ENGRAVER CROMEK. 1807—12. [ÆT. 50—55]
WHILE Blake had being nursing his wrath against Cromek and Stothard, and making ineffectual reprisals by exhibition and engrav¬ing, the course of Cromek’s speculation had not run smoothly. As intimately, if indirectly, bearing on Blake’s life of struggles, this matter ought, perhaps, to be glanced at here. We must first go back a little, and track Cromek in his versatile career. The retrospect will, here and there, throw a vivid ray of light on the real character of the man, and so enable us to construe Blake aright in the critical relation in which the two, for a time, stood to one another. It may help the reader to a conclusion as to the rights of that difficult case—for so Smith and Cunning¬ham seemed to find it—Blake v. Stothard and Another.
During the progress, under the engraver, of his first publishing scheme, the active Yorkshireman had been turning his literary tastes to account. He had made a tour in Dumfriesshire, in quest of unpublished fugitive pieces of Robert Burns; a tour undertaken, according to his own statement, from pure interest in the poet. He discovered many previously unknown; others rejected ‘on principle’ by the great man’s posthumous patron, prim Currie, of now seldom blessed memory. The visit was well timed. Burns had been dead ten years; but every¬thing by him, everything about him, was already carefully treasured by those privileged enough to have aught to keep
or remember. His mother, and others of his family and friends, were still living. Cromek returned with well-filled wallet; though he too, squeamish as Currie, must needs keep back The Jolly Beggars and Holy Willie’s Prayer. Of these gleanings he made an octavo volume, supple¬mentary to Currie’s four, entitling it The Reliques of Burns. It was published by Cadell and Davies in 1808,—the year in which the Blair came out,—and is a volume on which subsequent editors and biographers of Burns have freely drawn. It had the peculiar fortune of calling forth memorable manifestations of bad feeling towards the poet, of tepid taste and supercilious vulgarity, from two persons high in the world of letters,—the articles of Jeffrey in the Edinburgh, of Walter Scott in the Quarterly.
Here, again, Cromek’s well-directed industry bore off, I fear, the profits, to part of which, another—Burns’ widow—was entitled. Cromek might, indeed, plead in self-defence, the lapse of ten years during which no one else had had the pious zeal to glean the open field.
The following summer, which was that of Blake’s exhibition, Cromek, encouraged by the success of his first literary venture, revisited Dumfries, with Stothard as a companion, and with new schemes in his head. One was an enlarged and illustrated edition of Burns’s works, for which materials and drawing were now to be got together; an enterprise which, in the sequel, failing health prevented his carrying out. The other was a Collection of Old Scottish Songs, such, especially, as had been the favourites of Burns, together with the poet’s notes already printed in the Reliques, and any other interesting scraps that could be picked up, could be begged, borrowed, or filched from various contributors. Two duodecimo volumes were got together, and, in the summer of 1810, published under the above title, with three vignettes after Stothard, characteristically cut on wood by clever, hapless Luke Clennell, hereafter the tenant of a madhouse.
During this visit of 1809, the bookmaker fell an easy victim to the hoax devised by a stalwart young stone¬mason, afterwards known to fame as poet novelist, biographer, and art critic. This was Allan Cunningham, then in his twenty-fifth year, earning eighteen shillings a week as a working mason. Cromek, we learn from Mr. Peter Cunningham’s interesting introduction to his father’s collected Poems and Songs (1847), looked coldly on the mason’s acknowledged verses, but caught eagerly at the idea of discoveries of old Songs, to be made among the Nithsdale peasantry. He greedily swallowed Allan’s happy imitations, and ever ‘called out for more’! On quitting Dumfries for Newman Street, he put a MS. book into Allan’s hands with the modest written injunction, ‘to be filled with old unpublished songs and ballads, with remarks on them, historical and critical.’ Another milch¬cow has turned up!
Under pretence of collecting a world of previously un¬known local song from the well-gleaned land of Burns and Scott, the young man, finding in Cromek (who had more natural taste than reading or acumen) a good subject for the cheat and a willing one, palmed off as undoubted originals, a whole deskful of his own verse in slightly antique mould. Verse, it proved, bold, energetic, and stirring, or tender, sentimental, and graceful; the best of modern Scottish songs and ballads since those of the Ayrshire peasant, though wide the interval! Cromek, who reminds one of Burns’s Johnson, of Musical Museum memory, a man of the same type, was, as usual, only too happy to avail himself of another’s genius and labours too ready a recipient to be over-curious as to authenticity. But his letters to Cunningham reveal often pertinent doubts as to any high antiquity, even while he and the eager domestic circle in Newman Street, whom a northern raven was feeding, were receiving the poems with delighted wonder. ‘I have read these verses,’ he writes of one song (She’s gone to dwell in Heaven), ‘to my old mother, my wife, sister, and family, till all our hearts ache.’ Cromek spared neither urging
nor vague hints of a future ‘kind return’ for all services, to extract from his young friend an original and striking volume of verse, and even copious prose notes illustrative of local traditions. The poet was lured to London, to help push the volume through the press. Cromek gave him free quarters the while, and then left him to hire himself as a sculptor’s mason, at six-and-twenty shillings a week. Subsequently Cromek spoke a good word for his protégé to Chantrey, young then, and with little to employ a second pair of hands, but who some years later took Allan as a workman. The engagement, as Chantrey’s fortunes rose, transformed itself into a higher one, which lasted to the end of the sculptor’s life.
The volume was swelled to due dimensions by a few poems collected from other sources, and by plausible, loose-spun letterpress of Cromek’s own,—an ‘Introduc¬tion’ and critical ‘Notices’ of the poems; including grave details of how one had been taken down from the recitation of such and such ‘a young girl,’ or ‘worthy old man.’ The Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, printed by Bensley, was published by Cadell and Davies, at the latter end of 1810, with a spirited woodcut vignette by Clennell, after Stothard. It is now scarce.
Some general expressions of ‘obligation to Mr. Allan Cunningham’ for ‘guidance and interesting conversation,’ was the sole acknowledgment accorded the gratis contri¬butor (as author and collector) of the bulk, and all the value of the volume. To which add a presentation copy, accompanied by the candid assurance, ‘It has been a costly work, and I have made nothing by it, but it is d—d good, let the critics say what they will, and when it goes to a second edition, I will give you something handsome!’ The book was well received, and sold well, but never ‘went to a second edition; our publishers having taken care to make the first a large one. None of Cromek’s clients grew sleek on his bounty. Nine years later, Cunningham’s true share in the volume became known. And
further cultivation of the profession (or trade some¬times) of literature, while he was still clerk of the works to Chantrey, was rendered easy to him on the strength of that volume alone.
On this, as on other occasions of the kind, Cromek ful¬filled to admiration his legitimate part as publisher. While he picked the brains of his protégés—Blake, Stothard, Cunningham—and stopped the pay, he could not help doing them incidental good service, in dragging them for¬ward a stage with the public; a service which genial Allan Cunningham seems always to have remembered with a kind of tenderness.
One more illustrative anecdote. ‘Cromek,’ as Mr. Peter Cunningham mildly puts it, ‘had rather lax ideas about meum et tuum when valuable autographs were laid before him. I remember an instance of this, which I have heard my father relate. Sir Walter Scott was talking to him of some of the chief curiosities he possessed at Abbotsford. ‘I had once (I am sorry to say once) an original letter from Ben Jonson to Drummond of Hawthornden, all in Ben’s own beautiful handwriting: I never heard of another.’ My father mentioned one he had seen in London in Cromek’s hands. Scott used some strong expression, and added, ‘The last person I showed that letter to was Cromek, and I have never seen it since.’’ Cromek had favoured Scott with a visit during his Dumfries tour of 1809.
After this unexpectedly vivid ray of evidence as to character, Mr. Cromek’s bare word cannot be taken, when he contradicts the positive assertion of simple, upright, if visionary Blake, that Cromek ‘had actually commissioned him to paint the Pilgrimage before Stothard thought of his.’ We doubt the jocose turn given the denial—‘ that the order had been given in a vision, for he never gave it,’ will not serve. The order was a vivâ voce one. And that like a previous vivâ voce agreement, is even easier to forget than the ownership of an autograph worth, perhaps, ten pounds in the market.
Mr. Blake was not aware of the desirableness of getting a man’s hand to a bargain. There is no palming off a signature as visionary.
During these three years of bookmaking, Cromek had, as print-seller, published engraved portraits of Currie and of Walter Scott, after Raeburn. Meanwhile, the grand speculation of all, Schiavonetti’s engraving of Stothard’s best picture,—a subject new to art, as freshly and grace¬fully handled,—had been going on slowly, though not un¬prosperously. Ingenious Cromek made it pay its own expenses: in this way.
Besides the stinted sixty pounds, the original price of the picture, Cromek, while it was in progress, and assum¬ing daily new importance, had engaged to add another forty, in consideration of unforeseen labour and research, and of extra finish: this to be paid as soon as collections from the subscribers came in. But when the time for pay¬ment arrived, came excuses instead, on the score of heavy expenses incurred for advertising, exhibiting, &c. The picture itself the dexterous man sold for £300, some say £500; but still excused himself, to quiet Stothard, on the old grounds. The poor artist never handled solid cash again from that quarter; though, through his own exer-tions, he realized another hundred or two by repetitions of his masterpiece for various patrons.
In June, 1810, just as Cromek had issued his Select Scottish Songs, the enterprise received its first check. The fine etching for the engraving was completed, but further progress was stayed by the failing health (in a consump¬tion) of the gifted Italian, to whose hands it had been committed. On the 7th of that month, Schiavonetti, who had entered on life at beautiful Bassano, quitted it at Brompton, at the premature age of forty-five. Schia¬vonetti was to have had £840 for his engraving, but only lived to receive, or entitle himself to, £275. In the follow¬ing autumn,—the same in which Blake’s print of his Canterbury Pilgrimage, and Cromek’s Nithsdale and Galloway Song appeared,—the plate was confided to
Engleheart, who worked on it from the 20th of September to the end of December, receiving some £44. But heavier troubles now involved both print and proprietor. On Cromek, too, consumption laid its hand, arresting all his ingenious and innocent schemes, or, as Smith calls it, the long ‘endeavour to live by speculating on the talents of others.’ Lengthened visits to native Yorkshire failed to stay the inevitable course of his malady, and he returned to Newman Street, there to linger another year of forced in¬action, during which poor Cromek and family,—comprising a wife, two young children, and a dependent sister,— were reduced to great straits. Doubtless, many a valuable autograph and Design had then to be changed into cash. So that we have to pity the predacious Yorkshireman after all. On the 12th March, 1812, at the age of forty-two, he went where he could jockey no more men or artists.
The widow had her fresh difficulties in realizing the property her husband’s scheming brain had created; had first to raise money for the engraver to proceed with the Pilgrimage. The engraver then in view was Lewis Schia¬vonetti’s brother, Niccolò, who had worked in Lewis’s studio, and caught his manner. To finish the plate, he wanted three hundred and thirty guineas, in three instal-ments, and fifteen months’ time. To raise the first instal¬ment, Mrs. Cromek parted with a good property,—sold the remainder and copyright of Blake’s Blair for £120, to the Ackermanns, who re-issued the book in 1813, with biographic notices of Blair, Cromek, and Schiavonetti. Then Niccolò followed in his brother’s steps to an early grave. This last in the chain of sorrowful casualties caused further delays. The plate,—Mrs. Cromek borrow¬ing the necessary money with difficulty from her father,— was at last, after having passed under the hands of three distinct engravers, finished by James Heath, or in his manufactory rather. Thence it eventually issued, a very much worse one for all these changes than when poor Lewis Schiavonetti’s failing hand had left it a brilliant, masterly etching. It had an extraordinary
sale, as every¬body knows, and proved exceedingly profitable to the widow. The long-cherished venture turned out no despic¬able dower for a needy man, living by his wits, to leave her. As for the producer of the picture who, artist-like, had forborne to press the adventurer in his straits, or the widow in hers, his share in this great success was a certain number of copies of the print (commercially useless to him), as an equivalent for the long deferred £40. Such I gather from Mrs. Bray’s Life of Stothard, and other sources, to have been the fluctuating fortunes of the most popular of modern prints; of an enterprise which, thanks to Cromek’s indirect courses, excited, first and last, so much bitterness in the mind of Blake.