‘Head of a Damned Soul’ (1789-90) after Henry Fuseli
‘Head of a Damned Soul’ (1789-90) after Henry Fuseli

It was in printmaking that William Blake combined the disparate aspects of his poetry, painting and political protest. His engravings, etchings and illuminated books are the focus of this exhibition, whose centrepiece is a recreation in exact dimensions and details of Blake’s Lambeth studio. Including more than 90 works, the show spans Blake’s career, opening with his apprenticeship, aged 14, to engraver James Basire, who sent him to study London’s Gothic churches, and closing with the late series of engravings for “The Book of Job”.

These were already heralded in the visions the teenage Blake experienced in Westminster Abbey. Gothic remained an influence on his style and anti-rationalist approach: his early depictions of Gothic monuments; his etching after Fuseli’s “Head of a Damned Soul”, with upturned rolling eyes, bulging throat, mouth wide open, an image of inner torment anticipating Munch’s “The Scream”, and a defining work of the romantic imagination.

Blake’s prolific 1790s – “Songs of Innocence”, “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, and “Europe: a Prophecy” are all on display – coincided with the French Revolution, which he initially supported, and with his employment by publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson supported Blake’s “Illuminated Printing”, innovative, fluid monotype techniques involving hand-finished watercolour, as in “Nebuchadnezzar”, reduced by hubris to madness, portrayed as an animal on all fours, and “Newton”, naked, banished to a rock at the bottom of the sea, emblem of Enlightenment evil. So Blake remains a paradox of a radical reactionary, his vision still pertinent: his final project illustrating Dante responds not just to The Divine Comedy’s extreme, dynamic imagery but also to Dante’s distrust of materialism and power.

ashmolean.org, 01865 278000, Thursday to March 1

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