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The idea of slavery was fundamental to William Blake’s art and writing. He was fervently opposed to it, and during his own lifetime (1757 – 1827) spanned successful campaigns against the Atlantic slave trade, leading towards the abolition of slavery itself within the British domains in 1807.

But for Blake slavery was also a mental state. Limited perceptions and following conventional religion or science was akin to enslavement, to being held with ‘mind forg’d manacles’ of one’s own making. Blake represents these notions through the contorted body; mentally restricted figures are enclosed within themselves, while those free of mental shackles fly upwards like birds. The image of enslavement is associated above all with the suppression of sexual desire and the desire for unity, represented in Blake’s imagery by chained figures. Many of the most dramatic and complex images show a confrontation between the forces of repression and those seeking freedom.

This exhibition, drawn from the collections of the British Museum, is curated by David Bindman, art historian and editor of William Blake's illustrated books.

It will consist of approximately 64 works organised into five sections, taken from Blake’s watercolours, prints and illuminated books: The Cruelties of Slavery: Blake and Captain Stedman; The Little Black Boy and other black boys; Slavery as restricted vision; Chaining Desire; Throwing off the Chains.

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Represented artists: William Blake


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