William Blake (Symons)/Biographical Sketch of Blake
(VII.) BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF BLAKE
BY J. T. SMITH. 1828
[The Memoir of Blake by John Thomas Smith, Keeper of the Prints and Drawings in the British Museum, is the last of the 'Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of several Artists and others contemporary with Nollekens,' contained in the second volume of 'Nollekens and his Times: comprehending a Life of that celebrated Sculptor; and Memoirs of several contemporary Artists, from the time of Roubiliac, Hogarth, and Reynolds, to that of Fuseli, Flaxman, and Blake.' (London: Henry Colburn, New Burlington Street, 1828.) It contains more facts at first hand than any other account of Blake, and is really the foundation of all subsequent biographies. I have added a page, which is not without its significance, from a later book by Smith, 'A Book for a Rainy Day; or, Recollections of the Events of the last Sixty-five Years' (1845), where it occurs under date 1784, on pp. 81, 82.]
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF BLAKE.
I believe it has been invariably the custom of every age, whenever a man has been found to depart from the usual mode of thinking, to consider him of deranged intellect, and not unfrequently stark staring mad; which judgment his calumniators would pronounce with as little hesitation, as some of the uncharitable part of mankind would pass sentence of death upon a poor half-drowned cur who had lost his master, or one who had escaped hanging with a rope about his neck. Cowper, in a letter to Lady Hesketh, dated June 3, 1788, speaking of a dancing-master's advertisement, says, 'The author of it had the good hap to be crazed, or he had never produced anything half so clever; for you will ever observe, that they who are said to have lost their wits, have more than other people."
Bearing this stigma of eccentricity, William Blake, with most extraordinary zeal, commenced his efforts in Art under the roof of No. 28 Broad-street, Carnaby Market; in which house he was born, and where his father carried on the business of a hosier. William, the subject of the following pages, who was his second son, showing an early stretch of mind, and a strong talent for drawing, being totally destitute of the dexterity of a London shopman, so well described by Dr. Johnson, was sent away from the counter as a booby, and placed under the late Mr. James Basire, an Artist well known for many years as Engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. From him he learned the mechanical part of his art, and as he drew carefully, and copied faithfully, his master frequently and confidently employed him to make drawings from monuments to be engraven.
After leaving his instructor, in whose house he had conducted himself with the strictest propriety, he became acquainted with Flaxman, the Sculptor, through his friend Stothard, and was also honoured by an introduction to the accomplished Mrs. Mathew, whose house, No. 27, in Rathbone Place, was then frequented by most of the literary and talented people of the day. This lady—to whom I also had the honour of being known, and whose door and purse were constantly open and ready to cherish persons of genius who stood in need of assistance in their learned and arduous pursuits, worldly concerns, or inconveniences—was so extremely zealous in promoting the celebrity of Blake, that upon hearing him read some of his early efforts in poetry, she thought so well of them, as to request the Rev. Henry Mathew, her husband, to join Mr. Flaxman in his truly kind offer of defraying the expense of printing them; in which he not only acquiesced, but, with his usual urbanity, wrote the following advertisement, which precedes the poems:
"The following sketches were the production of an untutored youth, commenced in his twelfth, and occasionally resumed by the author till his twentieth year; since which time, his talents having been wholly directed to the attainment of excellence in his profession, he has been deprived of the leisure requisite to such a revisal of these sheets, as might have rendered them less unfit to meet the public eye.
'Conscious of the irregularities aad defects to be found in almost every page, his friends have still believed that they possessed a poetical originality, which merited some respite from oblivion. These, their opinions, remain, however, to be now reproved or confirmed by a less partial public."
The annexed Song is a specimen of the juvenile playfulness of Blake's muse, copied from page 10 of these Poems.
'How sweet I roam'd from field to field,
'With sweet May-dews my wings were wet,
But it happened, unfortunately, soon after this period, that in consequence of his unbending deportment, or what his adherents are pleased to call his manly firmness of opinion, which certainly was not at all times considered pleasing by every one, his visits were not so frequent. He however continued to benefit by Mrs. Mathew's liberality, and was enabled to continue in partnership, as a Printseller, with his fellow-pupil, Parker, in a shop, No. 27, next door to his father's, in Broad-street; and being extremely partial to Robert, his youngest brother, considered him as his pupil. Bob, as he was familiarly called, was one of my playfellows, and much beloved by all his companions.
Much about this time, Blake wrote many other songs, to which he also composed tunes. These he would occasionally sing to his friends; and though, according to his confession, he was entirely unacquainted with the science of music, his ear was so good, that his tunes were sometimes most singularly beautiful, and were noted down by musical professors. As for his later poetry, if it may be so called, attached to his plates, though it was certainly in some parts enigmatically curious as to its application, yet it was not always wholly uninteresting; and I have unspeakable pleasure in being able to state, that though I admit he did not for the last forty years attend any place of Divine worship, yet he was not a Freethinker, as some invidious detractors have thought proper to assert, nor was he ever in any degree irreligious. Through life, his Bible was everything with him; and as a convincing proof how highly he reverenced the Almighty, I shall introduce the following lines with which he concludes his address to the Deists:
"For a tear is an intellectual thing;
And a sigh is the sword of an Angel-King;
And the bitter groan of a Martyr's woe
Is an arrow from the Almighty's bow."
Again, at page 77, in his address to the Christians:
"I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate.
Built in Jerusalem's wall."
In his choice of subjects, and in his designs in Art, perhaps no man had higher claim to originality, nor ever drew with a closer adherence to his own conception; and from what I knew of him, and have heard related by his friends, I most firmly believe few artists have been guilty of less plagiarisms than he. It is true, I have seen him admire and heard him expatiate upon the beauties of Marc Antonio and of Albert Dürer; but I verily believe not with any view of borrowing an idea; neither do I consider him at any time dependent in his mode of working, which was generally with the graver only; and as to printing, he mostly took off his own impressions.
After his marriage, which took place at Battersea, and which proved a mutually happy one, he instructed his beloved, for so he most frequently called his Kate, and allowed her, till the last moment of his practice, to take off his proof impressions and print his works, which she did most carefully, and ever delighted in the task: nay, she became a draughtswoman; and as a convincing proof that she and her husband were born for each other's comfort, she not only entered cheerfully into his views, but, what is curious, possessed a similar power of imbibing ideas, and has produced drawings equally original, and, in some respects, interesting.
Blake's peace of mind, as well as that of his Catherine, was much broken by the death of their brother Robert, who was a most amicable link in their happiness; and, as a proof how much Blake respected him, whenever he beheld him in his visions, he implicitly attended to his opinion and advice as to his future projected works. I should have stated, that Blake was supereminently endowed with the power of disuniting all other thoughts from his mind, whenever he wished to indulge in thinking of any particular subject; and so firmly did he believe, by this abstracting power, that the objects of his compositions were before him in his mind's eye, that he frequently believed them to be speaking to him. This I shall now illustrate by the following narrative.
Blake, after deeply perplexing himself as to the mode of accomplishing the publication of his illustrated songs, without their being subject to the expense of letter-press, his brother Robert stood before him in one of his visionary imaginations, and so decidedly directed him in the way in which he ought to proceed, that he immediately followed his advice, by writing his poetry, and drawing his marginal subjects of embellishments in outline upon the copper-plate with an impervious liquid, and then eating the plain parts or lights away with aquafortis considerably below them, so that the outlines were left as a stereotype. The plates in this state were then printed in any tint that he wished, to enable him or Mrs. Blake to colour the marginal figures up by hand in imitation of drawings.
The following are some of his works produced in this manner, viz.; 'Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience,' 'The Book of Jerusalem,' consisting of an hundred plates, 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,' 'Europe and America'; and another work, which is now very uncommon, a pretty little series of plates, entitled 'Gate of Paradise.'
Blake, like those artists absorbed in a beloved study, cared not for money beyond its use for the ensuing day; and indeed he and his "beloved" were so reciprocally frugal in their expenses, that, never sighing for either gilded vessels, silver-laced attendants, or turtle's livers, they were contented with the simplest repast, and a little answered their purpose. Yet, notwithstanding all their economy, Dame Fortune being, as it is pretty well known to the world, sometimes a fickle jade, they, as well as thousands more, have had their intercepting clouds.
As it is not my intention to follow them through their lives, I shall confine myself to a relation of a few other anecdotes of this happy pair; and as they are connected with the Arts, in my opinion they ought not to be lost, as they may be considered worthy the attention of future biographers.
For his marginal illustrations of 'Young's Night Thoughts,' which possess a great power of imagination, he received so despicably low a price, that Flaxman, whose heart was ever warm, was determined to serve him whenever an opportunity offered itself; and with his usual voice of sympathy, introduced him to his friend Hayley, with whom it was no new thing to give pleasure, capricious as he was. This gentleman immediately engaged him to engrave the plates for his quarto edition of 'The Life of Cowper,' published in 1803-4; and for this purpose he went down to Felpham, in order to be near that highly respected Hermit.
Here he took a cottage, for which he paid twenty pounds a-year, and was not, as has been reported, entertained in a house belonging to Mr. Hayley, rent-free. Dining his stay he drew several portraits, and could have had full employment in that department of the Art; but he was born to follow his own inclinations, and was willing to rely upon a reward for the labours of the day.
Mr. Flaxman, knowing me to be a collector of autographs, among many others, gave me the following letter, which he received from Blake immediately after his arrival at Felpham, in which he styles him
'Dear Sculptor of Eternity,
'We are safe arrived at our cottage, which is more beautiful than I thought it, and more convenient. It is a perfect model for cottages, and, I think, for palaces of magnificence; only enlarging, not altering, its proportions, and adding ornaments, and not principals. Nothing can be more grand than its simplicity and usefulness. Simple without intricacy, it seems to be the spontaneous effusion of humanity, congenial to the wants of man. No other-formed house can ever please me so well; nor shall I ever be persuaded, I believe, that it can be improved either in beauty, or use.
'Mr. Hayley received us with his usual brotherly affection. I have begun to work. Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen, and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses. My wife and sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace.
'Our journey was very pleasant; and though we had a great deal of luggage, no grumbling. All was cheerfulness and good-humour on the road, and yet we could not arrive at our cottage before half-past eleven at night, owing to the necessary shifting of our luggage from one chaise to another; for we had seven different chaises, and as many different drivers. We set out between six and seven in the morning of Thursday, with sixteen heavy boxes, and portfolios full of prints.
'And now begins a new life, because another covering of earth is shaken off. I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my brain, are studies and chambers filled with books and pictures of old, which I wrote and painted in ages of eternity, before my mortal life; and those works are the delight and study of archangels. Why then should I be anxious about the riches or fame of mortality? The Lord, our father, will do for us and with us according to his Divine will for our good.
'You, O dear Flaxman! are a sublime Archangel, my friend and companion from eternity. In the Divine bosom is our dwelling-place. I look back into the regions of reminiscence and behold our ancient days before this earth appeared in its vegetated mortality to my mortal-vegetated eyes. I see our houses of eternity which can never be separated, though our mortal vehicles should stand at the remotest corners of Heaven from each other.
'Farewell, my best friend! Remember me and my wife in love and friendship to our dear Mrs. Flaxman, whom we ardently desire to entertain beneath our thatched roof of rusted gold; and believe me for ever to remain,
'Your grateful and affectionate,
'Felpham, Sept. 21st, 1800.
In a copy of Hayley's 'Triumphs of Temper,' illustrated by Stothard, which had been the one belonging to the Author's son, and which he gave after his death to Blake, are these verses in MS. by the hand of the donor.
'Accept, my gentle visionary, Blake,
Whose thoughts are fanciful and kindly mild;
Accept, and fondly keep for friendship's sake,
This favoured vision, my poetic child.
'Rich in more grace than fancy ever won.
To thy most tender mind this book will be,
For it belonged to my departed son;
So from an angel it descends to thee.
Upon his return from Felpham, he addressed the public, in page 3 of his Book of Jerusalem, in these words: 'After my three years' slumber on the banks of the ocean, I again display my giant-forms to the public,' etc.
Some of the 'giant-forms,' as he calls them, are mighty and grand, and if I were to compare them to the style of any preceding artist, Michel Angelo, Sir Joshua's favourite, would be the one; and were I to select a specimen as a corroboration of this opinion, I should instance the figure personifying the 'Ancient of Days,' the frontispiece to his 'Europe, a Prophecy.' In my mind, his knowledge of drawing, as well as design, displayed in this figure, must at once convince the informed reader of his extraordinary abilities.
I am now under the painful necessity of relating an event promulgated in two different ways by two different parties; and as I entertain a high respect for the talents of both persons concerned, I shall, in order to steer clear of giving umbrage to the supporters of either, leave the reader to draw his own conclusions, unbiassed by any insinuation whatever of mine.
An Engraver of the name of Cromek, a man who endeavoured to live by speculating upon the talents of others, purchased a series of drawings of Blake, illustrative of Blair's 'Grave,' which he had begun with a view of engraving and publishing. These were sold to Mr. Cromek for the insignificant sum of one guinea each, with the promise, and indeed under the express agreement, that Blake should be employed to engrave them; a task to which he looked forward with anxious delight. Instead of this negotiation being carried into effect, the drawings, to his great mortification, were put, into the hands of Schiavonetti. During the time this artist was thus employed, Cromek had asked Blake what work he had in mind to execute next. The unsuspecting artist not only told him, but without the least reserve showed him the designs sketched out for a fresco picture; the subject Chaucer's 'Pilgrimage to Canterbury'; with which Mr. Cromek appeared highly delighted. Shortly after this, Blake discovered that Stothard, a brother-artist to whom he had been extremely kind in early days, had been employed to paint a picture, not only of the same subject, but in some instances similar to the fresco sketch which he had shown to Mr. Cromek. The picture painted by Stothard became the property of Mr. Cromek, who published proposals for an engraving from it, naming Bromley as the engraver to be employed. However, in a short time, that artist's name was withdrawn, and Schiavonetti's substituted, who lived only to complete the etching; the plate being finished afterwards by at least three different hands. Blake, highly indignant at this treatment, immediately set to work, and proposed an engraving from his fresco picture, which he publicly exhibited in his brother James's shop-window, at the corner of Broad Street, accompanied with an address to the public, stating what he considered to be improper conduct.
So much on the side of Blake. On the part of Stothard, the story runs thus. Mr. Cromek had agreed with that artist to employ him upon a picture of the Procession of Chaucer's Pilgrimage to Canterbury, for which he first agreed to pay him sixty guineas, but in order to enable him to finish it in a move exquisite manner, promised him forty more, with an intention of engaging Bromley to engrave it; but in consequence of some occurrence, his name was withdrawn, and Schiavonetti was employed. during the time Stothard was painting the picture, Blake called to see it, and appeared so delighted with it, that Stothard, sincerely wishing to please an old friend with whom he had lived so cordially for many years, and from whose works he always most liberally declared he had received much pleasure and edification, expressed a wish to introduce his portrait as one of the party, as a mark of esteem.
Mr. Hoppner, in a letter to a friend, dated May 30th, 1807, says of it,
This intelligent group is rendered still more interesting by the charm of colouring, which though simple is strong, and most harmoniously distributed throughout the picture. The landscape has a deep-toned brightness that accords most admirably with the figures; and the painter has ingeniously contrived to give a value to a common scene and very ordinary forms, that would hardly be found, by unlearned eyes, in the natural objects. He has expressed too, with great vivacity and truth, the freshness of morning, at that season when Nature herself is most fresh and blooming—the Spring; and it requires no great stretch of fancy to imagine we perceive the influence of it on the cheeks of the Fair Wife of Bath, and her rosy companions, the Monk and Friar.
'In respect of the execution of the various parts of this pleasing design, it is not too much praise to say, that it is wholly free from that vice which painters term manner; and it has this peculiarity beside^ which I do not remember to have seen in any picture, ancient or modern, namely, that it bears no mark of the period in which it was painted, but might very well pass for the work of some able artist of the time of Chaucer. This effect is not, I believe, the result of any association of ideas connected with the costume, but appears in primitive simplicity, and the total absence of all affectation, either of colour or pencilling.
'Having attempted to describe a few of the beauties of this captivating performance, it remains only for me to mention one great defect The picture is, notwithstanding appearances, a modern one. But if you can divest yourself of the general prejudice that exists against contemporary talents, you will see a work that would have done honour to any school, at any period.'
In 1810, Stothard, to his great surprise, found that Blake had engraved and published a plate of the same size, in some respects bearing a similarity to his own. Such are the outlines of this controversy.
Blake's ideas were often truly entertaining, and after he had conveyed them to paper, his whimsical and novel descriptions frequently surpassed his delineations; for instance, that of his picture of the Transformation of the Flea to the form of a Man, is extremely curious. This personification, which he denominated a Cupper, or Blood-sucker, is covered with coat of armour, similar to the case of the flea, and is represented slowly pacing in the night, with a thorn attached to his right hand, and a cup in the other, as if ready to puncture the first person whose blood he might fancy, like Satan prowling about to seek whom he could devour. Blake said of the flea, that were that lively little fellow the size of an elephant, he was quite sure, from the calculations he had made of his wonderful strength, that he could bound from Dover to Calais in one leap. Whatever may be the public opinion hereafter of Blake's talents, when his enemies are dead, I will not presume to predict; but this I am certain of, that on the score of industry at least, many artists must strike to him. Application was a faculty so gendered in him that he took little bodily exercise to keep up his health: he had few evening walks and little rest from labour, for his mind was ever fixed upon his art, nor did he at any time indulge in a game of chess, draughts, or backgammon; such amusements, considered as relaxations by artists in general, being to him distractions. His greatest pleasure was derived from the Bible,—a work ever at his hand, and which he often assiduously consulted in several languages. Had he fortunately lived till the next year's exhibition at Somerset-house, the public would then have been astonished at his exquisite finishing of a Fresco picture of the Last Judgment, containing upwards of one thousand figures, many of them wonderfully conceived and grandly drawn. The lights of this extraordinary performance have the appearance of silver and gold; but upon Mrs. Blake's assuring me that there was no silver used, I found, upon a closer examination, that a blue wash had been passed over those parts of the gilding which receded, and the lights of the forward objects, which were also of gold, were heightened with a warm colour, to give the appearance of the two metals.
It is most certain, that the uninitiated eye was incapable of selecting the beauties of Blake; his effusions were not generally felt; and in this opinion I am borne out in the frequent assertions of Fuseli and Flaxman. It would, therefore, be unreasonable to expect the book-sellers to embark in publications not likely to meet remuneration. Circumstanced, then, as Blake was, approaching to threescore years and ten, in what way was he to persevere in his labours? Alas, he knew not! until the liberality of Mr. Linnell, a brother-artist of eminence, whose discernment could well appreciate those parts of his designs which deserved perpetuity, enabled him to proceed and execute in comfort a series of twenty-one plates, illustrative of the Book of Job. This was the last work he completed, upon the merits of which he received the highest congratulations from the following Royal Academicians: Sir Thomas Lawrence, Mr. Baily, Mr. Philips, Mr. Chantrey, Mr. James Ward, Mr. Arnald, Mr. Collins, Mr. Westmacott, and many other artists of eminence.
As to Blake's system of colouring, which I have not hitherto noticed, it was in many instances most beautifully prismatic. In this branch of the art he often acknowledged Apelles to have been his tutor, who was, he said, so much pleased with his style, that once when he appeared before him, among many of his observations, he delivered the following:—"You certainly possess my system of colouring; and I now wish you to draw my person, which has hitherto been untruly delineated."
I must own that, until I was favoured by Mr. Upcott with a sight of some, of Blake's works, several of which I had never seen, I was not so fully aware of his great depth of knowledge in colouring. Of these most interesting specimens of his art, which are now extremely rare, and rendered invaluable by his death, as it is impossible for any one to colour them with his mind, should the plates remain, Mr. Richard Thomson, another truly kind friend, has favoured me with the following descriptive lists.
Songs of Experience. The author and printer, W. Blake. Small octavo; seventeen plates, including the title-page. Frontispiece, a winged infant mounted on the shoulders of a youth. On the title-page, two figures weeping over two crosses.
Introduction. Four Stanzas on a cloud, with a night-sky behind, and beneath, a figure of Earth stretched on a mantle.
Earth's Answer, Five Stanzas. A serpent on the ground beneath.
The Clod and the Pebble. Three Stanzas. Above, a head-piece of four sheep and two oxen; beneath, a duck and reptiles.
A Poison Tree. Four Stanzas. The tree stretcher up the right side of the page; and beneath, a dead body killed by its influence.
The Fly. Five Stanzas. Beneath, a female figure with two children.
Holy Thursday. Four Stanzas. Head-piece, a female figure discovering a dead child. On the right-hand margin a mother and two children lamenting the loss of an infant which lies beneath. Perhaps this is one of the most tasteful of the set. The Chimney-Sweeper. Three Stanzas. Beneath, a figure of one walking in snow towards an open door.
London. Four Stanzas. Above, a child leading an old man through the street; on the right-hand, a figure warming itself at a fire. If in any instance Mr. Blake has copied himself, it is in the figure of the old man upon this plate, whose position appears to have been a favourite one with him.
The Tiger. Six Stanzas. On the right-hand margin, the trunk of a tree; and beneath, a tiger walking.
A Little Boy Lost. Six Stanzas. Ivy-leaves on the right-hand, and beneath, weeping figures before a fire, in which the verses state that the child had been burned by a Saint.
The Human Abstract. Six Stanzas. The trunk of a tree on the right-hand margin, and beneath, an old man in white drawing a veil over his head.
The Angel. Four Stanzas. Head-piece, a female figure lying beneath a tree, and pushing from her a winged boy.
My Pretty Rose Tree. Two Stanzas: succeeded by a small vignette, of a figure weeping, and another lying reclined at the foot of a tree. Beneath, are two verses more, entitled. Ah! Sun Flower; and a single Stanza, headed The Lily.
Nurses Song. Two Stanzas. Beneath, a girl with a youth and a female child at a door surrounded by vine-leaves.
A Little Girl Lost. Seven Stanzas; interspersed with birds and leaves, the trunk of a tree on the right-hand margin.
The whole of these plates are coloured in imitation of fresco. The poetry of these songs is wild, irregular, and highly mystical, but of no great degree of elegance or excellence, and their prevailing feature is a tone of complaint of the misery of mankind.
America: a Prophecy. Lambeth; Printed by William Blake, in the year 1795; folio; eighteen plates or twenty pages, including the frontispiece and title-page. After a preludium of thirty-seven lines commences the Prophecy of 226, which are interspersed with numerous head-pieces, vignettes, and tail-pieces, usually stretching along the left-hand margin and enclosing the text; which sometimes appears written on a cloud, and at others environed by flames and water. Of the latter subject a very fine specimen is shown upon page 13, where the tail-piece represents the bottom of the sea, with various fishes coming together to prey upon a dead body. The head-piece is another dead body lying on the surface of the waters, with an eagle feeding upon it with outstretched wings. Another instance of Mr. Blake's favourite figure of the old man entering at Death's door, is contained on page 12 of this poem. The subject of the text is a conversation between the Angel of Albion, the Angels of the Thirteen States, Washington, and some others of the American Generals, and 'Red Orc,' the spirit of war and evil. The verses are without rhyme, and most resemble hexameters, though they are by no means exact; and the expressions are mystical in a very high degree.
Europe: a Prophecy. Lambeth; Printed by William Blake, 1794; folio; seventeen plates on the leaves, inclusive of the frontispiece and title-page. Coloured to imitate the ancient fresco-painting. The Preludium consists of thirty-three lines, in stanzas without rhyme, and the Prophecy of two hundred and eight; the decorations to which are larger than most of those in the former book, and approach nearest to the character of paintings, since, in several instances, they occupy the whole page. The frontispiece is an uncommonly fine specimen of art, and approaches almost to the sublimity of Raffaelle or Michel Angelo. It represents 'The Ancient of Days,' in an orb of light surrounded by dark clouds, as referred to in Proverbs viii. 27, stooping down with an enormous pair of compasses to describe the destined orb of the world, 'when he set a compass upon the face of the earth.'
'in His hand
He took the golden compasses, prepar'd
In God's eternal store, to circumscribe
This universe and all created things:
One foot he centred, and the other turn'd
Round through the vast profundity obscure;
And said, "Thus far extend, thus far thy bounds.
This be thy just circumference, O World!"'
Paradise Lost, book vii. line 236.
Another splendid composition in this work, are. the two angels pouring out the black-spotted plague upon England, on page 9; in which the fore-shortening of the legs, the grandeur of their positions, and the harmony with which they are adapted to each other and to their curved trumpets, are perfectly admirable. The subject-matter of the work is written in the same wild and singular measures as the preceding, and describes, in mystical language, the terrors of plague and anarchy which overspread England during the slumbers of Enitharmon for eighteen hundred years; upon whose awaking, the ferocious spirit Orc bursts into flames "in the vineyards of red France." At the end of this poem are seven separate engravings on folio pages, without letter-press, which are coloured like the former part of the work, with a degree of splendour and force, as almost to resemble sketches in oil-colours. The finest. of these are a figure of an angel standing in the sun, a group of three furies surrounded by clouds and fire, and a figure of a man sitting beneath a tree in the deepest dejection; all of which are peculiarly remarkable for their strength and splendour of colouring. Another publication by Mr. Blake, consisted only of a small quarto volume of twenty-three engravings of various shapes and sizes, coloured as before, some of which are of extraordinary effect and beauty. The best
plates in this series are,—the first of an aged man, with a white beard sweeping the ground, and writing in a book with each hand, naked; a human figure pressing out his brain through his ears; and the great sea-serpent; but perhaps the best is a figure sinking in a stormy sea at sun-set, the splendid light of which, and the foam upon the black waves, are almost magical effects of colouring. Beneath the first design is engraven 'Lambeth, printed by W, Blake, 1794.'
Blake's modes of preparing his ground, and laying them over his panels for painting, mixing his colours, and manner of working, were those which he considered to have been practised by the earliest fresco-painters, whose productions still remain, in numerous instances, vivid and permanently fresh. His ground was a mixture of whiting and carpenter's glue which he passed over several times in thin coatings: his colours he ground himself, and also united them with the same sort of glue, but in a much weaker state. He would, in the course of painting a picture, pass a very thin transparent wash of glue-water over the whole of the parts he had worked upon, and then proceed with his finishing.
This process I have tried, and find, by using my mixtures warm, that I can produce the same texture as possessed in Blake's pictures of the Last Judgment, and others of his productions, particularly in Varley's curious picture of the personified Flea. Blake preferred mixing his colours with carpenter's glue, to gum, on account of the latter cracking in the sun, and becoming humid in moist weather. The glue-mixture stands the sun, and change of atmosphere has no effect upon it. Every carpenter knows that if a broken piece of stick be joined with good glue, the stick will seldom break again in the glued parts.
That Blake had many secret modes of working, both as a colourist and an engraver, I have no doubt. His method of eating away the plain copper, and leaving his drawn lines of his subjects and his words as stereotype, is in my mind perfectly original. Mrs. Blake is in possession of the secret, and she ought to receive something considerable for its communication, as I am quite certain it may be used to the greatest advantage both to artists and literary characters in general.
That Blake's coloured plates have more effect
than others where gum has been used, is, in my opinion, the fact, and I shall rest my assertion upon those beautiful specimens in the possession of Mr. Upcott, coloured purposely for that gentleman's godfather, Ozias Humphrey, Esq. to whom Blake wrote the following interesting letter.
TO OZIAS HUMPHREY, Esq.
'The design of The Last Judgment, which I have completed by your recommendation for the Countess of Egremont, it is necessary to give some account of; and its various parts ought to be described, for the accommodation of those who give it the honour of their attention.
'Christ seated on the Throne of Judgment: the Heavens in clouds rolling before him and around him, like a scroll ready to be consumed in the fires of the Angels; who descend before his feet, with their four trumpets sounding to the four winds.
'Beneath, the Earth is convulsed with the labours of the Resurrection. In the caverns of the earth is the Dragon with seven heads and ten horns, chained by two Angels; and above his cavern, on the earth's surface, is the Harlot, also seized and bound by two Angels with chains, while her palaces are failing into ruins, and her counsellors and warriors are descending into the abyss, in wailing and despair.
'Hell opens beneath the harlot's seat on the left hand, into which the wicked are descending.
'The right hand of the design is appropriated to the Resurrection of the Just: the left hand of the design is appropriated to the Resurrection and Fall of the Wicked.
'Immediately before the Throne of Christ are Adam and Eve, kneeling in humiliation, as representatives of the whole human race; Abraham and Moses kneel on each side beneath them; from the cloud on which Eye kneels, and beneath Moses, and from the tables of stone which utter lightning, is seen Satan wound round by the Serpent, and falling head-long; the Pharisees appear on the left hand pleading their own righteousness before the Throne of Christ: The Book of Death is opened on clouds by two Angels; many groups of figures are falling from before the throne, and from the sea of fire, which flows before the steps of the throne; on which are seen the seven Lamps of the Almighty, burning before the throne. Many figures chained and bound together fall through the air, and some are scourged by Spirits with flames of fire into the abyss of Hell, which opens to receive them beneath, on the left hand of the harlot's seat; where others are howling and descending into the flames, and in the act of dragging each other into Hell, and of contending in fighting with each other on the brink of perdition.
'Before the Throne of Christ on the right hand, the Just, in humiliation and in exultation, rise through the air, with their Children and Families; some of whom are bowing before the Book of Life, which is opened by two Angels on clouds: many groups arise with exultation; among them is a figure crowned with stars, and the moon beneath her feet, with six infants around her, she represents the Christian Church. The green hills appear beneath; with the graves of the blessed, which are seen bursting with their births of immortality; parents and children embrace and arise together, and in exulting attitudes tell each others that the New Jerusalem is ready to descend upon earth; they arise upon the air rejoicing; others newly awaked from the grave, stand upon the earth embracing and shouting to the Lamb, who cometh in the clouds with power and great glory.
'The whole upper part of the design is a view of Heaven opened; around the Throne of Christ, four living creatures filled with eyes, attended by seven Angels with seven vials of the wrath of God, and above these seven Angels with the seven trumpets compose the cloud, which by its rolling away displays the opening seats of the Blessed, on the right and the left of which are seen the four-and-twenty Elders seated on thrones to judge the dead.
'Behind the seat and Throne of Christ appears the Tabernacle with its veil opened, the Candlestick on the right, the Table with Show-bread on the left, and in the midst, the Cross in place of the Ark, with the two Cherubim bowing over it.
'On the right-hand of the Throne of Christ is Baptism, on his left is the Lord's Supper—the two introducers into Eternal Life. Women with infants approach the figure of an aged Apostle, which represents Baptism; and on the left hand the Lord's Supper is administered by Angels, from the hands of another aged Apostle; these kneel on each side of the Throne, which is surrounded by a glory: in the glory many infants appear, representing Eternal Creation flowing from the Divine Humanity in Jesus; who opens the Scroll of Judgment upon his knees before the living and the dead.
'Such is the design which you, my dear Sir, have been the cause of my producing, and which, but for you, might have slept till the Last Judgment.
'January 18, 1808.'
Blake and his wife were known to have lived so happily together, that they might unquestionably have been registered at Dumnow. 'Their hopes and fears were to each other known,' and their days and nights were passed in each other's company, for he always painted, drew, engraved and studied, in the same room where they grilled, boiled, stewed, and slept; and so steadfastly attentive was he to his beloved tasks, that for the space of two years he had never once been out of his house ; and his application was often so incessant, that in the middle of the night, he would, after thinking deeply upon a particular subject, leap from his bed and write for two hours or more; and for many years, he made a constant practice of lighting the fire, and putting on the kettle for breakfast before his Kate awoke.
During his last illness, which was occasioned by the gall mixing with his blood, he was frequently bolstered-up in his bed to complete his drawings, for his intended illustration of Dante; an author so great a favourite with him, that though he agreed with Fuseli and Flaxman, in thinking Gary's translation superior to all others, yet, at the age of sixty-three years, he learned the Italian language purposely to enjoy Dante in the highest possible way. For this intended work, he produced seven engraved plates of an imperial quarto size, and nearly one hundred finished drawings of a size considerably larger; which will do equal justice to his wonderful mind, and the liberal heart of their possessor, who engaged him upon so delightful a task at a time when few persons would venture to give him employment, and whose kindness softened, for the remainder of his life, his lingering bodily sufferings, which he was seen to support with the most Christian fortitude.
On the day of his death, August 12th, 1897, he composed and uttered songs to his Maker so sweetly to the ear of his Catherine, that when she stood to hear him, he, looking upon her most affectionately, said, 'My beloved, they are not mine—no—they are not mine.' He expired at six in the evening, with the most cheerful serenity. Some short time before his death, Mrs. Blake asked him where he would like to be buried, and whether he would have the Dissenting Minister, or the Clergyman of the Church of England, to read the service: his answers were, that as far as his own feelings were concerned, they might bury him where she pleased, adding, that as his father, mother, aunt, and brother, were buried in Bunhill Row, perhaps it would be better to lie there, but as to service, he should wish for that of the Church of England.
His hearse was followed by two mourning-coaches, attended by private friends: Calvert, Richmond, Tatham, and his brother, promising young artists, to whom he had given instructions in the Arts, were of the number. Tatham, ill as he was, travelled ninety miles to attend the funeral of one for whom, next to his own family, he held the highest esteem. Blake died in his sixty-ninth year, in the back-room of the first-floor of No. 3 Fountain-court, Strand, and was buried in Bunhill Fields, on the 17th of August, at the distance of about twenty-five feet from the north wall, numbered eighty.
Limited as Blake was in his pecuniary circumstances, his beloved Kate survives him dear of even a sixpenny debt; and in the fullest belief that the remainder of her days will be rendered tolerable by the sale of the few copies of her husband's works, which she will dispose of at the original price of publication; in order to enable the collector to add to the weight of his book-shelves, without being solicited to purchase, out of compassion, those specimens of her husband's talents which they ought to possess.
Extract from 'A Book for a Rainy Day'
(VIII.) LIFE OF BLAKE
BY ALLAN CUNNINGHAM. 1830
- The whole copy of this little work, entitled 'Poetical Sketches, by W. B.,' containing seventy pages, octavo, bearing the date of 1783, was given to Blake to sell to friends, or publish, as he might think proper.
- A friend has favoured me with the following anecdotes, which he received from Blake, respecting his courtship. He states that 'Our Artist fell in love with a lively little girl, who allowed him to say everything that was loving, but would not listen to his overtures on the score of matrimony. He was lamenting this in the house of a friend, when a generous-hearted lass declared that she pitied him from her heart. "Do you pity me?" asked Blake. "Yes; I do, most sincerely."—"Then," said he, "I love you for that."—"Well," said the honest girl, "and I love you." The consequence was, they were married, and lived the happiest of lives."
- I copied the above from the book, now in the possession of Mrs. Blake.
- In 1809, Blake exhibited sixteen poetical and historical inventions, in his brother's first-floor in Broad-street; eleven pictures in fresco, professed to be painted according to the ancient method, and seven drawings, of which an explanatory catalogue was published, and is perhaps the most curious of its kind ever written. At page 7, the description of his fresco-painting of Geoffrey Chaucer's Pilgrimage commences. This picture, which is larger than the print, is now in the possession of Thomas Butts, Esq. a gentleman friendly to Blake, and who is in possession of a considerable number of his works.
- See the 'Artist,' by Prince Hoare, Esq. No. 13, vol. i. p. 13.
- I must do Mr. Stothard the justice to declare, that the very first time I saw him after he had read the announcement of Blake's death, he spoke in the handsomest terms of his talents, and informed me that Blake made a remarkably correct and fine drawing of the head of Queen Philippa, from her monumental effigy in Westminster Abbey, for Gough's Sepulchral Monuments, engraved by Basire. The collectors of Stothard's numerous and elegant designs, will recollect the name of Blake as the engraver of several plates in the Novelist's Magazine, the Poetical Magazine, and also others for a work entitled the Wit's Magazine, from drawings produced by the same artist. Trotter, the engraver, who received instructions from Blake, and who was a pattern-draughtsman to the calico-printers, introduced his friend Stothard to Blake, and their attachment for each other continued most cordially to exist in the opinion of the public, until they produced their rival pictures of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrimage.
- This interesting little picture is painted in fresco. It is now the property of John Varley, the artist, whose landscapes will ever be esteemed as some of the finest productions in Art, and who may fairly be considered as one of the founders of the Society of Artists in Water Colours; the annual exhibitions of which continue to surpass those of the preceding seasons.
- Blake's talent is not to be seen in his engravings from the designs of other artists, though he certainly honestly endeavoured to copy the beauties of Stothard, Flaxman, and those masters set before him by the few publishers who employed him; but his own engravings from his own mind are the productions which the man of true feeling must ever admire, and the predictions of Fuseli and Flaxman may hereafter be verified"—"That a time will come when Blake's finest works will be as much sought after and treasured up in the portfolios of men of mind, as those of Michel Angelo are at present."
- He was inspired with the splendid grandeur of this figure, by the vision which he declared hovered over his head at the top of his staircase; and he has been frequently heard to say, that it made a more powerful impression upon his mind than all he had ever been visited by. This subject was such a favourite with him, that he always bestowed more time and enjoyed greater pleasure when colouring the print, than any thing he ever produced.
Mr. F. Tatham employed him to tint an impression of it, for which I have heard he paid him the truly liberal sum of three guineas and a half. I say liberal, though the specimen is worth any price, because the sum was so considerably beyond what Blake generally had been accustomed to receive as a remuneration for his extraordinary talents. Upon this truly inestimable impression, which I have now before me, Blake worked when bolstered-up in his bed only a few days before he died; and my friend F. Tatham has just informed me, that after Blake had frequently touched upon it, and had as frequently held it at a distance, he threw it from him, and with an air of exulting triumph exclaimed, 'There, that will do! I cannot mend it.' However, this was not his last production; for immediately after he had made the above declaration to his beloved Kate, upon whom his eyes were steadfastly fixed, he vociferated, 'Stay! keep as you are! you have ever been an angel to me, I will draw you!' and he actually made a most spirited likeness of her, though within so short a period of his earthly termination.
- Loutherbourgh was also, in his way, very ingenious in his contrivances. To oblige his friend Garrick, he enriched a Drama, entitled 'The Christmas Tale,' with scenery painted by himself, and introduced such novelty and brilliancy of effect, as formed a new era in that species of art. This he accomplished by means of differently coloured silks placed before the lamps at the front of the stage, and by the lights behind the side scenes. The same effects were used for distance and atmosphere. As for instance, Harlequin in a fog, was produced by tiffany hung between the audience and himself. Mr. Seguire, the father of
- Not the 13th, as has been stated by several editors who have noticed his death.
- A time will come when the numerous, though now very rare works of Blake (in consequence of his taking very few impressions from the plates before they were rubbed out to enable him to use them for other subjects), will be sought after with the most intense avidity. He was considered by Stothard and Flaxman (and will be by those of congenial minds, if we can reasonably expect such again) with their highest admiration. These artists allowed him their utmost unqualified praise, and were ever anxious to recommend him and his productions to the patrons of the Arts; but, alas! they were not sufficiently appreciated as to enable Blake, as every one could wish, to provide an independence for his surviving partner, Kate, who adored his memory.