Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 1/Chapters 37—39
LAST DAYS. 1827 [ÆT. 69.]
The last letter Mr. Linnell received from Blake dates nearly three months after that which closed the previous chapter: —
3rd July, 1827.
I thank you for the ten pounds you are so kind as to send me at this time. My journey to Hampstead on Sunday brought on a relapse which has lasted till now. I find I am not so well as I thought; I must not go on in a youthful style. However, I am upon the mending hand to-day, and hope soon to look as I did; for I have been yellow, accompanied by all the old symptoms.
I am, dear Sir,
He was not to mend; though still, so long as breath lasted, to keep on at his life-long labours of love. This letter was written but six weeks before his death.
In the previous letter of April 25th, Blake had said of himself, 'I am too much attached to Dante to think much of anything else.' In the course of his lingering illness, he was frequently bolstered up in his bed that he might go on with these drawings. The younger Tatham had commissioned a coloured impression of that grand conception in the Europe, the Ancient of Days, already noticed as a singular favourite with Blake and as one it was always a happiness to him to copy. Tatham gave three guineas and a half for this specimen; a higher rate of payment than Blake was accustomed to. This being so, of course, Blake finished it to the utmost point, making it as beautiful in colour as already grand in design; patiently working on it till within a few days of his death. After he 'had frequently touched upon it,' says Tatham, as reported by Smith, 'and had frequently held it at a distance, he threw it from him, and with an air of exulting triumph exclaimed, "There! that will do! I cannot mend it."'
As he said these words, his glance fell on his loving Kate, no longer young or beautiful, but who had lived with him in these and like humble rooms, in hourly companionship, ever ready helpfulness, and reverent sympathy, for now forty-five years. August, forty-five years ago (back into a past century), they had wedded at Battersea Church, on the other side the river. August, 1827, he lies, in failing strength, in the quiet room looking out over the river, yet but a few yards removed from the roaring Strand: she beside his bed, she alone. He has no other servant, nor nurse, and wants no other. As his eyes rested on the once graceful form, thought of all she had been to him in these years filled the poet-artist's mind. 'Stay!' he cried, 'keep as you are! you have been ever an angel to me: I will draw you!' And a portrait was struck off by a hand which approaching death—few days distant now—had not weakened nor benumbed. This drawing has been described to me by Mr. Tatham, who once possessed it, as 'a phrenzied sketch of some power; highly interesting, but not like.'
Blake still went on designing as of old. One of the very last shillings spent was in sending out for a pencil. For his illness, caused, as was afterwards ascertained, by the mixing of the gall with the blood, was not violent, but a gradual and gentle failure of physical powers, which no wise affected the mind. The speedy end was not foreseen by his friends.
The final leave-taking came he had so often seen in vision; so often, and with such child-like, simple faith, sung and designed. With the very same intense, high feeling he had depicted the Death of the Righteous Man, he enacted it—serenely, joyously. For life and design and song were with him all pitched in one key, different expressions of one reality. No dissonances there! It happened on a Sunday the 12th of August, 1827, nearly three months before completion of his seventieth year. 'On the day of his death,' writes Smith, who had his account from the widow, 'he composed and uttered songs to his Maker, so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine that, when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, "My beloved! they are not mine. No! they are not mine!" He told her they would not be parted; he should always be about her to take care of her.'
A little before his death, Mrs. Blake asked where he would be buried, and whether a dissenting minister or a clergyman of the Church of England should read the service. To which he answered, that 'as far as his own feelings were concerned, she might bury him where she pleased.' But that as 'father, mother, aunt, and brother were buried in Bunhill Row, perhaps it would be better to lie there. As to service, he should wish for that of the Church of England.'
In that plain, back room, so dear to the memory of his friends, and to them beautiful from association with him—with his serene, cheerful converse, his high personal influence, so spiritual and rare—he lay chaunting Songs to Melodies, both the inspiration of the moment, but no longer, as of old, to be noted down. To the pious Songs followed, about six in the summer evening, a calm and painless withdrawal of breath; the exact moment almost unperceived by his wife who sat by his side. A humble female neighbour, her only other companion, said afterwards: 'I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel.'
A letter, written a few days later, to a mutual friend by a now distinguished painter, one of the most fervent in that enthusiastic little band I have so often mentioned, expresses their feelings better than words less fresh or authentic can.
My dear Friend,
Lest you should not have heard of the death of Mr. Blake, I have written this to inform you. He died on Sunday night, at six o'clock, in a most glorious manner. He said he was going to that country he had all his life wished to see, and expressed himself happy, hoping for salvation through Jesus Christ. Just before he died his countenance became fair, his eyes brightened, and he burst out into singing of the things he saw in heaven. In truth, he died like a saint, as a person who was standing by him observed. He is to be buried on Friday, at twelve in the morning. Should you like to go to the funeral? If you should, there will be room in the coach.
At noon on the following Friday, August 17th, the chosen knot of friends,—Richmond, Calvert, Tatham, and others, — attended the body of the beloved man to the grave,—saw it laid in Bunhill Fields burying-ground, Finsbury: Tatham, though ill, travelling ninety miles to do so. Bunhill Fields is known to us all as the burial-place of Bunyan and De Foe, among other illustrious Nonconformists. Thither, seven years later, was brought Blake's old rival, Stothard, to be laid with his kin: a stone memorial marks his grave.
Among the 'five thousand head-stones' in Bunhill Fields, exists none to William Blake; nothing to indicate the spot where he was buried. Smith, with the best intentions (and Mr. Fairholt in the Art Journal for August, 1858, follows him), would identify the grave as one 'numbered 80, at the 'distance of about twenty-five feet from the north wall.' Unfortunately, that particular portion of the burying-ground was not added until 1836; in 1827 it was occupied by houses, then part of Bunhill Row. On reference to the register, now kept at Somerset House, I find the grave to be numbered '77, east and west; 32 north and south.' This, helped by the exsexton, we discover vaguely to be a spot somewhere about the middle of that division of the ground lying to the right as you enter. There is no identifying it further. As it was an unpurchased 'common grave' (only a nineteen-shilling fee paid), it was doubtless—to adopt the official euphuism for the basest sacrilege—'used again,' after the lapse of some fifteen years say: as must also have been the graves of those dear to him. For such had, of late years, become the uniform practice in regard to 'common graves,' the present custodian tells me, amid other melancholy detail of those good old times, which mortal sexton cannot but remember wistfully,—of some sixteen hundred burials in the year; until, in fact, the 'hallowed enclosure' and 'resting-place' was closed by authority in 1854. In 1827, indeed, the over-crowding had not reached its subsequent portentous dimensions. But only a few years later, viz. in 1831—32, when resurrection work was so active, a nightly guard of two watchmen had to be set on foot, and was continued till the closing of the ground. Their watch-box still lingered at the period of my visit in 1854.
To a neglected life, then. Consistently followed a nameless and dishonoured grave. 'The Campo Santo of the Dissenters' these fields have been poetically styled.. A truly British Campo Santo; bare of art, beauty, or symbol of human feeling: the very gravestones of old Nonconformist worthies now huddled into a corner, as by-past rubbish. Wandering lonely around that drear, sordid Golgotha, the continuous rumble of near omnibus traffic forming a running accompaniment of dismal sound, in harmony with the ugliness which oppresses the eye: wandering dejected in that squalid Hades, it is, for the time, hard to realize the spiritual message, in song and design, of the poet whose remains lie, or once lay there.
The year of Blake's death has been incorrectly given by Allan Cunningham as 1828; so, too, by Pilkington and the other dictionaries, and in Knight's Cyclopædia, all copying one another. In the Literary Gazette and in the Gentleman's Magazine appeared, at the time, brief notices of Blake, in substance the same. The year of Blake's death, it may be worth adding, was that of Beethoven's and of Jean Paul Richter's.
Blake left not a single debt behind; but a large stock of his works—Drawings, Engravings, Copper-Plates, and copies of Engraved Books—which will help ward off destitution from the widow, A month after her husband's death she, at Mr. Linnell's invitation, took up her abode at his house in Cirencester Place, in part fulfilment of the old friendly scheme. There she remained some nine months; quitting, in the summer of 1828, to take charge of Mr. Tatham's chambers. Finally, she removed into humble lodgings at No. 17, Upper Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square, in which she continued till her death; still under the wing, as it were, of this last-named friend. The occasional sale, to such as had a regard for Blake's memory, or were recommended by staunch friends like Mr. Richmond, Nollekens Smith and others, of single drawings, of the Jerusalem, of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, secured for her moderate wants a decent, if stinted and precarious competence. Perhaps we need hardly call it a stinted one, however; for, besides the friends just enumerated, one or two of her husband's old patrons, who had in later years fallen away, remembered their ancient kindness when tidings of his death reached them, and were glad to extend a helping hand to his widow. Nor did she live long enough to test their benevolence too severely; surviving her husband only four years. Among these Lord Egremont visited her and, recalling Blake's Felpham days, said regretfully, 'Why did he leave me?' The Earl subsequently purchased, for the handsome sum of eighty guineas, a large water-colour drawing containing 'The Characters of Spenser's Faerie Queen.' grouped together in a procession, as a companion picture to the Canterbury Pilgrims. Mr. Haviland Burke, a nephew (or grand-nephew) of Edmund Burke, and a very warm appreciator of Blake's genius, not only bought of the widow himself, but urged others to do so. At his instance Dr. Jebb, Bishop of Limerick, sent her twenty guineas, intimating, at the same time that, as he was not a collector of works of Art, he did not desire anything in return. To which Mrs. Blake, with due pride as well as gratitude, replied by forwarding him a copy of the Song's of Innocence and Experience, which she described as, in her estimation, especially precious from having been 'Blake's own.' It is a very late example, the water-mark of the paper bearing date 1825; and certainly, as to harmony of colour and delicacy of execution, is not, throughout, equal to some of the early copies. But, as the leaves were evidently numbered by Blake himself, the figures being in the same colour as the engraved writing, it has been here followed,—thanks to the courtesy of its present owner, the Rev. Charles Foster,—in regard to the order of the Songs as reprinted in Vol. II.
A note to Mr. Swinburne's Critical Essay (pp. 81-83), contains the following interesting reminiscence of Mrs. Blake from the lips of Mr. Seymour Kirkup, who, as the reader will remember, was one of the few visitors to Blake's Exhibition in 1809. 'After Blake's death, a gift of £100 was sent to his widow by the Princess Sophia. Mrs. Blake sent back the money with all due thanks, not liking to take or keep what, as it seemed to her, she could dispense with, while many, to whom no chance or choice was given, might have been kept alive by the gift. One complaint only she was ever known to make during her husband's life, and that gently,—"Mr. Blake was so little with her, though in the body they were never separated; for he was incessantly away in Paradise,"—which would not seem to have been far off.'
Mr. Cary, the translator of Dante, also purchased a drawing—Oberon and Titania: and a gentleman in the far north, Mr. James Ferguson, an artist who whites from Tynemouth, took copies of three or four of the Engraved Books. Neither was Mrs. Blake wanting in efforts to help herself, so far as it lay within her own power to do so. She was an excellent saleswoman, and never committed the mistake of showing too many things at one time. Aided by Mr. Tatham, she also filled in, within Blake's lines, the colour of the Engraved Books; and even finished some of the drawings—rather against Mr. Linnell's judgment. Of her husband she would always speak with trembling voice and tearful eyes as 'that wonderful man,' whose spirit, she said, was still with her, as in death he had promised. Him she worshipped till the end. The manner of her own departure, which occurred Somewhat suddenly, was characteristic, and in harmony with the tenor of her life. When told by the doctor that the severe attack of inflammation of the bowels which had seized her and which, always self-negligent, she had suffered to run to a height before calling in medical aid, would terminate in mortification, she sent for her friends, Mr. and Mrs. Tatham, and, with much composure, gave minute directions for the performance of the last sad details; requesting, among other things, that no one but themselves should see her after death, and that a bushel of slaked lime should be put in the cofiin, to secure her from the dissecting knife. She then took leave of Miss Blake, and passed the remaining time—about five hours—calmly and cheerfully; 'repeating texts of Scripture, and calling continually to her William, as if he were only in the next room, to say that she was coming to him, and would not be long now.' This continued nearly till the end. She died in Mrs. Tatham's arms, at four o'clock in the morning, on or about the 18th of October, 1831, at the age of sixty-nine; and was buried beside her husband in Bunhill Fields. The remaining stock of his works, still considerable, she bequeathed to Mr. Tatham, who administered her few effects—effects, in an artistic sense, so precious. They have since been widely dispersed; some destroyed
Blake left no surviving blood relative, except his sister, concerning whom only the scantiest particulars are now to be gleaned. She had had in her youth, it is said, some pretensions to beauty, and even in age retained the traces of it; her eyes, in particular, being noticeably fine. She was decidedly a lady in demeanour, though somewhat shy and proud; with precise old-maidish ways. To this may be added that she survived her brother many years, and sank latterly, it is to be feared, into extreme indigence; at which point we lose sight of her altogether. Where or when she died, I have been unable to discover. Miss Blake has crossed our path but once casually during the course of this narrative,—during the Felpham days, when she made one in her brother's household.
MRS, BLAKE IN AGE.
From a drawing by Frederick Tatham.
Amid unavoidable regrets that all it seems possible to glean regarding a life of great gifts and independent aims, which has passed away beneath the very eyes of many now living, is already exhausted, it remains only to add a few further notes of critical or personal detail; a few pages of summary, and of matters accessory to the main subject.
To begin with the first of these:—
The reader has already seen that Blake applied the term fresco to his own pictures in a somewhat unusual sense. According to the literal meaning of the word, he cannot be said to have ever painted a fresco in his life. To Mr. Linnell I am indebted for the following explanation of the matter—an explanation which also throws light on the cause of the lamentable decay into which some of Blake's 'frescos' and temperas have already fallen. ' He evidently founded his claim to the name fresco on the material he used, which was water-colour on a plaster ground (literally glue and whiting); but he always called it either fresco, gesso, or plaster. And he certainly laid this ground on too much like plaster on a wall. When so laid on to canvas or linen, it was sure to crack, and, in some cases, for want of care and protection from damp, would go to ruin. Some of his pictures in this material on board have been preserved in good condition, and so have a few even on cloth. They come nearer to tempera in process than to anythhig else, inasmuch as white was laid on and mixed with the colours which were tempered with common carpenter's glue.' Nollekens Smith also tells us that Blake 'would, in the course of painting a picture, pass a very thin transparent wash of glue-water over the whole of the parts he had worked upon, and then, proceed with his finishing.' Those who may be curious to have a minute description of how to manipulate these materials may find one in an Italian treatise entitled Di Cennino Cennini, Trattato della Pittura messo in luce la prima volta con annotazioni dal Cavaliere Giuseppe Tambroni. Roma; Coi Torchj di Paolo Sabrincci, 1822; of which chap. xix. headed Colla di Spichi, is specially devoted to the subject. 'I believe,' writes Mr. Linnell, 'that the first copy of Cennino Cennini's book seen in England was the one I obtained from Italy, and gave to Blake, who soon made it out, and was gratified to find that he had been using the same materials and methods in painting as Cennini describes, particularly the carpenter's glue.'
Blake was a severe designer,—says another friend, on the same topic,—and the richness of oils did not please him, nor comport with his style; nay, so vehement an antagonist was he to oils (see Descriptive Catalogue), that he used to assert that all really great works were in water-colour; and, regarding the plaster ground and the absence of an oily vehicle as the important and distinguishing characteristic of fresco, and the peculiarity from which it takes its name,—that of being executed on a wet surface,—as a comparatively trivial one he, naturally enough, took pleasure in adopting that designation for his own pictures.
A few fragmentary notes concerning Blake's principles or practice, written down as they were gathered, have not yet been included here. Though slight they are not without interest, and it will be better not to omit them.
He worked at literature and art at the same time, keeping the manuscript beside him and adding to it, at intervals, while the graver continued its task almost without intermission. He despised etching needles, and worked wholly with the graver in latter years.
He used to say 'Truth is always in the extremes,—keep them.' I suppose he meant the same thing in saying, 'If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.'
He hated the bold, abrupt, off-hand style of drawing. 'Do you work in fear and trembling?' he asked a student who came to him for advice. 'Indeed I do, sir.' 'Then you'll do,' was the rejoinder. All the grand efforts of design, he thought, depended on niceties not to be got at once. First put in the action, then with further strokes fill up. So, he believed, worked the great masters.
He felt his way in drawing, notwithstanding his love of a 'bold determinate outline,' and did not get this at once. Copyists and plagiarists do that, but not original artists, as it is common to suppose: they find a difficulty in developing the first idea. Blake drew a rough, dotted line with pencil, then with ink; then colour, filling in cautiously, carefully. At the same time he attached very great importance to 'first lines,' and was wont to affirm;—'First thoughts are best in art, second thoughts in other matters.'
He held that nature should be learned by heart, and remembered by the painter, as the poet remembers language. 'To learn the language of art, copy for ever, is my rule,' said he. But he never painted his pictures from models. 'Models are difficult—enslave one—efface from one's mind a conception or reminiscence which was better.' This last axiom is open to much more discussion than can be given it here. From Fuseli, that often-reported declaration of his, 'Nature puts me out,' seems but another expression of the same wilful arrogance and want of delicate shades, whether of character or style, which we find in that painter's works. Nevertheless a sentence should here be spared to say that England would do well to preserve some remnant of Fuseli's work before it is irremediably obliterated. His oil pictures are, for the most part, monstrously overloaded in bulk as in style, and not less overloaded in mere slimy pigment. But his sketches in water-wash and pencil or pen and ink, should yet be formed, ere too late, into a precious national collection, including as they do, many specimens, than which not the greatest Italian masters could show greater proofs of mastery.
Blake's natural tendencies were, in many respects, far different from Fuseli's, and it is deeply to be regretted that an antagonism, which became more and more personal as well as artistic, to the petty practice of the art of his day,—joined no doubt to inevitable sympathy with this very Fuseli, fighting in great measure the same battle with himself for the high against the low,—should have led to Blake's adopting and unreservedly following the dogma above given as regards the living model. Poverty, and consequent difficulty of models at command, must have had something to do with it too. The truth on this point is, that no imaginative artist can fully express his own tone of mind without sometimes in his life working untrammelled by present reference to nature; and, indeed, that the first conception of every serious work must be wrought into something like complete form, as a preparatory design, without such aid, before having recourse to it in the carrying out of the work. But it is equally or still more imperative that immediate study of nature should pervade the whole completed work. Tenderness, the constant unison of wonder and familiarity so mysteriously allied in nature, the sense of fulness and abundance such as we feel in a field, not because we pry into it all, but because it is all there: these are the inestimable prizes to be secured only by such study in the painter's every picture. And all this Blake, as thoroughly as any painter, was gifted to have attained, as we may see especially in his works of that smallest size where memory and genius may really almost stand in lieu of immediate consultation of nature. But the larger his works are, the further he departs from this lovely impression of natural truth; and when we read the above maxim, we know why. However, the principle was not one about which he had no misgiving, for very fluctuating if not quite conflicting opinions on this point might be quoted from his writings.
No special consideration has yet been entered on here of Blake's claim as a colourist, but it is desirable that this should be done now in winding up the subject, both because his place in this respect among painters is very peculiar, and also on account of the many misleading things he wrote regarding colour, carried away at the moment, after his fiery fashion, by the predominance he wished to give to other qualities in some argument in hand. Another reason why his characteristics, in this respect, need to be dwelt upon is, that certainly his most original and prismatic system of colour,—in which tints laid on side by side, each in its utmost force, are made by masterly treatment to produce a startling and novel effect of truth,—must be viewed as being, more decidedly than the system of any other painter, the forerunner of a style of execution now characterising a whole new section of the English School, and making itself admitted as actually invoking some positive additions to the resources of the art. Some of the out-door pictures of this class, studied as they are with a closeness of imitation perhaps unprecedented, have nevertheless no slight essential affinity to Blake's way of representing natural scenes, though the smallness of scale in these latter, and the spiritual quality which always mingles with their truth to nature, may render the parallel less apparent than it otherwise would be. In Blake's colouring of landscape, a subtle and exquisite reality forms quite as strong an element as does ideal grandeur; whether we find him dealing with the pastoral sweetness of drinking cattle at a stream, their hides and fleeces all glorified by sunset with magic rainbow hues; or revealing to us, in a flash of creative genius, some parted sky and beaten sea full of portentous expectation. One unfailing sign of his true brotherhood with all the great colourists is the lovingly wrought and realistic flesh-painting which is constantly to be met with in the midst of his most extraordinary effects. For pure realism, too, though secured in a few touches as only greatness can, let us turn to the dingy London street, all snow-clad and smoke-spotted, through which the little black chimney-sweeper wends his way in the Songs of Experience. Certainly an unaccountable perversity in colour may now and then be apparent, as where, in the same series, the tiger is painted in fantastic streaks of red, green, blue, and yellow, while a tree stem at his side tantalizingly supplies the tint which one might venture to think his due, and is perfect tiger-colour! I am sure, however, that such vagaries, curious enough no doubt, are not common with Blake, as the above is the only striking instance I can recall in his published work. But, perhaps, a few occasional bewilderments may be allowed to a system of colour which is often suddenly called upon to help in embodying such conceptions as painter never before dreamed of: some old skeleton folded together in the dark bowels of earth or rock, discoloured with metallic stain and vegetable mould; some symbolic human birth of crowned flowers at dawn, amid rosy light and the joyful opening of all things. Even a presentment of the most abstract truths of natural science is not only attempted by this new painter, but actually effected by legitimate pictorial ways; and we are somehow shown, in figurative yet not wholly unreal shapes and hues, the mingling of organic substances, the gradual development and perpetual transfusion of life.
The reader who wishes to study Blake as a colourist has a means of doing so, thorough in kind though limited in extent, by going to the Print Room at the British Museum, which is accessible to any one who takes the proper course to gain admission, and there examining certain of Blake's hand-coloured prints, bound in volumes. All those in the collection are not equally valuable, since the various copies of Blake's own colouring differ extremely in finish and richness, as has been already noted here. The Museum copy of the Songs of Innocence and Experience is rather a poor one, though it will serve to judge of the book; and some others of his works are there represented by copies which, I feel convinced, are not coloured by Blake's hand at all, but got up more or less in his manner, and brought into the market after his death. But two volumes here—the Song of Los, and especially the smaller of the two collections of odd plates from his different works, which is labelled Designs by W. Blake, and numbered, inside the fly-leaf, 5240—afford specimens of his colouring, perhaps equal to any that could be seen.
The tinting in the Song of Los is not, throughout, of one order of value; but no finer example of Blake's power in rendering poetic effects of landscape could be found, than that almost miraculous expression of the glow and freedom of air in closing sunset, in a plate where a youth and maiden, lightly embraced, are racing along a saddened low-lit hill, against an open sky of blazing and changing wonder. But in the volume of collected designs I have specified, almost every plate (or more properly water-colour drawing, as the printed groundwork in such specimens is completely overlaid) shows Blake's colour to advantage, and some in its very fullest force. See, for instance, in plate 8, the deep, unfathomable, green sea churning a broken foam as white as milk against that sky which is all blue and gold and blood-veined heart of fire; while from sea to sky one locked and motionless face gazes, as it might seem, for ever. Or, in plate 9, the fair tongues and threads of liquid flame deepening to the redness of blood, lapping round the flesh-tints of a human figure which bathes and swims in the furnace. Or plate 12 which, like the other two, really embodies some of the wild ideas in Urizen, but might seem to be Aurora guiding the new-born day, as a child, through a soft-complexioned sky of fleeting rose and tingling grey, such as only dawn and dreams can show us. Or, for pure delightfulness, intricate colour, and a kind of Shakespearian sympathy with all forms of life and growth, as in the Midsummer Night's Dream, let the gazer, having this precious book once in his hands, linger long over plates 10, 16, 22, and 23. If they be for him, he will be joyful more and more the longer he looks, and will gain back in that time some things as he first knew them, not encumbered behind the days of his life; things too delicate for memory or years since forgotten; the momentary sense of spring in winter-sunshine, the long sunsets long ago, and falling fires on many distant hills.
The inequality in value, to which I have alluded, between various copies of the same design as coloured by Blake, may be tested by comparing the book containing the plates alluded to above, with the copies of Urizen and the Book of Thel, also in the Print Room, some of whose contents are the same as in this collected volume. The immense difference dependent on greater finish in the book I have described, and indeed sometimes involving the introduction of entirely new features into the design, will thus be at once apparent. In these highly-wrought specimens, the colour has a half floating and half granulated character which is most curious and puzzling, seeming dependent on the use of some peculiar means, either in vehicle, or by some kind of pressure or stamping which had the result of blending the transparent and body tints in a manner not easily described. The actual printing from the plate bearing the design was, as I have said and feel convinced, confined to the first impression in monochrome. But this perplexing quality of execution reaches its climax in some of Blake's 'oil-colour printed' and hand-finished designs, such as several large ones now in the possession of Captain Butts, the grandson of Blake's friend and patron. One of these, the Newton, consists in a great part of a rock covered with fossil substance or lichen of some kind, the treatment of which is as endlessly varied and intricate as a photograph from a piece of seaweed would be. It cannot possibly be all handwork, and yet I can conceive no mechanical process, short of photography, which is really capable of explaining it. It is no less than a complete mystery, well worthy of any amount of inquiry, if a clue could only be found from which to commence. In nearly all Blake's works of this solidly painted kind, it is greatly to be lamented that the harmony of tints is continually impaired by the blackening of the bad white pigment, and perhaps red lead also, which has been used, — an injury which must probably go still further in course of time.
Of the process by which the designs last alluded to were produced, the following explanation has been furnished by Mr. Tatham. It is interesting, and I have no doubt correct as regards the groundwork, but certainly it quite falls short of accounting for the perplexing intricacy of such portions as the rock-background of the Newton. 'Blake, when he wanted to make his prints in oil' (writes my informant), 'took a common thick millboard and drew, in some strong ink or colour, his design upon it strong and thick. He then painted upon that in such oil colours and in such a state of fusion that they would blur well. He painted roughly and quickly, so that no colour would have time to dry. He then took a print of that on paper, and this impression he coloured up in water-colours, repainting his outline on the mill-board when he wanted to take another print. This plan he had recourse to, because he could vary slightly each impression; and each having a sort of accidental look, he could branch out so as to make each one different. The accidental look they had was very enticing.' Objections might be raised to this account as to the apparent impracticability of painting in water colours over oil; but I do not believe it would be found so, if the oil colour were merely stamped, as described, and left to dry thoroughly into the paper.
In concluding a biography which has for its subject a life so prone to new paths as was that of William Blake, it may be well to allude, however briefly, to those succeeding British artists who have shown unmistakably something of his influence in their works. Foremost among these comes a very great though as yet imperfectly acknowledged name,—that of David Scott of Edinburgh, a man whom Blake himself would have delighted to honour, and to whose high appreciation of Blake the motto on the title-page of the present book bears witness. Another proof of this is to be found in a MS. note in a copy of the Grave which belonged to Scott; which note I shall here transcribe. I may premise that the apparent preference given to the Grave over Blake's other works seems to me almost to argue in the writer an imperfect acquaintance with the Job.
'These, of any series of designs which art has produced' (writes the Scottish painter), 'are the most purely elevated in their relation and sentiment. It would be long to discriminate the position they hold in this respect, and at the same time the disregard in which they may be held by some who judge of them in a material relation; while the great beauty which they possess will at once be apparent to others who can appreciate their style in its immaterial connection. But the sum of the whole in my mind is this: that these designs reach the intellectual or infinite, in an abstract significance, more entirely unmixed with inferior elements and local conventions, than any others; that they are the result of high intelligence, of thought, and of a progress of art through many styles and stages of different times, produced through a bright, generalizing and transcendental mind.
The errors or defects of Blake's mere science in form, and his proneness to overdo some of its best features into weakness, are less perceptible in these than in others of his works. What was a disappointment to him was a benefit to the work,—that it was etched by another, who was able to render it in a style thoroughly consistent, (but which Blake has the originality of having pointed out, in his series from Young, though he did not properly effect it,) and to pass over those solecisms which would have interrupted its impression, in a way that, to the apprehender of these, need scarcely give offence, and hide them from the discovery of others. They are etched with most appropriate and consummate ability.' David Scott, 1844.
In the list of subscribers appended to Blake's Grave we find the name of 'Mr. Robert Scott, Edinburgh.' This was the engraver, father of David Scott, to whom, therefore, this book (published in 1808, one year after his birth) must have come as an early association and influence. That such was the case is often traceable in his works, varied as they are in their grand range of subject, and even treatment. And it is singular that the clear perception of Blake's weak side, evident in the second paragraph of the note, did not save its writer from falling into defects exactly similar in that peculiar class of his works in which he most resembles Blake. It must be noticed, however, that these are chiefly among his earlier productions (such as the Monograms of Man, the picture of Discord, &c,), or else among the sketches left imperfect; while the note dates only five years before his untimely death at the age of forty-two. This is not a place where any attempt can be made at estimating the true position of David Scott. Such a task will need, and some day doubtless find, ample limit and opportunity. It is fortunate that an unusually full and excellent biographical record of him already exists in the Memoir from the hand of a brother no less allied to him by mental and artistic powers than by ties of blood; but what is needed is, that his works should be collected and competently placed before the world. An opportunity in this direction was afforded by the International Exhibition of 1862; but the two noble works of his which were there, were so unpardonably ill-placed (and that where so much was well seen which was not worth the seeing), that the chance was completely missed. David Scott will one day be acknowledged as the painter most nearly fulfilling the highest requirements for historic art, both as a thinker and a colourist (in spite of the great claims in many respects of Etty and Maclise), who had come among us from the time of Hogarth to his own. In saying this, it is necessary to add distinctly (for the sake of objectors who have raised, or may raise, their voices), that it is not only, or even chiefly, on his intellectual eminence, that the statement is based, but also on the great qualities of colour and powers of solid execution displayed in his finest works, which are to be found among those deriving their subjects from history.
Another painter, ranking far below David Scott, but still not to be forgotten where British poetic art is the theme—was Theodore von Holst, an Englishman, though of German extraction; in many of whose most characteristic works the influence of Blake, as well as of Fuseli, has probably been felt. But Hoist was far from possessing anything like the depth of thought or high aims which distinguished Blake. At the same time, his native sense of beauty and colour in the more ideal walks of art, was originally beyond that of any among his contemporaries, except Etty and Scott. He may be best described, perhaps, to the many who do not know his works, as being, in some sort, the Edgar Poe of painting; but lacking, probably, even the continuity of closely studied work in the midst of irregularities which distinguished the weird American poet, and has enabled him to leave behind some things which cannot be soon forgotten. Holst, on the contrary, it is to be feared, has hardly transmitted such complete record of his naturally great gifts as can secure their rescue from oblivion. It would be very desirable that an account of him and his works should be written by some one best able to do so among those still living who must have known him. It is a tribute due to an artist who, however imperfect his self-expression during a short and fitful career, forms certainly one of the few connecting links between the early and sound period of English colour and method in painting, and that revival of which so many signs have, in late years, been apparent. At present, much of what he did is doubtless in danger of being lost altogether. Specimens from his hand existed in the late Northwick collection, now dispersed; and some years since I saw a most beautiful work by him—a female head or half figure—among the pictures at Stafford House. But Holst's sketches and designs on paper (a legion past numbering) were, for the most part, more expressive of his full powers than his pictures, which were too often merely sketches enlarged without reference to nature. Of these, a very extensive collection was possessed by the late Serjeant Ralph Thomas. What has become of them? Among Holst's pictures, the best are nearly always those partaking of the fantastic or supernatural, which, however dubious a ground to take in art, was the true bent of his genius. A notable instance of his comparative weakness in subjects of pure dignity may be found in what has been pronounced his best work, and was probably about the most 'successful' at the time of its production; that is, the Raising of Jaïrus's Daughter, which was once in the gallery at the Pantheon in Oxford Street. Probably the fullest account of Hoist is to be found in the sufficiently brief notice of him which appeared in the Art Journal (or Art Union, as then called).
Of any affinity in spirit to Blake which might be found existing in the works of some living artists, it is not necessary to speak here; yet allusion should be made to one still alive and honoured in other ways, who early in life produced a series of Biblical designs seldom equalled for imaginative impression, and perhaps more decidedly like Blake's works, though quite free from plagiarism, than anything else that could be cited. I allude to One Hundred Copper-plate Engravings from original drawings by Isaac Taylor, junior, calculated to ornament all quarto and octavo editions of the Bible. London: Allan Bell & Co., Warwick Square. 1834. Strange as it may appear, I believe I am right in stating that these were produced in youth by the late venerable author of the Natural History of Enthusiasm, and many other works. How he came to do them, or why he did no more, I have no means of recording. They are very small and very unattractively engraved, sometimes by the artist and sometimes by others. In simplicity, dignity, and original thought, probably in general neglect at the time, and certainly in complete disregard ever since, they bear a close affinity to the mass of Blake's works, and may fairly be supposed to have been, in some measure, inspired by the study of them. The Witch of Endor, The Plague Stayed, The Death of Samson, and many others, are, in spirit, even well worthy of his hand, and from him, at least, would not have missed the admiration they deserve.
Having spoken so far of Blake's influence as a painter, I should be glad if I could point out that the simplicity and purity of his style as a lyrical poet had also exercised some sway. But, indeed, he is so far removed from ordinary apprehensions in most of his poems, or more or less in all, and they have been so little spread abroad, that it will be impossible to attribute to them any decided place among the impulses which have directed the extraordinary mass of poetry displaying power of one or another kind, which has been brought before us, from his day to our own. Perhaps some infusion of his modest and genuine beauties might add a charm even to the most gifted works of our present rather redundant time. One grand poem which was, till lately, on the same footing as his own (or even a still more obscure one) as regards popular recognition and which shares, though on a more perfect scale than he ever realized in poetry, the exalted and primeval, if not the subtly etherealized, qualities of his poetic art, may be found in Charles Wells's scriptural drama of Joseph and his Brethren, published in 1824 under the assumed name of Howard. This work affords, perhaps, the solitary instance, within our period, of poetry of the very first class falling quite unrecognized and remaining so for a long space of years. In the first edition of this Life of Blake it was prophesied that Wells's time would 'assuredly still come.' In 1876 Joseph and his Brethren was republished under the auspices of Mr. Swinburne, and with an introduction from his pen. Charles Wells lived to see this new phoenix form of the genius of his youth, but died in 1878. The work is attainable now, and need not here be dwelt on at any length. In what may be called the Anglo-Hebraic order of aphoristic truth, Shakespeare, Blake, and Wells are nearly akin, nor could any fourth poet be named so absolutely in the same connection, though from the Shakespearean point of view alone the 'marvellous,' nay, miraculous, Chatterton must also be included. It may be noted that Wells's admirable prose Stories after Nature (1822) have not yet been republished.
A very singular example of the closest and most absolute resemblance to Blake's poetry may be met with (if only one could meet with it) in a phantasmal sort of little book, published, or perhaps not published but only printed, some years since, and entitled, Improvisations of the Spirit. It bears no author's name, but was written by Dr. J. J. Garth Wilkinson, the highly gifted editor of Swedenborg's writings, and author of a Life of him: to whom, as has been before mentioned, we owe a reprint of the poems in Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. These improvisations profess to be written under precisely the same kind of spiritual guidance, amounting to abnegation of personal effort in the writer, which Blake supposed to have presided over the production of his Jerusalem, &c. The little book has passed into the general (and in all other cases richly-deserved) limbo of the modern 'spiritualist' muse. It is a very thick little book, however unsubstantial its origin; and contains, amid much that is disjointed or hopelessly obscure (but then why be the polisher of poems for which a ghost, and not even your own ghost, is alone responsible?) many passages and indeed whole compositions of a remote and charming beauty, or sometimes of a grotesque figurative relation to things of another sphere, which are startlingly akin to Blake's writings, could pass, in fact, for no one's but his. Professing as they do the same new kind of authorship, they might afford plenty of material for comparison and bewildered speculation, if such were in any request.
Considering the interval of seventeen years which has now elapsed since the first publication of this Life, it may be well to refer briefly to such studies connected with Blake as have since appeared. This is not the place where any attempt could be made to appraise the thanks due for such a work as Mr. Swinburne's Critical Essay on Blake. The task chiefly undertaken in it—that of exploring and expounding the system of thought and personal mythology which pervades Blake's 'Prophetic Books' has been fulfilled, not by piecework or analysis, but by creative intuition. The fiat of Form and Light has gone forth, and as far as such a chaos could respond it has responded. To the volume itself, and to that only, can any reader be referred for its store of intellectual wealth and reach of eloquent dominion. Next among Blake-labours of love let me here refer to Mr. James Smetham's deeply sympathetic and assimilative study (in the form of a review article on the present Life), published in the London Quarterly Review for Jan. 1869. As this article is reprinted in our present Vol. II., no further tribute to its delicacy and force needs to be made here: it speaks for itself. But some personal mention, however slight, should here exist as due to its author, a painter and designer of our own day who is, in many signal respects, very closely akin to Blake; more so, probably, than any other living artist could be said to be. James Smetham's work—generally of small or moderate size—ranges from Gospel subjects, of the subtlest imaginative and mental insight, and sometimes of the grandest colouring, through Old Testament compositions and through poetic and pastoral themes of every kind, to a special imaginative form of landscape. In all these he partakes greatly of Blake's immediate spirit, being also often nearly allied by landscape intensity to Samuel Palmer,—in youth, the noble disciple of Blake. Mr. Smetham's works are very numerous, and, as other exclusive things have come to be, will some day be known in a wide circle. Space is altogether wanting to make more than this passing mention here of them and of their producer, who shares, in a remarkable manner, Blake's mental beauties and his formative shortcomings, and possesses besides an individual invention which often claims equality with the great exceptional master himself.
Mr. W. B. Scott's two valuable contributions to Blake records—his Catalogue Raisonne of the Exhibition of Blake's Works, as held at the Burlington Fine Arts Club in 1876, and his Etchings from Blakes Works, with Descriptive Text, — are both duly specified in the General Catalogues existing in our Vol. II. We will say briefly here that no man living has a better right to write of Blake or to engrave his work than Mr. Scott, whose work of both kinds is now too well known to call for recognition. Last but not least, the richly condensed and representative essay prefixed by Mr. W. M. Rossetti to his edition (in the Aldine series) of Blake's Poetical Works, demands from all sides—as its writer has, from all sides, discerned and declared Blake—the highest commendation we can here briefly offer.
The reader has now reached the threshold of the Second Volume of this work, in which he will be fortunate enough to be communicating directly with Blake's own mind, in a series of writings in prose and verse, many of them here first published. Now, perhaps, no poet ever courted a public with more apparent need for some smoothing of the way, or mild forewarning, from within, from without, or indeed from any region whence a helping heaven and four bountiful winds might be pleased to waft it, than does Blake in many of the 'emanations' contained in this our Second Volume. Yet, on the other hand, there is the plain truth that such aid will be not at all needed by those whom these writings will impress, and almost certainly lost upon those whom they will not. On the whole, I have thought it best to preface each class of these Selections with a few short remarks, but neither to encumber with many words their sure effect in the right circles, nor to do battle with their destiny in the wrong. Only it may be specified here, that whenever any pieces occurring in Blake's written note-books appeared of a nature on the privacy of which he might have relied in writing them, these have been passed by, in the task of selection. At the same time, all has been included which seemed capable in any way of extending our knowledge of Blake as a poet and writer, in the manner he himself might have wished. Mere obscurity or remoteness from usual ways of thought were, as we know, no bar to publication with him; therefore, in all cases where such qualities, even seeming to myself excessive, are found in conjunction with the lyrical power and beauty of expression so peculiar to Blake's style as a poet (and this, let us not forget, startlingly in advance of the time at which he wrote), I have thought it better to include the compositions so qualified. On the other hand, my MS. researches have often furnished me with poems which I treasure most highly, and which I cannot doubt will dwell in many memories as they do in mine. But, as regards the varying claims of these selections, it should be borne in mind that an attempt is made in the present volume to produce, after a long period of neglect, as complete a record as might be of Blake and his works; and that, while any who can here find anything to love will be the poet-painter's welcome guests, still such a feast is spread first of all for those who can know at a glance that it is theirs and was meant for them; who can meet their host's eye with sympathy and recognition, even when he offers them the new, strange fruits grown for himself in far-off gardens where he has dwelt alone, or pours for them the wines which he has learned to love, in lands where they never travelled.
END OF VOL. I.
R. Clay, Sons, and Taylor,
BREAD STREET HILL.