Blake and Heat

It will not have escaped your notice if you live in the UK that it’s hot. When I lived in Spain there wasn’t much to say about the weather apart from in summer, Que calor! and in winter, Que frio! (I don’t know how to do upside down exclamation marks on here otherwise I would. I think they’re a very good idea because they tell you what’s coming.) A Spanish friend of mine, on visiting the UK, remarked on how much we talk about the weather. ‘That’s because it’s different every day,’ I explained. ‘Sometimes it’s different every hour. You just never know.’

Actually these days, thanks to more accurate forecasting, we generally do know. For example, today it will rise to a high of 29 degrees and drop at night to 17. Which means I shall have to start thinking in Spanish; go out for walks in the early morning before it gets hot, and have a siesta in the afternoon. I am generally someone who likes hot weather but if it’s too hot I do start to wilt a little; and whereas with the cold you can warm yourself up by exercising, there’s only so much you can do to keep cool. We currently have all the windows open and as few clothes on as possible; and this morning I practised this yoga cooling breath:

But what’s really on my mind this morning is Blake. William Blake is probably my favourite artist and one of my favourite poets. A visionary and a complete one-off, he openly declared that he spoke with angels and spirits. He was a great believer in equality, not only of the classes but of the sexes; a supporter of the French revolution and perhaps the greatest artist this country has ever produced. Yet where is he celebrated? Tucked away in a dark corner of the Tate, last time I looked, while we prefer less challenging painters such as Turner or Constable (not that I’m disparaging Turner, though Constable I could live without.) Why then is he so neglected?

I think there are several reasons. First, that he was a political radical, and we don’t tend to honour radicals in this country. We know the names of Henry VIII’s wives and the manner of their executions but we haven’t heard of Peterloo (watch the Mike Leigh film; it’s terrific.) Secondly, Blake was working-class. This brackets him with figures such as Lowry and Turner but unlike them his subject matter was much more challenging. To sit in front of a Blake painting is like putting your hand in a fire – consider this picture of Nebuchadnezzar:

Nebuchadnezzar, William Blake | William blake paintings, William ...

Or this, of Cain:

Sense of Sin - Creature and Creator
But perhaps the most important reason why he is not sufficiently honoured is this. Blake was a master, not only of painting but also of engraving – and he was a poet. Considered as one of the Romantics, though not much given to lakes or daffodils, he wrote and painted in equal measure and was master of both. Many of his poetry books are illustrated with engravings and it is hard to say which is more important. They are equal – and this we do not forgive. For an artist to master one medium is fine; for them to master a related medium, this we can also accept – but to be master of both art and poetry, this is unforgivable. It’s presumptuous: we come over all Lady Bracknell-ish and say that to master one medium may be construed as genius, to master two looks like hubris.

Yet Blake was the most modest of men, living simply with his wife in a couple of rooms in London. It was sad that he remained unrecognised during his lifetime; what’s sadder still is that he is even now underappreciated.

Kirk out