Arts world bows to Blake the 'Soho nutcase'

A poet and artist dismissed as mad in his lifetime is to be honoured by Tate Britain, writers and pop stars
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The Independent Online

In his lifetime he was the mad mystic, often derided or ignored. But more than 170 years after he died, the poet and artist William Blake is to be honoured by the arts world.

In his lifetime he was the mad mystic, often derided or ignored. But more than 170 years after he died, the poet and artist William Blake is to be honoured by the arts world.

Tate Britain is preparing to host its first major Blake exhibition in more than 20 years, supported by the Independent on Sunday and Glaxo Wellcome, and many writers, artists and musicians have emerged to pay homage.

While 400 of Blake's works go on display, special events in London will star Alex James from Blur, Billy Bragg, Patti Smith, the classical composer John Tavener, and writers including Peter Ackroyd and Tom Paulin. James, who recorded Blake's Jerusalem with Fat Les, is to perform with Bragg and Jah Wobble in a grand finale to the exhibition in February at which the authors Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair will read.

James said yesterday: "I'm not on a mission to promote Blake's work or anything but I'm interested in his character and his thinking. I just feel I owe him one, really.

"Blake kind of invented the idea of a Soho nutcase, which is what I've always aspired to. He was a polymath and you don't get many of them these days. And Jerusalem has been the alternative national anthem for years - that's why I did it. It's uplifting and glorious without being aggressive."

Jah Wobble, a comparatively late convert, said it was "the sense of someone who grasped the eternal" that appealed to him. But he added: "I think it would be rather presumptuous and slightly patronising to think you can get people into Blake through me or anyone else."

John Tavener, whose music came to popular notice during the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, has set several Blake poems to music. He will be introducing a concert of his settings on 28 November, Blake's birthday, at St John's, Smith Square. "The part of Blake I really love is the poetry, and he believed it was divinely dictated. I've had some experience of that myself. I don't know where my music comes from."

Patti Smith will give a concert in St James's Church, Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised, in December. Peter Ackroyd, Blake's biographer, and Tom Paulin, the writer and critic, will give talks.

Thomas Harris, author of The Silence of the Lambs, may also make an appearance to discuss the influence of Blake on his early Hannibal Lecter novel Red Dragon - and Campari are creating a drink by that name, after one of Blake's best-known images.

Robin Hamlyn, the senior curator for the exhibition, said Blake's writings and art were known to a relatively small audience in his day, although he was slightly better known as a commercial book engraver. His one-man exhibition of 1809 received only one review, in which the critic described him as a lunatic. "The perception was that he was mad, but he wasn't. He was eccentric," Mr Hamlyn said.

Only with a biography in 1863 did his reputation began to change and, by a century later, he had been adopted by Allan Ginsberg and the Beat Generation.

"That's been the enduring value for a lot of artists - he was an outsider with this visionary imagination," Mr Hamlyn said.

"He was very much an individual who believed in expressing himself no matter what people might think. And he placed the imagination as absolutely central to man's being and that does chime with how we view things today."

Joanna Banham, the Tate's head of public programmes, said it was unusual for the gallery to include concerts in its educational events. It was appropriate, however, she added: "Many musicians have been inspired by Blake, and so much of his work has been set to music. He would put his work to music himself and preferred his poetry to be sung rather than spoken."