GLEAMS OF PATRONAGE. 1806—8. [ÆT. 49—51]
ANOTHER ‘discoverer’ of Blake’s singular and ignored genius was Dr. Malkin, Headmaster of Bury Grammar School, to whose account of the artist’s early years we were indebted at the outset It was, probably, after the return from Felpham, and through Cromek, they were made known to one another. Dr. Malkin was the author of various now all but forgotten works,—Essays on Subjects con-nected with Civilization, 1795: Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography of South Wales, 1804, which was his most popular effort, reaching, in 1807, to a second edition: also, Almahide and Hamet, a Tragedy, 1804. His name may likewise be found to a current revision of Smollett’s Translation of Gil Blas, the earlier editions of which contain illustrations by Smirke.
Blake designed, and originally engraved, the ‘orna¬mental device’ to the frontispiece for Malkin’s Father’s Memoirs of his Child, but it was erased before the appear¬ance of the work, and the same design re-engraved by Cromek. The book was published February, 1806; in which month, by the way, died Barry, whom Blake knew and admired. The frontispiece consists of a portrait of the precocious infant, when two years old, from a miniature by Page, surrounded by an emblematic design of great beauty. An Angel is conducting the child heavenward; he takes leave, with consoling gesture, of his kneeling mother, who, in a half-resigned, half-deprecating attitude, stretches towards him her wistful, unavailing arms, from the edge of a cliff—typifying Earth’s verge. It is in a rambling introductory Letter to Johnes of Hafod, trans¬lator of Froissart, the account in question of the
designer of the frontispiece is given, with extracts from his Poems: a well-meant, if not very successful, attempt of the kindly pedagogue to serve the ‘untutored proficient,’ as he terms Blake. The poor little defunct prodigy who is the subject of the Memoir, and who died in 1802, after little more than a six years’ lease of life, was not only an expert linguist, a general reader, something of a poet, the historian and topographer of an imaginary kingdom, of which he drew an ‘accurate map’; but was also a designer, pro¬ducing ‘copies from some of Raphael’s heads so much in unison with the style and sentiment of the originals, as induced our late excellent and ingenious friend, Mr. Banks, the sculptor, to predict, “that if he were to pursue the arts as a profession, he would one day rank among the more distinguished of their votaries.”’
He was also an original inventor of ‘little landscapes; accustomed to cut every piece of waste paper within his reach into squares’ an inch or two in size, and to fill them with ‘temples, bridges, trees, broken ground, or any other fanciful and picturesque materials which ‘suggested them¬selves to his imagination.’ The father gives tracings from six of these as ‘specimens of his talent in composition’; himself descrying a ‘decisive idea attached to each,’ and that ‘the buildings are placed firm on the ground’; not to mention a taste and variety, the ‘result of a mind gifted with just feeling and fertile resources.’
The ‘testimony of Mr. Blake’ is added, who, being a man of imagination, can decipher more in these pre-¬Claudite jottings of pillar and post, arch and scrub, than his humble biographer can. What he says is, in its general tenor, interesting and true enough. But surely Mr. Blake saw double on the occasion,—for his sincerity never admits of doubt.
‘They are all,’ writes he, ‘firm determinate outline, or identical form. Had the hand which executed these little ideas been that of a plagiary, who works only from the memory, we should have seen blots, called masses’ (Blake is girding at his own opposites in Art),
‘blots without form, and therefore without meaning. These blots of light and dark, as being the result of labour, are always clumsy and indefinite; the effect of rubbing out and putting in; like the progress of a blind man, or one in the dark, who feels his way but does not see it. These are not so. Even the copy from Raphael’s cartoon of St. Paul preaching’ (from Dorigny’s plate of the same) ‘is a firm determinate outline, struck at once, as Protogenes struck his line, when he meant to make himself known to Apelles. The map of Allestone has the same character of the firm and deter-minate. All his efforts prove this little boy to have had that greatest of blessings, a strong imagination, a clear idea, and a determinate vision of things in his own mind.’
Cromek, in the letter of May, 1807, quoted in the previous chapter, tells Blake incidentally, ‘The specimens’ (in proof) ‘of Schiavonetti’s etchings have already pro¬duced you orders that, I verily believe, you would not otherwise have received.’ One commission, the credit whereof Cromek may here be assuming to himself was that which occupied Blake during 1807, for the Countess of Egremont, to whom he had already been made known by Hayley. It was for a repetition, or enlargement rather, of the most elaborate of the Blair drawings—The Last Judgment. In reality, however, the commission was obtained through his staunch friend Ozias Humphrey, the miniature painter. A letter to him from Blake (18th February, 1808), descriptive of this composition, is, in its commencement, applicable to that in the Blair, but shows the new picture to have contained many more figures and considerable variations from the previous treatment. Smith got hold of this letter from Upcott, Humphrey’s godson, or, as some say, son in a less spiritual sense. The original is now in the possession of Mr. Anderdon, and, thanks to his courtesy, has been here followed; Smith’s version being a slightly inaccurate one. To those familiar with Blake’s works, a very extraordinary and imaginative composition is indicated.
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: before His feet and around Him the Heavens in clouds are rolling like a scroll, ready to be consumed in the fires of Angels who descend with the 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, seized and bound by two Angels with chains, while her palaces are falling 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 Resurrec¬tion 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 Eve kneels, is seen Satan wound round by the Serpent, and falling headlong; the Pharisees appear on the left hand pleading their own Righteousness before the Throne of Christ and before the Book of Death, which 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, and in various attitudes of despair and horror, fall through the air, and some are scourged by Spirits with flames of fire into the abyss of Hell, which opens 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 and 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 on clouds by two Angels: many groups arise in 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. Green hills appear beneath with the graves of the blessed, which are seen bursting with their births of immortality; parents and children, wives and husbands, embrace and arise together, and, in exulting attitudes, tell each other 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, In the clouds which roll away are the 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; these 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 Taber¬nacle with its veil opened, the Candlestick on the right, the Table with Shew-bread on the left, and, in the midst, the Cross in place of the Ark, the 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 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, repre¬senting 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.
February 18, 1808.
The Last Judgment was, in the final years of Blake’s life, once more repeated as a ‘fresco,’ into which he intro¬duced some thousand figures, bestowing much finish and splendour of tint on it.
The reader will find in the Second Part of the present work a very curious paper by Blake, concerning the Last Judgment, appearing to be partly descriptive of his picture, partly, as usual with him, running off into vision, and speculation about vision, and explanations of what a last judgment is and is not. This paper is a piecing together of many scattered paragraphs or pages in the MS. Book by Blake, belonging to Mr. Rossetti, elsewhere already referred to; most of the fragments certainly, and all of them very likely, forming a continuous whole. The de¬scriptive portion of the paper is valuable in proportion to the interest appertaining to the fresco, one of the most im¬portant of the culminating productions of Blake’s life. One would give a good deal to have a similar sort of explanation by Orcagna, Michael Angelo, or Rubens, of the Last Judgment, as conceived and painted by those painters respectively; and none of them certainly was more capable of conceiving the subject than Blake, what¬ever may be the connoisseur’s verdict as to the relative powers for executing it. How close, in many respects, the affinity of treatment, of framework and detail of inci¬dent, in all these paintings: yet how immense the diver¬gence of the feeling, of the minds embodied in the works, of the aspects under which the subject, the Dies illa presented itself within the inner precincts of the painters’ intellects! As regards the visionary or speculative portion of the paper referred to, a remarkable resemblance to Swedenborg may be observed in it here and there, as in the ‘Doctrine of Concordances’ which it implies—the principle that spiritual conditions are represented by material objects, properties, and events.
Ozias Humphrey, a miniature painter of rare excellence, whose works have a peculiar sweetness of painting and refined simplicity in a now old-fashioned style, was himself a patron as well as friend, for whom Blake had expressly coloured many of his illustrated books. Humphrey had passed three years of his life, 1785-88, in India, and
had reaped a golden harvest in Oude by painting miniatures of the native princes. What has become of these, I wonder? 1858 may have brought some of them across seas as the work of native artists! His sketches and note-books during that period are in the British Museum. When, in 1790, his sight first became imperfect, he took to crayons and oils with ill success. His eyes failed him altogether in 1799, after which he lived at Knights¬bridge.
At the Academy’s Exhibition in Somerset House for 1808, Blake, after nine years’ intermission, exhibited two works, hung, as usual, in the Drawing and Miniature room. Both were subjects eminently suited to show, in his enemies’ despite, what he could do: Christ in the Sepulchre guarded by Angels, and Jacob’s Dream. Jacob’s Dream, a tempera, now in the possession of Mr. Monckton Milnes, is a poetic and beautiful composition, of far deeper imaginative feeling than the much-praised landscape effect of Allston, the American, or the gracefully designed scene of Stothard, whose forte, by the way, did not lie in bringing angels from the skies, though he did much to raise mortals thither. In Blake’s picture angelic figures, some winged, others wingless, but all truly angelic in suggestion, make radiant the mysterious spiral stairs heavenward; and some among them lead children— a very Blake-like touch.
This was the last time Blake exhibited at the Royal Academy: he had done so but five times in all. No wonder that his name was little known to an exhibition-going public. And in truth, dreams so devout as his, and brought from very different worlds, were ill suited to jostle in the miscellaneous crowd. Solitude and silence are needed to enter into their sequestered spirit.