Slavery was a fundamental theme in William Blake's art and writing. He was fervently opposed to it, and during his lifetime (1757-1827) saw successful campaigns against the slave trade in the British Empire, leading to its abolition in 1807. This new Hayward Touring exhibition features watercolours, prints and plates from Blake's illuminated books alongside other prints of the period showing contemporary attitudes to slavery.
William Blake grew up in the period when public disquiet against the cruelty and injustice of the slave trade was gathering strength. The campaign led by the former slave Olaudah Equiano and concerned citizens such as Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, turned public opinion against this horrific trade. Blake was made aware of the horrors of slavery through his commissioned engravings illustrating the experiences of Captain Stedman, a mercenary soldier in Surinam. But for Blake slavery was also a mental state. To have limited perceptions, to pursue materialistic ends, to set oneself above others, to follow conventional religion or science was to be enslaved and to be held with 'mind-forg'd manacles' of one's own making. In Blake's art, many of his most dramatic and complex images show a confrontation between the forces of repression and those seeking freedom.
Curated by leading Blake scholar, David Bindman, the exhibition includes over 40 watercolours, prints and plates from Blake's illuminated books, drawn from the British Museum, which holds the most comprehensive collection of Blake's art in the world. Works include prints from Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), America a Prophecy (1793), the Book of Urizen (1794) and Jerusalem (begun 1804).
The majority of images by Blake in this exhibition are made in the technique that he invented, relief etching. As Blake printed and published in his workshop every copy of his 'Illuminated' books, only very small numbers were made. They are, therefore, of extreme rarity despite Blake's desire that everyone should have access to them. The exhibition also includes prints by James Gillray, Isaac Cruikshank, Thomas Bewick and others, which provide a context for Blake's highly personal symbolic imagery.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated Hayward Gallery publication. With more than 60 vivid reproductions, this volume includes commentaries on all the plates and an essay by David Bindman on the theme of slavery in Blake's visual imagery. A second essay by novelist and literary critic Darryl Pinckney reflects on the realities of the slave trade in the 18th- and early 19th-centuries and the campaign for its abolition and recounts the story of Olaudah Equiano, who was the first black person to write his autobiography in English, published in 1789.
The exhibition will be on view from 26 January to 6 April 2008. -- www.manchestergalleries.org