Sunday, 5 June 2022


Visitors to the Tate Britain William Blake exhibition of 11 September 2019—2 February 2020, were met by a sign reading


The art of William Blake contains
strong and sometimes challenging
imagery, including some depictions
of violence and suffering.

Please ask a member of the staff if
you would like more information.

I thought this a reasonable warning to any parent taking a child to the exhibition. But a handful of journalists reporting on the exhibition tried to make hay out of this sign, claiming that it was tantamount to censoring Blake, seemingly unaware of Blake’s Stedman engravings and the horrors they depict in such careful detail.

In the Telegraph, Frank Furedi asked

Do visitors need to be told at the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain that his art contains “strong and sometimes challenging imagery” and “depictions of violence and suffering”?


Since when has it been the business of public institutions in a free society to instruct its citizens how they should react to an exhibition and what they should think?

Furedi, emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Kent, appears frequently in the media, pushing his thesis that the Anglo-American world has become obsessed with risk. There is no evidence that he ever visited the exhibition, relying, as is his wont, just on comments in the press.

There is an element of the English right for whom Blake is above all the author of the patriotic hymn Jerusalem (“And did those feet”). Earlier this year, the MP Andrew Mitchell published a curious memoir:  Beyond a Fringe : Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey. You may recall him as the man who came up hard against the bastions of class, power and privilege during “Plebgate”, following his altercation with police officers who tried to prevent his cycling through the Downing Street gates. Mitchell claimed he never called the officers “plebs” and that the evidence against him was falsified. Has he, (and here I quote his reviewer in the TLS), “found cause to reassess the other pillars of the British establishment through which he has passed: prep school, public school, the army, Cambridge, the City, the Tory Party? The answer is of course: no.” This is a man who—after Plebgate no less—is able to write, with a straight face the following passage

The Deputy Chief Minister of Guernsey, Gavin St Pier, invited me to the Trafalgar Day dinner at the East India [and] Public Schools Club. This was a first for me. Union Jack waistcoats predominated and we sang Jerusalem at least twice.

This anecdote makes me wonder if I’ve got Blake completely wrong. Perhaps Blake really was the Kipling of 1804. But then any attentive reader of Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads (1892 and after) will be aware of how Kipling himself skewers the cruelty and rapacity of Empire.

Tabloid protests at the alleged censoring of Blake were followed by another outbreak of indignation at the Tate Britain exhibition, Hogarth and Europe, 3 November 2021—20 March 2022. The indignation was even more heated this time because the painter is so strongly identified with the “Roast Beef of Old England”. Even respectable art critics, who should have known better, took part in the brouhaha. Jackie Wullschläger of the Financial Times lamented the fact that the exhibition catalogue cover has no picture, prompting her to declare: “Hogarth cancelled”.

Protests this time were directed at the wall texts appearing next to Hogarth’s paintings by 18 “commentators” (academics and artists); analyses that inflamed the critics. For example, a wall text written by the artist Sonia E. Barrett, alongside a 1757 self-portrait showing Hogarth sitting on a mahogany chair, suggested that it should be seen within the context of slavery. “The curvaceous chair literally supports him and exemplifies his view on beauty,” she wrote. “The chair is made from timbers shipped from the colonies, via routes which also shipped enslaved people. Could the chair also stand in for all those unnamed black and brown people enabling the society that supports his vigorous creativity?” Jamaican mahogany was harvested by enslaved Africans (the human cost) and cutting down the trees contributed to island deforestation (an environmental cost).

These hostile press comments were in turn to engender Craig Brown’s satirical piece in which the most unlikely Tate paintings were given progressive labels alert to racial prejudice and discrimination.

Including, as we see, Blake’s “Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils”.

The associated text reads

Deprived of funding by successive Conservative governments, our NHS continues to struggle to provide an adequate service for millions of sick and elderly citizens. William Blake’s powerful portrait of a health service driven to its knees, in the person of Job, stands as stark testament to the artist’s place in society, and his responsibility to convey the message of the necessity of social change. A specially commissioned Lavender and Basil Tate Ointment for Boils, Chilblains and Blisters is on special offer at £19.89, 10 percent off for members, in the Tate shop, with a Blake-themed tube design by Dame Tracey Emin.

Craig Brown is always fun to read. I laughed out loud at the suggestion of the Tate shop flogging boil balm.

William Blake, “Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils”, c.1826; ink and tempera on mahogany. Tate.

(Mahogany again—the fashionable wood of the eighteenth century and the emblematic timber of Empire—whose hard, tight, even grain provides a suitable surface for Blake's tempera painting technique.)

Blake’s prophetic image (illustrating BOOK OF JOB 2:7) shows Satan pouring infection from a phial, a symbolic representation of an airborne disease, traditionally identified as smallpox (the most significant epidemic disease of the eighteenth century). Today, the airborne disease is Covid-19 while Fatty Johnson and his gang fulfil Craig Brown’s entirely apposite comment.

My thanks to Susan Matthews for spotting the page in Private Eye.

Sources and further reading

Craig Brown.—“Diary. Tate: The Authorised Interpretations”.—Private Eye (26 Nov 2021).
Reprinted in Private Eye Annual 2022. Edited by Ian Hislop.—London:‎ Private Eye, 2022.

Frank Furedi .—“Our right to free expression is in crisis—can we call ourselves a democracy if we don’t encourage open debate?”.—Telegraph (30 December 2019).

Gareth Harris.—“Tate Britain director defends museum against accusations of ‘cancelling Hogarth’”.—The Art Newspaper (24 November 2021).

Andrew Mitchell.—Beyond a Fringe : Tales from a Reformed Establishment Lackey.--London : Biteback 2022.
Reviewed in the TLS (18 March 2022).

Wayne C. Ripley.—“Checklist of Scholarship in 2019”.—Blake Quarterly (23 Jul 2020).
Ripley discusses reactions to the content warning sign at the entrance to the Tate Blake exhibition, as well as the reception of the exhibition more generally.

Jason Whittaker.—Jerusalem : Blake, Parry, and the Fight for Englishness.—Oxford : Oxford University Press 2022.
A comprehensive history of one of the most famous poems in English literature. Whittaker traces the complex social, political, and cultural contexts in which the hymn has been used over a hundred years.
(Due for publication in July 2022.)

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