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Why you should know the craft of Catherine Blake

Once erased from history, the artist wife of the more famous William is finally being given her due by Tate Britain, writes Tanya Harrod

Blake’s portrait of Catherine, 1805, graphite on paper

In the mid-19th century, a particular craftswoman was recognised and admired. By the 1950s her contribution was ignored and erased. In the 1990s a leading museum de-accessioned a whole body of work by her husband because it was suspected that she played a significant part in its creation. The woman was Catherine Blake, the poet and artist William Blake’s wife and collaborator.

As Alexander Gilchrist, Blake’s first biographer, explained in 1863 of their remarkable illuminated books made from 1788 onwards: ‘The poet and his wife did everything in making the book – writing, designing, printing, engraving – everything except manufacturing the paper: the very ink or rather the colour they did make.’

But in Anthony Blunt’s The Art of William Blake (1959), no mention is made of Catherine. In David Bindman’s majestic Blake as an Artist (1977), she is only referred to negatively, as someone who may have been responsible for the ‘heavy colouring’ of one of Blake’s last works: the watercolours illustrating John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress made during 1824-5.

These 28 watercolours entered the Frick Collection in New York during the Second World War. But in 1996 they were de-accessioned and put up for sale because it was believed that some were partly the work of Catherine Blake. They failed to sell in a Sotheby’s auction – one Blake expert noting that ‘questions of attribution can be killers in the market place’. In the end they were bought by a private British collector.

This strange story raises many questions about the valorisation of works of art. Catherine Blake appears to have been highly skilled. She was taught by her husband, but that does not take away from the interest and excellence of her surviving work. Some beautiful examples, including an exquisite profile drawing of her husband, are to be found in the Fitzwilliam Museum. It could be argued that Catherine was more craftswoman than artist in their collaboration. Regardless, her craft deserves recognition of the kind offered by the poet David Jones to his printer René Hague in 1937. Jones puts a postscript at the end of his preface to In Parenthesis, his remarkable account of the First World War: ‘I find I have neglected one thing that I very much wanted to say. There is a debt to the printer who will print this for me. He is more than an aid, he is a collaborator, and I know no one else so aware of both the nature of a writing and of how to print it.’

Christian Beaten Down by Apollyon, 1824-5, for The Pilgrim’s Progress

Despite Alexander Gilchrist’s testimony, Catherine’s contribution was erased because of a peculiarly modern idea of individual genius. Gender, too, played a part in Catherine’s eclipse. It might seem odd to see the 1860s as better able to recognise the gifts of a woman than the 1970s, but this seems to be the case here. The year after David Bindman’s study of Blake as an artist appeared, the Arts Council decided that the second Hayward Annual be selected entirely by women. The result was not an all-woman show, but 16 of the 23 artists included were women. Reviews of the exhibition were mixed, with praise often coming with a sting in its tail. As John Russell wrote: ‘There is a very consistent level of achievement in this show, with no signs of lame ducks who might have got in just because it was ladies’ night.’ Much use was made of words like ‘exquisite’, ‘decorative’ and ‘painstaking’. The critic John McEwan noted ‘the needle-threading eye and taste for detail that is so peculiarly the bugbear of women artists when left to their own devices’. Craft was invoked negatively to suggest that women were unable to produce ambitious art.

The story of Catherine Blake, however, has a happy ending. We have moved on since the 1970s. William Blake, the current exhibition at Tate Britain (no, it has not titled it William and Catherine Blake) goes a long way to reinstating Catherine’s vital role. In an absorbing catalogue essay, the show’s co-curator Amy Concannon notes how Blake himself was always at pains to acknowledge his wife’s manifold contributions. They worked as a pair, as significant others. And Tate is showing the 28 illustrations to The Pilgrim’s Progress, de-accessioned by the Frick but now viewed with interest and admiration as a joint late work. In line with Tate’s whole series of recent woman-focused exhibitions, from Anni Albers to Natalia Goncharova, Catherine Blake has been given her due – which is good for both art and craft.

William Blake runs at Tate Britain until 2 February 2020

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