Martin Myrone. The Blake Book. London: Tate Publishing, 2007. 224 pp., profusely illus., mostly color. £16.99/$29.95, paperback.
MARTIN Myrone’s contribution to the Tate’s series of guidebooks, Essential Artists, is a sensitive and impressive introduction to Blake’s visual art. The series, which so far includes The Rothko Book, The Duchamp Book, and The Turner Book, is in hefty quarto paperback format, 10” x 7.5”, a size that was more likely chosen for convenient portability than for optimal presentation of artworks. The Blake Book is not an academic text and would not suffice as the only textbook in a course focusing on Blake, but the presentation of Blake’s art here is at once accessible to any interested person and yet sophisticated, intellectually rigorous, and up to date—it would be an excellent choice as a text to recommend to students or laypersons who want to learn more about Blake and his art on their own, or as adjunctive reading in a course devoted to Blake’s writings.
Myrone, who is curator at Tate Britain, often evinces impatience with and/or skepticism about particular trends in academic Blake scholarship in his commentary, but he has obviously done his homework. Museum professionals sometimes have an advantage over academics in grasping the original historical context of works of visual art, in that they are more likely to know well the other works, rarely displayed now, that constituted the canons and the contexts in which the artists worked. Myrone’s take on Blake, informed by extensive reading in primary and secondary sources as well as daily access to both Blake’s pictures and little-known works by his contemporaries, is fresh enough to startle a reader who is expecting the usual fare served in guidebooks for the general public; his broad introductory accounts of Blake’s contexts are carefully framed and easily understood, his summaries of critical issues are both judicious and just, and his recommendations for further reading are cannily selected.
Although Tate Britain houses the greatest collection of Blake pictures in the world, The Blake Book is not unduly Tate-centric, either in its discussion or in its selection of works to reproduce. And although the focus is on visual art, Myrone includes substantial discussion of Blake’s illuminated books and other texts, as well as a selection of prose and some poetry, and his grasp of Blake’s literary contexts is impressive. The illustrations, over a hundred of which are printed in high-resolution color, come from a wide variety of collections around the world. Unfortunately, they are often disappointingly small, and though the color quality is at least good throughout, only a few of them successfully convey the effect that these works have when seen in person. Many of the largest illustrations are heavily cropped full-page “bleeds” begin page 65 | selected by the book’s designer from pictures treated in the chapters they introduce; at the same time, several important images (such as the annotated Laocoön) are barely larger than postage stamps.
The book’s focus is sometimes quirky, with breakout sections devoted to such outliers as a single Tiriel design or The Fall of Rosamond, an impressive stipple illustration after Thomas Stothard, but Myrone covers most of the essential works as well as a respectable number of unexpected ones. The usual elements of a gallery companion—chronology, bibliography, guide to collections—are present and competent, but a selection of reactions to Blake from “Creative Artists,” including R. H. Cromek, James Joyce, and Georges Bataille, is very uneven and seems perfunctory in comparison with the rest of the book. The organization and layout of the volume, probably dictated by the designer of the whole guidebook series, are vaguely postmodern, but the thorough index makes it possible to locate topics efficiently.