British Drawing at the V&A

The last couple of days of my London trip included visiting the V&A. One of the significant areas of this museum’s vast collections is works on paper (indeed, a number of watercolours by Blake were among the things I went there to see). Such works are not suited to prolonged periods on display and as a result are among those which get rotated on a regular basis.

Currently showing is a display entitled “British Drawing 1600 to the Present Day” which explores various ways in which artists engage in the practice of drawing: both as process and as finished work; in different materials, and achieving different effects.

I’d clocked before my visit that there was a Blake drawing in this display, so that was a good reason to take a look. An Angel Striding among the Stars (1824-27) is an exploratory drawing for Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The caption highlighted that in this drawing, Blake seems to be experimenting with the figure of the angel, stating that it “catches Blake in the act of creation.” This observation struck me as wonderfully playful; does the curator mean that this image not only is an example of Blake’s creative process but might also be a representation of the act of creation? In other words, is the angel a creator, and perhaps a kind of avatar of Blake, the creator. I might be reading too much into the caption, but the dynamic pose of the angel is precisely the kind of pose Blake associates with creative energy.

There was plenty else besides of interest in the display. There were three drawings by Samuel Palmer, one of Blake’s disciples known as the Ancients. Two pages from a sketchbook date from about 1824, roughly the time when Palmer first met Blake Landscape with a Church Spire and Sketches of woodland, trees and a hilly landscape. Another drawing depicts a Nocturnal landscape with full moon and deer (c.1829-30) is an intensely atmospheric drawing – one of many inspired by the landscape of his home in Shoreham in Kent. Palmer’s ‘visionary’ landscapes share something of Blake’s woodcuts for The Pastorals of Virgil (which I’ve written about for the John Rylands’ ‘Burning Bright‘ exhibition).

On a decidedly non-Blakean note was an Alexander Cozen’s ‘Blot’ drawing; Landscape study (ca.1750-86). Cozens created imaginary landscapes beginning with a blot which then became the basis for the scene. Blake famously denounced blots; unlike Cozens, who use blots as a stimulus to his imagination, Blake believed that blots were without form and therefore without meaning (see, for instance, his comments on the drawings of Thomas Williams Malkin).

Other figures in Blake’s circle featured include John Flaxman, Henry Fuseli and George Romney, and other Blake-inspired artists were George Frederic Watts, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Stanley Spencer, so there was plenty else to occupy a girl’s interest. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend a look (and it’s a lot quieter than much of the V&A, not to mention the nearby Science Museum and Natural History Museum).

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