In 1826, less than ten years before his death, a relatively unknown poet and artist, noted more by his contemporaries for his supposed madness than his creations, began work on a series of 21 illustrations to accompany the Old Testament story told in The Book of Job. That artist was the now-legendary William Blake and those illustrations are currently on display at the Graves Gallery in Sheffield.
As with most work by figures as famous and well regarded as Blake, the first bubble of excitement to rise through the brain, when coming face to face with the illustrations, is the dizzying realisation that the man himself stood and admired his own efforts from the exact proximity afforded now to you, almost 200 years earlier.
This is a feeling comparable only to spotting the lead singer of a stadium-filling band in the supermarket, or Sean Bean in your local chippy – the absurd epiphany that the people we read and hear about so often, the subjects of so many BBC4 documentaries, really do (or in this case did) exist just like me and you, and that their near-mythological work stands before you now, as blatant as the morning paper, with only a thin layer of glass blocking your touch.
There is nothing I can say about the illustrations themselves that hasn’t been pointed out already in the decades of scholarship that surround Blake’s work. Yes, the incredible attention to, and mastery of, various conditions of light is there, just as Ruskin praised. Yes, the artist shuns the conventions of realism, so popular at the time, and draws instead on his wild imagination, as the surrealists of Modernism so adored him for. And yes, there are many layers of detailed symbolism. For example, the right limbs of the characters representing the good and divine, and the left, the evil and earthly.
But despite all these words and all this theory, seeing the pictures themselves, in their material form, is to experience something else far more visceral and far more satisfying.
The Book of Job runs at Graves Gallery until Saturday 2 March 2018.
Words: Liam Casey