SF WEEKLY: Gallery devoted to William Blake

Evil Renderings of a Distempered Mind

The first gallery dedicated to William Blake opened and closed in London in 1809. The second opened in San Francisco in 2016.

The 2014 eviction of several art galleries from 77 Geary St. to make room for a tech company caused ripples of consternation through the San Francisco art world. Where would these businesses, with their large space requirements and low sales volumes, go? Dispersal is still a worry, but just down the block at 49 Geary, one small second-floor space has transformed into something unique: a gallery dedicated to the late-18th- and early-19th-century poet and painter William Blake.

It’s not just a first for San Francisco. It’s a first for the world — or, rather, a second, as the only other Blake gallery closed right after it opened, in 1809.

Impressively, the William Blake Gallery, an offshoot of John Windle’s Blake-centric antiquarian bookstore down the hall, has a five-year lease. Beginning with the inaugural series of prints on display, it will rotate through its collection and mount three or four shows a year, all open to the public (although the door may be locked for security reasons). Beyond Blake’s own work, Windle plans to hang contemporary exhibits from contemporary artists influenced by him.

Calling the gallery’s existence an “extraordinary concatenation of events,” Windle notes that many of the holdings assembled themselves almost as if by magic. Private collectors lent out works that hadn’t been seen since the 1920s. Less than a month after the lease at 49 Geary fell into place, Blake scholar Bob Essick of the University of California at Riverside discovered an engraving on eBay. There is a copy of the frontispiece to Blake’s 1802 Adam Naming the Beasts, one incomplete version of which sold for nearly $100,000. (They’re rare, in part, because — as Essick puts it — “Blake couldn’t give it away, like so much of what he did.”) The world of Blake collectors is a rarefied, insular one: Many have insisted upon anonymity to the point of keeping the state they reside in a secret.

Even if you lack sufficient knowledge of art history to contextualize Blake within the standard practices of his day — which he helped refine, inventing his own method of color printing that he hybridized with hand-finished work — the gallery is a treat. But because Blake was trained as engraver and printer as well as an artist, the question of what is “original” can be fuzzier than it is with other artists. Many of Blake’s prized works were originally commissions, as the dreamy watercolors and rather-less-than-orthodox adaptations of Biblical narratives put off the London art establishment even at the height of the Romantic period. But Blake’s ambition only grew, even if his fame didn’t until decades after his death: Toward the end of his life, he executed a series of 100 large watercolors based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. Works like The Book of Job, represented here in all 21 pages, reveal a master craftsman who was not content to remain a commercial artisan, churning out illustrations for his patrons.

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