FOUNTAIN COURT. 1821—25. [ÆT. 64—68]
AFTER seventeen years in South Molton Street, Blake, in 1821, migrated to No. 3, Fountain Court, Strand,—a house kept by a brother-in-law named Baines. It was his final change of residence. Here, as in South Molton Street, his lodgings were not a ‘garret,’ as Allan Cunningham, with meta-phorical flourish, describes them, but now, as before, in the best part—the first floor—of a respectable house. Fountain Court, unknown by name, perhaps, to many who yet often pass it on their way through a great London artery, is a court lying a little out of the Strand, between it and the river, and approached by a dark narrow opening, or inclined plane, at the corner of Simpson’s Tavern, and nearly opposite Exeter Hall. At one corner of the court, nearest the Strand, stands the Coal Hole Tavern, once the haunt of Edmund Kean and his ‘Wolf Club’ of claquers, still in Blake’s time a resort of the Thespian race; not then promoted to the less admirable notoriety it has, in our days, enjoyed. Now the shrill tinkle of a dilapidated piano, accompaniment to a series of tawdry poses plastiques, wakes the nocturnal echoes, making night hideous in the quiet court where the poet and visionary once lived and designed the Inventions to Job.
An old-fashioned respectable court in 1821, as other similar streets in that neighbourhood still are—its red-brick houses with overhanging cornices, dating from the end of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth cen¬turies—it is silent and sordid now; having, like
all Blake’s abodes, suffered a decline of fortune. No. 3, then a clean red-brick house, is now a dirty stuccoed one, let out as are all in the court in single rooms to the labouring poor. That which was Blake’s front room was lately in the market at four-and-sixpence a week, as an assiduous inquirer found. The whole place wears that inexpressibly forlorn, squalid look houses used for a lower purpose than the one for which they were built always assume. There is an ancient timber and brick gateway under a lofty old house hard by; and a few traces yet linger here and there, in bits of wall, &c. of the old Savoy Palace, destroyed to make way for the approaches to Waterloo Bridge, which had been opened just four years when Blake first came to the court.
Those capable of feeling the beauty of Blake’s design were, if anything, fewer at this period than they had ever been. Among these few numbered a man who was here¬after to acquire a sombre and terrible notoriety,—Thomas Griffiths Wainwright; the lively magazine writer, fine-art critic, artist man of pleasure, companion of poets and philosophers, and future murderer, secret poisoner of con¬fidential friend and trustful sister. This was the Janus Weathercock of The London Magazine; the ‘light-hearted Janus’ of Charles Lamb. To the other anomalies of this unhappy man’s career may be added the fact of his intimacy with William Blake, whom he assisted by buying two or three of his expensive illustrated books. One among the best of the Songs of Innocence and Experience I have seen formerly belonged to Wainwright. Blake entertained, as did Lamb, Procter, and others of The London coterie, a kindness for him and his works.
For this spiritual voluptuary, with the greedy senses, soft coat, and tiger heart, painted and exhibited as well as wrote. I trace him at the Academy in 1821,—Subject from Undine, ch. 6; in 1822 (year of Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners), Paris in the Chamber of Helen; and in 1825, First Idea of a Scene from Der Freyschütz, and a Sketch from Gerusalemme Liberata—both sketches, it is worth notice, as
indicating uncertain application to the practice of art. He was then living at 44, Great Marlborough Street. Mr. Palmer, one of Blake’s young disciples in those days, well remembers a visit to the Academy in Blake’s company, during which the latter pointed to a picture near the ceiling, by Wainwright, and spoke of it as ‘very fine.’ It was a scene from Walton’s Angler, ex¬hibited in 1823 or 1824. ‘While so many moments better worthy to remain are fled,’ writes Mr. Palmer to me, ‘the caprice of memory presents me with the image of Blake looking up at Wainwright’s picture; Blake in his plain black suit and rather broad-brimmed, but not quakerish hat, standing so quietly among all the dressed-up, rustling, swelling people, and myself thinking ‘How little you know who is among you! ‘‘
During the first years of The London Magazine, 1820-23, Wainwright was a contributor, under various pseudonyms, of articles, not, as Talfourd mistakenly describes them, ‘of mere flashy assumption,’ full of ‘disdainful notices of living artists;’ but articles of real literary merit and originality; in a vein of partly feigned coxcombry and flippant impertinence, of wholly genuine sympathy with art (within orthodox limits), and recognition of the real excellencies of the moderns,—of Retsch, of Stothard, for example, and of Etty, then a young man. They are articles by no means obsolete yet, even in their opinions; in matter and style still fresh and readable; standing out in vivid contrast to the heavy common-place of the Editor’s, now so stale and flat, in the same department of art-criticism. They attracted the notice and admiration of Lamb, whose personal regard he retained for many years; of De Quincey and of Procter—no mean judges.
In one of these smart harum-scarum articles (Sept. 1820), entitled ‘Mr. Janus Weathercock’s Private Corre¬spondence,’—a letter on topics so miscellaneous as Recent Engravings, Pugilism, and Chapman’s Homer,—occurs incidental reference to Blake, the only one I have found in the series. ‘Talking of articles, my learned
friend Dr. Tobias Ruddicombe, M.D. is, at my earnest entreaty, casting a tremendous piece of ordnance, an eighty-eight pounder! which he proposeth to fire off in your next. It is an account of an ancient, newly discovered, illuminated manuscript, which has to name “Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion”!!! It contains a good deal anent one “Los,” who, it appears, is now, and hath been from the Creation, the sole and four-fold dominator of the celebrated city of Golgonooza! The doctor assures me that the redemption of mankind hangs on the universal diffusion of the doctrines broached in this MS. But, however, that isn’t the subject of this scrinium, scroll, or scrawl, or what¬ever you may call it.’
This was probably a feeler of Wainwright’s, to try Editor Scott’s pulse as to a paper on Blake; which, however, if written never appeared. Scott, who had originally en¬couraged Wainwright to use the pen, was rather discom¬posed by his systematic impertinences and flightiness, and now began ‘rapping him over the knuckles,’ cutting his articles down, and even refusing them admission; as is related in a subsequent contribution, one of Wainwright’s last (Jan. 1823). After Scott’s tragic end in a preposterous duel with one of the rancorous Blackwood set Wain¬wright had been put on the staff again, at the urgent representations of Lamb and Procter. The paper in question, entitled Janus Weatherbound, contains some singularly interesting reminiscences—when we call to mind the man’s subsequent history—of the writer’s own previous career; of John Scott himself and his sudden death-bed, of Lamb and his sister, and of other fellow-contributors to The London.
Talfourd, in his Final Memorials of Lamb, has told the after story of Wainwright’s life; Bulwer, in his Lucretia, has worked it up into fiction; and De Quincey, in his Autobiographic Sketches, has thrown over it a gleam from the fitful torchlight of his vivifying imagination. From them we learn how expensive tastes for fine prints, rare books, articles of virtù, on the one hand; for mere elegant
living on the other; for combining, in short, the man about town and the man of refined taste and high sympathies, led him into inevitable money difficulties, into shifts of all kinds, and convulsive efforts to raise the wind. How, in 1830, about half a dozen years subsequent to his connexion with The London and familiar intercourse with some of the most original men of that generation, he began insuring the life of a young and beautiful sister-in-law, for a short term, in various offices, to the amount of 18,000l. in all. How he contrived that the poor girl, after having made a will in his favour, should die before the two years’ term was out, without any appearance of foul play,—he using the then little known vegetable poison, strychnine, now so familiar to newspaper readers. How the assurance offices instinctively disputed his claims; and, after five years of ‘the law’s delay’ in Chancery and two trials at common law, succeeded in their resistance on the technical point—that the insurance was not a bonâ fide one of the deceased’s own effecting: the graver ground of objection being waived for want of conclusive evidence, though sufficient daylight was let in to warrant the darkest construction of Wain¬wright’s real character. How, after skulking about France a few years, with a bottle of strychnine in his pocket, and, it is suspected, using the same on a confiding friend or two, Wainwright was, in 1836, apprehended for forgery of his wife’s trustee’s signature (he had a wife and child); was tried, pleaded guilty, and sentenced to transportation for life: finally made base revelations to the offices, enabl¬ing them to defeat the claims of his surviving sister-in-law, in the craven hope of mitigation of punishment; in which hope he was deceived. In the extremity of infamy and wretchedness, the somewhile associate of Coleridge, Blake, Lamb, still piqued himself on being the gentleman, though under a cloud; still claimed a soul sympathising with poetry, philosophy, and all high things, showing no remorse. In Australia ended the ghastly motley of his life, a few years ago.
Complete oblivion seems already to have overtaken all that Wainwright painted; though we cannot doubt, from Blake’s testimony, as reported by Mr. Palmer, that his works belonged, in whatever degree, to the class showing individual power. He seems to have practised painting as a means of subsistence in Australia during his last years, as well as at an earlier, and not yet hopeless, time in England. Of the first period of his painting, there is said to be some evidence in designs to an edition of Chamber¬layne’s poems, which I have sought for, but failed to find, at the British Museum; and in the preface to which he is spoken of, I am told, as a young man of high hopes. To the last period belongs a portrait of the Hon. Miss Power, painted in Australia, which also is known to me by report, not by eyesight Into any of the works of such a life it is difficult to search without feeling as if every step were taken among things dead and doomed. But the truth about Wainwright’s essays on art is, that they display a real knowledge, insight, and power of language, which remained unequalled, in their own walk of criticism, from that day till the splendid advent and immediate influence of Ruskin. This being thus in fact, though sometimes otherwise stated, it would be interesting, even highly so, to discover what has become of Wainwright’s pictures, and what were the practical artistic gifts of one whose nature presents such strange and hideous contrasts.
I trust that the decision with which I have spoken of this man’s great talents will not be taken as implying any bluntness of repugnance for the great criminality which, I fear, stands substantially, though never explicitly, proved against him. But art has its own truth, as absolute as that of life itself, and demanding a wholly independent verdict, not to be appealed against on any ground of good deeds, and which not even the sternest personal censure can annul.