STRUGGLE AND SORROW. 1782—87. [ÆT. 25—30]
RETURNING to 1782-3, among the engravings executed by Blake in those years, I have noticed after Stothard, four illustrations—two vignettes and two oval plates—to Scott of Amwell’s Poems, published by Buckland (1782); two frontispieces to Dodsley’s Lady’s Pocket-Book—‘The morning amusements of H.R.H. the Princess Royal and her four sisters ‘ (1782), and ‘A Lady in full-dress’ with another ‘in the most fashionable undress now worn’ (1783);—and The Fall of Rosamond a circular plate in a book published by Macklin (1783). To the latter year also, the first after Blake’s marriage, belong about eight or nine of the vignettes, after the purest and most lovely of the early and best designs of the same artist—full of sweetness, refinement, and graceful fancy—which illustrate Ritson’s Collection of English Songs (3 vols. 8vo.); others being engraved by Grignon, Heath, &c. In the first volume occur the best designs, and—what is remarkable— designs very Blake-like in feeling and conception; having the air of graceful translation of his inventions. Most in this volume are engraved by Blake, and very finely, with delicacy, as well as force. I may instance in particular one at the head of the Love Songs, a Lady singing, Cupids fluttering before her, a
singularly refined composition; another, a vignette to Jemmy Damson, which is, in fact, Hero awaiting Leander; another to When Lovely Woman, a sitting figure of much dignity and beauty.
In after-years of estrangement from Stothard, Blake used to complain of this mechanical employment as engraver to a fellow-designer, who (he asserted) first borrowed from one that, in his servile capacity, had then to copy that comrade’s version of his own inventions—as to motive and composition his own, that is. The strict justice of this complaint I can hardly measure, because I know not how much of the Design he afterwards engraved was actually being produced at this period—doubtless much. We shall hereafter have to point out that a good deal in Flaxman and Stothard may be traced to Blake, is indeed only Blake in the Vernacular, classicized and (perhaps half-unconsciously) adapted. His own composi¬tions bear the authentic first-hand impress; those unmis¬takable traces, which no hand can feign, of genuineness, freshness, and spontaneity; the look as of coming straight from another world—that in which Blake’s spirit lived. He, in his cherished visionary faculty, his native power and life-long habit of vivid Invention, was placed above all need or inclination to borrow from others. If, as happens to all, there occur occasional passages of uncon¬scious reminiscence from the Old Masters, there is no cooking or disguise. His friend Fuseli, with characteristic candour, used to declare, ‘Blake is d——d good to steal from!’
Certainly, Stothard, though even he could by utmost diligence only earn a moderate income—for if in request with the publishers he was neglected by picture-buyers— was throughout life, compared with Blake, a prosperous, affluent man. He had throughout, the advantage of Blake with the public. Hence early, some feeling of soreness in his uncompliant companion’s bosom. Stothard had the advantage in the marketable quality of his genius, in his versatile talents, his superior technic attainments—or, rather, superior con-
sistency of attainment; above all, in his inborn grace and elegance. He could make the refined Domestic groups he so readily conceived, whether all his own or in part borrowed, far more palatable to the many, the cultivated many—cultivated Rogers, for example, his life-long patron—than Blake could ever make his Dantesque sublimity, wild Titanic play of fancy, and spiritually imaginative dreams. I think the latter, as we shall see when we come to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, was at this period of his life influenced to his advantage as a designer by contact with Stothard’s grace¬ful mind; but that any capability of grander qualities occasionally shown by Stothard was derived, and perhaps as unconsciously, from Blake. And Stothard’s earlier style is far purer and more ‘matterful,’ to use an expres¬sion of Charles Lamb’s, than the sugar-plum manner of his latter years. In Stothard as in Blake, however nominally various the subject, there is the tyrannous predominance of certain ruling ideas of the designer’s. Stothard’s tether was always shorter than Blake’s; but within the prescribed limits, his performance was the more (superficially) perfect, as well as soft, and rounded.
In 1784 I find Blake engraving after Stothard and others in the Wit’s Magazine. The Wit’s Magazine was a ‘Monthly Repository for the Parlour Window ‘—not designed (as the title in those free-speaking days might warrant a suspicion) to raise a blush on Lady’s cheek:—a miscellany of innocently entertaining rather than strictly witty gleanings, and original contributions mostly amateur. A periodical curious to look back upon in days of a weekly Punch! It would be difficult now to find a literary parallel to Mr. Harrison’s plan of ‘creating a spirit of emulation, and rewarding genius’: by awarding ‘ one silver medal’ per month to the ‘best witty tale, essay, or poem, another to ‘the best answer’ to the munificent proprietor’s ‘prize enigmas.’ A full list of the names and addresses of successful candidates for Fame is appended to each
of the two octavo volumes to which the Magazine ran. A graceful grotesque, the Temple of Mirth, of Stothard’s design, is the frontispiece to the first number: a folding sheet forcibly engraved by Blake in his characteristic manner of distributing strongly contrasted light and shade and tone. To it succeeded, month by month, four similar engravings by him after a noted caricaturist of the day, now forgotten, S. Collings: on broad-grin themes, such as The Tithe in Kind, or the Son’s Revenge, The Discomfited Duellists, The Blind Beggars Hats, and May Day in London. After which, an engraver of lower grade, one Smith, (quære, our friend Nollekens Smith?) executes the engravings; and after him a nameless one. The engraving caricatures, of the earth earthy, for this ‘Library of Momus’ was truly a singular task for a spiritual poet!
Some slight clue to the original Design of this period in a somewhat different key is given by the Exhibition Catalogues, which report Blake as making a second appear¬ance at the Academy in 1784. In that year,—the year of Reynolds’ Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, and Fortune-Teller,—hung in the ‘Drawing and Sculpture Room,’ two designs of Blake’s: one, War unchained by an Angel—Fire, Pestilence, and Famine following; the other, a Breach in a City— The Morning after a Battle. Companion-subjects, their tacit moral—the supreme despicableness of War— was one of which the artist, in all his tenets thorough-going, was a fervent propagandist in days when War was tyran-nously in the ascendant. This, by the way, was the year of Peace with the tardily recognised North American States, I have not seen those two drawings. The same theme gave birth about twenty years later to four very fine water¬colour drawings,—for Dantesque intensity, imaginative directness, and power of the terrible: illustrations of the doings of the Destroying Angels that War lets loose— Fire, Plague, Pestilence, and Famine. Of the second-
named we give here a reduced version. Another very grand and awe-inspiring illustration of still later date,
of the same suggestive theme, is Let loose the Dogs of War—a Demon cheering on blood-hounds who seize a man by the throat; of which Mr. Ruskin possesses the original pencil sketch.
During the summer of 1784, died Blake’s father, an honest shopkeeper of the old school, and a devout man— a dissenter. He was buried in Bunhill Fields, on the fourth of July (a Sunday) says the Register. The eldest son, James,—a year and half William’s senior, continued to live with the widow Catherine, and succeeded to the hosier’s business in Broad Street, still a highly respectable street, and a good one for trade, as it and the old neighbour¬hood continued until the era of Nash and the ‘first gentle¬man in Europe.’ Golden Square was still the ‘town residence’ of some half-dozen M.P.’s—for county or rotten borough; Poland Street and Great Marlborough Street of others. Between this brother and the artist no strong sympathy existed,’ little community of sentiment or common ground (mentally) of any kind; although indeed, James—for the most part an humble matter-of-fact man— had his spiritual and visionary side too; would at times talk Swedenborg, talk of seeing Abraham and Moses, and to outsiders seem like his gifted brother ‘a bit mad ‘—a mild madman instead of a wild and stormy.
On his father’s death, Blake, who found Design yield no income, Engraving but a scanty one, returned from Green Street, Leicester Fields, to familiar Broad Street. At No. 27, next door to his brother’s, he set up shop as printseller and engraver, in partnership with a former fellow-apprentice at Basire’s: James Parker, a man some six or seven years his senior. An engraving by Blake after Stothard, Zephyrus and Flora (a long oval), was published by the firm ‘Parker and Blake’ this same year (1784). Mrs. Mathew, still friendly and patronizing, though one day to be less eager for the poet’s services as Lion in Rathbone Place, countenanced, nay perhaps first set the scheme going—in an ill-advised philanthropic hour; favouring it,
if Smith’s hints may be trusted, with solid pecuniary help. It will prove an ill-starred speculation; Pegasus proverbially turning out an indifferent draught-horse. Mrs. Blake helped in the shop; the poet busied himself with his graver and pencil still. William Blake behind a counter would have been a curious sight to see! His younger and favourite brother, Robert, made one in the family; William taking him as a gratis pupil in engraving. It must have been a singularly conducted commercial enterprise. No. 27 bears at present small trace—with its two quiet parlour windows, apparently the same casements that have been there from the beginning—of having once been even temporarily a shop. The house is of the same character as No. 28: a good-sized three-storied one, with panelled rooms; its original aspect (like that of No. 28) wholly disguised, externally, by all-levelling stucco. It is still a private mansion; but let out (now) in floors and rooms to many families, instead of one.
From 27, Broad Street, Blake in 1785 sent four water¬colour drawings to the Academy Exhibition, one, by the way, at which our old friend Parson Gardnor is still exhibit¬ing—some seven Views of Lake Scenery. One of Blake’s drawings is from Gray, The Bard. The others are subjects from the Story of Joseph: Joseph’s Brethren bowing before him; Joseph making himself known to them; Joseph ordering Simeon to be bound. The latter series I have seen. The drawings are interesting for their imaginative merit, and as specimens, full of soft tranquil beauty, of Blake’s earlier style: a very different one from that of his later and better-known works. Conceived in a dramatic spirit, they are executed in a subdued key, of which extravagance is the last defect to suggest itself. The design is correct and blameless, not to say tame (for Blake), the colour full, harmonious, and sober. At the head of the Academy Catalogues of those days, stands the stereotype notification, ‘The Pictures &c. marked (*) are to be disposed of’. Blake’s are not so
marked: let us hope they were disposed of! The three Joseph drawings turned up within the last ten years in their original close rose-wood frames (a far from advantageous setting), at a broker’s in Wardour Street, who had purchased them at a furniture sale in the neighbour¬hood. Among Blake’s fellow-exhibitors, it is now curious to note the small galaxy of still remembered names— Reynolds, Nollekens, Morland, Cosway, Fuseli, Flaxman, Stothard (the last three yet juniors)—sprinkling the mob of forgotten ones: among which such as West, Hamilton, Rigaud, Loutherbourg, Copley, Serres, Mary Moser, Russell, Dance, Farington, Edwards, Garvey, Tomkins, are positive points of light. This year, by the way, Blake’s friend Trotter exhibits a Portrait of the late Dr. Johnson, ‘a drawing in chalk from the life, about eighteen months before his death,’ which should be worth something.
Blake’s brother Robert, his junior by nearly five years, had been a playfellow of Smith’s, whose father lived near (in Great Portland Street); and from him we hear that ‘Bob, as he was familiarly called,’ had ever been ‘much beloved by all his companions.’ By William he was in these years not only taught to draw and engrave, but encouraged to exert his imagination in original sketches. I have come across some of these tentative essays, carefully preserved by Blake during life, and afterwards form¬ing part of the large accumulation of artistic treasure remaining in his widow’s hands: the sole legacy, but not at all unproductive, he had to bequeath her. Some are in pencil, some in pen and ink outline thrown up by a uniform dark ground washed in with Indian ink. They unmistakably show the beginner—not to say the child— in art; are naïf and archaic-looking; rude, faltering, often puerile or absurd in drawing; but are characterized by Blake-like feeling and intention, having in short a strong family likeness to his brother’s work. The subjects are from Homer and the poets. Of one or two compositions there are successive and each time enlarged versions. True imaginative
animus is often made manifest by very imperfect means; in the composition of the groups, and the expressive disposition of the individual figure, or of an indi¬vidual limb: as, e.g. (in one drawing), that solitary upraised arm stretched heaven-ward from out the midst of the panic-struck crowd of figures, who, embracing, huddle together with bowed heads averted from a Divine Presence. In another, a group of ancient men stand silent on the verge of a sea-girt precipice, beyond which they gaze towards awe-inspiring shapes and sights unseen by us. This last motive seems to have pleased Blake himself. One of his earliest attempts, if not his very earliest, in that peculiar stereotype process he soon afterwards in¬vented, is a version of this very composition: marvellously improved in the treatment—in the disposition and con¬ception of the figures (at once fewer and better contrasted), as well, of course, as in drawing; which was what Blake’s drawing always was—whatever its wilful faults—not only full of grand effect, but firm and decisive, that of a Master.
With Blake and with his wife, at the print shop in Broad Street, Robert for two happy years and a half lived in seldom disturbed accord. Such domestications, however, always bring their own trials, their own demands for mutual self-sacrifice. Of which the following anecdote will supply a hint, as well as testify to much amiable magnanimity on the part of both the younger members of the household. One day, a dispute arose between Robert and Mrs. Blake. She, in the heat of discussion, used words to him, his brother (though a husband too) thought unwarrantable. A silent witness thus far, he could now bear it no longer, but with characteristic impetuosity— when stirred—rose and said to her: ‘Kneel down and beg Robert’s pardon directly, or you never see my face again!’ A heavy threat, uttered in tones which, from Blake, un¬mistakably showed it was meant. She, poor thing! ‘thought it very hard,’ as she would afterwards tell, to beg her brother-in-law’s pardon when she was not in fault! But being a duteous, devoted wife, though by nature nowise
tame or dull of spirit, she did kneel down and meekly murmur, ‘Robert, I beg your pardon, I am in the wrong.’ ‘Young woman, you lie!’ abruptly retorted he: ‘I am in the wrong!’
At the commencement of 1787, the artist’s peaceful happiness was gravely disturbed by the premature death, in his twenty-fifth year, of this beloved brother: buried in Bunhill Fields the 11th of February. Blake affection¬ately tended him in his illness, and during the last fort¬night of it watched continuously day and night by his bedside, without sleep. When all claim had ceased with that brother’s last breath, his own exhaustion showed itself in an unbroken sleep of three days’ and nights’ duration. The mean room of sickness had been to the spiritual man, as to him most scenes were, a place of vision and of revelation; for Heaven lay about him still, in manhood, as in Infancy it ‘lies about us’ all. At the last solemn moment, the visionary eyes beheld the released spirit ascend heavenward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, ‘clapping its hands for joy’—a truly Blake-like detail. No wonder he could paint such scenes! With him they were work’y-day experiences.
In the same year, disagreements with Parker put an end to the partnership and to print-selling. This Parker sub¬sequently engraved a good deal after Stothard, in a style which evinces a common Master with Blake as well as companionship with him: in particular, the very fine designs, among Stothard’s most masterly, to the Vicar of Wakefield (1792), which are very admirably engraved; also most of those of Falconer’s Shipwreck (1795). After Flaxman, he executed several of the plates to Homer’s Iliad; after Smirke, The Commemoration of 1797; after Northcote, The Revolution of 1688, and others; and for Boydell’s Shakspeare, eleven plates. He died ‘about 1805,’ according to the Dictionaries.
Blake quitted Broad Street for neighbouring Poland Street: the long street which connects Broad Street with Oxford Street, and
into which Great Marlborough Street runs at right angles. He lodged at No. 28, (now a cheese-monger’s shop, and boasting three brass bells), not many doors from Oxford Street on the right-hand side, going towards that thoroughfare; the houses at which end of the street are smaller and of later date than those between Great Marlborough and Broad Street. Henceforward Mrs. Blake, whom he carefully instructed, remained his sole pupil—sole assistant and companion too; for the gap left by his brother was never filled up by children. In the same year—that of Etty’s birth (March, 1787) amid the narrow streets of distant antique York—his friend Flax¬man exchanged Wardour Street for Rome, and a seven years’ sojourn in Italy. Already educating eye and mind in his own way, Turner, a boy of twelve, was hovering about Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, in which the barber’s son was born: some half mile—of (then) staid and busy streets—distant from Blake’s Broad Street; Long Acre in which Stothard first saw the light lying between the two.