William Blake’s wife, Catherine, is to be brought out of the shadows and celebrated as a lifelong creative influence, in the largest exhibition in a generation devoted to an artist believed by many to be one of Britain’s greatest.
Tate Britain has announced details of its big autumn Blake show, bringing together more than 300 works. It will include the first UK display of a piece thought to be Blake’s only self-portrait, and the recreation of a solo exhibition he staged in 1809 that he hoped would bring him fame and fortune. Sadly, only a handful of people turned up.
There will also be watercolours from a hoard of 19 works lost for 165 years and found in 2001 in a Glasgow secondhand bookshop. Two book dealers bought them for £50 each; the set was later controversially broken up and sold for $7m.
Curators said Catherine, Blake’s lifelong companion, would feature heavily in the exhibition. “It is only in the last 15 years that Catherine as a huge stabilising, supporting and level-headed influence on Blake’s art and his domestic life has really come to the fore,” said Amy Concannon, a co-curator of the show.
On a practical level she made sure the family did not descend into poverty, always keeping a certain amount of money hidden in the house and occasionally serving her husband an empty dinner plate to buck his ideas up.
But she also coloured his prints and was a hugely important creative force in his life, said Martin Myrone, another co-curator.
Blake was an artist ahead of his time, unappreciated for much of his life. A pivotal moment came in 1809 when Blake staged a show of his own work in a drawing room above the family hosiery business in Soho. “This was Blake’s attempt to take control of the presentation of his work and to be taken seriously as a painter of historical subjects,” said Concannon.
He included fantastical paintings showing Lord Nelson directing a sea monster and the prime minister William Pitt as an angel guiding Behemoth. They would have baffled people at the time, and in any event hardly anyone came and not a single work was sold. Soon afterwards Blake retreated from the world.
Fortunately, he compiled a lengthy catalogue for the show, in which he talked about wanting people to recognise “real art”, and it will allow curators to recreate the domestic Georgian room in the Tate Britain show.
Blake envisaged the Pitt and Nelson paintings as becoming vast frescoes on the side of a public building. It never happened, but Tate will go some way to making up for that by digitally enlarging the works and projecting them on to a gallery wall.
The show will open with a pencil drawing believed to be Blake’s only self-portrait, thought to have been made around 1802. It was bought at auction in 1974 by an American collector and has never been publicly displayed in the UK.
There will be loans from across Europe, Australia and the US, including Albion Rose, from the Huntington art collections in California, as well as some of Blake’s best-known works in Tate’s collection. For example, The Ghost of a Flea (circa 1819), a small, bizarre painting of a vision that came to him in a seance. That was painted at a time when Blake was having a new lease of life thanks to adulation from a younger group of artists who saw him as the quintessential romantic, visionary artist living in exile.
From the Louvre will come Death of the Strong Wicked Man (1805), a watercolour that was used to illustrate an edition of The Grave by the 18th-century poet Robert Blair. It was part of the hoard found in Glasgow and sold by Sotheby’s in 2006. Tate Britain had tried and failed to raise funds to purchase them as a group.
Blake is known as a great poet, his words set to music by Hubert Parry for Jerusalem, but the Tate show will argue that it was visual art that consumed him. “He was trained as an artist, he lived as an artist, he made a living as an artist, he spent his days as an engraver, his evenings painting and making his own prints,” said Myrone. “Poetry was something he did in the middle of the night.”
• William Blake is at Tate Britain from 11 September to 2 February.