Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 2/Prose writings/Public Address

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Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 2: Prose writings by William Blake
Public Address and Memoranda by Blake of his mode of Engraving
A compilation of Blake's prose published in Life of William Blake (first edition), See: Introductory note


Intended to accompany Blake's Engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrimage.

The originality of this production makes it necessary to say a few words.

In this plate Mr. Blake has resumed the style with which he set out in life, of which Heath and Stothard were the awkward imitators at that time. It is the style of Albert Dürer and the old engravers, which cannot be imitated by any one who does not understand drawing, and which, according to Heath, and Stothard, Flaxman, and even Romney, spoils an engraver; for each of these men has repeatedly asserted this absurdity to me, in condemnation of my work, and approbation of Heath's lame imitation; Stothard being such a fool as to suppose that his blundering blurs can be made out and delineated by any engraver who knows how to cut dots and lozenges, equally well with those little prints which I engraved after him four-and-twenty years ago, and by which he got his reputation as a draughtsman.

If men of weak capacities have alone the power of execution in art, Mr. Blake has now put to the test. If to invent and to draw well hinders the executive power in art, and his strokes are still to be condemned because they are unlike those of artists who are unacquainted with drawing, is now to be decided by the public. Mr. Blake's inventive powers, and his scientific knowledge of drawing, are on all hands acknowledged; it only remains to be certified whether physiognomic strength and power are to give place to imbecility. In a work of art it is not fine tints that are required, but fine forms; fine tints without fine forms are always the subterfuge of the blockhead.

I account it a public duty respectfully to address myself to the Chalcographic Society, and to express to them my opinion (the result of the expert practice and experience of many years), that engraving as an art is lost to England, owing to an artfully propagated opinion that drawing spoils an engraver. I request the Society to inspect my print, of which drawing is the foundation, and indeed the superstructure: it is drawing on copper, as painting ought to be drawing on canvas or any other surface, and nothing else. I request, likewise, that the Society will compare the prints of Bartolozzi, Woollett, Strange, &c., with the old English portraits; that is, compare the modern art with the art as it existed previous to the entrance of Vandyck and Rubens into the country, since which event engraving is lost; and I am sure the result of the comparison will be that the Society must be of my opinion, that engraving, by losing drawing, has lost all character and all expression, without which the art is lost.

There is not, because there cannot be, any difference of effect in the pictures of Rubens and Rembrandt: when you have seen one of their pictures, you have seen all. It is not so with Raphael, Giulio Romano, Albert Dürer, Michael Angelo; every picture of theirs has a different and appropriate effect. What man of sense will lay out his money upon the life's labours of imbecility and imbecility's journeymen, or think to educate a fool how to build a universe with farthing balls. The contemptible idiots who have been called great men of late years ought to rouse the public indignation of men of sense in all professions. Yet I do not shrink from the comparison in either relief or strength of colour with either Rembrandt or Rubens; on the contrary, I court the comparison, and fear not the result,—but not in a dark corner. Their effects are, in every picture, the same; mine are in every picture different. That vulgar epigram in art, Rembrandt's Hundred Guelders has entirely put an end to all genuine and appropriate effect: all, both morning and night, is now a dark cavern; it is the fashion.

I hope my countrymen will excuse me if I tell them a wholesome truth. Most Englishmen, when they look at pictures, immediately set about searching for points of light, and clap the picture into a dark corner. This, when done by grand works, is like looking for epigrams in Homer. A point of light is a witticism: many are destructive of all art; one is an epigram only, and no good work can have them. Raphael, Michael Angelo, Albert Dürer, Giulio Romano, are accounted ignorant of that epigrammatic wit in art, because they avoid it as a destructive machine, as it is.

Mr. Blake repeats that there is not one character or expression in this print which could be produced with the execution of Titian, Rubens, Correggio, Rembrandt, or any of that class. Character and expression can only be expressed by those who feel them. Even Hogarth's execution cannot be copied or improved. Gentlemen of fortune, who give great prices for pictures, should consider the following: When you view a collection of pictures, painted since Venetian art was the fashion, or go into a modern exhibition, with a very few exceptions every picture has the same effect—a piece of machinery of points of light to be put into a dark hole.

Rubens's 'Luxembourg Gallery' is confessed on all hands to be the work of a blockhead; it bears this evidence in its face. How can its execution be any other than the work of a blockhead? Bloated gods, Mercury, Juno, Venus, and the rattletraps of mythology, and the lumber of an awkward French palace, are thrown together around clumsy and rickety princes and princesses, higgledy-piggledy. On the contrary, Giulio Romano's 'Palace of T. at Mantua' is allowed on all hands to be the production of a man of the most profound sense and genius; and yet his execution is pronounced by English connoisseurs (and Reynolds their doll) to be unfit for the study of the painter. Can I speak with too great contempt of such contemptible fellows? If all the princes in Europe, like Louis XIV. and Charles I., were to patronise such blockheads, I, William Blake, a mental prince, would decollate and hang their souls as guilty of mental high-treason. He who could represent Christ uniformly like a drayman must have queer conceptions—consequently his execution must have been as queer: and those must be queer fellows who give great sums for such nonsense and think it fine art. Who that has eyes cannot see that Rubens and Correggio must have been very weak and vulgar fellows? And we are to imitate their execution! This is like what Sir Francis Bacon says: that a healthy child should be taught and compelled to walk like a cripple, while the cripple must be taught to walk like healthy people. Oh rare wisdom!

The wretched state of the arts in this country and in Europe, originating in the wretched state of political science (which is the science of sciences), demands a firm and determinate conduct on the part of artists, to resist the contemptible counter-arts, established by such contemptible politicians as Louis XIV., and originally set on foot by Venetian picture-traders, music-traders, and rhyme-traders, to the destruction of all true art, as it is this day. To recover art has been the business of my life to the Florentine original, and if possible, to go beyond that original: this I thought the only pursuit worthy of a man. To imitate I abhor: I obstinately adhere to the true style of art, such as Michael Angelo, Raphael, Giulio Romano, Albert Dürer, left it. I demand, therefore, of the amateurs of art the encouragement which is my due; if they continue to refuse, theirs is the loss, not mine, and theirs is the contempt of posterity. I have enough in the approbation of fellow-labourers: this is my glory and exceeding great reward. I go on, and nothing can hinder my course.

While the works of Pope and Dryden are looked upon as the same art with those of Shakespeare and Milton, while the works of Strange and Woollett are looked upon as the same art with those of Raphael and Albert Dürer, there can be no art in a nation but such as is subservient to the interest of the monopolising trader. Englishmen! rouse yourselves from the fatal slumber into which booksellers and trading dealers have thrown you, under the artfully propagated pretence that a translation or a copy of any kind can be as honourable to a nation as an original, belieing the English character in that well-known saying, Englishmen improve what others invent. This even Hogarth's works prove a detestable falsehood. No man can improve an original invention, nor can an original invention exist without execution organised, delineated, and articulated either by God or man: I do not mean smoothed up and niggled and poco-pen'd, and all the beauties paled out, blurred, and blotted; but drawn with a firm and decided hand at once, like Michael Angelo, Shakespeare and Milton. I have heard many people say: 'Give me the ideas—it is no matter what words you put them into;' and others say: 'Give me the design, it is no matter for the execution.' These people knew enough of artifice, but nothing of art. Ideas cannot be given but in their minutely appropriate words, nor can a design be made without its minutely appropriate execution. The unorganised blots and blurs of Rubens and Titian are not art, nor can their method ever express ideas or imaginations, any more than Pope's metaphysical jargon of rhyming. Unappropriate execution is the most nauseous of all affectation and foppery. He who copies does not execute—he only imitates what is already executed. Execution is only the result of invention.

I do not condemn Rubens, Rembrandt, or Titian, because they did not understand drawing, but because they did not understand colouring; how long shall I be forced to beat this into men's ears? I do not condemn Strange or Woollett because they did not understand drawing, but because they did not understand engraving. I do not condemn Pope or Dryden because they did not understand imagination, but because they did not understand verse. Their colouring, graving, and verse, can never be applied to art: that is not either colouring, graving, or verse, which is inappropriate to the subject. He who makes a design must know the effect and colouring proper to be put to that design, and will never take that of Rubens, Rembrandt, or Titian, to turn that which is soul and life into a mill or machine.

They say there is no straight line in nature. This is a lie, like all that they say, for there is every line in nature. But I will tell them what there is not in nature. An even tint is not in nature—it produces heaviness. Nature's shadows are ever varying, and a ruled sky that is quite even never can produce a natural sky. The same with every object in a picture—its spots are its beauties. Now, gentlemen critics, how do you like this? You may rage; but what I say I will prove by such practice (and have already done so) that you will rage to your own destruction. Woollett I knew very intimately by his intimacy with Basire, and I knew him to be one of the most ignorant fellows that I ever knew. A machine is not a man nor a work of art; it is destructive of humanity and of art. Woollett, I know, did not know how to grind his graver; I know this. He has often proved his ignorance before me at Basire's, by laughing at Basire's knife-tools, and ridiculing the forms of Basire's other gravers, till Basire was quite dashed and out of conceit with what he himself knew. But his impudence had a contrary effect on me.

A certain portrait-painter said to me in a boasting way: 'Since I have practised painting, I have lost all idea of drawing.' Such a man must know that I looked upon him with contempt. He did not care for this any more than West did, who hesitated and equivocated with me upon the same subject; at which time he asserted that Woollett's prints were superior to Basire's, because they had more labour and care. Now this is contrary to the truth. Woollett did not know how to put so much labour into a head or foot as Basire did; he did not know how to draw the leaf of a tree. All his study was clean strokes and mossy tints; how then should he be able to make use of either labour or care, unless the labour and care of imbecility? The life's labour of mental weakness scarcely equals one hour of the labour of ordinary capacity, like the full gallop of the gouty man to the ordinary walk of youth and health. I allow that there is such a thing as high-finished ignorance, as there may be a fool or a knave in an embroidered coat; but I say that the embroidery of the ignorant finisher is not like a coat made by another, but is an emanation from ignorance itself, and its finishing is like its master—the life's labour of five hundred idiots, for he never does the work himself.

What is called the English style of engraving, such as it proceeded from the toilets of Woollett and Strange (for theirs were Fribble's toilets) can never produce character and expression. I knew the men intimately from their intimacy with Basire, my master, and knew them both to be heavy lumps of cunning and ignorance, as their works show to all the Continent, who laugh at the contemptible pretences of Englishmen to improve art before they even know the first beginnings of art. I hope this print will redeem my country from this coxcomb situation, and show that it is only some Englishmen, and not all, who are thus ridiculous in their pretences. Advertisements in newspapers are no proofs of popular approbation, but often the contrary. A man who pretends to improve fine art does not know what fine art is. Ye English engravers must come down from your high flights; ye must condescend to study Marc Antonio and Albert Dürer; ye must begin before you attempt to finish or improve: and when you have begun, you will know better than to think of improving what cannot be improved. It is very true what you have said for these thirty-two years: I am mad, or else you are so. Both of us cannot be in our right senses. Posterity will judge by our works. Woollett's and Strange's works are like those of Titian and Correggio, the life's labour of ignorant journeymen, suited to the purposes of commerce, no doubt, for commerce cannot endure individual merit; its insatiable maw must be fed by what all can do equally well; at least it is so in England, as I have found to my cost these forty years. Commerce is so far from being beneficial to arts or to empires that it is destructive of both, as all their history shows, for the above reason of individual merit being its great hatred. Empires flourish till they become commercial, and then they are scattered abroad to the four winds.

Woollett's best works were etched by Jack Browne; Woollett etched very ill himself. The Cottagers, and Jocund Peasants, the Views in Kew Garden, Foot's-Cray, and Diana and Actæon, and, in short, all that are called Woollett's, were etched by Jack Browne; and in Woollett's works the etching is all, though even in these a single leaf of a tree is never correct. Strange's prints were, when I knew him, all done by Aliamet and his French journeymen, whose names I forget. I also knew something of John Cooke, who engraved after Hogarth. Cooke wished to give Hogarth what he could take from Raphael, that is, outline, and mass, and colour; but he could not. Such prints as Woollett and Strange produce will do for those who choose to purchase the life's labour of ignorance and imbecility in preference to the inspired monuments of genius and inspiration.

In this manner the English public have been imposed upon for many years, under the impression that engraving and painting are somewhat else besides drawing. Painting is drawing on canvas, and engraving is drawing on copper, and nothing else; and he who pretends to be either painter or engraver without being a master of drawing, is an impostor. We may be clever as pugilists, but as artists, we are, and have long been, the contempt of the Continent. Gravelot once said to my master Basire: 'De English may be very clever in deir own opinions, but dey do not draw de draw.'

Whoever looks at any of the great and expensive works of engraving that have been published by English traders must feel a loathing and disgust; and accordingly most Englishmen have a contempt for art, which is the greatest curse that can fall upon a nation.

The modern chalcographic connoisseurs and amateurs admire only the work of the journeyman picking out of whites and blacks in what are called tints. They despise drawing, which despises them in return. They see only whether everything is toned down but one spot of light. Mr. Blake submits to a more severe tribunal: he invites the admirers of old English portraits to look at his print.

An example of these contrary arts is given us in the characters of Milton and Dryden, as they are written in a poem signed with the name of Nat Lee, which perhaps he never wrote and perhaps he wrote in a paroxysm of insanity; in which it is said that Milton's poem is a rough unfinished piece, and that Dryden has finished it. Now let Dryden's Fall and Milton's Paradise be read, and I will assert that everybody of understanding must cry out shame on such niggling and poco-pen as Dryden has degraded Milton with. But at the same time I will allow that stupidity will prefer Dryden, because it is in rhyme and monotonous sing-song, sing-song from beginning to end. Such are Bartolozzi, Woollett, and Strange.

Men think that they can copy nature as correctly as I copy imagination. This they will find impossible: and all the copies, or pretended copies, of nature, from Rembrandt to Reynolds, prove that nature becomes to its victim nothing but blots and blurs. Why are copies of nature incorrect, while copies of imagination are correct? This is manifest to all. The English artist may be assured that he is doing an injury and injustice to his country while he studies and imitates the effects of nature. England will never rival Italy while we servilely copy what the wise Italians, Raphael and Michael Angelo, scorned, nay abhorred, as Vasari tells us. What kind of intellect must he have who sees only the colours of things, and not the forms of things? No man of sense can think that an imitation of the objects of nature is the art of painting, or that such imitation (which any one may easily perform) is worthy of notice—much less that such an art should be the glory and pride of a nation. The Italians laugh at the English connoisseurs, who are (most of them) such silly fellows as to believe this.

A man sets himself down with colours, and with all the articles of painting; he puts a model before him, and he copies that so neat as to make it a deception. Now, let any man of sense ask himself one question: Is this art? Can it be worthy of admiration to anybody of understanding? Who could not do this? What man, who has eyes and an ordinary share of patience, cannot do this neatly? Is this art, or is it glorious to a nation to produce such contemptible copies? Countrymen, countrymen, do not suffer yourselves to be disgraced!

No man of sense ever supposes that copying from nature is the art of painting; if the art is no more than this, it is no better than any other manual labour: anybody may do it, and the fool often will do it best, as it is a work of no mind. A jockey that is anything of a jockey, will never buy a horse by the colour; and a man who has got any brains will never buy a picture by the colour.

When I tell any truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those who do.

It is nonsense for noblemen and gentlemen to offer premiums for the encouragement of art, when such pictures as these can be done without premiums. Let them encourage what exists already, and not endeavour to counteract by tricks. Let it no more be said that empires encourage arts, for it is arts that encourage empires. Arts and artists are spiritual, and laugh at mortal contingencies. Let us teach Buonaparte, and whomsoever else it may concern, that it is not arts that follow and attend upon empire, but empire that attends upon and follows the arts. It is in their power to hinder instruction but not to instruct; just as it is in their power to murder a man, but not to make a man.

I do not pretend to paint better than Raphael or Michael Angelo, or Giulio Romano, or Albert Dürer; but I do pretend to paint finer than Rubens, or Rembrandt, or Correggio, or Titian. I do not pretend to engrave finer than Albert Dürer; but I do pretend to engrave finer than Strange, Woollett, Hall, or Bartolozzi; and all because I understand drawing, which they understood not. Englishmen have been so used to journeymen's undecided bungling, that they cannot bear the firmness of a master's touch. Every line is the line of beauty; it is only fumble and bungle which cannot draw a line. This only is ugliness. That is not a line which doubts and hesitates in the midst of its course.

I know my execution is not like anybody else's. I do not intend it should be so. None but blockheads copy one another. My conception and invention are, on all hands, allowed to be superior; my execution will be found so too. To what is it that gentlemen of the first rank both in genius and fortune have subscribed their names? To my inventions. The executive part they never disputed.

The painters of England are unemployed in public works, while the sculptors have continual and superabundant employment. Our churches and our abbeys are treasures of their producing for ages back, while painting is excluded. Painting, the principal art, has no place among our almost only public works. Yet it is more adapted to solemn ornament than marble can be, as it is capable of being placed in any height, and, indeed, would make a noble finish, placed above the great public monuments in Westminster, St. Paul's, and other cathedrals. To the Society for the Encouragement of Art I address myself with respectful duty, requesting their consideration of my plan as a great public means of advancing fine art in Protestant communities. Monuments to the dead painters by historical and poetical artists, like Barry and Mortimer (I forbear to name living artists, though equally worthy)—I say, monuments to painters—must make England what Italy is, an envied storehouse of intellectual riches.

It has been said of late years, the English public have no taste for painting. This is a falsehood. The English are as good judges of painting as of poetry, and they prove it in their contempt for great collections of all the rubbish of the Continent, brought here by ignorant picture-dealers. An Englishman may well say 'I am no judge of painting,' when he is shown these smears and daubs, at an immense price, and told that such is the art of painting. I say the English public are true encouragers of real art, while they discourage and look with contempt on false art.

Resentment for personal injuries has had some share in this public address, but love for my art, and zeal for my country, a much greater.

I do not know whether Homer is a liar and that there is no such thing as generous contention. I know that all those with whom I have contended in art have striven, not to excel, but to starve me out by calumny and the arts of trading competition. The manner in which my character has been blasted these thirty years both as an artist and a man may be seen particularly in a Sunday paper called The Examiner, published in Beaufort's Buildings (we all know that editors of newspapers trouble their heads very little about art and science, and that they are always paid for what they put in upon these ungracious subjects): and the manner in which I have rooted out the nest of villains will be seen in a poem concerning my three years' herculean labours at Felpham which I shall soon publish. Secret calumny and open professions of friendship are common enough all the world over, but have never been so good an occasion of poetic imagery. When a base man means to be your enemy, he always begins with being your friend. Flaxman cannot deny that one of the very first monuments he did I gratuitously designed for him; at the same time he was blasting my character as an artist to Macklin, my employer, as Macklin told me at the time, and posterity will know. Many people are so foolish as to think they can wound Mr. Fuseli over my shoulder: they will find themselves mistaken; they could not wound even Mr. Barry so.

In a commercial nation, impostors are abroad in all professions; these are the greatest enemies of genius. In the art of painting these impostors sedulously propagate an opinion that great inventors cannot execute. This opinion is as destructive of the true artist as it is false by all experience. Even Hogarth cannot be either copied or improved. Can Anglus never discern perfection but in a journeyman labourer?

P.S.—I do not believe that this absurd opinion ever was set on foot till, in my outset into life, it was artfully published, both in whispers and in print, by certain persons whose robberies from me made it necessary to them that I should be hid in a corner. It never was supposed that a copy could be better than an original, or near so good, till, a few years ago, it became the interest of certain knaves. The lavish praise I have received from all quarters for invention and drawing has generally been accompanied by this: 'He can conceive, but he cannot execute.' This absurd assertion has done me, and may still do me, the greatest mischief. I call for public protection against these villains. I am, like others, just equal in invention and in execution, as my works show. I, in my own defence, challenge a competition with the finest engravings, and defy the most critical judge to make the comparison honestly: asserting, in my own defence, that this print is the finest that has been done, or is likely to be done, in England, where drawing, the foundation, is condemned, and absurd nonsense about dots and lozenges and clean strokes made to occupy the attention to the neglect of all real art. I defy any man to cut cleaner strokes than I do, or rougher, when I please; and assert, that he who thinks he can engrave or paint either, without being a master of drawing, is a fool. Painting is drawing on canvas, and engraving is drawing on copper, and nothing else. Drawing is execution and nothing else; and he who draws best must be the best artist. And to this I subscribe my name as a public duty.

William Blake.


[In an early part of the same book from which has been gathered the foregoing Public Address, occur three memoranda having reference to the methods by which Blake engraved some of his designs.

These receipts are written immediately under two very curious entries:—'Tuesday, Jan. 20, 1807, Between two and seven in the evening. Despair.' And—'I say I shan't live five years; and if I live one it will be a wonder. June 1793.' The last-quoted entry is in pencil, and pretty evidently made before the subjoined.]


To engrave on pewter: Let there be first a drawing made correctly with black-lead pencil; let nothing be to seek. Then rub it off on the plate, covered with white wax; or perhaps pass it through press. This will produce certain and determined forms on the plate, and time will not be wasted in seeking them afterwards.


To wood-cut on pewter: Lay a ground on the plate, and smoke it as for etching. Then trace your outlines, and, beginning with the spots of light on each object, with an oval-pointed needle, scrape off the ground, as a direction for your graver. Then proceed to graving, with the ground on the plate; being as careful as possible not to hurt the ground, because it, being black, will show perfectly what is wanted.


To wood-cut on copper: Lay a ground as for etching; trace, &c., and, instead of etching the blacks, etch the whites, and bite it in.