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CHAPTER XXX.

DESIGNS TO PHILLIPS’ PASTORALS. 1820—21. [ÆT. 63—64]

BLAKE was in 1820-21 employed by Dr. Thorn¬ton for some illustrations to the Doctor’s School Virgil—Virgil’s Pastorals, that is. The result of the commission was a series of designs, among the most beautiful and original of Blake’s performances. These are the small woodcuts to Ambrose Phillips’ imita¬tion of Virgil’s first Eclogue: designs simple, quaint, poetic, charged with the very spirit of pastoral.

Dr. Thornton, son of Bonnell Thornton of humorous memory, colleague with Colman in The Connoisseur, was a physician and botanist of note in his day. He was the author of several very expensively illustrated folios and quartos on botany: A new Illust ration of the Sexual System of Linnæus, 1797; The Temple of Flora, or Garden of the Poet, Painter, and Philosopher, and other similar pro¬ductions about botany in its picturesque aspect; costly books, illustrated in colours, which impoverished their amiable projector.

More successful in its generation was the Doctor’s edition of the Pastorals of Virgil, ‘with a course of English read¬ing adapted for schools,’ and other explanatory helps. All which was designed to enable youth ‘to acquire ideas as well as words’ with ‘ease to the master and delight to the scholar.’ One means to this end was ultimately added in a series of illustrative woodcuts. The first edition of 1812 had none: illustrations were issued as a supplementary volume in 1814. In the second edition of 1819 the

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two were incorporated. In this third edition of 1821 the illus¬trations were increased to as many as two hundred and thirty, including these from Blake’s hand.

And hereby hangs a tale. Blake made twenty drawings to illustrate the Pastorals of Phillips, introduced by Thornton into his ‘course’ of Virgil reading. From these he executed seventeen wood blocks, the first he had ever cut, and, as they will prove, the last. The rough, uncon¬ventional work of a mere ‘prentice hand to the art of wood-engraving, they are in effect vigorous and artist-like, recalling the doings of Albert Dürer and the early masters, whose aim was to give ideas, not pretty language. When he sent in these seventeen, the publishers, unused to so daring a style, were taken aback, and declared ‘this man must do no mores’; nay, were for having all he had done re-cut by one of their regular hands. The very engravers received them with derision, crying out in the words of the critic,’ This will never do.’ Blake’s merits, seldom wholly hidden from his artist contemporaries, were always impene¬trably dark to the book and print selling genus.

Dr. Thornton had, in his various undertakings, been munificent to artists to an extent which, as we have said, brought him to poverty. But he had himself no knowledge of art, and, despite kind intentions, was disposed to take his publishers’ view. However, it fortunately happened that meeting one day several artists at Mr. Aders’ table Lawrence, James Ward, Linnell, and others,—conversation fell on the Virgil. All present expressed warm admiration of Blake’s art, and of those designs and woodcuts in par¬ticular. By such competent authority reassured, if also puzzled, the good Doctor began to think there must be more in them than he and his publishers could discern. The contemplated sacrifice of the blocks already cut was averted. The three other designs, however, had been en¬graved by another, nameless hand: those illustrative of the three ‘comparisons in the last stanza but one of Phillips’ Pastoral.

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Wretched, jejune caricatures of the beautiful originals they proved, scarce any trace of Blake being left.

To conciliate the outraged arts, Dr. Thornton introduced the designs with an apology: ‘The illustrations of this English Pastoral are by the famous BLAKE, the illustrator of Young’s Night Thoughts, and Blair’s Grave; who de¬signed and engraved them himself. This is mentioned as they display less of art than of genius, and are much admired by some eminent painters.’

One of the designs engraved by Blake was re-cut among the engravers, who scrupled not, by way of showing what it ought to have been, to smooth down and conventionalize the design itself; reducing a poetic, typical composition to mere commonplace, ‘to meet the public taste.’ This as an earnest of what had been contemplated for the whole series. The amendment was not adopted by Thornton. Both versions may be seen in the Athenæum for January 21st, 1843; where, in the course of a very intelligent article on the true principles of wood-engraving, they are introduced, with other cuts from Holbein, &c., to illustrate the writer’s just argument: that ‘amid all drawbacks there exists a power in the work of the man of genius which no one but himself can utter fully’; and that ‘there is an authentic manifestation of feeling in an author’s own work, which endears it to all who can sympathize with art, and reconciles all its defects. Blake’s rude work,’ adds the critic, ‘utterly without pretension, too, as an engraving, the merest attempt of a fresh apprentice, is a work of genius; whilst the latter ‘—the doctored cut—’ is but a piece of smooth, tame mechanism.’

The more these remarkable designs are seen, the more power do they exert over the mind. With few lines, and the simplest, rudest hints of natural objects, they appeal to the imagination direct, not the memory; setting before us condensed, typical ideas. Strange to think of Blake, shut up in dingy, gardenless South Molton Street,

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designing such pastorals! His mind must have been impregnated with rural images, enabling him, without immediate reference to Nature, to throw off these beautiful sugges¬tions, so pastoral in feeling, of Arcadian shepherds and their flocks, under the broad setting sun or tranquil moon. As Thornton’s purpose was to give his young readers pictured images of his author’s words, the designs accom¬pany the poem literally, and line for line. Thenot addresses Colinet, who leans lonesome against a tree, crook in hand, and sheep beside, and so on.

The original designs, in sepia, are of much delicacy and grace. Their expression and drawing are a little dis¬torted in the transference to wood, even under Blake’s own hands. The blocks, moreover, proved in the first instance too wide for the page and were, irrespective of the composi¬tion, summarily cut down to the requisite size by the publishers. They are now, together with the drawings, in the possession of Mr. Linnell, who has kindly permitted impressions from three of them to be taken for the present work.

Dr. Thornton found further employment for Blake in etchings, scattered through the two volumes of 1821, from antique busts: Theocritus, Virgil, Augustus, Agrippa, Julius Cæsar, Epicurus; task-work Blake well and honestly performed. A drawing of his, from Poussin’s Polypheme, was put into Byfield’s hands to engrave; which the latter did, poorly enough. As for the rest of the two hundred and thirty cuts, though executed by some of the best wood-engravers of the time, they are, with the exception of one or two by Bewick and Thurston, of singularly laughable calibre. The designers obviously thought they could not be too puerile in addressing boys. The old, rude woodcuts to Croxall’s Æsop are respectable works of art, compared with these. It is a curious practical satire on the opinion of Blake the engravers had, that the book, which has become scarce, is seldom looked at now but for Blake’s slight share in it.