STUDENT AND LOVER. 1778—82. [ÆT. 21—24]
APPRENTICESHIP to Basire having ended, Blake now (1778) twenty-one, studied for a while in the newly formed Royal Academy: just then in an uncomfortable chrysalis condi¬tion, having had to quit its cramped lodgings in Old Somerset Palace (pulled down in 1775); and awaiting completion of the new building in which more elbow-room was to be provided. He commenced his course of study at the Academy (in the Antique School) ‘ under the eye of Mr. Moser,’ its first Keeper, who had conducted the parent Schools in St. Martin’s Lane. Moser, like Kauffman and Fuseli, was Swiss by birth: a sixth of our leading artists were still foreigners; as lists of the Original Forty testify. By profession he was a chaser, unrivalled in his generation, medallist — he modelled and chased a great seal of England, afterwards stolen—and enamel-painter, in days when costly watch-cases continued to furnish ample em¬ployment for the enamel-painter. He was, in short, a skilled decorative artist during the closing years of Decora¬tive Art’s existence as a substantive fact in England, or Europe. The thing itself—the very notion that such art was wanted—was about to expire; and be succeeded, for a dreary generation or two, by a mere blank negation. Miss Moser, afterwards Mrs. Lloyd, ‘the celebrated flower painter,’ another of the original members of the Academy, was George Michael Moser’s daughter. Edwards, in his Anecdotes of Painters, obscurely declares of the
honest Switzer, that he was ‘well skilled in the construction of the human figure, and as an instructor in the Academy, his manners, as well as his abilities, rendered him a most respectable master to the students.’ A man of plausible address, as well as an ingenious, the quondam chaser and enameller was, evidently: a favourite with the President (Reynolds), a favourite with royalty. On the occasion of one royal visit to the Academy, after 1780 and its instal¬ment in adequate rooms in the recently completed portion of Chambers’ ‘Somerset Place,’ Queen Charlotte pene-trated to the old man’s apartment, and made him sit down and have an hour’s quiet chat in German with her. To express his exultation at such ‘amiable condescension,’ the proud Keeper could ever after hardly find broken English and abrupt gestures sufficiently startling and whimsical. He was a favourite, too, with the students; many of whom voluntarily testified their regard around his grave in the burial-ground of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, when the time came to be carried thither in January, 1783.
The specific value of the guidance to be had by an ingenuous art-student from the venerable Moser, now a man of seventy-three, is suggestively indicated by a reminis¬cence afterwards noted down in Blake’s MS. commentary on Reynolds’ Discourses. ‘I was once,’ he there relates, ‘looking over the prints from Raffaelle and Michael Angelo in the Library of the Royal Academy. Moser came to me, and said,— You should not study these old, hard, stiff and dry, unfinished works of art: stay a little and I will show you what you should study.’ He then went and took down Le Brun and Rubens’ Galleries. How did I secretly rage! I also spake my mind! I said to Moser, ‘These things that you call finished are not even begun: how then can they be finished?’ The man who does not know the beginning cannot know the end of art.’ Which observations ’tis to be feared Keeper Moser accounted hardly dutiful. For a well-conducted Student ought, in strict duty, to
spend (and in such a case lose) his evening in looking through what his teacher sets before him. It has happened to other Academy students under subsequent Keepers and Librarians, I am told, to find themselves in a similarly awkward dilemma to this of Blake’s.
With the Antique, Blake got on well enough, drawing with ‘great care all or certainly nearly all the noble antique figures in various views. From the living figure he also drew a good deal; but early conceived a distaste for the study as pursued in Academies of Art. Already ‘life,’ in so factitious, monotonous an aspect of it as that presented by a Model artificially posed to enact an artificial part—to maintain in painful rigidity some fleeting gesture of spontaneous Nature’s—became, as it continued, ‘hate¬ful,’ looking to him, laden with thick-coming fancies, ‘more like death’ than life; nay (singular to say) ‘smel¬ling of mortality ’—to an imaginative mind! ‘Practice and opportunity,’ he used afterwards to declare, ‘very soon teach the language of art’: as much, that is, as Blake ever acquired, not a despicable if imperfect quantum. ‘Its spirit and poetry, centred in the imagination alone, never can be taught; and these make the artist’: a truism, the fervid poet already began to hold too ex¬clusively in view. Even at their best—as the vision-seer and instinctive Platonist tells us in one of the very last years of his life (MS. notes to Wordsworth)—mere ‘Natural Objects always did and do weaken, deaden and obliterate imagination in me!’
The student still continued to throw off drawings and verses for his own delight; out of his numerous store of the former, engraving two designs from English history. One of these engravings, King Edward and Queen Eleanor, ‘published’ by him at a later date (from Lambeth), I have seen. It is a meritorious but heavy piece of business, in the old-fashioned plodding style of line-engraving, wherein the hand monotonously hatched line after line, now struck off by machine. The design itself and the other
water-¬colour drawings of this date, all on historical subjects, which now lie scattered among various hands, have little of the quality or of the mannerism we are accustomed to associate with Blake’s name. They remind one rather of Mortimer, the historical painter (now obsolete) of that era, who died, high in reputation with his contemporaries for fancy and correct drawing of the human figure, but neg¬lected by patrons, about this time, viz, in 1779, at the early age of forty. Of Mortimer, Blake always continued to entertain a very high estimate. The designs of this epoch in his life are correctly drawn, prettily composed, and carefully coloured, in a clear uniform style of equally distributed positive tints. But the costumes are vague and mythical, without being graceful and credible; what mannerism there is is a timid one, such as reappears in Hamilton always, in Stothard often; the general effect is heavy and uninteresting,—and the net result a yawn. One drawing dating from these years (1778-9), The Penance of Jane Shore in St. Paul’s Church, thirty years later was included in Blake’s Exhibition of his own Works (1809). In the Descriptive Catalogue he speaks of it with some complacency as ‘proving to the author, and he thinks to any discerning eye, that the productions of our youth and of our maturer age, are equal in all essential points.’ To me, on inspecting the same, it proves nothing of the kind; though it be a very exemplary performance in the manner just indicated. The central figure of Jane Shore has however much grace and sweetness; and the intention of the whole composition is clear and decisive. One extrinsic circumstance materially detracts from the appearance of this and other water-colour drawings from his hand of the period: viz, that, as a substitute for glass, they were all eventually, in prosecution of a hobby of Blake’s, varnished,—of which process, applied to a water-colour drawing, nothing can exceed the disenchanting, not to say destruc¬tive effect.
There is a scarce engraving inscribed ‘W. B. inv. 1780,’ which, within certain limitations, has much more of the peculiar Blake quality and intensity about it The subject is evidently a personification of Morning, or Glad Day: a nude male figure, with one foot on earth, just alighted from above; a flood of radiance still encircling his head; his arms outspread,—as exultingly bringing joy and solace to this lower world,—not with classic Apollo-like indiffer¬ence, but with the divine chastened fervour of an angelic minister. Below crawls a caterpillar, and a hybrid kind of night-moth takes wing.
Meanwhile, the Poet and Designer, living under his father the hosier’s roof, 28, Broad Street, had not only to educate himself in high art, but to earn his livelihood by humbler art—engraver’s journey-work. During the years 1779 to 1782 and onwards, one or two booksellers gave him employment in engraving from afterwards better known fellow-designers. Harrison of Paternoster Row employed him for his Novelists’ Magazine, or collection of approved novels; for his Ladies’ Magazine, and perhaps other serials; J. Johnson, a constant employer during a long series of years, for various books; and occasionally other booksellers,—Macklin, Buckland, and (later) Dodsley, Stockdale, the Cadells. Among the first in date of such prints, was a well-engraved frontispiece after Stothard, bold and telling in light and shade (‘ The Four Quarters of the Globe ‘), to a System of Geography (1779); and another after Stothard, (‘ Clarence’s Dream’), to Enfield’s Speaker, published by Johnson in 1780. Then came with sundry miscellaneous, eight plates after some of Stothard’s earliest and most beautiful designs, for the Novelists’ Magazine. The designs brought in young Stothard, hitherto an apprentice to a Pattern-draftsman in Spital¬fields, a guinea a-piece,—and established his reputation: their intrinsic grace, feeling, and freshness being (for one thing) advantageously set off by very excellent engraving, of an infinitely more robust
and honest kind than the smooth style of Heath and his School, which succeeded to it, and eventually brought about the ruin of line engraving for book illustrations. Of Blake’s eight engrav-ings, all thorough and sterling pieces of workmanship, two were illustrations of Don Quixote, one, of the Senti¬mental Journey (1782), one, of Miss Fielding’s David Simple, another, of Launcelot Greaves, three, of Grandison (1782-3).
One Trotter, a fellow-engraver who received instructions from Blake, who engraved a print or two after Stothard, and was also draftsman to the calico-printers, had intro¬duced Blake to Stothard, the former’s senior by nearly two years, and then lodging in company with Shelly, the miniature painter, in the Strand. Stothard introduced Blake to Flaxman, who after seeing some of the early graceful plates in the Novelists’ Magazine, had of his own accord made their designer’s acquaintance. Flaxman, of the same age and standing as Stothard, was as yet sub¬sisting by his designs for the first Wedgwood, and also living in the Strand, with his father; who there kept a well-known plaster-cast shop when plaster-cast shops were rare. A wistful remembrance of the superiority of ‘old Flaxman’s’ casts still survives among artists. In 1781 the sculptor married, taking house and studio of his own at 27, Wardour Street and becoming Blake’s near neigh¬bour. He proved—despite some passing clouds which for a time obscured their friendship at a later era—one of the best and firmest friends Blake ever had; as great artists often prove to one another in youth. The imagina¬tive man needed friends; for his gifts were not of the bread-winning sort. He was one of those whose genius is in a far higher ratio than their talents: and it is Talent which commands worldly success. Amidst the miscel¬laneous journey-work which about this period kept Blake’s graver going, if not his mind, may be mentioned the illustrations to a show-list of Wedgwood’s productions: specimens of his latest novelties in earthenware and porcelain—tea and dinner services,
&c. Seldom have such very humble essays in Decorative Art—good enough in form, but not otherwise remarkable—tasked the com¬bined energies of a Flaxman and a Blake! To the list of the engraver’s friends was afterwards added Fuseli, of maturer age and acquirements, man of letters as well as Art; a multifarious and learned author. From inter¬course with minds like these, much was learned by Blake, in his art and out of it. In 1780, Fuseli, then thirty-nine, just returned from eight years’ sojourn in Italy, became a neighbour, lodging in Broad Street, where he remained until 1782. In the latter year, his original and characteristic picture of The Nightmare made ‘ a sensation’ at the Exhibition: the first of his to do so. The subsequent en¬graving gave him a European reputation. Artists’ homes as well as studios abounded then in Broad Street and its neighbourhood. Bacon the sculptor lived in Wardour Street, Paul Sandby in Poland Street, the fair R.A., Angelica Kauffman, in Golden Square, Bartolozzi, with his apprentice Sherwin, in Broad Street itself, and at a later date John Varley, ‘father of modern Water Colours,’ in the same street (No.15 ). Literary celebrities were not wanting: in Wardour Street, Mrs. Chapone; in Poland Street, pushing, pompous Dr. Burney, of Musical History notoriety.
In the catalogue of the now fairly established Royal Academy’s Exhibition for 1780, its twelfth, and first at Somerset House—all previous had been held in its ‘Old Room’ (originally built for an auction room), on the south side of Pall Mall East—appears for the first time a work by ‘ W. Blake.’ It was an Exhibition of only 489 ‘articles,’ in all, waxwork and ‘designs for a fan’ inclusive; among its leading exhibitors, boasting Sir Joshua Reynolds and Mary Moser, R.A., Gainsborough and Angelica Kauffman, R.A., Cosway and Loutherbourg, Paul Sandby and Zoffany, Copley (Lyndhurst’s father), and Fuseli, not yet Associate. Blake’s contribution is the Death of Earl Goodwin, a drawing probably; being exhibited
in ‘The Ante-room,’ devoted to flower-pieces, crayons, miniatures, and water¬colour landscapes—some by Gainsborough. This first Exhibition in official quarters went off with much éclat, netting double the average amount realized by its prede¬cessors: viz, as much as 3,000l.
In the sultry, early days of June, 1780, the Lord George Gordon No-Popery Riots rolled through Town. Half London was sacked, and its citizens for six days laid under forced contributions by a mob some forty thousand strong, of boys, pickpockets, and ‘roughs.’ In this outburst of anarchy, Blake long remembered an involuntary participa¬tion of his own. On the third day, Tuesday, 6th of June, ‘the Mass-houses’ having already been demolished—one, in Blake’s near neighbourhood, Warwick Street, Golden Square—and various private houses also; the rioters, flushed with gin and victory, were turning their attention to grander schemes of devastation. That evening, the artist happened to be walking in a route chosen by one of the mobs at large, whose course lay from Justice Hyde’s house near Leicester Fields, for the destruction of which less than an hour had sufficed, through Long Acre, past the quiet house of Blake’s old Master, engraver Basire, in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and down Holborn, bound for Newgate. Suddenly, he en¬countered the advancing wave of triumphant Blackguard¬ism, and was forced (for from such a great surging mob there is no disentanglement) to go along in the very front rank, and witness the storm and burning of the fortress-like prison, and release of its three hundred inmates. This was a peculiar experience for a spiritual poet; not without peril, had a drunken soldier chanced to have identified him during the after weeks of indiscriminate vengeance: those black weeks when strings of boys under fourteen were hung up in a row to vindicate the offended majesty of the Law. ‘I never saw boys cry so!’ observed Selwyn, connoisseur in hanging, in his Diary.
It was the same Tuesday night, one may add, that among the obnoxious mansions of magistrate and judge gutted of furniture, and consigned to the flames, Lord Mansfield’s in Bloomsbury Square was numbered. That night, too—every householder having previously chalked the talisman, ‘No Popery,’ on his door, (the very Jews in¬scribing ‘This House True Protestant! ‘) every house showing a blue flag, every wayfarer having donned the blue cockade—that night the Londoners with equal unanimity illuminated their windows. Still wider stupor of fear followed next day: and to it, a still longer sleepless night of prison-burning, drunken infatuation, and onsets from the military, let slip at last from civil leash. Six-and-thirty fires are to be seen simultaneously blazing in one new neighbourhood (Bloomsbury), not far from Blake’s and still nearer to Basire’s; whence are heard the terrible shouts of excited crowds, mingling with the fiercer roar of the flames, and with the reports of scattered musket-shots at distant points from the soldiery. Some inhabitants catch up their household effects and aimlessly run up and down the streets with them; others cheerfully pay their guinea a mile for a vehicle to carry them beyond the tumult. These were not favourable days for designing, or even quiet engraving.
Since his twentieth year, Blake’s energies had been ‘wholly directed to the attainment of excellence in his profession’ as artist: too much so to admit of leisure or perhaps inclination for poetry. Engrossing enough was the indispensable effort to master the difficulties of Design, with pencil or in water colours. With the still tougher mechanical difficulties of oil-painting he never fairly grappled; but confined himself to water-colours and tempera (on canvas), with, in after years, a curious modifica¬tion of the latter—which he daringly christened ‘ fresco.’ Original invention now claimed more than all his leisure. His working-hours during the years 1780 to 1782 were occupied by various book-plates for the publications already named. These voluminous, well-illustrated serials are not
infrequently stumbled on by the Collector at the second¬hand book-sellers. Very few are to be found in our Museum Library, professedly miscellaneous as that collec¬tion is, In the Print Room exists a fine series of engrav¬ings after Stothard; which, however, being undated, affords little help to those wishing to learn something about the engravers of them.
These were days of Courtship, too. And the course of Blake’s love did not open smoothly. ‘ A lively little girl’ in his own, or perhaps a humbler station, the object of his first sighs readily allowed him, as girls in a humble class will, meaning neither marriage nor harm, to ‘ keep company’ with her; to pay his court, take mutual walks, and be as lovesick as he chose; but nowise encouraged the idea of a wedding. In addition to the pangs of fruitless love, attacks of jealousy had stoically to be borne. When he complained that the favour of her company in a stroll had been extended to another admirer, ‘Are you a fool ?‘ was the brusque reply—with a scornful glance. ‘That cured me of jealousy,’ Blake used naïvely to relate. One evening at a friend’s house he was bemoaning in a corner his love-crosses. His listener, a dark-eyed, generous-hearted girl, frankly declared ‘She pitied him from her heart.’ ‘Do you pity me?’ ‘ Yes! I do, most sincerely.’ ‘Then I love you for that!’ he replied, with enthusiasm:— such soothing pity is irresistible. And a second more prosperous courtship began. At this, or perhaps a later meeting, followed the confession, I dare say in lower tones, ‘ Well! and I love you! ‘—always, doubtless, a pretty one to hear.
The unsophisticated maiden was named Catherine Sophia Boucher—plebeian corruption, probably, of the grand his¬toric name, Bourchier;—daughter of William and Mary Boucher of Battersea. So at least the Register gives the name: where, within less than ten years, no fewer than seven births to the same parents, including two sets of twins in succession, immediately precede hers.
Her posi¬tion and connexions in life were humble, humbler than Blake’s own; her education—as to book-lore—neglected, not to say omitted. For even the (at first) paltry make¬shift of National Schools had not yet been invented; and Sunday Schools were first set going a little after this very time, namely, in 1784. When, by-and-by, Catherine’s turn came, as bride, to sign the Parish Register, she, as the same yet mutely testifies, could do no more than most young ladies of her class then, or than the Bourchiers, Stanleys, and magnates of the land four centuries before could do—viz, make a V as ‘her mark ‘: her surname on the same occasion being misspelt for her and vulgarized into Butcher, and her second baptismal name omitted. A bright-eyed, dark-haired brunette, with expressive features and a slim graceful form, can make a young artist and poet overlook such trifles as defective scholarship. Nor were a fair outside and a frank accessible heart deceptive lures in this instance. Catherine—Christian namesake, by the way, of Blake’s mother—was endowed with a loving loyal nature, an adaptive open mind, capable of profiting by good teaching, and of enabling her, under constant high influence, to become a meet companion to her imaginative husband in his solitary and wayward course. Uncom¬plainingly and helpfully, she shared the low and rugged fortunes which over-originality insured as his unvarying lot in life. She had mind and the ambition which follows. Not only did she prove a good housewife on straitened means, but in after-years, under his tuition and hourly companionship, she acquired, besides the useful arts of reading and writing, that which very few uneducated women with the honestest effort ever succeed in attaining: some footing of equality with her husband. She, in time, came to work off his engravings, as though she had been bred to the trade; nay, imbibed enough of his very spirit to reflect it in Design which might almost have been his own.
Allan Cunningham says she was a neighbour. But the marriage
took place at Battersea, where I trace relatives of Blake’s father to have been then living. During the course of the courtship many a happy Surrey ramble must have been taken towards and around the pleasant village of the St. Johns. The old family-seat, spacious and vener¬able, still stood, in which Lord Bolingbroke had been born and died, which Pope had often visited. The village was ‘four miles from London’ then, and had just begun to shake hands with Chelsea, by a timber bridge over the Thames; the river bright and clear there at low tide as at Richmond now, with many a placid angler dotting its new bridge. Green meadow and bright cornfield lay between the old-fashioned winding High Street and the purple heights of Wimbledon and Richmond. In the volume of 1783, among the poems which have least freshness of feel¬ing, being a little alloyed by false notes as of the poetic Mocking Bird, are one or two love-poems anticipating emotions as yet unfelt. And Love, it is said, must be felt ere it can be persuasively sung. One or two stanzas, if we did not know they had been written long before, might well have been allusive to the ‘black-eyed maid’ of pre¬sent choice, and the ‘sweet village’ where he wooed her.
When early morn walks forth in sober grey,
Ten to my black-ey’d maid I haste away;
When evening sits beneath her dusky bow’r
And gently sighs away the silent hour,
The village-bell alarms, away I go,
And the vale darkens at my pensive woe.
To that sweet village, where my black-ey’d maid
Doth drop a tear beneath the silent shade,
I turn my eyes; and pensive as I go,
Curse my black stars, and bless my pleasing woe.
Oft when the summer sleeps among the trees,
Whisp’ring faint murmurs to the scanty breeze,
I walk the village round; if at her side
A youth doth walk in stolen joy and pride,
I curse my stars in bitter grief and woe,
That made my love so high and me so low.
* * * * *
The last is an inapplicable line to the present case,—decidedly unprophetic. In a better, more Blake-like manner is the other poem, apposite to how many thousand lovers, in how many climes, since man first came into the planet.
* * * * *
My feet are wing’d while o’er the dewy lawn
I meet my maiden risen with the morn:
Oh, bless those holy feet, like angel’s feet!
Oh, bless those limbs beaming with heavenly light!
As when an angel glitt’ring in the sky
In times of innocence and holy joy,
The joyful shepherd stops his grateful song
To hear the music of that angel’s tongue:
So when she speaks, the voice of Heav’n I hear;
So when we walk, nothing impure comes near;
Each field seems Eden and each calm retreat;
Each village seems the haunt of holy feet.
But that sweet village where my black-ey’d maid
Closes her eyes in sleep beneath Night’s shade,
Whene’er I enter, more than mortal fire
Burns in my soul, and does my song inspire.
The occasional hackneyed rhyme, awkward construction, and verbal repetition, entailed by the requirements of very inartificial verse, are technical blemishes any poetical reader may by ten
minutes’ manipulation mend, but such as clung to Blake’s verse in later and maturer years.
The lovers were married, Blake being in his twenty-fifth year, his bride in her twenty-first, on a Sunday in August (the 18th), 1782, in the then newly rebuilt church of Battersea: a ‘handsome edifice,’ say contemporary topographers. Which, in the present case, means a whitey-brown brick building in the church-warden style, relying for architectural effect, externally, on a nondescript steeple, a low slate roof, double rows of circular-headed windows, and an elevated western portico in a strikingly picturesque and unique position: almost upon the river as it were, which here takes a sudden bend to the south-west, the body of the church stretching alongside it. The interior, with its galleries (in which are interesting seventeenth and eighteenth century mural tablets from the old church, one by Roubiliac), and elaborately decorated apsidal dwarf-chancel, has an imposing effect and a strongly marked characteristic accent (of its Day), already historical and interesting. There, standing above the vault wherein lies the coronetted coffin of Pope’s Bolingbroke, the two plighted troth. The vicar who joined their hands, Joseph Gardnor, was himself an amateur artist of note in his day, copious ‘honorary contributor’ (not above customers) to the Exhibitions; sending ‘Views from the Lakes,’ from Wales, and other much-libelled Home Beauties, and even Landscape Compositions ‘in the style of the Lakes,’ whatever that may mean. Specimens of this master—pasteboard-like model of misty mountain, old manorial houses as of cards, perspectiveless diagram of lovely vale—may be inspected in Williams’ plodding History of Monmouthshire, and in other books of topography. Engravers had actually to copy and laboriously bite in these young-lady-like Indian ink drawings. Conspicuous mementoes of the vicar’s Taste and munificence still survive, parochially, in the ‘handsome crimson curtains’ trimmed with amber, and held up by gold cord with heavy
gold tassels, festooned about the painted eastern window of the church: or rather in deceptively perfect imitations of such upholstery, painted (’tis said) by the clergyman’s own skilled hand on the light-grained wall of the circular chancel. The window is an eighteenth century remnant piously preserved from the old church: a window literally painted not stained—the colours not burnt in, that is; so a deluded cleaner on one occasion rubbed out a portion. The subjects are armorial bearings of the St. Johns, and (at bottom) portraits of the three August collateral connexions of the Family: Margaret Beauchamp, Henry VII. and Queen Elizabeth. The general effect is good in colour, not without a tinge of ancient harmony, yellow being the predominating hue. From the vicar’s hand, again, are the two small ‘paintings on glass,’—The Lamb bearing the sacred monogram, and The Dove (descending),—which fill the two circular side-windows, of an eminently domestic type, in the curvilinear chancel-wall: paintings so ‘natural’ and familiarly ‘like,’ an innocent spectator forgets perhaps their sacred symbolism—as possibly did the artist too! Did the future designer of The Gates of Paradise, the Jerusalem, and the Job, kneel beneath these trophies of religious art?