YEARS OF DEEPENING NEGLECT. 1810—17. [ÆT. 53—60]
I HAVE mentioned that Blake’s Canterbury Pilgrimage (the fresco) was bought by Mr. Butts. Among the drawings executed, at this period, for the same constant patron, was a grandly conceived scene from the apocalyptic vision, the Whore of Babylon:—a colossal, sitting figure, around whose head a wreath of figures issues from the golden cup of Abominations; below, is gathered a group of kings and other arch offenders. This drawing (dated 1809) formed one in the numerous collection of Blake’s works sold at Sotheby’s by Mr. Butts’ son, in 1852, and is now in the British Museum Print-room. There, also, a few other drawings and a large, though not complete, collection of Blake’s illustrated books, are now accessible to the public; thanks to the well-directed zeal of the present Keeper, Mr. Carpenter.
In these years, more than one of Blake’s old friends had dropped away. In December, 1809, died, of asthma, Fuseli’s ancient crony, Johnson, who had more than once extended to Blake what little countenance his hampered position, as a bookseller who must live to please, allowed. In March, 1810, the friendly miniature painter, Ozias Humphrey, died. Hayley, as we foretold, lost sight of Blake. Mr. Butts, steady customer as he was, had already a house-full of his works.
December 26, 1811, is the engraver’s date affixed to a small reduction, by Blake, of a portion of the Canterbury Pilgrimage,—including eight of the principal figures in the left-hand corner,—
which forms the frontispiece to a duo¬decimo volume, published at Newberry’s famous shop in St. Paul’s Churchyard. The little book, with its small specimen or taste, as it were, of the original composition, was evidently intended to spread a knowledge of the larger engraving. The title runs thus: ‘The Prologue and Characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims, selected from the Canter¬bury Tales, intended to illustrate a particular design of Mr. William Blake, which is engraved by himself, and may be seen at Mr. Colnaghi’s, Cockspur Street; at Mr. [James] Blake’s, No. 28, Broad Street, Golden Square; and at the’ publisher’s, Mr. Harris, Bookseller, St. Paul’s Churchyard. Price two shillings and sixpence. 1812.’ The brief in¬troductory preface is not from Blake’s hand; possibly from that of the friendly pedagogue, Malkin. ‘To the genius and fancy of that celebrated man, Mr. Blake,’ writes the editor, after a notice of Southwark and the Tabard Inn, ‘it occurred, that though the names and habits of men altered by time, yet their characters remained the same; and as Chaucer had drawn them four hundred years past, he might as justly delineate them at the present period, and, by a pleasant picture, bring to our imagination the merry company setting out upon their journey. As the Canterbury Tales may be too long a story for modern amusement, I have selected the Prologue and the characters’ (the whole Introduction, in short) ‘that the heads as represented by Mr. Blake may be compared with the lineaments drawn by Chaucer, and I think the merit of the artist will be acknowledged.’ A double text is given on opposite pages: the original from Speght’s edition of 1687, and a modernized version, or free translation, from Mr. Ogle’s edition of 1741. The frontispiece is well engraved in Blake’s style, with necessary and skilful variations from the large engraving; the distribution of light being different, and some of the details improved,—the towers and spires in the background, for example. To¬wards the end of the volume, a pretty and characteristic, but very generalised little etching
by Blake occurs, of a Gothic cathedral, among trees, meant probably for that of Canterbury.
Few new patrons arose to fill the gaps I have re¬capitulated in the chosen circle of the old. All, it may be observed, were in the middle rank of life. There was nothing in William Blake’s high and spiritual genius to command sympathy from a fastidious, pococurante aris¬tocracy, still less from Majesty, in those days. ‘Take them away! take them away I’ was the testy mandate of disquieted Royalty, on some drawings of Blake’s being once shown to George the Third.
Among present friends may be mentioned Mr. George Cumberland, of Bristol, This gentleman did an important service to Blake, when he introduced him, about 1818, to a young artist named John Linnell, who was to become the kindest friend and stay of the neglected man’s declining years, and afterwards to be famous as one of our great landscape-painters. He was then, and till many a year later, industriously toiling at Portrait, as a bread profes¬sion; at miniatures, engraving—whatever, in short, he could get to do; while he painted Landscape as an un-remunerative luxury. The present brisk, not to say eager, demand for good modern pictures was not, in those years, even beginning. The intimacy between the two arose from the younger artist applying to the elder to help him over engravings then in hand, from portraits of his own. Such as were jointly undertaken in this way, Blake commenced, Linnell finished.
Of the half-dozen years of Blake’s life succeeding the exhibition in Broad Street, and the engraving of his Pilgrimage, I find little or no remaining trace, except that he was still living in South Molton Street, in his accustomed poverty, and, if possible, more than accustomed neglect.
He was no longer at the pains or trivial cost to him not trivial, of being even his own publisher; of throwing off from his copper-plate
press Books of ‘Prophetic’ poetry and design, such as we saw him busied with, year by year, in Hercules Buildings. The Milton and the Jerusalem were the only ones thus issued from South Molton Street, and his last in that class. Sibylline leaves of engraved writing were, however, now and then put forth: such as that On Homer’s Poetry, the Laocoon, the Death of Abel. As I have hinted, funds failed for the mere copper requisite to engrave lengthy productions like the Jerusalem; per¬haps also, amid entire discouragement, the spirit for such weighty, bootless toil. He continued writing in the old strain till the end of his life,—wrote more, he declared himself, than Shakspere and Milton put together. Scores of MSS. were produced, which never got beyond MS., and have since been scattered, most of them destroyed or lost. He could find no publisher here for writing or design. Many an unsuccessful application to the trade, as to under¬taking some book of his he, in his time, had to make. ‘Well, it is published elsewhere,’ he, after such an one, would quietly say, ‘and beautifully bound.’ Let the reader construe such words with candour. Blake, by the way, talked little about ‘posterity,’ an emptier vision far than those on which his abstracted gaze was oft-times fixed. The invisible world, present to him even here, it was that to which his soul turned; in it found refuge amid the slights of the outward vulgar throng.
Many of the almost numberless host of Blake’s water¬colour drawings, on high scriptural and poetic themes, or frescos, as he called those (even on paper) more richly coloured, and with more impasto than the rest, continued to be produced; some for Mr. Butts, some to lie on hand; all now widely dispersed, nearly all undated, unhappily, though mostly signed. If men would but realise the possible value of a date! Still more numerous rough sketches were thrown off; for Blake’s hand was ceaselessly at work. His was indefatigable industry. He thought nothing of enter¬ing on such a task as writing out with ornamental letters, a MS. Bible as a basis
for illustration; and actually com¬menced one, in later years, for Mr. Linnell, getting as far as Genesis, chap. iv. verse 15. He cared not for recreation. Writing and design were his recreation from the task-work of engraving. ‘I don’t understand what you mean by the want of a holiday,’ he would tell his friends. Art was recreation enough for him. Work itself was pleasure, and any work, engraving, whilst he was at it, almost as much as design,—nay even what, to another, would have been the irksome task of engraving bad pictures. He was an early riser, and worked steadily on through health and sickness. Once, a young artist called, and complained of being very ill: ‘What was he to do?’ ‘Oh!’ said Blake, ‘I never stop for anything; I work on, whether ill or not.’ Throughout life, he was always, as Mrs. Blake truly described him, either reading, writing, or designing. For it was a tenet of his, that the inner world is the all-important; that each man has a world within, greater than the external. Even while he engraved, he read,—as the plate-marks on his books testify. He never took walks for mere walking’s sake, or for pleasure; and could not sympathise. with those who did. During one period he, for two years together, never went out at all, except to the corner of the Court to fetch his porter. That in-doors ‘recreation’ of his held him spell-bound. So wholly did the topics on which he thought or dreamed, absorb his mind, that ‘often,’ Smith tells us, ‘in the middle of the night he would, after thinking deeply upon a particular subject, leap from his bed and write for two hours or more.’
Through his friend Linnell, Blake became acquainted with a new and sympathising circle of artists, which here¬after will include some very enthusiastic younger men. They, in part, filled the place of the old circle, now thinned by death and (in Stothard’s case) by dissension. Of which, however, Flaxman and Fuseli remained; men friendly to him personally, and just to his genius, though, as respects the former, Blake did not always choose to think so. Once in these,
or later, years, Cary (Lamb’s Cary, translator of Dante) was talking with his friend Flaxman of the few Englishmen who followed historical painting, enumerating Stothard, Howard, and others. Flaxman mentioned a few more, and among them Blake. ‘But Blake is a wild enthusiast, isn’t he?’ Ever loyal to his friend, the sculptor drew himself up, half offended, saying, ‘Some think me an enthusiast.’
Among Blake’s new intimates were John Varley, Richter, and Holmes, the water-colour painters. From the works of the last two, Blake learned to add greater fulness and depth of colour to his drawings, such, indeed, as he, bred in the old school of slight tints, had hardly thought could have been developed in this branch of art. The painters in water-colours had, by this time, laid the foundation of that excellence, which has become an English speciality. An adventurous little band of now mostly forgotten men, whom their great successors, Turner, Copley Fielding, De Wint, Prout, David Cox, have pushed from their stools, had, in 1805 (tired of the Academy’s cold shade) started their first separate Exhibition in Pall Mall, as a daring experiment.
Buyers for coloured copies of the Songs of Innocence and Experience would generally be found by Blake’s artist friends, when no other encouragement could. Task-work as an engraver, Flaxman, still wishful to serve as of old, obtained him, in 1816, from the Longmans: a kind office Blake did not take quite in good part. He would so far rather have been recommended as a designer! So long ago as 1793, the author of the Songs of Innocence had engraved Flaxman’s outlines to the Odyssey, as Piroli’s substitute. Piroli’s engravings of the sculptor’s Æschylus and Iliad appeared in and 1796. And now, twenty-four years later, Blake, not a whit more prosperous with the world, had thankfully to engrave his friend’s composi¬tions from the Works and Days of Hesiod, published in 1817. January 1st, Blake dates his plates. They are
sweet and graceful compositions, harmonious and content¬ing so far as they go, but deficient in force, as Blake himself thought Flaxman to have always been, and as many now think. Some touch of natural sorrow Blake might well feel at having to copy, where he could have invented with far more power and originality. For Blake was as full of ideas as Flaxman of manner, a tender and eloquent, but borrowed idiom. And while Flaxman relied on the extraneous help (or impediment?) of a conventional, and in fact dead language or manner in art, and on archæo¬logical niceties, Blake could address us, in his rude, un¬polished way, in an universal one and appeal to the Imagination direct.
During this period Blake engraved some plates for Rees’ Encyclopedia, illustrative of the articles on Armour and Sculpture, the latter written by Flaxman, I believe. One example selected was the Laocoon, which carried our artist to the Royal Academy’s antique school, for the purpose of making a drawing from the cast of that group. ‘What! you here, Meesther Blake?’ said Keeper Fuseli; ‘we ought to come and learn of you, not you of us!’ Blake took his place with the students, and exulted over his work, says Mr. Tatham, like a young disciple; meeting his old friend Fuseli’s congratulations and kind remarks with cheerful, simple joy.