of the earliest such artists was William Blake whose works evince a strongly revolutionary spirit, set against tyranny and enslavement of all kinds. Largely ignored in his lifetime, Blake has since been recognised as sui generis and a profound voice for his age. In contrast, J M W Turner, a generation later than Blake, was much more successful, though he also made political criticisms in his art. Turner’s later works, however, led to a rejection by critics. Both, in different ways, portrayed the influence of the Romantic and revolutionary strands of their world.

Romanticism is a term full of meaning but difficult to pin down, containing two hundred years of interpretations (Craske 1997, 7). It is, perhaps, more appropriate to refer to “romanticisms” instead, recognising that there was no monolithic Romantic movement in all countries and, indeed, many thought the term one of insult (Craske 1997, 10). Day (1996, 6) considers it more relevant to ask how individual Romantics reflected the movement, rather than trying to fit them to one template. It is also helpful to see Romanticism not as a movement for something, but more accurately a revolt against standards (Russell 1961, 651). In this sense, Romantics echoed the revolutionary fervour of the time as deeply political artists (Williams 1958, 48).

Regardless of the difficulty of definitions, Romantic art can be considered broadly as defined by an emphasis on an individual artist’s expression of imagination via a personal vision (Craske 1997, 36). Schlegel stated that a Romantic had to have a “religion of his (sic) own, an original view of the infinite” (Hughes 1987, 90). In Romanticism, art and beauty became terms that relied on the individual’s definitions, rather than a collective understanding (Harris 2003, 64).

It was not just the Romantics who were in revolt: from the late eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth, the French, American and Industrial revolutions were taking place, partly charged by a new concept of individual rights and freedoms espoused in the works of thinkers such as Thomas Paine (Day 1996, 12). The notion of liberty drove these revolutionary thinkers, though it must be noted that there were many such movements, rather than a unified entity (Makdisi 2003b, 59). Agriculture in Britain was also changing, leading to the enclosure of commons, and increasing commercialisation (Stewart 2012, 161).

The Romantic period is considered to extend from the French Revolution in 1789 (or, alternatively, the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798) over the next four decades (Day 1996, 2). Artists at this time were unable to escape these historical currents: some, such as William Blake (1757-1827), both celebrated the new age while condemning the social ills it created (Smith 1988, 23). Indeed, Blake’s lifetime was essentially the same as that of the revolutionary period (Williams 1958, 49). Hobsbawn (1962, 255) has suggested that a crude simplification of artists of this period sees them as inspired by the French Revolution, horrified by the Industrial Revolution, and shaped by the changes bourgeois society was bringing to how artists lived and worked.

Blake stands as an early example of a Romantic artist and one who consistently expressed a vision so personal that he was viewed as a madman by contemporaries (Hargraves 2010, 215). Even today Blake’s idiosyncratic religious visions can obscure that his concerns were also always political and social (Day 1996, 95). Blake reacted strongly against Enlightenment ideals of rationalism and the materialism of the Industrial Revolution, expressing instead a divine inspiration (Hargraves 2010, 244). Unlike the general philosophical view of the revolutionary period that freedom should not be imposed by authority but by the self, Blake saw this as the imposition of yet another controlling system. For Blake, as Makdisi observes (2003b, 274), saw freedom as a release to act, not restrain, and as a removal of limits. To Blake, all systems were forms of enslavement, limiting the imagination (Kiralis 1956, 131). His lifelong opposition to tyranny ranged from early association with radical elements, through to his late works concerning a supreme human liberty (Swearingen 1992, 125).

In Blake’s lifetime corn became increasingly scarce, inflation ran rampant, famine frequent, taxes higher, and riots in reaction common (Bronowski 1965, 43). For half of Blake’s lifetime England was at war (Browowski 1965, 14). English economic supremacy was ending, and the old, village, way of life along with it (Bronowski 1965, 44). London’s population grew from 675,000 in 1750 to 2,362,200 in 1850 (Facos 2011, 13). The Industrial Revolution was centred in Britain and, according to Hobsbawm (1962, 26) ranked as one of the most significant events in world history. It brought, however, many deleterious changes, especially to labourers. Blake witnessed the Industrial Revolution turning art into a productive process, a mechanical endeavour no different from the other new production processes being implemented in the factories of the North (Williams 1958, 52). Blake was one of the earliest artists to recognise this upheaval (Hobsbawn 1962, 263). He was an anachronism whose artisanal genius was challenged by the commodification of culture, even as he was forced to work within that milieu to earn a living (Makdisi 2003a, 131). Blake was swept along by these forces, literally so when, in 1780, he took part in the Gordon riots and witnessed the burning of Newgate prison (Wilson 1978, 18).

Blake was one among many loosely aligned religious Dissenters who supported radical beliefs, both religious and political (Day 1996, 17-18). Joseph Johnson, a bookseller, became the centre of meetings of these radical thinkers, among whom Blake was exposed to dissenting ideas (Bronowski 1965, 65). He opposed not just political empires, however, but also denounced all oppressive systems, including slavery and arbitrary moral and ethical codes which literally and metaphorically imprisoned the poor, women and the weak (Day 1996, 25). For Blake, politics and religion were the same thing (Erdman 1982, 207).

Art was a way of expressing revolution. In his annotations to The Laocoön Blake asserted a binary opposition of “Empire against Art” (Erdman 1982, 274). Blake saw art as a social function, and a way of avoiding the slavery of mundane revolutions (Frye 1951, 35). The revolutionary age is directly addressed in many of Blake’s images, though the personal nature of his mythology in his images means that it cannot easily be held down to one interpretation (Bronowski 1965, 30). As Blake wrote: “He who binds to himself a joy/ Does the winged life destroy” (Erdman 1982, 470). Nonetheless, there are clear themes that drive Blake’s art, particularly the struggle against restraint and the urge towards freedom. For Blake this meant overthrowing socio-political restraints as much as self-imposed psychological restraints (Makdisi 2003b, 81-83).

The illuminated books present a combination of text and image which, unlike the mechanical processes used in printing that produced multiple, identical, copies, were works that were hand printed and coloured, so each edition is a unique object. This leads to each work being readable in no one, canonical, way. The object has become unstable, as Makdisi (2003a, 114) points out. Just as society had become unstable, Blake’s art reflected this shifting. Blake created an unparalleled radical art, full of energy, where words and image operate on multiple interacting levels (Frye 1951, 38).

The Songs of Experience (1794) in particular directly addresses the poverty of the London working class. Apart from three years in Felpham, Blake lived all his life in London and knew its ills well (Damon 1973, 244). In London Blake attacks the oppression around him, the word “charter’d” showing how business has enclosed even the streets and the river, commerce reigning supreme, evoking an angry response (Tomlins 2009, 196). Blake shows a child leading an old man who may be Blake’s creator god Urizen, self-crippled by attempting to redeem his failed system of creation by imposing yet another system (Keynes 1970, 150).


Figure 1. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy L, object 51 (Bentley 46, Erdman 46, Keynes 46) “LONDON”, 1795. Relief etching with watercolour. 11.1 x 6.9cm. Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=songsie.l.illbk.51&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

A Divine Image, intended for the Songs of Experience but excluded by Blake and not printed until after his death, expresses his revulsion at the baser aspects of humanity. Los, the poet, forges the sun, beating Imagination into the limiting industrial symbol of iron in a forge (Keynes 1970, 125). The literal image suggests how oppressive forces, such as the French Revolution or industrialisation, also beat and forge individuals into submission (Beaney n.d.).


Figure 2.William Blake, ‘A Divine Image’, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, copy BB, 1831-2. Relief etching. 11.1 x 6.9cm. The British Library. Reproduced from The Open University, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1880&extra=thumbnail_idp2954496 (accessed March 31, 2014).

In the engraving Albion Rose Blake depicts Albion (signifying England) rising above the smoky blackness of the Industrial Revolution in a political and a spiritual gesture while, at his feet, a moth emerges from a chrysalis as a symbol of rebirth (Damon 1973, 13).The engraving bears the inscription (not shown) “Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves”.


Figure 3. William Blake, Albion rose, 1804. Engraving, etching and drypoint. 25 x 19cm. The British Library. Reproduced from The British Museum http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1354527&partId=1 (accessed March 31, 2014).

The success of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution seemed to herald of the new supremacy of individual rights and freedom (Day 1996, 12). In America (1793-4) Blake presented a prophetic and mythic interpretation of the overturning of British oppression (Day 1996, 21). Damon (1973, 20) describes the publication of America, with Blake’s name prominent on it, as an overtly defiant act, and the poem controversial in light of the growing counter-revolution. In this “prophecy” Blake shows Orc, the spirit of revolution, surrounded by the flames of Hell, as Urizen’s limited vision would see it, but which, in Blake’s eternity, are the unquenchable fires of rebellion spreading through the American colonies (indeed, the licking flames press against “the Colonies” in the fourth line (Erdman 1974, 148).


Figure 4. William Blake, America a Prophecy, copy A, object 12 (Bentley 12, Erdman 10, Keynes 10), 1795. Relief etching with pen and watercolour. 23.5 x 16.9cm. Morgan Library and Museum, New York. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=america.a.illbk.12&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

In another plate from America, Blake writes his most direct celebration of revolutionary freedom from slavery: “For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.” (Erdman 1982, 53). To illustrate this poetic equivalent of the Revolutionary Declaration of Independence, Blake shows a naked youth risen from the grave of slavery (a skull lies by his side) as he gazes into the bright air and new growth surrounds the words (Erdman 1974, 144)


Figure 5. William Blake, America a Prophecy,copy O, object 8 (Bentley 8, Erdman 6, Keynes 6), 1821. Relief etching with pen and watercolour. 23.4 x 16.7cm. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=america.o.illbk.08&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

The advent of the Terror, however, showed this optimism to be ill founded, and led to a reactionary backlash (Day 1996, 14). Blake’s later writings reflected this disillusionment, and he also turned to a more metaphysical, less overtly political, narrative as radicals in England were subjected to suppression (Ward 2003, 25). In Jerusalem Albion is shown collapsed into himself, asleep or refusing to acknowledge the world, while his body is entangled with a scroll. Albion here is literally fallen from the world of imagination, fallen into himself in despair, caught up in the limiting written word (Erdman 1974, 316). Even in the earlier works, however, Blake should not be seen as reporting history, but rather addressing the concepts that revolution brought (Makdisi 2003b, 10).


Figure 6. William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, copy E, object 41 (Bentley 41, Erdman 37, Keynes 41), c.1821. Relief etching with pen, watercolour and gold. 22.4 x 16.2cm. Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=jerusalem.e.illbk.41&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

John Ruskin considered Blake and Turner to be the two geniuses of his century (quoted in Bentley 1975, 83). It is therefore interesting to compare the two, with Blake heralding the Romantic era and Turner achieving fame at its end, with Blake a neglected artist who only found some minor following late in life while Turner achieved fame easily but was shunned in later life, with Blake maintaining the primacy of the line while Turner increasingly painted what Blake would have called in his Public Address the “blots and blurs” of nature painting (Erdman 1982, 575).

One of the outcomes of the revolutionary period was the overthrowing of hierarchical, and unbreakable, models of society. Talent and drive could now lead to advancement (Hobsbawm 1962, 189). J M W Turner (1775-1851), a Londoner like Blake, unlike Blake was a student at the Royal Academy at fourteen, became a Royal Academician in 1802, travelled widely, was famous and rapidly became rich (Knoedler 1914, 9). Yet, he too was rejected and pilloried in old age for his canvasses which redefined the romantic depiction of nature (Knoedler 1914, 10).

Turner often made use of vortices in his paintings, the forces of nature combining and swirling in an echo of the historical changes affecting society (Rodner 1986, 472). The vortex was also an important symbol for Blake and an apt metaphor for the upheavals in society (Damon 1973, 440). As Faris (1989, 310) observes, Turner depicted forces, rather than forms, confounding distinctions, something Blake would have condemned with his emphasis on form. Turner uses geometric shapes, light, and colour itself to create symbols, rather than allegory (Faris 1989, 311). For Blake, allegory was truth.

Turner, unlike Blake, found the changes the Industrial revolution was bringing as impressive, even, arguably, attaining the Romantic ideal of embodying the “sublime” (Harris 2003, 71). Nonetheless, Turner was not uncritical of the changes occurring around him and, while more enthusiastic than Blake, his art is ambivalent in its response (Rodner 1986, 455). In The slave ship, Turner depicts an infamous event of slaves being thrown overboard because the owner could then claim insurance for their loss. Like Blake’s anti-slavery stance, Turner shows human beings reduced, not just to a homogenous working (under)class, but to the very commodities that the industrial age had inaugurated (Boime 1990, 34). The old economic order had been replaced, and Turner’s canvas can be seen as embodying this (Boime 1990, 41). Slavery had ended in 1838, however, and the black hands reaching out from the painting implicitly reach for a white audience, placing the slaves as black victims requiring white assistance (Ward 2007, 49-50).


Figure 7. J M W Turner, The slave ship (slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – typhon coming on), 1840. Oil on canvas. 138 x 91 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced from The Athenaeum, http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=20012(accessed March 31, 2014).

In Rain, steam and speed Turner more directly celebrates the industrial revolution, but Boime (1990, 40) sees similarities to The slave ship: the havoc and the perspective, the illumination, focus the gaze. The steam train, like the economic order, heralds an unstoppable transformation.


Figure 8. J M W Turner, Rain steam and speed, the Great Western Railway, c.1884. Oil on canvas. 121.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Reproduced from WikiPaintings, http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/william-turner/rain-steam-and-speed-the-great-western-railway (accessed March 31, 2014).

The fighting ‘Temeraire’ became Turner’s most popular picture, but it too remains ambivalent even while it celebrates technological progress as inevitable, “almost prophetic” as Turner’s friend R C Leslie described it (Rodner 1986, 460). Unlike Blake’s resistance to industrialisation, Turner saw it as inevitable though not inherently “good” (Rodner 1986, 461). The steamer is ugly and squat in comparison to the elegance and grandeur of the sailing ship, but it is in charge, and it represents the future (Stewart 2012, 168).


Figure 9. J M W Turner, The fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, c.1839. Oil on canvas. 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Reproduced from WikiPaintings, http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/william-turner/the-fighting-temeraire-tugged-to-her-last-berth-to-be-broken-up-1839 (accessed March 31, 2014).

Blake wrote in his Descriptive Catalogue that without the “bounding line” all is chaos (Erdman 1982, 550). Elsewhere, however, he also wrote “Without Contraries is no progression” (Erdman 1982, 34). While Blake might have condemned Turner’s chaos, both artists illuminate nature and ideology, and both Contraries add to each other in their meanings. Turner’s works show a tension about an already much changed society, while Blake at the onset of these changes takes a more oppositional viewpoint. Blake spoke (and painted) “the discontent of his time” (Bronowski 1965, 179). Turner, a generation later, commented critically on already well established changes. Both artists reacted to, and were driven by, the cultural, economic and political changes that were altering the world around them and both, in different ways, evinced a Romantic spirit of the artist as individual genius portraying an inner vision, of Art against Empire. This inner vision created highly individual art that not just reflected, but actively addressed and interpreted, the revolutionary age.


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