Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 1/Chapter 2

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


CHILDHOOD. 1757—71.

William Blake, the most spiritual of artists, a mystic poet and painter, who lived to be a contemporary of Cobbett and Sir Walter Scott, was born 28th November, 1757, the year of Canova's birth, two years after Stothard and Flaxman; while Chatterton, a boy of five, was still sauntering about the winding streets of antique Bristol. Born amid the gloom of a London November, at 28, Broad Street, Carnaby Market, Golden Square (market now extinct), he was christened on the 11th December—one in a batch of six—from Grinling Gibbons' ornate font in Wren's noble Palladian church of St. James's. He was the son of James and Catherine Blake, the second child in a family of five.

His father was a moderately prosperous hosier of some twenty years' standing, in a then not unfashionable quarter. Broad Street, half private houses, half respectable shops, was a street much such as Wigmore Street is now, only shorter. Dashing Regent Street as yet was not, and had more than half a century to wait for birth; narrow Swallow Street in part filling its place. All that Golden Square neighbourhood,—Wardour Street, Poland Street, Brewer Street,—held then a similar status to the Cavendish Square district say, now: an ex-fashionable, highly respectable condition, not yet sunk into the seedy category. The Broad Street of present date is a dirty, forlorn-looking thorough-fare; one half of it twice as wide as the other In the wider portion stands a large, dingy brewery. The street is a shabby miscellany of oddly assorted occupations,—lapidaries, pickle-makers, manufacturing trades of many kinds, furniture-brokers, and nondescript shops, 'Artistes' and artizans live in the upper stories. Almost every house is adorned by its triple or quadruple row of brass bells, bright with the polish of frequent hands, and yearly multiplying themselves. The houses, though often disguised by stucco, and some of them refaced, date mostly from Queen Anne's time; 28, now a 'trimming shop,' is a corner house at the narrower end, a large and substantial old edifice.

The mental training which followed the physical one of swaddling-clothes, go-carts, and head-puddings, was, in our Poet's case, a scanty one, as we have cause to know from Blake's writings. All knowledge beyond that of reading and writing was evidently self-acquired. A 'new kind' of boy was soon sauntering about the quiet neighbouring streets—a boy of strangely more romantic habit of mind than that neighbourhood had ever known in its days of gentility, has ever known in its dingy decadence. Already he passed half his time in dream and imaginative reverie. As he grew older the lad became fond of roving out into the country, a fondness in keeping with the romantic turn. For what written romance can vie with the substantial one of rural sights and sounds to a town-bred boy? Country was not, at that day, beyond reach of a Golden Square lad of nine or ten. On his own legs he could find a green field without the exhaustion of body and mind which now separates such a boy from the alluring haven as rigorously as prison bars. After Westminster Bridge—the 'superb and magnificent structure' now defunct, then a new and admired one—came St. George's Fields, open fields and scene of 'Wilkes and Liberty' riots in Blake's boyhood; next, the pretty village of Newington Butts, undreaming its 19th century bad eminence in the bills of cholera-mortality; and then, unsophisticate green field and hedgerow opened on the child's delighted eyes. A mile or two further through the 'large and pleasant village' of Camberwell with its grove (or avenue) and famed prospect, arose the sweet hill and vale and 'sylvan wilds' of rural Dulwich, a 'village' even now retaining some semblance of its former self. Beyond, stretched, to allure the young pedestrian on, yet fairer amenities: southward, hilly Sydenham; eastward, in the purple distance, Blackheath. A favourite day's ramble of later date was to Blackheath, or south-west, over Dulwich and Norwood hills, through the antique rustic town of Croydon, type once of the compact, clean, cheerful Surrey towns of old days, to the fertile verdant meads of Walton-upon-Thames; much of the way by lane and footpath. The beauty of those scenes in his youth was a lifelong reminiscence with Blake, and stored his mind with lifelong pastoral images.

On Peckham Rye (by Dulwich Hill) it is, as he will in after years relate, that while quite a child, of eight or ten perhaps, he has his 'first vision.' Sauntering along, the boy looks up and sees a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars. Returned home he relates the incident, and only through his mother's intercession escapes a thrashing from his honest father, for telling a lie. Another time, one summer morn, he sees the haymakers at work, and amid them angelic figures walking. If these traits of childish years be remembered, they will help to elucidate the visits from the spiritual world of later years, in which the grown man believed as unaffectedly as ever had the boy of ten.

One day, a traveller was telling bright wonders of some foreign city. 'Do you call that splendid?' broke in young Blake; 'I should call a city splendid in which the houses were of gold, the pavement of silver, the gates ornamented with precious stones.' At which outburst, hearers were already disposed to shake the head and pronounce the speaker crazed: a speech natural enough in a child, but not unlikely to have been uttered in maturer years by Blake.

To say that Blake was born an artist, is to say of course that as soon as the child's hand could hold a pencil it began to scrawl rough likeness of man or beast, and make timid copies of all the prints he came near. He early began to seek opportunities of educating hand and eye. In default of National Gallery or Museum, for the newly founded British Museum contained as yet little or no sculpture, occasional access might freely be had to the Royal Palaces. Pictures were to be seen also in noblemen's and gentlemen's houses, in the sale-rooms of the elder Langford in Covent Garden, and of the elder Christie: sales exclusively filled as yet with the pictures of the 'old and dark' masters, sometimes genuine, oftener spurious, demand for the same exceeding supply. Of all these chances of gratuitous instruction the boy is said to have sedulously profited: a clear proof other schooling was irregular.

The fact that such attendances were permitted, implies that neither parent was disposed, as so often happens, to thwart the incipient artist's inclination; bad, even for a small trades-man's son, as at that time were an artist's outlooks, unless he were a portrait-painter. In 1767 (three years after Hogarth's death), Blake being then ten years old, was 'put to Mr. Pars drawing-school in the Strand.' This was the preparatory school for juvenile artists then in vogue: preparatory to the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in St. Martin's Lane, of the 'Incorporated Society of Artists,' the Society Hogarth had helped to found. The Royal Academy of intriguing Chambers' and Moser's founding, for which George the Third legislated, came a year later. 'Mr. Pars' drawing-school in the Strand' was located in 'the great room,' subsequently a show-room of the Messrs. Ackermann's—name once familiar to all buyers of prints—in their original house, on the left-hand side of the Strand, as you go city-wards, just at the eastern corner of Castle Court: a house and court demolished when Agar Street and King William Street were made. The school was founded and brought into celebrity by William Shipley, painter, brother to a bishop, and virtual founder also, in 1754, of the still-extant Society of Arts,—in that same house, where the Society lodged until migrating to its stately home over the way, in the Adelphi.

Who was Pars? Pars, the Leigh or Cary of his day, was originally a chaser and son of a chaser, the art to which Hogarth was apprenticed, one then going out of demand, unhappily,—for the fact implied the loss of a decorative art. Which decadence it was led this Pars to go into the juvenile Art-Academy line, vice Shipley retired. He had a younger brother, William, a portrait-painter, and one of the earliest Associates or inchoate R. A.'s, who was extensively patronized by the Dilettanti Society, and by the dilettante Lord Palmerston of that time. The former sent him to Greece, there for three years to study ruined temple and mutilated statue, and to return with portfolios, a mine of wealth to cribbing 'classic' architects,—contemporary Chambers' and future Soanes.

At Pars' school as much drawing was taught as is to be learned by copying plaster-casts after the Antique, but no drawing from the living figure. Blake's father bought a few casts, from which the boy could continue his drawing-lessons at home: the Gladiator, the Hercules, the Venus de Medici, various heads, and the usual models of hand, arm, and foot. After a time, small sums of money were indulgently supplied wherewith to make a collection of Prints for study. To secure these, the youth became a frequenter of the print-dealer's shops and the sales of the auctioneers, who then took threepenny biddings, and would often knock down a print for as many shillings as pounds are now given, thanks to ever-multiplying Lancashire fortunes.

In a scarce, probably almost unread book, affecting—despite the unattractive literary peculiarities of its pedagogue authors—from its subject and very minuteness of detail, occurs an account, from which I have begun to borrow, of Blake's early education in art, derived from the artist's own lips. It is a more reliable story than Allan Cunningham's pleasant mannered generalities, easy to read, hard to verify. The singular biography to which I allude, is Dr. Malkin's Father's Memoirs of his Child {1806), illustrated by a frontispiece of Blake's design. The Child in question was one of those hapless 'prodigies of learning' who,—to quote a good-natured friend and philosopher's consoling words to the poor Doctor,—'commence their career at three, become expert linguists at four, profound philosophers at five, read the Fathers at six, and die of old age at seven. '

'Langford,' writes Malkin, called Blake 'his little connoisseur, and often knocked down a cheap lot with friendly precipitation.' Amiable Langford! The great Italians,—Raffaelle, Michael Angelo, Giulio Romano,—the great Germans,—Albert Dürer, Martin Hemskerk,—with others similar, were the exclusive objects of his choice; a sufficiently remarkable one in days when Guido and the Caracci were the gods of the servile crowd. Such a choice was 'contemned by his youthful companions, who were accustomed to laugh at what they called his mechanical taste!' 'I am happy,' wrote Blake himself in later life (MS. notes to Reynolds), 'I cannot say that Raffaelle ever was from my earliest childhood hidden from me. I saw and I knew immediately the difference between Raffaelle and Rubens.'

Between the ages of eleven and twelve, if not before, Blake had begun to write original irregular verse; a rarer precocity than that of sketching, and rarer still in alliance with the latter tendency. Poems composed in his twelfth year, came to be included in a selection privately printed in his twenty-sixth. Could we but know which they were! One, by Malkin's help, we can identify as written before he was fourteen: the following ethereal piece of sportive Fancy, 'Song' he calls it:—

How sweet I roam'd from field to field,
And tasted all the summer's pride,
Till I the prince of Love beheld,
Who in the sunny beams did glide!

He shew'd me lilies for my hair,
And blushing roses for my brow;
He led me through his gardens fair,
Where all his golden pleasures grow.

With sweet May-dews my wings were wet,
And Phœbus fir'd my vocal rage;
He caught me in his silken net,
And shut me in his golden cage.

He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
Then stretches out my golden wing,
And mocks my loss of liberty.

This may surely be reckoned equal precocity to that so much lauded of Pope and Cowley. It is not promise, but fulfilment. The grown man in vain might hope to better such sweet playfulness,—playfulness as of a 'child-angel's' penning—any more than noon can reproduce the tender streaks of dawn. But criticism is idle. How analyse a violet's perfume, or dissect the bloom on a butterfly's wing?