Blake 1809, Tate Britain, London

This exhibition was given a critical drubbing when it opened 200 years ago. Since then the painter's reputation has gone from lunatic to visionary, so how do those works look now?

It is galling to know that, however unpleasant my review of Tate Britain's Blake 1809, it could never live up to the standards of bile set by the critic of The Examiner at the exhibition's first opening two centuries ago.

Of this, the only solo show William Blake had in his lifetime, Robert Hunt wrote: "The poor man fancies himself a great master, having painted a few wretched pictures, blotted and blurred and very badly drawn." The artist's accompanying Descriptive Catalogue, reprinted now by the Tate, was "a farrago of nonsense ... the wild effusions of a distempered brain". Warming to his theme, the vulpine Hunt concluded that Blake was "an unfortunate lunatic", and retired for the night a happy man. Not so William Blake, The Examiner's notice being the only one his show received.

So various questions spring to mind, the first being why Tate Britain has chosen to restage one of the greatest duds in the history of British art. The answer, of course, is that modern viewers will, as one, take sides with Blake against Hunt. In the 200 years that separate the first and second outings of this show, the unfortunate lunatic has entered the canon as a national treasure, a poet and visionary on a par with Milton and Turner.

This transformation is an object lesson in the fickleness of art history. When Blake died in 1827, his reputation stood much where Hunt had left it, which is to say in tatters. It took 40 years and the anti-Academic convolutions of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood – Dante Gabriel Rossetti was a particular fan – to begin the artist's long walk to reclamation. The link between Blake's genius and his swivel eyes established, he was taken up in the 1890s by another self-professed visionary, William Butler Yeats. So convinced was Yeats of the artist's greatness that he deduced Blake could only have been Irish, the lost offspring of a man called O'Neill. (He wasn't.)

By the turn of the 20th century, Blake the Flake had been replaced by Blake the Troubled Genius. In the introduction to his 1927 study of the artist, the pacifist Max Plowman could confidently write that "the day seems not far distant when ... apologies will be unnecessary and ... Blake will be no longer regarded as a narcotic for numbskulls." Instead, he has been claimed in turn by Surrealists, hippies, Allen Ginsberg, Marxists, Bob Dylan, university undergraduates and anyone else for whom madness might usefully be construed as an act of political rebellion.

Who was right – history or Hunt? Blake's original show was held over his brother James's hosiery shop, and the few visitors it attracted were charged an eye-watering two shillings and sixpence for entry. (This did include a copy of the aforementioned farrago of nonsense.) There were 16 works in the 1809 exhibition, of which 10 have been brought together here. The missing six, including a vast, lost tempera-on-canvas painting, The Ancient Britons, are represented by white spaces. As an indicator of what Blake's contemporaries might have expect

ed to see in a gallery, the Tate has also hung one wall with pictures painted in or around 1809, including a memorable scene by Turner and a deeply forgettable one by William Mulready.

Nonetheless, the problem remains one of context. Tate Britain is the national pantheon of British art. For a painter to get a solo show there, he must, by definition, be great: Blake 1809 is, inevitably, a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how punctilious its curating, an exhibition held in Room 8 in 2009 can never replicate the sense of one held in a room over a shop in 1809. James Blake dealt in fine stuff for gentlefolk, goods well made. Whatever else they might have been, his brother's goods were not that. To this extent, Robert Hunt was right: pictures such as The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan are badly painted, their drawing naive, their composition wonky. But then their point was to be, in various ways, non-conformist; and that they certainly are.

I'll own up here to finding Blake a great poet but a tiresome artist, the eccentricity of his drawn vision (or visions) oddly unconvincing. It is now almost impossible to see him other than through the historical spectacles of Yeats and Rossetti, Ginsberg and Dylan. Although I suspect it didn't mean to do so, the Tate's show gives a glimpse of how Blake may have looked before these gentlemen got their mitts on him; to see what the glint-eyed Hunt saw.

To 4 October (020-7887 8888)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn