Life of William Blake (1880), Volume 1/Chapters 28—30
JOHN VARLEY AND THE VISIONARY HEADS. 1818—1820.
I have mentioned John Varley as one in the new circle to which Mr. Linnell introduced Blake. Under Varley's roof, Linnell had lived, for a year, as pupil; with William Hunt, a since famous name, as comrade.
John Varley, one of the founders of the New School of Water-Colour Painting, a landscape designer of much delicacy and grace, was otherwise a remarkable man, of very pronounced character and eccentricities; a professional Astrologer in the nineteenth century, among other things, and a sincere one; earnestly practising judicial Astrology as an Art, and taking his regular fees of those who consulted him. He was the author of more than one memorable nativity and prediction; memorable, that is, for having come true in the sequel. And strange stories are told on this head; such as that of Collins the artist, whose death came, to the day, as the stars had appointed. One man, to avoid his fate, lay in bed the whole day on which an accident had been foretold by Varley. Thinking himself safe by the evening, he came downstairs, stumbled over a coal-scuttle, sprained his ankle, and fulfilled the prediction. Scriven, the engraver, was wont to declare, that certain facts of a personal nature, which could be only known to himself, were nevertheless confided to his ear by Varley with every particular. Varley cast the nativities of James Ward the famous animal-painter's children. So many of his predictions came true, their father, a man of strong, though peculiar, religious opinions,—for he, too, was 'a character,'—began to think the whole affair a sinful forestalling of God's will, and destroyed the nativities. Varley was a genial, kind-hearted man; a disposition the grand dimensions of his person—which, when in a stooping posture, suggested to beholders the rear view of an elephant—well accorded with. Superstitious and credulous, he cultivated his own credulity, cherished a passion for the marvellous, and loved to have the evidence of his senses contradicted. Take an instance. Strange, ghostly noises had been heard at a friend's, to Varley's huge satisfaction. But interest and delight were exchanged for utter chagrin and disappointment when, on calling one day, eager to learn how the mystery progressed, he was met by the unwelcome tidings: 'Oh, we have discovered the cause—the cowl of the chimney!'
To such a man, Blake's habitual intercourse with the visionary world had special attractions. In his friend's stories of spiritual appearances, sight of which Varley could never share, however wishful, he placed implicit and literal credence. A particularly close intimacy arose between the two; and, during the last nine years of Blake's life, they became constant companions.
At Varley's house, and under his own eye, were drawn those Visionary Heads, or Spiritual Portraits of remarkable characters, whereof all who have heard of Blake have heard something. Varley it was who encouraged Blake to take authentic sketches of certain among his most frequent spiritual visitants. The Visionary faculty was so much under control that, at the wish of a friend, he could summon before his abstracted gaze any of the familiar forms and faces he was asked for. This was during the favourable and befitting hours of night; from nine or ten in the evening, until one or two, or perhaps three and four, o'clock in the morning; Varley sitting by, 'sometimes slumbering, and sometimes waking.' Varley would say, 'Draw me Moses,' or David; or would call for a likeness of Julius Caesar, or Cassibellaunus, or Edward the Third, or some other great historical personage. Blake would answer, 'There he is!' and paper and pencil being at hand, he would begin drawing, with the utmost alacrity and composure, looking up from time to time as though he had a real sitter before him; ingenuous Varley, meanwhile, straining wistful eyes into vacancy and seeing nothing, though he tried hard, and at first expected his faith and patience to be rewarded by a genuine apparition. A 'vision' had a very different signification with Blake to that it had in literal Varley's mind.
Sometimes Blake had to wait for the Vision's appearance; sometimes it would not come at call. At others, in the midst of his portrait, he would suddenly leave off, and, in his ordinary quiet tones and with the same matter-of-fact air another might say 'It rains,' would remark, 'I can't go on,—it is gone! I must wait till it returns;' or, 'It has moved. The mouth is gone;' or, 'he frowns; he is displeased with my portrait of him:' which seemed as if the Vision were looking over the artist's shoulder as well as sitting vis-à-vis for his likeness. The devil himself would politely sit in a chair to Blake, and innocently disappear; which obliging conduct one would hardly have anticipated from the spirit of evil, with his well-known character for love of wanton mischief.
|THE MAN WHO BUILT THE PYRAMIDS.||EDWARD III.|
|EDWARD I.||WILLIAM WALLACE.|
In sober daylight, criticisms were hazarded by the profane on the character or drawing of these or any of his visions. 'Oh, it's all right!' Blake would calmly reply; 'it must be right: I saw it so.' It did not signify what you said; nothing could put him out: so assured was he that he, or rather his imagination, was right, and that what the latter revealed was implicitly to be relied on,—and this without any appearance of conceit or intrusiveness on his part. Yet critical friends would trace in all these heads the Blake mind and hand,—his receipt for a face: every artist has his own, his favourite idea, from which he may depart in the proportions, but seldom substantially. John Varley, however, could not be persuaded to look at them from this merely rationalistic point of view.
At these singular nocturnal sittings, Blake thus executed for Varley, in the latter's presence, some forty or fifty slight pencil sketches, of small size, of historical, nay, fabulous and even typical personages, summoned from the vasty deep of time, and 'seen in vision by Mr. Blake.' Varley, who accepted all Blake said of them, added in writing the names, and in a few instances the day and hour they were seen. Thus: 'Wat Tyler, by Blake, from his spectre, as in the act of striking the tax-gatherer, drawn Oct. 30, 1819, 1 h. P.M.' On another we read: 'The Man who built the Pyramids, Oct. 18, 1819, fifteen degrees of 1. Cancer ascending.' Another sketch is indorsed as 'Richard Cœur de Lion drawn from his spectre. W. Blake fecit, Oct. 14, 1819, at quarter-past twelve, midnight.' In fact, two are inscribed 'Richard Cœur de Lion,' and each is different. Which looks as if Varley misconstrued the seer at times, or as if the spirits were lying spirits, assuming different forms at will. Such would doubtless have been De Foe's reading, had he been gravely recording the fact.
Most of the other Visionary Heads bear date August, 1820. Some fell into Mr. Linnell's hands and have remained there: the rest still belong to the Varley family. Remarkable performances these slight pencil drawings are, intrinsically, as well as for the circumstances of their production: truly original and often sublime. All are marked by a decisive, portrait-like character, and are in fact, evidently, literal portraits of what Blake's imaginative eye beheld. They are not seldom strikingly in unison with one's notions of the characters of the men they purport to represent. Some are very fine, as the Bathsheba and the David. Of these two, beauty is, of course, the special attribute. William Wallace and King Edward the First have much force, and even grandeur. A remarkable one is that of King Edward the Third as he now exists in the other world according to his appearance to Mr. Blake: his skull enlarged in the semblance of a crown,—swelling into a crown in fact,—for type and punishment of earthly tyranny, I suppose. Remarkable too are The Assassin lying dead at the feet of Edward the First in the Holy Land, and the Portrait of a Man who instructed Mr. Blake in Painting, in his Dreams.
Among the heads which Blake drew was one of King Saul, who, as the artist related, appeared to him in armour, and wearing a helmet of peculiar form and construction, which he could not, owing to the position of the spectre, see to delineate satisfactorily. The portrait was therefore left unfinished, till some months after, when King Saul vouchsafed a second sitting, and enabled Blake to complete his helmet; which, with the armour, was pronounced, by those to whom the drawing was shown, sufficiently extraordinary.
The ideal embodiment of supernatural things (even things so wild and mystic as some of these) by such a man—a man of mind and sense as well as of mere fancy—could not but be worth attention. And truly they have a strange coherence and meaning of their own. This is especially exemplified in one which is the most curious of all these Visionary Heads, and which has also been the most talked of, viz. the Ghost of a Flea or Personified Flea. Of it, John Varley, in that singular and now very scarce book, A Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy, published in 1828, gave the first and best account; one which Southey, connoisseur in singularities and scarce books, thought worth quoting in The Doctor:—
This spirit visited his (Blake's) imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect. As I was anxious to make the most correct investigation in my power of the truth of these visions, on hearing of this spiritual apparition of a Flea, I asked him if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he saw. He instantly said, 'I see him now before me.' I therefore gave him paper and a pencil with which he drew the portrait of which a fac-simile is given in this number. I felt convinced, by his mode of proceeding, that he had a real image before him; for he left off and began on another part of the paper to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch till he had closed it. During the time occupied in
GHOST OF A FLEA.
completing the drawing, the Flea told him that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of such men as were by nature blood-thirsty to excess, and were therefore providentially confined to the size and form of insects; otherwise, were he himself, for instance, the size of a horse, he would depopulate a great portion of the country.
An engraved outline of the Ghost of a Flea was given in the Zodiacal Physiognomy, and also of one other Visionary Head—that of the Constellation Cancer. The engraving of The Flea has been repeated in the Art Journal for August, 1858, among the illustrations to a brief notice of Blake. The original pencil drawing is in Mr. Linnell's possession. Coloured copies of three of the Visionary Heads—Wallace, Edward the First, and the Ghost of a Flea—were made for Varley, by Mr. Linnell. [See Annotated Catalogue, List II., Vol. II.]
OPINIONS: NOTES ON REYNOLDS. 1820. [ÆT. 63.]
From internal evidence I judge 1820, or thereabout, to have been the date of the Notes to Reynold's Discourses, already referred to. The present, therefore, is a fit place to give the reader a taste of them, "eminently characteristic as they are of the vehement, one-sided enthusiast. In the same indignant strain as that in which the Notes began, commenting on the patronage of his day, is written on the fly-leaf the following curious doggrel:—
Advice of the Popes who succeeded the Age of Raphael.
Degrade first the Arts if you would mankind degrade;
Hire idiots to paint with cold light and hot shade;
Give high price for the worst, leave the best in disgrace,
And with labour of idleness fill every place.
In plain prose he asks, 'Who will dare to say that "polite Art" is encouraged, or either wished or tolerated, in a nation where the Society of Arts suffered Barry to give them his labour for nothing? A Society composed of the flower of the English nobility and gentry, suffering an artist to starve, while he really supported what they, under pretence of encouraging, were endeavouring to depress! Barry told me that while he did that,'—painted, namely, the picture in the Society's Great Room at the Adelphi,—'he lived on bread and apples.'
'O! Society for the Encouragement of Art! King and Nobility of England, where have you hid Fuseli's Milton? Is Satan troubled at his exposure?' alluding to Fuseli's Satan building the Bridge. At the words in Reynolds' Dedication to the King—'royal liberality,' he exclaims, 'Liberality! we want no liberality! we want a fair price and proportionate value, and a general demand for Art. Let not that nation where less than nobility is the "reward" pretend that Art is encouraged by that nation. Art is first in intellect, and ought to be first in nations.'At page 120 Blake tells the following anecdote, bearing on orator Burke's vaunted patronage of Barry: 'Barry painted a picture for Burke equal to Raphael or Michael Angelo, or any of the Italians (!), Burke used to show this picture to his friends, and to say, "I gave twenty guineas for this horrible daub, and if any one would give me * * "' The remainder of the sentence has been cut off by the binder, but may easily be guessed,—'Such was Burke's patronage of Art and Science.' A little further on Blake declares 'the neglect of Fuseli's Milton, in a country pretending to the encouragement of Art, is a sufficient apology for my vigorous indignation: if, indeed, the neglect of my own powers had not been. Ought not the employers of fools to be execrated in future ages? They will and SHALL! Foolish men! your own real greatness depends on the encouragement of the Arts; and your fall will depend on their neglect and depression. What you fear is your own interest. Leo the Tenth was advised not to encourage the Arts. He was too wise to take this advice. The rich men of England form themselves into a Society' (alluding to the British Institution, founded in 1805), 'a Society to sell, and not to buy, pictures. The artist who does not throw his contempt on such trading Exhibitions does not know either his own interest or his own duty—
When nations grow old,
The Arts grow cold,
And Commerce settles on every tree:
And the poor and the old
Can live upon gold,
For all are born poor.
Which concluding enigmatical line indicates, I presume, the age of the annotator at the date of writing.
Again, still alluding to his own case: 'The inquiry in England is, not whether a man has talents and genius, but whether he is passive and polite, and a virtuous ass, and obedient to noblemen's opinions in art and science. If he is, he is a good man; if not, he must be starved.'
In a highly personal strain of sarcastic allusion to the favoured portrait-painters of his era, Blake scribbles in verse—
Some look to see the sweet outlines
And beauteous forms that Love does wear;
Some look to find out patches, paint,
Bracelets and stays and powdered hair.
And in even more eccentric vein:—
When Sir Joshua Reynolds died,
All nature was degraded;
The king dropped a tear
Into the queen's ear,
And all his pictures faded. (!)
Angels of light make sorry wits—handle mere terrestrial weapons of sarcasm and humorous assault in a very clumsy, ineffectual manner.
'I consider Reynolds' Discourses to the Royal Academy,' our annotator in plainer, if still startling words announces, as the simulation of the hypocrite who smiles particularly when he means to betray. His praise of Raphael is like the hysteric smile of revenge; his softness and candour the hidden trap and the poisoned feast. He praises Michael Angelo for qualities which Michael Angelo abhorred; and he blames Raphael for the only qualities which Raphael valued. Whether Reynolds knew what he was doing is nothing to me. The mischief is the same whether a man does it ignorantly or knowingly. I always considered true art and true artists to be particularly insulted and degraded by the reputation of these Discourses; as much as they were degraded by the reputation of Reynolds' paintings; and that such artists as Reynolds are, at all times, hired by Satan for the depression of art: a pretence of art to destroy art.' A sufficiently decided opinion.
At page 20, we read—'Mem. That I make a note on "sudden and irresistible approbation."' This threat is in reference to Sir Joshua's observations respecting the kindling effect of the great examples of Art on the student's mind. 'How grossly inconsistent with what he says somewhere on the Vatican!' At page 17 of the First Discourse, where, after cautioning the student against following his 'vague and uncertain ideas of beauty,' and drawing the figure, not as it is, but as he fancies it ought to be, Reynolds adds that the habit of drawing correctly what we see gives the power of drawing correctly what we imagine:—'Excellent!' is Blake's comment; and further on, 'This is admirably said! Why does he not always allow as much?' Instances of praise seldom elicited. Once, indeed, he finds a passage wholly after his own heart: 'A firm and determined outline is one of the characteristics of the great style in painting.' Against which is written: 'Here is a noble sentence! a sentence which overthrows all his book.'
On Sir Joshua's singular inconsistency in condemning generalization in one place, while approving and recommending it in a hundred, he remarks: 'The contradictions in Reynolds' Discourses are strong presumption that they are the work of several hands; but this is no proof that Reynolds did not write them. The man, either painter or philosopher, who learns or acquires all he knows from others, must be full of contradictions.' And elsewhere, more definitely, on this subject of generalization he says: 'Real effect is making out the parts, and it is nothing else but that.'
Expressive of the special creed of Blake, to whom invention and meaning were all in all, and of his low estimate of the great rhetoricians in painting,—Correggio, the Venetians, Rubens, and those whom we weak mortals have been wont to admire as great colourists,—is such a note as this, at the beginning of the Second Discourse:—'The laboured works of journeymen employed by Correggio, Titian, Veronese, and all the Venetians, ought not to be shown to the young artist as the works of original conception, any more than the works of Strange, Bartolozzi, or WooUett. They are works of manual labour.'
Blake cherished his visionary tendency as an essential function of imagination, 'Mere enthusiasm,' he here declares, 'is the all in all.' And again,—'The man who asserts that there is no such thing as softness in art, and that everything is definite and determinate' (which is what Blake was ever asserting), 'has not been told this by practice, but by inspiration and vision; because vision is determinate and perfect and he copies that without fatigue. Everything seen is definite and determinate. Softness is produced by comparative strength and weakness, alone, in the marking of the forms. I say these principles would never be found out by the study of nature, without con- or in-nate science.'
With no more than justice he remarks on the very weakest feature in Sir Joshua's system: 'Reynolds' opinion was, that genius may be taught, and that all pretence to inspiration is a lie or deceit, to say the least of it. If it is deceit, the whole Bible is madness. This opinion' (of Sir Joshua's) 'originates in the Greeks calling the Muses daughters of Memory,' In the same spirit, and with truth too, he of the Third Discourse energetically avers: 'The following Discourse is particularly interesting to blockheads, as it endeavours to prove that there is no such thing as inspiration, and that any man of a plain understanding may, by thieving from others, become a Michael Angelo.'
So, too, when Reynolds tells his hearers that 'enthusiastic admiration seldom promotes knowledge;' and proceeds to encourage the student who perceives in his mind 'nothing of that divine inspiration with which, he is told, so many others have been favoured' who 'never travelled to heaven to gather new ideas,' &c. Blake answers: 'And such is the coldness with which Reynolds speaks! and such is his enmity! Enthusiastic admiration is the first principle of knowledge, and its last. How he begins to degrade, to deny, and to mock! The man, who on examining his own mind, finds nothing of inspiration, ought not to dare to be an artist: he is a fool, and a cunning knave suited to the purposes of evil demons. The man who never in his mind and thought travelled to heaven, is no artist. It is evident that Reynolds wished none but fools to be in the arts; and in order to this, he calls all others vague enthusiasts or madmen. What has reasoning to do with the art of painting?'
Characteristic opinions are the following: —
'Knowledge of ideal beauty is not to be acquired. It is born with us. Innate ideas are in every man, born with him; they are truly himself. The man who says that we have no innate ideas must be a fool and knave; having no conscience, or innate science.' And yet it is a question metaphysicians have been discussing since metaphysics began.
Again: 'One central form composed of all other forms being granted, it does not therefore follow that all other forms are deformity. All forms are perfect in the poet's mind: but these are not abstracted or compounded from nature; they are from imagination.'
On some of the more technical points respecting art, Blake observes: 'No one can ever design till he has learned the language of Art by making many finished copies both of Nature and Art, and of whatever comes in his way, from earliest childhood. The difference between a bad artist and a good is, that the bad artist seems to copy a great deal, the good one does copy a great deal.'
'To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the great distinction of merit.'
'Servile copying is the great merit of copying.
'Execution is the Chariot of Genius.'
'Invention depends altogether upon execution or organization. As that is right or wrong, so is the invention perfect or imperfect. Michael Angelo's art depends on Michael Angelo's execution altogether.'
'Grandeur of ideas is founded on precision of ideas.'
'Passion and expression are beauty itself. The face that is incapable of passion and expression is deformity itself, let it be painted and patched and praised and advertised for ever. It will be admired only by fools.'
With strong reprobation our annotator breaks forth when Sir Joshua quotes Vasari to the effect that Albert Dürer 'would have been one of the finest painters of his age, if,' &c. 'Albert Dürer is not "would have been!" Besides, 'let them look at Gothic figures and Gothic buildings, and not talk of "Dark Ages," or of any "Ages!" Ages are all equal, but genius is always above its Age.'
'A sly dog!' 'He makes little concessions that he may take great advantages,' says Blake, apropos of the remark that the Venetians, notwithstanding their surpassing excellence as colourists, did not attain to the 'great style,' but, with 'splendour' of manner, concealed poverty of meaning. ' If the Venetian's outline were right, his shadows would destroy it,' persists Blake. And finally, unable to give vent to the full measure of his contempt in plain prose, he breaks out into an epigram:—
On the Venetian Painter.
He makes the lame to walk we all agree;
But then he strives to blind all who can see!
Many readers of the .present day, who have learned to almost worship the transcendant Venetian painters—Giorgione, Titian, Tintoret, Veronese, not to speak of the Bellini, Carpaccio, &c.—may be startled to note Blake's pertinacious scorn of them. Such readers will do well to remember that Blake, who had never been abroad, must have formed his idea of the Venetians almost wholly from engravings, and from what writers like Reynolds say of the characteristics of the school. 'He had picked up his notions of Titian,' says Mr. Palmer, 'from picture-dealers' "Titians!"'
When Reynolds speaks of Fresco as 'a mode of painting which excludes attention to minute elegancies,' Blake observes, 'This is false, Fresco-painting is the most minute. It is like miniature-painting. A wall is a large ivory.'
In the Fifth Discourse we are told that Raphael 'was never able' (in his easel-pictures) 'to conquer perfectly that dryness, or even littleness of manner, which he inherited from his master.' Upon which, Blake: 'He who does not admire Raphael's execution does not even see Raphael! ' And the assertion that Raphael owes the grandeur of his style, and much else, to Michael Angelo, is met by a favourite simile of Blake's: 'I believe this no more than I believe that the rose teaches the lily how to grow, or that the apple teaches the pear tree how to bear fruit.'
Prefatory to the same Discourse Blake writes, 'Gainsborough told a gentleman of rank and fortune that the worst painters always chose the grandest subjects. I desired the gentleman to set Gainsborough about one of Raphael's grandest subjects, namely, Christ delivering the Keys to St. Peter; and he would find that in Gainsborough's hands it would be a vulgar subject of poor fishermen and a journeyman carpenter. The following Discourse is written with the same end in view Gainsborough had in making the above assertion; namely, to represent vulgar artists as the models of executive merit.'
And again: 'Real effect is making out the parts. Why are we to be told that masters who could think, had not the judgment to perform the inferior parts of art? (as Reynolds artfully calls them); that we are to learn to think from great masters, and to perform from underlings—to learn to design from Raphael, and to execute from Rubens?'
Blake had, in truth, just personal grounds for speaking with indignant emphasis on this topic. 'The lavish praise I have received from all quarters, for invention and drawing,' says he elsewhere, 'has generally been accompanied by this: "He can conceive, but he cannot execute," This absurd assertion has done, and may still do me, the greatest mischief.'
In the MS. note-book are some stray verses, manifestly the overflowings of the same mood as these notes. We .shall be best able to appreciate their vigour of meaning, and tolerate the occasional hobbling of the verse, by taking them in connexion with the foregoing:—
Raphael, sublime, majestic, graceful, wise,—
His executive power must I despise?
Rubens, low, vulgar, stupid, ignorant,—
His power of execution I must grant!
The cripple every step drudges and labours,
And says, 'Come, learn to walk of me, good neighbours!'
Sir Joshua, in astonishment, cries out,
'See what great labour springs from modest doubt!'
Call that the public voice which is their error?
Like as a monkey, peeping in a mirror,
Admireth all his colours brown and warm,
And never once perceives his ugly form.
On Sir Joshua again: —
No real style of colouring now appears,
Save thro' advertisements in the newspapers;
Look there—you'll see Sir Joshua's colouring:
Look at his pictures— all has taken wing.
I think it may not be superfluous to take into account here, as we did when first alluding to these notes on Reynolds, all the sources of Blake's hostility towards the universally admired and extolled Prince of English Portrait-painting. The deepest of these was the honest contempt of a man with high spiritual aims for one whose goal, though honourable, and far above the common attainment, was at as widely different an altitude from Blake's as the mere earthly hill-top from the star which shines down upon it. Hence the entire antagonism of their views; for such different ends must be reached by wholly different means. It is no invalidation of this high claim for Blake to add that the vivid contrast of their respective lots was another source; for recognition is dear to every gifted man, however unworldly, however sincere his indifference to those goods of fortune which ordinarily accompany recognition, but are the mere accidents of which that is the precious substance.
There was also, I am bound to confess (and it is not much to confess either), some personal antipathy in the case which added, doubtless, an extra dash of sharpness to the flavour of these pungent notes, and would seem to have originated in an interview (probably anterior to the one already described), at which Blake's experiences were not wholly of Sir Joshua's 'blandness.' 'Once I remember his talking to me of Reynolds,' writes a surviving friend: 'he became furious at what the latter had dared to say of his early works. When a very young man he had called on Reynolds to show him some designs, and had been recommended to work with less extravagance and more simplicity, and to correct his drawing. This Blake seemed to regard as an affront never to be forgotten. He was very indignant when lie spoke of it.'
At page 61 of the Notes we are introduced to another of Blake's antipathies:—'The "great Bacon," as he is called (I call him the little Bacon), says that everything must be done by experiment. His first principle is unbelief, and yet here he says that art must be produced without such method. He is like Sir Joshua, full of self-contradiction and knavery.' Bacon, known to Blake by his Essays, was also Antichrist in his eyes. The high, worldly wisdom and courtier-like sagacity, not unmingled with politic craft, of those Essays were alien to the sympathies of the republican spiritualist, despite the imaginative form with which those qualities are clothed in Bacon's grand speech,—his stately, organ-like eloquence.
The artist's copy of the Essays, a duodecimo, published by Edwards, in 1798, is roughly annotated, in pencil, in a very characteristic, if very unreasonable, fashion; marginal notes dating, I should say, during the latter years of Blake's life. We have frequent indignant comment and execration. The epithets 'fool,' 'liar,' 'villain,' 'atheist,' nay, 'Satan,' and even (most singular of all) 'stupid,' are freely indulged in. There is in these notes, however, none of that leaven of real sense and acumen which tempers the violence of those on Reynolds. Bound by the interests of faithful biography, we will borrow a few characteristic sentences; but only a few.
'Good advice for Satan's kingdom,' is the inscription on the title-page. 'Is it true or is it false,' asks the annotator, 'that the wisdom of the world is foolishness with God? This is certain: if what Bacon says is true, what Christ says is false. If Caesar is right, Christ is wrong, both in politics and religion, since they will divide themselves in two.' 'Everybody knows,' he writes again, 'that this is epicurism and libertinism, and yet everybody says that it is Christian philosophy. How is this possible? Everybody must be a liar and deceiver? No! "Everybody" does not do this; but the hirelings of Kings and Courts, who made themselves "everybody," and knowingly propagate falsehood. It was a common opinion in the Court of Queen Elizabeth that knavery is wisdom. Cunning plotters were considered as wise Machiavels.'
Whatever Bacon may say, his singular annotator refuses to be pleased. When the former innocently enough tells us, 'It is great blasphemy to personate God, and bring him in saying, "I will demand,"' &c., Blake answers: 'Did not Jesus descend and become a servant? The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman and not a man: he is a Lord Chancellor.'
Characteristic comment on the Essay on Virtue is this: 'What do these knaves mean by virtue? Do they mean war and its horrors, and its heroic villains?' 'Good thoughts,' says Bacon, 'are little better than good dreams.' 'Thought is act,' replies Blake: 'Christ's acts were nothing to Caesar's, if this is not so.' When Bacon, after the fashion of his age, says, 'The increase of any state must be upon the foreigner,' the artist, innocent of political economy though he be, has for once what would be generally considered now-a-days, in part, a just retort: 'The increase of a State, as of a man, is from internal improvement or intellectual acquirement. Man is not improved by the hurt of another. States are not improved at the expense of foreigners.' Again: 'Bacon calls intellectual arts unmanly: and so they are for kings and wars, and shall in the end annihilate them,' 'What is fortune but an outward accident? for a few years, sixty at the most, and then gone!'
'King James was Bacon's primum mobile,' exclaims the scornful Blake. And elsewhere his political prejudices explode in an amusing way. The philosopher speaks of 'mighty Princes:' — the 'Powers of Darkness,' responds Blake. Again: 'A tyrant is the worst disease, and the cause of all others!' And in the same spirit: 'Everybody hates a king! David was afraid to say that the envy was upon a king: but is this envy or indignation?'And here let the singular dialogue at cross-purposes end.
DESIGNS TO PHILLIPS' 'PASTORALS.' 1820— 1821. [ÆT. 63—64.]
Blake was, in 1820—21, employed by Dr. Thornton for some illustrations to the Doctor's School Virgil—Virgil's Pastorals, that is. The result of the commission was a series of designs among the most beautiful and original of Blake's performances. These are the small woodcuts to Ambrose Phillips' imitation of Virgil's first Eclogue: designs simple, quaint, poetic, charged with the very spirit of pastoral.
Dr. Thornton, son of Bonnell Thornton of humorous memory, colleague with Colman in The Connoisseur, was a physician and botanist of note, in his day. He was the author of several very expensively illustrated folios and quartos on botany: A New Illustration of the Sexual System of Linnæus, 1797; The Temple of Flora, or Garden of the Poet, Painter, and Philosopher, and other similar productions about botany in its picturesque aspect; costly books, illustrated in colours, which impoverished their amiable projector.
More successful in its generation was the Doctor's edition of the Pastorals of Virgil, 'with a course of English reading adapted for schools,' and other explanatory helps. All which was designed to enable youth 'to acquire ideas as well as words' with 'ease to the master and delight to the scholar.' One means to this end was ultimately added in a series of illustrative woodcuts. The first edition of 1812 had none: illustrations were issued as a supplementary volume in 1814. In the second edition of 1819 the two were incorporated. In this third edition of 1821 the illustrations were increased to as many as two hundred and thirty, including these from Blake's hand.
And hereby hangs a tale. Blake made twenty drawings to illustrate the Pastorals of Phillips, introduced by Thornton into his 'course' of Virgil reading. From these he executed seventeen wood blocks, the first he had ever cut, and, as they will prove, the last. The rough, unconventional work of a mere 'prentice hand to the art of wood-engraving, they are, in effect, vigorous and artist-like, recalling the doings of Albert Dürer and the early masters, whose aim was to give ideas, not pretty language. When he sent in these seventeen, the publishers, unused to so daring a style, were taken aback, and declared 'this man must do no more;' nay, were for having all he had done re-cut by one of their regular hands. The very engravers received them with derision, crying out in the words of the critic, 'This will never do.' Blake's merits, seldom wholly hidden from his artist contemporaries, were always impenetrably dark to the book and print selling genus.
Dr. Thornton had, in his various undertakings, been munificent to artists to an extent which, as we have said, brought him to poverty. But he had, himself, no knowledge of art, and, despite kind intentions, was disposed to take his publishers' view. However, it fortunately happened that meeting one day several artists at Mr. Aders' table,—Lawrence, James Ward, Linnell, and others,—conversation fell on the Virgil. All present expressed warm admiration of Blake's art, and of those designs and woodcuts in particular. By such competent authority reassured, if also puzzled, the good Doctor began to think there must be more in them than he and his publishers could discern. The contemplated sacrifice of the blocks already cut was averted. The three other designs, however, had been engraved by another, nameless hand: those illustrative of the three 'comparisons' in the last stanza but one of Phillips' Pastorals. Wretched, jejune caricatures of the beautiful originals they proved, scarce any trace of Blake being left.
To conciliate the outraged arts, Dr. Thornton introduced the designs with an apology. 'The illustrations of this English Pastoral are by the famous Blake, the illustrator of Young's Night Thoughts, and Blair's Grave; who designed and engraved them himself. This is mentioned as they display less of art than of genius, and are much admired by some eminent painters.'
One of the designs, engraved by Blake, was re-cut among the engravers, who scrupled not, by way of showing what it ought to have been, to smooth down and conventionalize the design itself; reducing a poetic, typical composition to mere commonplace, ' to meet the public taste.' This as an earnest of what had been contemplated for the whole series. The amendment was not adopted by Thornton. Both versions may be seen in the Athenæum for January 21st, 1843; where, in the course of a very intelligent article on the true principles of wood-engraving, they are introduced, with other cuts from Holbein, &c., to illustrate the writer's just argument: that 'amid all drawbacks there exists a power in the work of the man of genius which no one but himself can utter fully;' and that 'there is an authentic manifestation of feeling in an author's own work, which endears it to all who can sympathize with art, and reconciles all its defects. Blake's rude work,' adds the critic, 'utterly without pretension, too, as an engraving, the merest attempt of a fresh apprentice, is a work of genius; whilst the latter—the doctored cut—'is but a piece of smooth, tame mechanism.'
The more these remarkable designs are seen, the more power do they exert over the mind. With few lines, and the simplest, rudest hints of natural objects, they appeal to the imagination direct, not the memory; setting before us condensed, typical ideas. Strange to think of Blake, shut up in dingy, gardenless South Molton Street, designing such pastorals! His mind must have been impregnated with rural images, enabling him, without immediate reference to Nature, to throw off these beautiful suggestions, so pastoral in feeling, of Arcadian shepherds and their flocks, under the broad setting sun or tranquil moon. As Thornton's purpose was to give his young readers pictured images of his author's words, the designs accompany the poem literally, and line for line. Thenot addresses Colinet, who leans, lonesome, against a tree, crook in hand, and sheep beside; and so on.
The original designs, in sepia, are of much delicacy and grace. Their expression and drawing are a little distorted in the transference to wood, even under Blake's own hands. The blocks, moreover, proved, in the first instance, too wide for the page, and were, irrespective of the composition, summarily cut down to the requisite size by the publishers. They are now, together with the drawings, in the possession of Mr. Linnell, who has kindly permitted impressions from three of them to be taken for the present work.
Dr. Thornton found further employment for Blake in etchings, scattered through the two volumes of 1821, from antique busts: Theocritus, Virgil, Augustus, Agrippa, Julius Cæsar, Epicurus; task-work Blake well and honestly performed. A drawing of his, from Poussin's Polyphème, was put into Byfield's hands to engrave; which the latter did, poorly enough. As for the rest of the two hundred and thirty cuts, though executed by some of the best wood engravers of the time, they are, with the exception of one or two by Bewick and Thurston, of singularly laughable calibre. The designers obviously thought they could not be too puerile in addressing boys. The old, rude woodcuts to Croxall's Æsop are respectable works of art, compared with these. It is a curious practical satire on the opinion of Blake the engravers had, that the book, which has become scarce, is seldom looked at now but for Blake's slight share in it.