APPEAL TO THE PUBLIC. 1808—10. [ÆT. 51—53]
SCHIAVONETTI was, by 1808, engaged on the plate from Stothard’s Canterbury Pilgrimage. At the end of the Blair, published, as we saw, in the autumn of 1808, appeared, to indig¬nant Blake’s unspeakable disgust doubtless, a flowery Prospectus of Cromek’s, for publishing by subscription and ‘under the immediate patronage of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, a line engraving after’ the now ‘well-known Cabinet Picture’; which, in fact Cromek had exhibited throughout the three kingdoms, at a shilling a head.
It was now Blake finished his ‘fresco’ of the Canterbury Pilgrimage, with the view of ‘appealing to the public,’— the wrong kind of tribunal for him. To this end, also, he painted or finished some other ‘frescos’ and drawings. The completion of the Pilgrimage was attended by adverse influ¬ences of the supernatural kind—as Blake construed them. He had hung his original design over a door in his sitting-room, where for a year perhaps it remained. When, on the appearance of Stothard’s picture, he went to take down his drawing, he found it nearly effaced: the result of some malignant spell of Stothard’s, he would, in telling the story, assure his friends. But as one of them (Flaxman) mildly expostulated, ‘Why! my dear sir! as if, after having left a pencil drawing so long exposed to air and dust, you could have expected otherwise!’ The fresco was ultimately bought by a customer who seldom failed—Mr. Butts; and is now in the possession of Mr. Stirling, of Kier.
Thinking to take a leaf out of Cromek’s book, Blake determined to show his work, and ‘shame the fools’ who preferred Stothard; to show it under more advantageous conditions than were to be had in the Academy Ex¬hibitions. In May, 1809,—the year in which our old friend Hayley brought out his Life of Romney, and made a second marriage even more ill-advised than the first;— in May, Blake opened an Exhibition of his own, on the first floor of his brother the hosier’s house, at the corner of Broad Street The plan had the merit of cheapness, at any rate, involving little outlay or risk; the artist, in fact, not having money to venture. The Exhibition comprised sixteen ‘Poetical and Historical Inventions,’ as he desig¬nated them,—eleven ‘frescos,’ seven drawings: a collection singularly remote from ordinary sympathies, or even ordinary apprehension. Bent on a violent effort towards justifying his ways to men and critics, he drew up and had printed a Descriptive Catalogue of these works, in which he interprets them, and expounds at large his own canons of art. Of which more anon. The price of this Cata¬logue, which included admission to the Exhibition, was half a crown.
A singular enterprise, for unpractised Blake, was this of vying with adroit, experienced Cromek! As if a simple¬minded visionary could advertise) puff, and round the due preparatory paragraphs for newspaper and magazine, of ‘latest fine arts intelligence.’ An exhibition set going under such auspices was likely to remain a profound secret to the world at large. A few, however, among the initiated were attracted by curiosity to see a picture which was the subject of a notorious quarrel between two friendly artists, and which had been painted in rivalry of Stothard’s already famous work. A gentleman still among us, of singularly wide intercourse with the distinguished men of two generations, a friend of Wordsworth and of Lamb, Mr. Henry Crabb Robinson,—has related to me the visit some such motives as these induced him to pay. On entering the room, he found himself alone. With a wise prescience of the
inevitable future scarcity of that remark¬able brochure, the Descriptive Catalogue, he purchased four copies for himself and friends—Charles Lamb among them. When, after that wholesale purchase, he inquired of James Blake, the custodian of the unique gallery, whether he could not come again free ?—‘ Oh! yes; free as long as you live!’ was the reply of the humble hosier, overjoyed at having so munificent a visitor, or a visitor at all.
This James Blake is characterised, by those who re¬member him, as an honest, unpretending shopkeeper in an old-world style, ill calculated for great prosperity in the hosiery, or any other line. In his dress he is described to me as adhering to knee-breeches, worsted stockings, and buckles. As primitive as his brother he was, though very unlike: his head not in the clouds amid radiant visions, but bent downwards, and studying the pence of this world—how to get them, which he found no easy task, and how to keep. He looked upon his erratic brother with pity and blame, as a wilful, misguided man, wholly in a wrong track; while the latter despised him for his grovelling, worldly mind,—as he reckoned it. Time widened the breach. In after years, when James had retired on a scanty independence and lived in Cirencester Street, becoming a near neighbour of Mr. Linnell, at whose house Blake was then a frequent visitor, they did not even speak. At James’s shop, ladies yet living, friends of Blake’s, remember to have made their little purchases of gloves and haber-dashery.
Lamb preferred Blake’s Canterbury Pilgrimage to Stothard’s. ‘A work of wonderful power and spirit hard and dry, yet with grace,’ he says of it, on one occa¬sion. That rare critic was delighted also with the Descriptive Catalogue. The analysis of the characters in the Prologue—the Knight, the Prioress, the Friar, &c.— he pronounced the finest criticism of Chaucer’s poem he had ever read.
In Southey’s Doctor, special allusion is made to one of the pictures in this exhibition. ‘That painter of great but insane genius,
William Blake, of whom Allan Cunningham has written so interesting a memoir, took this Triad’ (the story of the three who escaped from the battle of Camlan, where Arthur fell—‘the strongest man, the beautifullest man, and the ugliest man’)—‘for the subject of a picture, which he called the Ancient Britons. It was one of his worst pictures, which is saying much; and he has illustrated it with one of the most curious commentaries in his very curious and very rare Descriptive Catalogue of his own pictures.’
The Catalogue is excessively rare. I have seen but three copies; heard of, perhaps, three more. Here is the title: ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures; Poetical and Historical Inventions; Painted by William Blake in Water¬colours, being the ancient method of Fresco Painting re¬sumed: and Drawings, for Public Inspection and for Sale by Private Contract. London: printed by D. N. Shury, 7, Berwick Street, Soho, for J. Blake, 28, Broad Street, Golden Square. 1809.’ It is reprinted entire in Part II.
In treacherous Cromek’s despite, Blake had resolved to engrave, as well as exhibit the Pilgrimage. On opening his exhibition, he issued a printed prospectus of his intended engraving, almost as curious as the Catalogue. It is a literary composition which halts between the mono¬logue of a self-taught enthusiast and the circular of a competing tradesman. Observe how he girds, paren¬thetically, at Cromek and Schiavonetti. Date, May 15th, 1809.
THE CANTERBURY PILGRIMS.
THE FRESCO PICTURE,
Representing CHAUCER’S Characters, painted by
As it is now submitted to the Public.
‘The Designer proposes to engrave [it] in a correct and finished line manner of engraving, similar to those original copper-plates of Albert Dürer, Lucas von Leyden, Aldegrave, and the old original engravers, who were great masters in painting and designing; whose method, alone, can delineate Character as it is in this Picture, where all the lineaments are distinct.
‘It is hoped that the Painter will be allowed by the public (notwithstanding artfully disseminated insinuations to the contrary) to be better able than any other to keep his own characters and expressions; having had sufficient evidence in the works of our own Hogarth, that no other artist can reach the original spirit so well as the Painter himself, especially as Mr. B. is an old well-known and acknowledged engraver.
‘The size of the engraving will be three feet one inch long, by one foot high. The artist engages to deliver it, finished, in one year from September next. No work of art can take longer than a year; it may be worked back¬wards and forwards without end, and last a man’s whole life; but he will, at length, only be forced to bring it back to what it was, and it will be worse than it was at the end of the first twelve months. The value of this [the?] artist’s year is the criterion of Society; and as it is valued, so does Society flourish or decay.
‘The price to Subscribers, FOUR GUINEAS; two to be paid at the time of subscribing, the other two, on delivery of the print.
‘Subscriptions received at No. 28, corner of BROAD STREET, GOLDEN SQUARE, where the Picture is now exhibiting, among other works, by the same artist.
‘The price will be considerably raised to non-sub¬scribers.’
Singularly artful announcement—surely a suggestion of brother James’s! The swan walks very ungracefully. Cromek had little cause for alarm at such naïve self-assertion; so innocent an attempt to divide the public favour. In reading this, and similar effusions of
Blake’s, allowances must be made for a want of early familiarity with the conventions of printed speech, parallel to his want of dexterity with those of the painter’s language; which explains a good deal of the crudeness and eccentricity.
It was a favourite dogma of Blake’s not, certainly, learned of the political economists, that the true power of Society depends on its recognition of the arts. Which is his meaning when, pardonably regarding himself as a representative of high art, he mysteriously announces, ‘The value of this artist’s year is the criterion of Society, and as it is valued, so does society flourish or decay.’ Society had little to congratulate itself upon in its recognition of ‘this artist’s year.’ Miserably did she undervalue it, to her discredit and our loss. This artist’s fresh and daring conceptions it would have been well to have embodied in happier, maturer, more lucid shape, than ‘society’ ever vouchsafed him the slenderest help towards realizing. As it is, one of his archaic-looking drawings is often more matterful and suggestive, imprisons more thought and imagination, than are commonly beaten out thin over the walls of an entire exhibition.
In September or October, 1809, the engraving of his Canterbury Pilgrim age was commenced. And, fulfilling the voluntary engagement recorded in the prospectus, the print,—somewhat smaller in size than the picture,—was issued on the 8th of the following October; a year or two before the plate after Stothard’s picture emerged from the difficulties which befell it. Blake thus forestalled his forestaller, to the indignation of Stothard in his turn; the print being of the same size as Cromek’s intended one, and having inevitable resemblances to it in general composition.
It was launched without the slightest help from the elaborate machinery usually put in motion to secure a welcome for an important engraving, and, by energetic Cromek, worked on so unprecedented a scale. As may readily be believed, the subscribers might
almost have been counted on the hand. Blake’s work, indeed, lacks all the alluring grace of Stothard’s felicitous composition, in which a wide range of previous art is indirectly laid under contribution, or, to speak plainly, cribbed from, after the fashion of most well-educated historical painters; whereas Blake boldly and obstinately draws on his own resources. Bare where Stothard’s composition is opulent, yet challeng¬ing comparison as to the very qualities in which Blake was most deficient, his design creates an unfavourable impression before the superficial spectator has time to recognise its essential merits. ‘Hard and dry,’ as Lamb observes, it is,—uncouth compared with Stothard’s; but, tested by the poetry and spirit of Chaucer, it is in all points of character and arrangement, undoubtedly superior. There is, too, a mediæval look about Blake’s which does not distinguish Stothard’s version.
I have heard that Blake retouched the plate of the Canterbury Pilgrimage, and did not improve it. There are impressions, rather black and heavy in effect, which would seem to confirm this rumour.
To judicious counsel from a friend Blake was always amenable, but was stiffened in error by hostile criticism. Unaided by the former while at work on his fresco and engraving, he had been in the very worst mood for realizing success, or even the harmonious exercise of his powers. He was in the temper to exaggerate his eccentricities, rather than to modify them. If Cromek, instead of throwing up Blake’s drawing when he could not dictate terms, had gone on and gently persuaded the designer to soften his peculiarities; or if Blake had suffered his design to be engraved by Schiavonetti, and doctored (as that engraver so well knew how) by correct, smooth touches, some of Blake’s favourite hard, ‘deter¬minate outline’ being sacrificed a little, a different fortune would have awaited the compo-
sition. It might have become almost as well known and admired as Stothard’s, certainly as the Blair, instead of being a curiosity sought only by collectors of scarce things.
Blake was at no pains, throughout this business or after¬wards, to conceal his feelings towards Stothard. To the end of his life he would, to strangers, abuse the popular favourite, with a vehemence to them unaccountable. With friends and sympathizers, he was silent on the topic. Such was the mingled waywardness and unworldli¬ness of the man; exaggerating his prejudices to the uncongenial, waiving them with the few who could interpret them aright. He was blind to the fact that his motives for decrying Stothard were liable to miscon¬struction; and would have been equally unguarded could he have perceived it. For Stothard’s art—in his eyes far too glib, smooth, and mundane in its graces—he entertained a sincere aversion; though, as in the case of Reynolds, some degree of soreness may have aggravated the dislike. And the epithets he in familiar conversation applied to it, would, repeated in cold blood, sound extravagant and puerile.
On his part, too, the ordinarily serene Stothard, the innocent instrument of shifty Cromek’s schemes, considered himself just as much aggrieved by Blake. Up to 1806 they had been friends, if not always warm ones; friends of nearly thirty years’ standing. The present breach was never healed. Once, many years later, they met at a gathering of artists—of the Artists’ Benevolent, I think. Before going in to dinner, Blake, placable as he was irascible, went up to Stothard and offered to shake hands; an overture the frigid, exemplary man declined, as Mr. Linnell, an eye-witness, tells me. Another time, Stothard was ill: Blake called and wished to see him and be reconciled, but was refused. There is something of the kingdom of heaven in this—on the one side. Such men are not to be judged by wayward words. Warm hearts generally spend their worst violence in them.
This squabble with Cromek was a discordant episode in Blake’s life. The competition with Stothard it induced, placed him in a false position, and, in most people’s eyes, a wrong one. In Blake’s own mind, where all should have been, and for the most part was, peace, the sordid conflict left a scar. It left him more tetchy than ever; more dis¬posed to wilful exaggeration of individualities already too prominent, more prone to unmeasured violence of expres¬sion. The extremes he again gave way to in his design and writings—mere ravings to such as had no key to them—did him no good with that portion of the public the illustrated Blair had introduced him to. Those designs most people thought wild enough; yet they were really a modified version of his style. Such demand as had existed for his works, never considerable, declined.
Now, too, was established for him the damaging reputa¬tion ‘ Mad,’ by which the world has since agreed to recognise William Blake. And yet it is one—and let the reader note this—which none who knew the visionary man personally, at any period of his life, thought of applying to him. And, in his time, he was known to, and valued by, many shrewd, clear-headed men; of whom suffice it to mention Fuseli, Flaxman, Linnell. More on this point hereafter.