Open Letter to The Guardian

March 4, 2024

An open letter to The Guardian in response to Jonathan Jones’ review of William Blake’s Universe at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Dear Editor, 

We at The Blake Society are inspired by William Blake but we don’t live in the past. Through our monthly events and publications, we attempt to apply that inspiration to the complex messiness in our time. What we share is a distaste of doctrine and ideas that flatten humanity into two dimensional stereotypes. We believe it is worth thinking about what Blake was trying to achieve; he represents every person’s creative effort to see and live past their own lifetime. For us, Blake is for everybody.

We recognise it is not easy to explain Blake’s founding concepts in one article, such as Jonathan Jones’ review (23 February 2024) of William Blake’s Universe at the Fitzwilliam, nor in any single exhibition. While Jones is passionate about Blake, describing him as racist ‘by modern standards’ oversimplifies what dissent looks like in different eras. Did choosing a black boy for the speaker of ‘The Little Black Boy’ make Blake automatically a racist?

Jones’ review doesn’t question how people might have navigated the racialised assumptions of the 18th century. His ‘modern standards’ claim misses that some might describe Blake as an ally of oppressed social groups at a time of extreme repression. Racism has a historical as well as an artistic context. In one of our monthly events, the Australian artist Carl Gopalkrishnan questioned the ethnicity of Blake’s characters, arguing that Blake created his own mythological ‘people of colour’ and worked in code like artists have always done in times of fear. 

Similarly, what sounds like a German invasion has actually a long, shared and friendly history. Blake did not know Caspar David Friedrich or Philipp Otto Runge, though viewers will be struck by the resonances between these artists’ works. We gain nothing by asking whose art is greater, if younger audiences engage with their work.

Dr Sibylle Erle, Chair of The Blake Society