One of the hidden treasures of the National Gallery of Victoria is its collection of William Blake watercolours, drawings and engravings. They have not been seen for 15 years, but this April 100 of them will be exhibited.
Especially rich in the representation of the artist’s late years, the NGV Collection boasts 36 of the 102 watercolours illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy, the largest number of works from this celebrated series held by any gallery in the world.
An artist and poet of outstanding originality, Blake used drawing and print media to express his own visionary universe, as well as those of authors such as Dante and Milton. His radiant watercolours and printed illustrations remain some of the most inspired and innovative images of the Romantic era and assured his status as a seminal figure of the period.
These works are regarded as one of the NGV’s greatest treasures and they were purchased in 1918 through the Felton Bequest. These were supplemented with a further 27 key works by the artist from the famous Linnell sale in London.
The exhibition will include early works by the artist as well as works dating from the last years of his life. Blake’s early career is represented through a selection of his reproductive engravings, as well as a beautiful copy of one of his earliest illuminated books of his own poetry, The Songs of Innocence of 1789. This book, together with his Prophetic Books of the 1790s and early 1800s, exemplify the uniquely original system for printing Blake devised for the production of his illustrated books of poetry.
Also included will be two print series executed by the artist in his late years, both of which are startlingly original in the handling of their respective media. Blake’s wood-engravings illustrating Thornton’s publication of Virgil’s poetry (1821) brilliantly capture the variously pastoral or melancholy moods of the text in images bursting with intensity and a freedom previously unknown in this medium. The Book of Job cycle of engravings (1823–26) presents Blake’s personal and multi-layered interpretation of the Biblical narrative in images of great beauty and unconventionality.
The exhibition opens on 4 April and runs until 31 August.