Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Blake, William (1757-1827)

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505314Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 05 — Blake, William (1757-1827)1886Anne Gilchrist

BLAKE, WILLIAM (1757–1827), poet and painter, was born on 28 Nov. 1757, at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square. His father was a hosier in sufficiently comfortable circumstances to give some furtherance to his son's bent for art. At ten he was sent to Par's drawing school in the Strand—the best of its day, where he drew from the antique. His father also bought him casts and gave him occasional small sums of money to make a collection of prints for study, and the auctioneer (Langford) would sometimes knock down a cheap lot to 'his little connoisseur' with friendly haste in those days of 'three| penny bids.' Raphael, Michael Angelo, Giulio Romano, Dürer, &c. were the objects of the boy's choice at a time when Guido and the Caracci were the idols of the connoisseur. Blake began to write original verse in his twelfth year, some of which was afterwards printed in the 'Poetical Sketches.' One of the most beautiful of these, 'How sweet I roamed from field to field,' was certainly written before fourteen (Malkin). At that age Blake was apprenticed to James Basire, engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, a liberal-minded and kind master, but his style of engraving was flat, formal, mechanical, but with solid excellence of drawing. It was adhered to in the main by Blate till late in life, when his mode of handling the graver was advantageously modified by the study of the work of Bonosoni, &c., and, though redeemed by the qualities of his genius, was an obstacle to his acceptance by a public accustomed to the soft and fascinating manner of Wollett, Strange, and Bartolozzi. In summer time Basire set Blake upon the congenial task of drawing the monuments in the old churches of London and above all in Westminster Abbey, where, rapt and happy, he worked for some years acquiring a knowledge and a fervent love of Gothic art which profoundly influenced him through life. During winter he engraved his summers work for Gough's 'Sepulchral Monuments,' one of the best plates in which, a 'Portrait of Queen Philippa, from her monument,' though it has Basire's name affixed, is, on the authority of Stothard, from Blake's hand. In the evenings he began to make drawings of subjects from English history or from his own already teeming fancy. A noteworthy example—'Joseph of Arimathea among the rocks of Albion'—he engraved so early as 1773.

The seven years' apprenticeship ended, in 1778 Blake became for a short time a student in the newly formed Royal Academy. Moser, the first keeper, had little to teach Blake, who tells how he was once looking over prints from Raphael and Michael Angelo in the library when Moser said to him, 'You should not study these old, hard, stiff, dry, unfinished works of art; I will show you what you should study.' 'He took down Le Brun and Rubens' "Galleries." How did I secretly rage! I said "These things you call finished are not even begun: how can they be finished?"' Here Blake drew for a short time from the living figure, but early conceived a dislike to, and quickly relinquished, academic modes of study. 'Natural objects always did and now do weaken, deaden, and obliterate imagination in me,' he said in after life. As a mere child he gave evidence of that visionary power, that faculty of seeing the creations of his imagination with such vividness that they were as real to him as objects of sense, which, sedulously cultivated through life, became a distinguishing feature of his genius. Returning from a ramble over the hills round Dulwich, he said he had seen a tree filled with angels, bright wings bespangling every bough like stars: or, again, that he had beheld angelic figures walking amongst some haymakers; and only through his mother's intercession did he escape a flogging from his father, who regarded the story as a deliberate lie. As a boy, he perhaps believed these were supernatural visions: as a man, it must be gathered from his explicit utterances that he understood their true nature as mental creations.

Blake now supported himself mainly by engraving for the booksellers. For Harrison's 'Novelists' Magazine' he engraved those early and beautiful designs by Stothard which first brought the latter into notice, viz. two illustrations to 'Don Quixote,' one to the 'Sentimental Journey,' one to 'David Simple,' one to 'Launcelot Greaves,' and three to 'Grandison.' Already he had made Stothard's acquaintance, who introduced him to Flaxman, soon to prove an influential and staunch friend. Of original work belonging to this early date (1780) may be mentioned the scarce engraving 'Glad Day,' and a drawing, 'The Death of Earl Godwin,' which Blake contributed to the Royal Academy's first exhibition in Somerset House. In this year he found himself an involuntary participator in the Gordon riots, having become entangled in the mob and been carried along by it to witness the storming of Newgate and the release of the prisoners.

In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, daughter of a market-gardener at Battersea, who proved herself one of the best wives that ever fell to the lot of a man of genius; and they set up housekeeping in lodgings at 23 Green Street, Leicester Fields.

In 1784 he opened a printseller's shop in Broad Street, in partnership with a fellow engraver, Parker; and Robert, Blake's youngest brother, between whom and himself there was the strongest sympathy and affection, lived with them. In this year he exhibited at the Royal Academy 'War unchained by an Angel, Fire, Pestilence, and Famine following,' and 'Breach in a City, the Morning, after a Battle.' In 1787 Robert died, the shop was given up, and Blake removed to 28 Poland Street. Unable to find a publisher for his 'Songs of Innocence,' he adopted a plan of reproducing them himself, revealed to him in a dream by his dead brother Robert, he used to tell. Next morning Mrs. Blake went out with their last half-crown to buy the necessary materials. The verse was written, and the design and marginal embellishments outlined on copper with an impervious liquid, and then the remainder of the plate was eaten away with aquafortis, so that the letters and outlines were left prominent as in stereotype and could be printed off in any tint required as the basis of his scheme of colour. He then worked up the pages by hand with great variety of detail in the local hues. Mrs. Blake learned to take off the impressions with delicacy, to help in tinting them, and to do up the pages in boards. Thus the little book was literally made by husband and wife, with a result of unique beauty; and so far as the poems are concerned, taken in conjunction with the companion 'Songs of Experience' by which they were supplemented five years later, they are the most perfect Blake ever achieved. For whilst his powers of design steadily developed and his last completed work, the 'Inventions of the Book of Job' was also his grandest, as a poet his inspiration lapsed more and more into the formless incoherence of the so-called 'Prophetic Books,' which were all engraved and coloured by hand in the above manner. Indeed, the main, if not the whole, value of these 'Prophetic Books,' of which a list is given below, consists in the frequent splendour of the designs interwoven with the text. For here the fullest scope is given to the two antagonistic tendencies of Blake's mind, on the one hand as artist to embody in human forms of terror, sublimity, beauty, or grotesqueness the most abstract ideas, and on the other, as poet and theosophic dreamer, to resolve into shadowy symbolism the realities of human life and the visible world, and to express in the most crude manner his favourite tenet, that 'all things exist in the human imagination alone.'

In 1791 bookseller Johnson employed him to design and engrave six plates to 'Original Stories for Children', by Mary Wollstonecraft, and some to 'Elements of Morality,' translated by her from the German. At Johnson's weekly dinners he met Drs. Price, Priestley, Godwin, Fuseli, Tom Paine, &c., with whom he sympathised ardently in political, but not at all in religious matters. He was the only member of the group who donned the bonnet rouge and actually walked the streets in it. About this time, too, he made the acquaintance of Mr. Thomas Butts, a steady buyer at moderate prices for thirty years of his drawings, temperas, and 'frescoes.'

In 1793 Blake removed to Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, where he spent seven productive years, the most important fruits of which, in design, were 537 illustrations to Young's 'Night Thoughts' for Edwards's edition. Of these only forty-seven, to the first four books, were engraved, the book not proving successful (see description by F. J. Shields in Gilchrist's Blake, vol. ii. 2nd edit.) Blake's industry throughout life was unceasing, and the mass of work accomplished by the rare union of exhaustless patience with a fiery, restless, creative imagination exceeds belief (see catalogues by W. M. Rossetti in Gilchrist's Blake). He literally never paused. 'I don't understand what you mean by the want of a holiday,' he would say. Writing and design were his recreation after the tedious toil of engraving.

Flaxman in 1800 introduced Blake to Hayley, who invited him to come and settle at Felpham while engraving the illustrations for 'Life of Cowper.' Here, in a cottage by the sea, he spent three years, during which he executed eighteen tempera heads of the poets for Hayley's library; a miniature of Cowper's cousin, Johnson; two very sweet designs to 'Little Tom the Sailor,' a broad-sheet ballad by Hayley; a series of illustrations to Hayley's 'Ballads on Animals,' besides more engraved books and drawings for Butts. It was not to be expected, however, that Blake could long continue to breathe freely in the atmosphere of elegant triviality and shallow sentiment which surrounded the literary squire. Kindly as he was, and unwearied in endeavours to serve, his entire incapacity to understand the artist's genius or appreciate his work except as an engraver, made the constant intercourse between them blighting to Blake's inner life and to the exercise of his creative faculty. After three years' patient endurance, therefore he determined to return to London at whatever pecuniary sacrifice, that he might 'be no longer pestered with Hayley's genteel ignorance and polite disapprobation.' An absurd charge of sedition was brought against him, just before he finally quitted Felpham, by a drunken soldier whom he had turned out of his garden. The case was tried at Chichester, and Blake was acquitted. On his return he settled at 17 South Molton Street. Cromek, Blake's next employer, purchased of him that fine series of designs to Blair's 'Grave' by which he is most widely known. Never has the theme of death been handled in pictorial art with more elevation and beauty than in some of these, notably in 'Death's Door' and the 'Soul departing from the Body.' Fuseli, always a warm friend of Blake (paying him the naïve tribute of remarking that he was d——d good to steal from'), wrote a laudatory notice of the designs for the preface. But it was a bitter disappointment to Blake that, contrary to the original agreement, he was not permitted to engrave his own designs. They were put into the hands of Schiavonetti, by whom they were rendered with a mingled grace and grandeur which won for them a wider popularity than Blake's austere style could have achieved. The breach of contract and the consequent loss of his copyright were injuries which Blake deeply resented; and Cromek's conduct in relation to his next enterprise enhanced the sense of injustice. For having seen a design of Blake's from the 'Canterbury Pilgrimage' and vainly endeavoured to negotiate for its publication on the same terms, Cromek went to Stothard and suggested the subject to him, who, ignorant that Blake was already engaged upon it, accepted the offer, and thus was occasioned a breach between the friends which was never closed. Blake having completed his 'Canterbury Pilgrimage' as a 'fresco'—a word which he applied to a method of his own of painting in water-colour on a plaster ground of glue and whiting laid on to canvas or board—appealed to the public by opening an exhibition of this and other of his works. The 'Descriptive Catalogue' written for the occasion interprets his pictures, expounds his canons of art, and contains some admirable writing on the characters in Chaucer's 'Prologue.' Lamb preferred Blake's to Stothard's 'Pilgrimage,' and called it 'a work of wonderful power and spirit, hard and dry, yet with grace.' In 1808 Blake, for the last time, exhibited at the Royal Academy. He then sent 'Christ in the Sepulchre guarded by Angels' and 'Jacob's Dream,' one of his most poetic works; and also executed for Mr. Butts 'The Whore of Babylon,' now in the British Museum; and for the Countess of Egremont 'The Last Judgment,' from one of the Blair drawings, of which, towards the close of life, he painted a replica containing some thousand figures lightly finished and with much splendour of colour.

To John Linnell, with whom Blake first became acquainted in 1813, is due all honour for having been the stay of the neglected artist's declining years, and for having commissioned his noblest work. Through him, too, there gathered round a circle of friends and disciples—John Varley, George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, Oliver Finch, and others. John Varley, who gave a very materialistic interpretation to Blake's visionary power, would sit by him far into the night and say 'Draw me Moses' or 'Julius Cæsar,' straining his own eyes in the hope of seeing what Blake saw, who would answer 'There he is,' and draw with alacrity, looking up from time to time as if he had a flesh-and-blood sitter before him, sometimes suddenly leaving off and remarking, 'I can't go on, it is gone,' or 'it has moved, the mouth is gone.' Thus were produced the famous visionary heads, or 'Spiritual Portraits'—some forty or fifty slight pencil sketches, all original, many full of character and power. One of them—the 'Ghost of a Flea'—was engraved in Varley's 'Zodiacal Physiognomy' and in the 'Art Journal' for August 1858. The original drawings all passed into the hands of Mr. Linnell. Blake was wont to say to his friends respecting these 'visions,' 'You can see what I do if you choose. Work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done.'

In 1820 Blake designed and executed his first and last woodcuts to illustrate Thornton's school Virgil (the 'Pastorals'). Rude in execution, but singularly poetic and beautiful, these prints were at the time so much ridiculed by the engravers that some of them were recut by another hand. The obscure little book is now much prized for their sake, Samples of both styles were given to illustrate an article on the principles of wood engraving in the 'Athenæum,' 21 Jan. 1843. Blake made his last move in 1820, to 3 Fountain Court, Strand, where, amid increasing poverty and neglect, he executed and engraved for Linnell those sublime 'Inventions to the Book of Job' on which his highest claim as an artist rests. And whilst they were in progress the same friend, himself still a struggling artist, commissioned a series of drawings from the 'Divina Commedia,' to be also engraved, paying him on account the two or three pounds a week necessary for subsistence. A hundred designs were sketched in, some finished, but only seven engraved and published in 1827. For Blake's labours were drawing to a close. His strength had been for some time declining, but he worked on with the old ardour to within a few days of the end. 'I cannot think of death as more than the going out of one room into another,' he had said in speaking of Flaxman's death; and in that spirit, not serene merely, but joyous and full of radiant visions, he gently, almost imperceptibly, drew his last breath, 12 Aug. 1827.

The following is a list of Blake's writings, all engraved and coloured by hand, except those marked * which are type-printed and unillustrated: 1. *'Poetical Sketches,' 1783. 2. 'Songs of Innocence,' 1789. 3. 'Book of Thel,' 1789. 4. 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell,' 1790; consisting partly of aphorisms or proverbs, mostly vigorous and profound, that condensed form of expression proving singularly favourable to Blake; partly of five 'memorable fancies' in which Swedenborg's influence upon him, very potent through life, though he was never a Swedenborgian, is first discernible. 5. *'The French Revolution,' Book i. 1791 (not thought worth reprinting by any of Blake's editors). 6. 'Gates of Paradise,' 1793, engraved but not coloured, consisting of seventeen plates of emblems, each with a title or motto and rhymed 'Keys of the Gates,' described by Allan Cunningham as 'a sort of devout dream, equally wild and lovely.' 7. 'Songs of Experience,' 1794. His 'Prophetic Books' are: 8. 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion,' 1793. 9. 'America,' 1793. 10. 'Europe: a Prophecy,' 1794. 11. 'The Book of Urizen,' 1794 (containing Asia and Africa). 12. 'The Song of Los,' 1795. 13. 'The Book of Ahania,' 1795. 14. 'Jerusalem,' 1804. 15. 'Milton,' 1804. (There are different degrees of beauty in the samples of all these books; not only because Blake himself bestowed different degrees of finish and richness but also because Mrs Blake worked upon some. There are copies, indeed, which appear to have been coloured by her after her husband's death. For descriptions and interpretations see Swinburne's William Blake: a Critical essay, 1868.) 16. *'Descriptive Catalogue, 1809. 17. 'Prospectus,' 1793. 18. Four undated 'Sibylline Leaves, viz. 'The Laocoon',' 'Ghost of Abel,' 'On Homer's Poetry,' 'On Virgil.' 19. 'There is no Natural Religion' (eight? leaves with design). 20. 'Outhoon,' of which there appears to be no copy in existence. 21. 'Tiriel,' first printed in W. M. Rossetti's 'Aldine British Poets.' 22. 'Ideas of Good and Evil,' from Blake's note-book, first printed in Gilchrist's 'Blake,' vol. ii. 23. Prose from the same, viz. 'Public Address' and 'Vision of the Last Judgment.' Reprints of Blake's works have appeared as follows: 'Songs of Innocence and Experience,' edit. by Dr. G Wilkinson (much altered), 1839. 'Selections,' emendated, comprising nearly everything except 'Prophetic Books, edited by D. G. Rossetti. forming vol. ii. of Gilchrist's 'Life of Blake,' 1863 and 1880. 'Songs of Innocence and Experience, with other Poems' (verbatim), 1866. 'Poetical Sketches,' edit. by R. H. Shepherd (verbatim), 1868. 'Poetical Works, Lyrical and Miscellaneous,' edit., with prefatory memoir, by W. M. Rossetti, 1874 (verbatim). A facsimile, but without colour, of the 'Jerusalem.' 1877, Pearson. Also one of the 'Marriage of Heaven and Hell,' colour-printed. Camden Hotten. A reproduction of the 'Illustrations to the Book of Job' with prefatory memoir by C. E. Norton. Boston, 1875. And lastly, a volume of 'Etchings from Blake's Works,' with descriptive text by William Bell Scott, 1878.

[Malkin's Father's Memoirs of his Child (Introduction to), 1806; Smith's Nollekens and his Times, comprehending Memoirs of several contemporary Artists, vol ii. 1828; Cunningham's Lives of the most eminent British Painters, &c., 1830. Gilchrist's Life of William Blake, with Selections from his writings, &c., 1863, contains impressions from some of the original plates of 'Songs of Innocence and Experience,' the 'Job,' some of the 'visionary heads,' 'Gates of Paradise,' &c., 2nd edit. 1880, with additional letters, illustrations, and a memoir of the author.]

A. G-t.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.29
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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183 i 17 f.e. Blake, William (1757-1827): for 1813 read 1818