Evil Renderings of a Distempered Mind

The first gallery dedicated to William Blake opened and closed in London in 1809. The second opened in San Francisco in 2016.

The 2014 eviction of several art galleries from 77 Geary St. to make room for a tech company caused ripples of consternation through the San Francisco art world. Where would these businesses, with their large space requirements and low sales volumes, go? Dispersal is still a worry, but just down the block at 49 Geary, one small second-floor space has transformed into something unique: a gallery dedicated to the late-18th- and early-19th-century poet and painter William Blake.

It’s not just a first for San Francisco. It’s a first for the world — or, rather, a second, as the only other Blake gallery closed right after it opened, in 1809.

Impressively, the William Blake Gallery, an offshoot of John Windle’s Blake-centric antiquarian bookstore down the hall, has a five-year lease. Beginning with the inaugural series of prints on display, it will rotate through its collection and mount three or four shows a year, all open to the public (although the door may be locked for security reasons). Beyond Blake’s own work, Windle plans to hang contemporary exhibits from contemporary artists influenced by him.

Calling the gallery’s existence an “extraordinary concatenation of events,” Windle notes that many of the holdings assembled themselves almost as if by magic. Private collectors lent out works that hadn’t been seen since the 1920s. Less than a month after the lease at 49 Geary fell into place, Blake scholar Bob Essick of the University of California at Riverside discovered an engraving on eBay. There is a copy of the frontispiece to Blake’s 1802 Adam Naming the Beasts, one incomplete version of which sold for nearly $100,000. (They’re rare, in part, because — as Essick puts it — “Blake couldn’t give it away, like so much of what he did.”) The world of Blake collectors is a rarefied, insular one: Many have insisted upon anonymity to the point of keeping the state they reside in a secret.

Even if you lack sufficient knowledge of art history to contextualize Blake within the standard practices of his day — which he helped refine, inventing his own method of color printing that he hybridized with hand-finished work — the gallery is a treat. But because Blake was trained as engraver and printer as well as an artist, the question of what is “original” can be fuzzier than it is with other artists. Many of Blake’s prized works were originally commissions, as the dreamy watercolors and rather-less-than-orthodox adaptations of Biblical narratives put off the London art establishment even at the height of the Romantic period. But Blake’s ambition only grew, even if his fame didn’t until decades after his death: Toward the end of his life, he executed a series of 100 large watercolors based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Works like The Book of Job, represented here in all 21 pages, reveal a master craftsman who was not content to remain a commercial artisan, churning out illustrations for his patrons.

Not everything reads at the highest levels of quality, however. There are efforts from very early in Blake’s career, possibly right after his seven-year apprenticeship as an engraver, that are a bit shaky. But other pieces, such as a possibly incomplete calling card thought to be Blake’s final work, scale up beautifully.

“You could blow it up to the size of this wall and it doesn’t lose a thing,” Essick says. “He was a genius.”

The exceptional detail to Illustration to William Hogarth’s “The Beggar’s Opera, Act III” and the allegorical sufferings depicted in the Book of Job series attest to this. From our 21st-century vantage point, it can be hard to conceive of Blake as a radical. Were Blake and his private mythology full of grotesquerie simply too ahead of their time? Windle thinks so.

“The only person who reviewed the [1809] show slammed it,” he says. “Really slammed it, and just said it was ‘the evil renderings of a distempered mind.’ ”

It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century, when the Pre-Raphaelite painters and writers like William Butler Yeats rescued Blake from total obscurity, that the aristocracy took notice. Ever since, according to Windle, Blake has been a favorite of the very wealthiest segment of society, be it the British nobility or American industrialists like J.P. Morgan or Andrew Mellon. (Today, the single biggest Blake collector is Leon Black, the venture capitalist who paid $120 million for one of four copies of Edvard Munch’s The Scream.)

It was only through the efforts of Paul Mellon, Andrew’s son, that illustrated Blake manuscripts became widely available in the mid-20th century. Buying from genteel but impoverished British estates after the World War II, he established a publishing company to crank out exact facsimiles at 10 times the cost of their $500 price.

That was enormously beneficial to literary scholarship, in which Windle claims Blake is second only to Shakespeare in terms of critical study. But this gallery is no mere historical footnote of interest only to academics (and the very rich). Although the nursery-rhyme quality of some of Blake’s better-known poetry belies the seriousness of his underlying mythos, his influence on today’s culture is both broad and deep. He’s everywhere. The Doors took their name from Blake’s line “When the doors of perception are cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite,” which seemed to presage LSD. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung kept a Blake in his waiting room. Jerusalem (the song, not the poem) is the unofficial national anthem of the U.K., sung at the London Olympics and at the wedding of William and Kate. An Infiniti commercial from this August had Games of Thrones’ Kit Harrington recite Blake’s “The Tyger.” Windle suspects that Blake’s dual skill sets are what affects us so.

“Blake has this ability, both with words and with images, to penetrate into people’s unconscious,” Windle says. “Once Blake’s got you, you’re done. You don’t even know it. He’ll be there forever.”

The William Blake Gallery 49 Geary St., Suite 205415-986-5826 or williamblakegallery.com

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