A Visit to the Tate

Bo Helmich

This spring, on the final afternoon of a sojourn in England, I wandered the banks of the Thames, coming at last to the Tate Britain, home to one of the largest collections of William Blake’s art. Was it irony or grace to find his work there, in the heart of the city whose sins and afflictions were so grievous in Blake’s time? Gone now are the infamous “dark satanic mills” of England’s early industrialization; gone (or at least hidden from sight) are the “marks of weakness, marks of woe.” Prosperity has largely replaced poverty, and the streets no longer feel “charter’d”—controlled repressively by the English crown.

After two weeks of rain I had happened upon that rare English joy: a sun-washed afternoon—a magic time for strolling and browsing, for hopping on and off red buses more or less at random, for happily spending all eight kinds of coins that the Brits carry about in their pockets. On such a day it would have been a shame to go indoors were it not for the promise of great art, and the inspiring assurance one receives as a gift from the old masters.

Like the Louvre in Paris, the Met in New York, and great museums the world over, you simply cannot, must not, expect too much from a single visit. The task on such occasions is really much closer to contemplation. You have to let so much go in order to hold one thing. If your eyes are open, really open, you may find a painting, perhaps even two or three, that will fill the hours. If the work is well-made, surely it will hold you in a spell, show you “the world in a grain of sand,” and teach you something new.

William Blake is remembered as a Romantic poet. It would probably be more accurate to think of him as a champion of the imagination. He is justly famous for his lyrical poetry—particularly the lovely “Songs of Innocence” and their darker counterpoint, the “Songs of Experience”—and for his watercolor etchings. These are bold, strange, and beautiful works that manage to unnerve and enervate at the same moment. Who can forget the image of a hunched-over, half-naked Isaac Newton, trying in vain to scribe the Trinity with a compass? Who, seeing Blake’s illustration of the inscription over the gate to Hell, cannot be moved to wonder and horror?

But these images were not what caught my attention that afternoon. Instead I found myself drawn to a set of small etchings Blake completed late in life. At age sixty-four he created a series of woodcuts to accompany a contemporary version of Virgil’s pastorals. Like most retellings, the poem and its re-teller have receded into history. But the woodcuts are another matter. After decades of working mostly in flowing watercolor, Blake turned for this assignment to a printing method high in contrast. The black is truly black, and thus the white stands out with luminous clarity.

As in Blake’s earlier work, the human figures pose dramatically; their postures and gestures carry drama and emotion. The new possibility that emerges in these prints, however, is the vibrant texture of the English landscape. The word “backdrop” cannot do justice to the intensity of these streams, hillsides, oak trees. The sun and moon radiate with glory. Even the stones on the road seem to have an inner life.

From the revelation of Blake’s pastoral woodcuts it is in the Tate but a few short steps to another etching of great spiritual power, this by the versatile twentieth-century artist Graham Sutherland. Sutherland’s etching is small, about the size of a hotel Bible (set horizontally), but it seems large for its genre. (Blake’s etchings, by contrast, are genuinely small—approximately the size of a baseball card). Surely this speaks to Sutherland’s determination to create a richer, more intricate design than would be possible in a smaller frame.

He shows us the common man, a simple peasant, depicted from the rear. The man stoops under a heavy load of firewood. Behind him and on his left side we see other piles of wood and a rustic cottage—figuratively, the things for which he has toiled in this life. Beyond them, and filling almost two-thirds of the upper left hand frame, stand dark and menacing woods. Even if one were to toil forever, no hope would come from that way.

Yet this man stands on the edge of a rutted old road, an ancient track that, some yards ahead, curves and passes through an opening in a sturdy stone wall. The setting sun burns from behind the poplars in the lane beyond, illuminating the way forward into light and life. That sun transfigures the landscape. In the distance we glimpse ripe fields and a great arch, suggesting that the ancient road goes ever on into realms of gold. He has only to lay down his burden and press on toward the goal. The Tate’s caption gives the title of this work as “Pecken Wood.” However, in small letters below the image, Sutherland penciled in the words “Final State.” This second title yields the clue to the sublime spiritual and allegorical meaning of what appears, on the surface, to be only an elegant pastoral scene.

Between the visionary Blake and the far-seeing Sutherland, Samuel Palmer serves as the link. Palmer was a talented younger contemporary of Blake, and indeed he became the poet’s disciple during the last years of Blake’s life. It was one of his Blake-inspired woodcuts that Sutherland saw and loved as a student—an aesthetic experience that opened Sutherland to the possibility of expressing a single, powerful idea by means of subtle changes in light and shadow. With Blake, Palmer shared an intense conviction that the world was really and truly a spiritual place; each event, each scene, each ordinary happening could be apprehended by the imagination, viewed through the eyes of faith, understood as revealing the glory of God.

Of Palmer’s works in the Tate collection, a work entitled “Coming from Evening Church” exhibits this conviction most strongly. The painting has the feel of an icon. Its colors—glowing red, deep blue, and bright gold set in a frame of green and brown—extend the icon’s traditional palette. And while its subject matter is neither a scene from scripture nor the face of a specific saint, nevertheless, like an icon, Palmer’s image opens a window into the realm of the Spirit.

The painting depicts a group of people who are, as the title says, “Coming from Evening Church.” Significantly, they are coming— advancing toward the viewer in a winding line that suggests a festal procession. Not that it is a festal procession, just an evening service at the local parish church. But in Palmer’s vision this most ordinary of events is charged with holiness and mystery. A golden aura seems to radiate from inside each worshipper, young and old. And while moonlight shines warmly on the distant church steeple, the glow surrounding the parishioners reminds us that this humble group is in some real sense the church of God. Having received the God’s blessing, they go forth to love and to serve.

All too soon my time at the Tate was up; the gallery was closing for the night. Then again, I had seen what I needed to see.

The images described in this essay, with the exception of “Pecken Wood,” can be viewed on the Tate’s website at www.tate.org.uk