‘INVENTIONS TO THE BOOK OF JOB’ 1823—25. [ÆT. 66—68]
AS we have often to repeat, Blake was even more a neglected man in these days of Lawrence and Wilkie than he had been in those of Reynolds and Gainsborough. The majority of connoisseurs, a set of men who, to tell the truth, know little more about art, the vital part of it, have no quicker perception or deeper insight into its poetic and spiritual qualities than the mob of educated men, though they prate more: these were, as they still are, blind to his beauties. And this being so, the publishing class deserves no special blame for its blindness and timidity.
Even his old friend Mr. Butts, a friend of more than thirty years’ standing, the possessor of his best temperas and water-colour drawings, and of copies of all his en¬graved books, grew cool. The patron had often found it a hard matter not to offend the independent, wilful painter, ever the prouder for his poverty and neglect, always impracticable and extreme when ruffled or stroked the wrong way. The patron had himself begun to take offence at Blake’s quick resentment of well-meant, if blunt, advice and at the unmeasured violence of his speech when provoked by Opposition. The wealthy merchant employed him but little now, and during the few remaining years of Blake’s life they seldom met.
One of the last, if not the very last, works bought by Mr. Butts of Blake, was the original series of twenty-one water-colour drawings or Inventions from the Book of Job, the longest and most important series executed since The Grave, in 1805; still loftier in theme, nobler in
achievement, most original and characteristic of all his productions. This set of drawings to Job has passed from Mr. Butts’ son into the possession of Mr. Monckton Milnes.
It is to the credit of the Royal Academy that, at this conjuncture, Blake, in the year 1822, received from its funds a donation of 25l. Collins and Abraham Cooper recommended him for the grant; Baily and Rd. Bone were the movers and seconders of the vote according it. The Forty of that day, as the testimonial in favour of the Grave showed, numbered many who could recognise Blake’s high artistic genius.
With no remaining patrons for his design, few to employ him as an engraver, Blake, in age, was on the verge of want. Grim Poverty had throughout life stared him in the face. Throughout life he had calmly looked back into her eyes. For him she had no terrors. He would have been in actual want but for one friend, himself an artist, himself not overburthened at that time with the gifts of Fortune; who had, as other rising artists have—but in 1823 it was a still tougher struggle than in 1860—to toil hard for him¬self and family at often ungenial task-work. The drawings to Job had been borrowed from Mr. Butts to be shown to such as might seem likely to prove employers. From Mr. Linnell alone they drew a commission. He engaged Blake to execute and engrave a duplicate set. The agreement, recorded in writing in a business-like way, bears date 25th March, 1823. It was such an one as Blake had never set hand to before, nor could have obtained in any other quarter. Blake was to receive 100l. for the designs and copyright, to be paid from time to time; and another 100l. out of the profits. No profits were realized by the en¬gravings, their sale hardly covering expenses. But as the designs and stock of engravings remained with the pur¬chaser, Mr. Linnell subsequently paid over, from time to time, 50l. more, making a total of 150l.,—the largest sum Blake had ever received for any one series. The drawings, the remainder of engravings and plates, are still
in the hands of this liberal friend, who discounted, as it were, Blake’s bill on posterity, when none else would. While the Job was in progress, Blake received his money in the way handiest to him,—instalments of 2l. to 3l. a week; sums amply sufficient for all his ordinary wants, thanks to his modest ménage and simple habits. More he would hardly have spent, if he had had it.
The set of drawings made for Mr. Linnell varies much in detail from that for Mr. Butts, and is often finer. The engravings were still further altered; faces in profile in the drawings are given full view in the prints, and so on. Both sets of designs are very finely drawn, and pure in colour; necessarily very much finer than the prints. No artist can quite reproduce even his own drawings. Much must be lost by the way.
The engravings are the best Blake ever did: vigorous, decisive, and, above all, in a style of expression in keeping with the designs which the work of no other hand could have been in the case of conceptions so austere and primeval as these, Blake’s manner of handling the graver had been advantageously modified since his acquaintance with Mr. Linnell The latter had called his attention to the works of Albert Dürer, Marc Antonio, and the Italian’s contemporary and disciple Bonosoni, a more elegant and facile, if less robust Marc Antonio. From Bonosoni especially Blake gleaned much, and was led, on first becoming familiar with his work, to express a regret that he had been trained in the Basire school, wherein he had learned to work as a mere engraver, cross-hatching freely. He now became an artist, making every line tell. The results of this change of style are manifest in the engraved Inventions to Job. In them, too, Bonosoni’s plan was adopted, of working wholly with the graver and etching nothing; so that the plates lose little by having a few hundred impressions taken off
These Inventions to the Book of Job, which may be regarded as the works of Blake’s own hand, in which he most unreservedly competes
with others—belonging as they do in style to the accepted category of engraved designs—consists of twenty-one subjects on a considerably smaller scale than those in the Grave, each highly wrought in light and shade, and each surrounded by a border of allusive design and inscription, executed in a slighter style than the subject itself. Perhaps this may fairly be pro¬nounced, on the whole, the most remarkable series of etchings on a scriptural theme which has appeared since the days of Albert Dürer and Rembrandt, widely differing, too, from either.
Except the Grave, these designs must be known to a larger circle than any other series by Blake; and yet they are by no means so familiar as to render unnecessary such imperfect reproduction of their intricate beauties as the scheme of this work made possible, or even the still more shadowy presentment of verbal description.
The first among them shows us the patriarch Job wor¬shipping among his family under a mighty oak, surrounded by feeding flocks, range behind range, as far as the distant homestead, in a landscape glorified by setting sun and rising moon. ‘Thus did Job continually,’ the leading motto tells us. In the second plate we see the same per¬sons grouped, still full of happiness and thanksgiving. But this is that day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them; and above the happy group we see what they do not see, and know that power is given to Satan over all that Job has. Then in the two next subjects come the workings of that power; the house falling on the slain feasters, and the messengers hurrying one after another to the lonely parents, still with fresh tidings of ruin. The fifth is a wonderful design. Job and his wife still sit side by side, the closer for their misery, and still out of the little left to them give alms to those poorer than them¬selves. The angels of their love and resignation are ever with them on either side; but above, again, the unseen Heaven lies open. There sits throned that Almighty figure, filled now with inexpressible pity, almost with compunction.
Around Him His angels shrink away in horror; for now the fires which clothe them—the very fires of God—are compressed in the hand of Satan into a phial for the devoted head of Job himself. Job is to be tried to the utmost; only his life is withheld from the tormentor. How this is wrought, and how Job’s friends come to visit him in his desolation, are the subjects which follow; and then, in the eighth design, Job at last lifts up his voice, with arms uplifted too, among his crouching shuddering friends, and curses the day when he was born. The next, again, is among the grandest of the series. Eliphaz the Temanite is telling Job of the thing which was secretly brought to him in the visions of the night; and above we are shown the matter of his words, the spirit which passed before his face; all blended in a wondrous partition of light, cloud, and mist of light. After this Job kneels up, and prays his reproachful friends to have pity on him, for the hand of God. has touched him. And next—most terrible of all— we see embodied the accusations of torment which Job brings against his Maker: a theme hard to dwell upon, and which needs to be viewed in the awful spirit in which Blake conceived it. But in the following subject there comes at last some sign of soothing change. The sky, till now full of sunset and surging cloud, in which the stones of the ruined home looked as if they were still burning, has here given birth to the large peaceful stars, and under them the young Elihu begins to speak: ‘Lo! all these things worketh God oftentimes with man, to bring forth his soul from the pit.’ The expression of Job, as he sits with folded arms, beginning to be reconciled, is full of deli¬cate familiar nature; while the look of the three unmer¬ciful friends, in their turn reproved, has something in it almost humorous. And then the Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind, dreadful in its resistless force, but full also of awakening life, and rich with lovely clinging spray. Under its influence, Job and his wife kneel and listen, with faces to which the blessing of thankfulness has almost returned. In the next subject it shines forth fully present again, for now God Himself is speaking of
His own omni¬potence and right of judgment—of that day of creation ‘when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.’ All that He says is brought before us, surrounding His own glorified Image; while below, the hearers kneel rapt and ecstatic. This is a design which never has been surpassed in the whole range of Christian art. Very grand, too, is the next, where we see Behemoth, chief of the ways of God, and Leviathan, king over the children of pride. The sixteenth plate, to which we now come, is a proof of the clear dramatic sense with which Blake conceived the series as a whole. It is introduced in order to show us the defeat of Satan in his contest against Job’s uprightness. Here, again, is the throned Creator among His angels, and beneath Him the Evil One falls with tremendous plummet-force; Hell naked before his face, and Destruction without a covering. Job with his friends are present as awestruck witnesses. In the design which follows, He who has chastened and consoled Job and his wife is seen to bestow His blessing on them; while the three friends, against whom ‘His wrath is kindled,’ cover their faces in fear and trembling. And now comes the acceptance of Job, who prays for his friends before an altar, from which a heart-shaped body of flame shoots upward into the sun itself; the background showing a distant evening light through broad tree-stems—the most peaceful sight in the world. Then Job’s kindred return to him, ‘every one also gave him a piece of money, and every one an earring of gold.’ Next he is seen relating his trials and mercies to the new daughters who were born to him—no women so fair in the land. And, lastly, the series culminates in a scene of music and rapturous joy, which, contrasted with the calm thanksgiving of the opening design, gloriously embodies the words of its text, ‘So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than the begin¬ning.’
In these three last designs, I would specially direct attention to the exquisite beauty of the female figures. Nothing proves more thoroughly how free was the spirit¬ualism of Blake’s art from any
ascetic tinge. These women are given to us no less noble in body than in soul; large-eyed, and large-armed also; such as a man may love with all his life.
The angels (and especially those in plate 14,’ When the morning stars sang together,’) may be equally cited as proofs of the same great distinctive quality. These are no flimsy, filmy creatures, drowsing on feather-bed wings, or smothered in draperies. Here the utmost amount of vital power is the heavenly glory they display; faces, bodies, and wings, all living and springing fire. And that the ascetic tendency, here happily absent, is not the in¬separable penalty to be paid for a love of the Gothic forms of beauty, is evident enough, when we see those forms everywhere rightly mingling with the artist’s con¬ceptions, as the natural breath of sacred art. With the true daring of genius, he has even introduced a Gothic cathedral in the background of the worshipping group in plate i, as the shape in which the very soul of worship is now for ever embodied for us. It is probably with the fine intention of symbolizing the unshaken piety of Job under heavy affliction, that a similar building is still seen point¬ing its spires heavenward in the fourth plate, where the messengers of ruin follow close at one another’s heels. We may, perhaps, even conjecture that the shapeless build¬ings, like rude pagan cairns, which are scattered over those scenes of the drama which refer to the gradual darkening of Job’s soul, have been introduced as forms suggestive of error and the shutting out of hope. Everywhere through¬out the series we meet with evidences of Gothic feeling. Such are the recessed settle and screen of trees In plate 2, much in the spirit of Orcagna; the decorative character of the stars in plate i 2; the Leviathan and Behemoth in plate 15, grouped so as to recall a medieval medallion or wood¬carving; the trees, drawn always as they might be carved in the woodwork of an old church. Further instances of the same kind may be found in the curious sort of painted chamber, showing the themes of his discourse, in which Job addresses his daughters in plate 20;
and in the soaring trumpets of plate 21, which might well be one of the rich conceptions of Luca della Robbia.
Nothing has yet been said of the borders of illustrative design and inscription which surround each subject in the Job. These are slight in manner, but always thoughtful and appropriate, and often very beautiful. Where Satan obtains power over Job, we see a terrible serpent twined round tree-stems among winding fires, while angels weep, but may not quench them. Fungi spring under baleful dews, while Job prays that the night may be solitary, and the day perish wherein he was born. Trees stand and bow like ghosts, with bristling hair of branches, round the spirit which passes before the face of Eliphaz. Fine examples also are the prostrate rain-beaten tree in plate 13; and, in the next plate, the map of the days of creation. In plate 18 (the sacrifice and acceptance of Job), Blake’s palette and brushes are expressively intro¬duced in the border, lying, as it were, on an altar-step beside the signature of his name. That which possesses the greatest charm is, perhaps, the border to plate 2. Here, at the base, are sheepfolds watched by shepherds; up the sides is a trellis, on whose lower rings birds sit upon their nests, while angels, on the higher ones, worship round flame and cloud, till it arches at the summit into a sky full of the written words of God.
Such defects as exist in these designs are of the kind usual with Blake, but far less frequent than in his more wilful works; indeed, many among them are entirely free from any damaging peculiarities. Intensely muscular figures, who surprise us by a sort of line round the throat, wrists, and ankles, but show no other sign of being draped, are certainly to be sometimes found here as elsewhere, but not many of them. The lifted arms and pointing arms in plates 7 and 10 are pieces of mannerism to be regretted, the latter even seeming a reminiscence of Macbeth’s Witches by Fuseli; and a few other slight instances might, perhaps, be cited. But, on the whole, these are designs no less well and clearly considered, however highly imaginative, than
the others in the small highest class of original engraved inventions, which comprises the works of Albert Dürer, of Rembrandt, of Hogarth, of Turner, of Cruikshank in his best time, and some few others. Like all these, they are incisive and richly toned to a degree which can only be attained in engraving by the original inventor, and have equally a style of execution all their own. In spirit and character they are no less independent having more real affinity, perhaps, with Orcagna than with any other of the greatest men. In their unison of natural study with imagination, they remind one decidedly of him; and also of Giotto, himself the author of a now almost destroyed series of frescos from Job, in the Campo Santa at Pisa, which it would be interesting to compare, as far as possible, with these inventions of Blake.
To the high artistic value of this series Mr. Ruskin has borne witness. In his Elements of Drawing for Beginners (1857), it is specified among the ‘Things to be Studied.’ ‘The Book of Job, engraved by himself’ (by Blake, that is), it is there said, ‘is of the highest rank in certain characters of imagination and expression; in the mode of obtaining certain effects of light, it will also be a very useful example to you. In expressing conditions of glaring and flickering light, Blake is greater than Rem¬brandt.’
March 8th, 1825, was the publishing date on the plates; the date by which Blake had expected to have finished them. But March, 1826, is the date given on the cover, and the correct one. The publishing price was three guineas; proofs, five; India paper proofs, six. The circulation was limited; the mode of publication, for one thing, being a very quiet one.
In April, 1825, another lingerer in the small knot of Blake’s earliest friends was summoned away by Death: Fuseli, whose health and bodily strength had, for the last year or two, been failing, but not his faculties. He died in his eighty-fourth year; neglected by picture-buyers, honoured by all in his own profession, by men of letters, by some among ‘the great;’ and not without a fair share
of the goods of fortune. Of Fuseli, Blake had always been a warm and generous admirer, and was wont to declare, ‘This country must advance two centuries in civilization before it can appreciate him.’ Let us hope a few of that remarkable man’s original, if mannered and undisciplined, works will survive the extraordinary and disproportioned neglect which has exiled them to the cellar and the garret.