Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 1/Chapter 11

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BOOKSELLER JOHNSON'S. 1791—92, [ÆT. 34—35.]

These were prolific years with Blake, both in poetry and design. In 1791 he even found a publisher, for the first and last time in his life, in Johnson of St. Paul's Churchyard, to whom Fuseli had originally introduced him, and for whom he had already engraved. Johnson in this year—the same in which he published Mary Wollstonecraft's Rights of Women—issued, without Blake's name, and unillustrated, a thin quarto, entitled The French Revolution, a Poem in Seven Books. Book the First. One Shilling. Of the Revolution itself, only the first book, ending with the taking of the Bastille, had as yet been enacted. In due time the remainder followed. Those of Blake's epic already written were never printed, events taking a different turn from the anticipated one.

The French Revolution, though ushered into the world by a regular publisher, was no more successful than the privately printed Poetical Sketches, or the privately engraved Songs of Innocence, in reaching the public, or even in getting noticed by the monthly reviewers. It finds no place in their indices, nor in the catalogue of the Museum Library.

In this year Johnson employed Blake to design and engrave six plates to a series of Tales for Children, in the then prevailing Berquin School, by Johnson's favourite and protégée, Mary Wollstonecraft; tales new and in demand in the autumn of 1791, now unknown to the bookstalls. 'Original stories' they are entitled, 'from real life, with conversations calculated to regulate the affections and form the mind to truth

and goodness.' The designs, naïve and rude, can hardly be pronounced a successful competition with Stothard, though traces of a higher feeling are visible in the graceful female forms—benevolent heroine, or despairing, famishing peasant group. The artist evidently moves in constraint, and the accessories of these domestic scenes are as simply generalised as a child's: result of an inobservant eye for such things. They were not calculated to obtain Blake employment in a capacity in which more versatile hands and prettier designers, such as Burney and Corbould (failing Stothard), were far better fitted to succeed. The book itself never went to a second edition. More designs appear to have been made for the little work than were found available, and some of the best were among the rejected. It may interest the reader to have a sample of him in this comparatively humble department. Possessing most of the original drawings, we therefore give a print from one. There is, however, a terrible extremity of voiceless despair in the upturned face of the principal figure which, perhaps, no hand but that of him who conceived it could accurately reproduce. He also re-engraved for Johnson some designs by Chodowiecki to a book of pinafore precepts, called Elements of Morality, translated from the German of Salzmann by Mary Wollstonecraft;[1] and among casual work engraved a plate for Darwin's Botanic Garden—The Fertilization of Egypt—after Fuseli.

Bookseller Johnson was a favourable specimen of a class of booksellers and men now a tradition: an open-hearted tradesman of the eighteenth century, of strict probity, simple habits, liberal in his dealings, living by his shop and in it, not at a suburban mansion. He was, for nearly forty years, Fuseli's fast and intimate friend, his first and best; the kind patron of Mary Wollstonecraft, and of many another. He encouraged Cowper over The Task, after the first volume of Poems had been received with indifference; and when The Task met its sudden unexpected success, he righteously pressed 1,000l. on the author, although both this and the previous volume had been assigned to him for nothing—as an equivalent, that is, for the bare cost of publication. To Blake, also, Johnson was friendly, and tried to help him as far as he could help so unmarketable a talent.

In Johnson's shop—for booksellers' shops were places of resort then with the literary—Blake was, at this date, in the habit of meeting a remarkable coterie. The bookseller gave, moreover, plain but hospitable weekly dinners at his house, No. 72, St. Paul's Churchyard, in a little quaintly-shaped upstairs-room, with walls not at right angles, where his guests must have been somewhat straitened for space. Hither came Drs. Price and Priestley, and occasionally Blake; hither friendly, irascible Fuseli; hither precise doctrinaire Godwin, whose Political Justice Johnson will, in 1793, publish, giving 700l. for the copyright. Him, the author of the Songs of Innocence got on ill with, and liked worse. Here, too, he met formal stoical Holcroft, playwright, novelist, translator, literary man-of-all-work, who had written verse 'to order' for our old friend The Wits' Magazine. Seven years hence he will be promoted to the Tower, and be tried for high treason with Hardy, Thelwall, and Horne Tooke, and one day will write the best fragment of autobiography in the language: a man of very varied fortunes. Here hard-headed Tom Paine, 'the rebellious needleman:' Mary Wollstonecraft also, who at Johnson's table commenced her ineffectual flirtation with already wedded, cynical Fuseli, their first meeting occurring here in the autumn of 1790. These and others of very 'advanced' political and religious opinions, theoretic republicans and revolutionists, were of the circle. The First Part of The Rights of Man had been launched on an applauding and indignant world, early in 1791; Johnson, whom the MS. had made the author's friend, having prudently declined to publish it though he was Priestley's publisher. A few years hence their host, despite his caution, will, for his liberal sympathies, receive the honour of prosecution from a good old habeas-corpus-suspending Government; and, in 1798, be fined and imprisoned in the King's Bench for selling a copy of Gilbert Wakefield's Reply to the Bishop of Llandaff's Address,—a pamphlet which every other bookseller in town sold, and continued to sell, with impunity. While in prison he still gave his weekly literary dinners—in the Marshal's house instead of his own; Fuseli remaining staunch to his old friend under a cloud.

Blake was himself an ardent member of the New School, a vehement republican and sympathiser with the Revolution, hater and contemner of kings and king-craft. And like most reformers of that era,—when the eighteenth century dry-rot had well-nigh destroyed the substance of the old English Constitution, though the anomalous caput mortuum of it was still extolled as the 'wisest of systems,'—he may have even gone the length of despising the 'Constitution.' Down to his latest days Blake always avowed himself a 'Liberty Boy,' a faithful 'Son of Liberty;' and would jokingly urge in self-defence that the shape of his forehead made him a republican. 'I can't help being one,' he would assure Tory friends, 'any more than you can help being a Tory: your forehead is larger above; mine, on the contrary, over the eyes.' To him, at this date, as to ardent minds everywhere, the French Revolution was the herald of the Millennium, of a new age of light and reason. He courageously donned the famous symbol of liberty and equality—the bonnet-rouge—in open day, and philosophically walked the streets with the same on his head. He is said to have been the only one of the set who had the courage to make that public profession of faith. Brave as a lion at heart was the meek spiritualist. Decorous Godwin, Holcroft, wily Paine, however much they might approve, paused before running the risk of a Church-and-King mob at their heels. All this was while the Revolution, if no longer constitutional, still continued muzzled; before, that is, the Days of Terror, in September '92, and subsequent defiance of kings and of humanity. When the painter heard of these September doings he tore off his white cockade, and assuredly never wore the red cap again. Days of humiliation for English sympathisers and republicans were beginning.

Though at one with Paine, Godwin, Fuseli and the others as to politics, he was a rebel to their theological or anti-theological tenets. Himself a heretic among the orthodox, here among the infidels he was a saint, and staunchly defended Christianity—the spirit of it—against these strangely assorted disputants.

In 1792 the artist proved, as he was wont to relate, the means of saving Paine from the vindictive clutches of exasperated 'friends of order.' Early in that year Paine had published his Second Part of The Rights of Man. A few months later, county and corporation addresses against 'seditious publications' were got up. The Government (Pitt's) answered the agreed signal by issuing a proclamation condemnatory of such publications, and commenced an action for libel against the author of The Rights of Man, which was to come off in September; all this helping the book itself into immense circulation. The 'Friends of Liberty' held their meetings too, in which strong language was used. In September, a French deputation announced to Paine that the Department of Calais had elected him member of the National Convention. Already as an acknowledged cosmopolitan and friend of man, he had been declared a citizen of France by the deceased Assembly. One day in this same month, Paine was giving at Johnson's an idea of the inflammatory eloquence he had poured fourth at a public meeting of the previous night. Blake, who was present, silently inferred from the tenor of his report that those in power, now eager to lay hold of noxious persons, would certainly not let slip such an opportunity. On Paine's rising to leave, Blake laid his hands on the orator's shoulder, saying, 'You must not go home, or you are a dead man!' and hurried him off on his way to France, whither he was now, in any case bound, to take his seat as French legislator. By the time Paine was at Dover, the officers were in his house or, as his biographer Mr. Cheetham designates it, his 'lurking hole in the purlieus of London;' and some twenty minutes after the Custom House officials at Dover had turned over his slender baggage with, as he thought, extra malice, and he had set sail for Calais, an order was received from the Home Office to detain him. England never saw Tom Paine again. New perils awaited him: Reign of Terror and near view of the guillotine—an accidentally open door and a chalk mark on the wrong side of it proving his salvation. But a no less serious one had been narrowly escaped from the English Tories. Those were hanging days! Blake, on this occasion, showed greater sagacity than Paine, whom, indeed, Fuseli affirmed to be more ignorant of the common affairs of life than himself even. Spite of unworldliness and visionary faculty, Blake never wanted for prudence and sagacity in ordinary matters.

Early in this September died Blake's mother, at the age of seventy, and was buried in Bunhill Fields on the 9th. She is a shade to us, alas! in all senses: for of her character, or even her person, no tidings survive. Blake's associates in later years remember to have heard him speak but rarely of either father or mother, amid the frequent allusions to his brother Robert.

At the beginning of the year (February 23rd, 1792) had died the recognised leader of English painters, Sir Joshua Reynolds, whom failing eyesight had for some time debarred from the exercise of his art. He was borne, in funeral pomp, from his house in Leicester Fields to Saint Paul's, amid the regrets of the great world, testified by a mourning train of ninety coaches, and by the laboured panegyric of Burke. Blake used to tell of an interview he had once had with Reynolds, in which our neglected enthusiast found the originator of a sect in art to which his own was so hostile, very pleasant personally, as most found him. 'Well, Mr. Blake,' blandly remarked the President, who, doubtless, had heard strange accounts of his interlocutor's sayings and doings, 'I hear you despise our art of oil-painting.' 'No, Sir Joshua, I don't despise it; but I like fresco better.'

Sir Joshua's style, with its fine taste, its merely earthly graces and charms of colour, light, and shade, was an abomination to the poetic visionary—'The Whore of Babylon' and 'Antichrist,' metaphorically speaking. For, as it has been said, very earnest original artists make ill critics: of feeble sympathy with alien schools of feeling, they can no more be eclectic in criticism than, to any worthy result, in practice. Devout sectaries in art hate and contemn those of opposite artistic faith with truly religious fervour. I have heard of an eminent living painter in the New School, who, on his admiration being challenged for a superlative example of Sir Joshua's graceful, generalizing hand, walked up to it, pronounced an emphatic word of disgust, and turned on his heel: such bigoted mortals are men who paint!

It was hardly in flesh and blood for the unjustly despised author of the Songs of Innocence, who had once, as Allan Cunningham well says, thought, and not perhaps unnaturally, that 'he had but to sing beautiful songs, and draw grand designs, to become great and famous,' and in the midst of his obscurity feeling conscious of endowments of imagination and thought, rarer than those fascinating gifts of preception and expression which so readily won the world's plaudits and homage; it was hardly possible not to feel jealous, and as it were injured, by the startling contrast of such fame and success as Sir Joshua's and Gainsborough's.

Of this mingled soreness and antipathy we have curious evidence in some MS. notes Blake subsequently made in his copy of Sir Joshua's Discourses. Struck by their singularity, one or two of Blake's admirers in later years transcribed these notes. To Mr. Palmer I am indebted, among many other courtesies, for a copy of the first half of them.

'This man was here,' commences the indignant commentator, 'to depress Art: this is the opinion of William Blake. My proofs of this opinion are given in the following notes. Having spent the vigour of my youth and genius under the oppression of Sir Joshua, and his gang of cunning, hired knaves—without employment and, as much as could possibly be without bread,—the reader must expect to read, in all my remarks on these books, nothing but indignation and resentment. While Sir Joshua was rolling in riches, Barry was poor and unemployed, except by his own energy; Mortimer was called a madman, and only portrait-painting was applauded and rewarded by the rich and great. Reynolds and Gainsborough blotted and blurred one against the other, and divided all the English world between them. Fuseli, indignant, almost hid himself. I am hid.'

Always excepting the favoured portrait-painters, these were, indeed, cold days for the unhappy British artist—the historical or poetic artist above all. Times have strangely altered within living memory. The case is now reversed. One can but sympathise with the above touching outburst; and Blake rarely complained aloud of the world's ill usage, extreme as it was: one can but sympathise, I say, even while cherishing the warmest love and admiration for Sir Joshua's and Gainsborough's delightful art. The glow of sunset need not blind us to the pure light of Hesperus. Admiration of a fashionable beauty, with her Watteau-like grace, should not dazzle the eye to exclusion of the nobler grace of Raphael or the Antique.

Of these notes more hereafter.

  1. Notes and Queries, June 19, 1880.