HAMPSTEAD: AND YOUTHFUL DISCIPLES. 1825—27. [ÆT. 68—70]
THE following letter is the first in a brief series preserved by Mr. Linnell, interesting as among the very small number of Blake’s writing extant. I think he, throughout life, wrote comparatively few. It is to ‘Mrs. Linnell, Collins’s Farm, North End, Hampstead,’ and is dated Tuesday, 11th October, 1825:—
‘I HAVE had the pleasure to see Mr. Linnell set off safe in a very comfortable coach. And I may say I accompanied him part of the way on his journey in the coach. For we both got in, together with another passenger, and entered into conversation, when at length we found that we were all three proceeding on our journey. But as I had not paid, and did not wish to pay for or take so long a ride, we, with some difficulty, made the coachman understand that one of his passengers was unwilling to go, when he obligingly permitted me to get out—to my great joy. Hence, I am now enabled to tell you that I hope to see you on Sunday morning, as usual, which I could not have done if they had taken me to Gloucester.
‘I am, dear Madam,
Blake was, at this period, in the habit, when well, of spending frequent happy Sundays at his friend’s Hamp¬stead Cottage, where he was received by host and hostess with the most cordial affection. Mr. Linnell’s manner was as that of a son; Mrs. Linnell was hospitable and kind, as ladies well know how to be to a valued friend. The children, whenever he was expected, were on the qui vive to catch the first glimpse of him from afar. One of them, who has now children of her own, but still cherishes the old reverence for ‘Mr. Blake,’ remembers thus watching for him when a little girl of five or six; and how, as he walked over the brow of the hill and came within sight of the young ones, he would make a particular signal; how Dr. Thornton, another friend and frequent visitor, would make a different one,—the Doctor taking off his hat and raising it on his stick. She remembers how Blake would take her on his knee, and recite children’s stories to them all: recollects his kind manner; his putting her in the way of drawing, training her from his own doings. One day he brought up to Hampstead an early sketch-book, full of most singular things, as it seemed to the children. But, in the midst of them, they came upon a finished, pre-Raphaelite-like drawing of a grasshopper, with which they were delighted.
Mr. Linnell had first taken lodgings at Hampstead in June, 1822; and in March, 1824, moved his family to a farm-house there, part of which was let off as a separate habitation, as it is to this day. For Collins’s Farm yet stands, altered by the erection of new out-buildings, and the loss of some of its trees, but not so much altered as most things in Hampstead. It is on the north, or country-ward side, beyond the Heath, between North End and the ‘Spaniards.’ North End, as every cockney knows, lies in a hollow over the Heath,—a cluster of villa residences, amid gardens and pleasure-grounds, their roofs embosomed in trees. As you walk from it towards the ‘Spaniards,’ a winding lane to the left brings you
back into the same high road. A little off this, there is another winding way, in the middle of which stands Collins’s Farm, at the bottom of another hollow. The house, an old one, looks out in front upon the heathery hill-side; at back, upon meadows and hedgerows, in summer one monotonous tint of heavy green. From the hill-side, the well-pitched red roof of the farm-house picturesquely peeps out among the trees below. To London children the place must have been a little Paradise. Blake, too, notwithstanding a theoretic dislike to Hampstead, practically enjoyed his visits. Mr. Linnell’s part of the house,—a later erection than the rest, and of lower height, with a separate entrance through the garden which stretches beside,—was small and humble, containing only five rooms. In front it com¬manded a pleasant southern aspect. Blake, it is still remembered, would often stand at the door, gazing in tranquil reverie across the garden toward the gorse-clad hill. He liked sitting in the arbour at the bottom of the long garden, or walking up and down the same at dusk, while the cows, munching their evening meal, were audible from the farmyard on the other side the hedge. He was very fond of hearing Mrs. Linnell sing Scottish songs, and would sit by the pianoforte, tears falling from his eyes, while he listened to the Border Melody, to which the song is set, commencing—
‘O Nancy’s hair is yellow as gowd,
And her een as the lift are blue.’
To simple national melodies Blake was very impression¬able, though not so to music of more complicated structure. He himself still sang, in a voice tremulous with age, sometimes old ballads, sometimes his own songs, to melodies of his own.
The modest interior of the rustic cottage was rendered delightful, as artists can generally render their houses, by tasteful fitting up and by fine prints and pictures hanging on the walls. Many an interesting friendly gathering took place there, comprising often a complete circle
of what are vulgarly called ‘characters.’ Sometimes, for instance, it would be, besides Blake and Mr. Linnell, Dr. Thornton, John Varley, and his brother Cornelius, the latter living still, well known in the scientific world and a man devoted to the ingenious arts; all, as one of them confessed to me, men ‘who did not propose to themselves to be as others,’ but to follow out views of their own. Sometimes Mulready would be of the company: Richter also—a name familiar to frequenters of the old Water-colour Society’s exhibitions—who was a fervent disciple of Emanuel Kant, and very fond of iterating the meta¬physical dogma of the non-existence of matter. Of Rich¬ter’s, by the way, still survives, in odd corners of the world, a curious thin octavo, published by Ackermann, in 1817. I can here only quote the characteristic title of this (mentally) very physiognomic brochure, which runs thus:— ‘Daylight A recent Discovery in the Art of Painting. With Hints on the Philosophy of the Fine Arts, and on that of the Human Mind, as first dissected by Emanuel Kant.’ A meeting at twilight, in the British Institution, of the Old Masters’ Ghosts is the artifice for enunciating, in dialogue, the author’s views as to representing on canvas the true ‘perpendicular light from the sky.’ This dialogue occupies thirteen octavo pages; besides which there are fifty-two pages of notes, discourse at large on the same subject, and ‘on the human mind, as first dissected by Kant.’ Such hobbies as these offer a piquant contrast to those smooth, Book of Beauty faces exhibition-goers may remember as the staple of the old man’s doings in later years.
More often the circle at Hampstead would be Blake, Linnell, and John Varley. A curiously contrasted trio— as an eye-witness reports—to look upon in animated converse: Blake, with his quiet manner, his fine head—broad above, small below; Varley’s the reverse: Varley, stout and heavy, yet active, and in exuberant spirits—ingenious, diffuse, poetical, eager, talking as fast as possible: Linnell, original, brilliant, with strongly marked character, and filial manner
towards Blake, assuming nothing of the patron, forbearing to contradict his stories of his visions, &c., but trying to make reason out of them. Varley found them explicable astrologically—’ Sagittarius crossing Taurus ‘—and the like; while Blake, on his part, believed in his friend’s astrology, to a certain extent. He thought you could oppose and conquer the stars. A stranger, hear-ing the three talk of spirits and astrology in this matter-of-fact way, would have been mystified. Varley was a terrible assertor, bearing down all before him by mere force of loquacity; though not learned or deeply grounded or even very original in his astrology, which he had caught up at second hand. But there was stuff in him. His conversation was powerful, and by it lie exerted a strong influence on ingenuous minds—a power he lost in his books. Writing was an art he had not mastered. Strange books they are: his Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (8vo, 1828), Observations on Colouring and Sketching from Nature (8vo, 1830), and Practical Treatise on Perspective (folio). All are dry and barren, wholly lacking the piquancy which belonged to his character and conversa¬tion. Varley was twenty years younger than Blake; like him was born in humble circumstances, and in humble circumstances died (in 1842). For though, at one time, his professions, as artist, teacher, and astrologer, procured him a handsome income, his former helpmate had dis¬sipated as fast as he could earn. Thrice in his life, too, he was ‘burnt out.’ The portfolio of drawings he used latterly to carry about yielded anything but affluence. Delicate transcripts of closing day,—bars of purple cloud crossing the light being his favourite effect,—these drawings often had a peculiar fascination, though they became very mannered at last; conventional reminiscences of Varley himself rather than of nature.
In those days stage coaches started for Hampstead in the morning, and returned to London in the evening. Blake, however, used to walk up from town by a road which was not, as now, one continuous line of houses. Generally, too, he walked back at night; his host
sending a servant with a lantern to guide him through the darkness to ‘the village.’ On his way from Fountain Court to North End, he would often call on a young artist, also a frequent visitor of Mr. Linnell’s,—one day to be more nearly related,—and the two would walk up together. This was Mr. Samuel Palmer, now an accomplished painter of poetic landscape, well known to visitors of the (old) Water-colour Society’s Exhibitions; then a stripling and an enthusiastic disciple of Blake’s. To him we are already indebted for many a reminiscence; that picture of Blake standing before a canvas of murderer Wainwright’s, for one. The acquaintance commenced when Blake was about midway in the task of engraving his Job. ‘At my never-to-be-forgotten first interview;’ says Mr. Palmer, ‘the copper of the first plate—’ Thus did Job continually’—was lying on the table where he had been working at it. How lovely it looked by the lamplight, strained through the tissue paper!‘
Among the young painters attracted at this period towards Blake was Frederick Tatham, to whose father, the architect, Mr. Linnell had introduced his friend. Mr. Richmond, the now distinguished portrait-painter, was another. As a lad of sixteen, he met Blake one day at the elder Tatham’s, and was allowed to walk home with him. To the boy, it was ‘as if he were walking with the prophet Isaiah’; for he had heard much of Blake, greatly admired all he had heard, and all he had seen of his designs. The prophet talked fully and kindly, freely opening his mind, as was his wont with the young—with men of eighteen or twenty say—even more freely and favourably, perhaps, than with their elders. There was more community of sentiment,—a bond of sympathy. He was not provoked by them to utter extravagances and extreme opinions. On this occasion he talked of his own youth, and of his visions. Just as Mr. Palmer speaks of Blake’s tolerant kindness towards young men, Mr. Richmond relates that, in their intercourse, he would him¬self, as young men are prone to
do, boldly argue and disagree, as though they were equals in years and wisdom, and Blake would take it all good-humouredly. ‘Never,’ adds Mr. Richmond, ‘have I known an artist so spiritual, so devoted, so single-minded, or cherishing imagination as he did.’ Once, the young artist, finding his invention flag during a whole fortnight, went to Blake, as was his wont, for some advice or comfort. He found him sitting at tea with his wife. He related his distress; how he felt deserted by the power of invention. To his astonishment, Blake turned to his wife suddenly and said: ‘It is just so with us, is it not, for weeks together, when the visions for¬sake us? What do we do then, Kate?’ ‘We kneel down and pray, Mr. Blake.’
Another young artist to seek out Blake and sit at his feet was Mr. Finch, for many years a member of the (old) Society of Water-colour Painters.1 As a boy, he had heard again and again
1 NOTE.—Since the above was written, this good man has been called away. His early connexion with Blake, through which the present biography is indebted to him for many an interesting recollection, seems to invite us to pause a moment here over a brief record of the life and character of one whom, apart even from his artistic claims, it is a gain to the world to hold in affectionate remembrance. To Mr. Samuel Palmer we owe the following sketch of his friend, which the genial reader will thank me for the opportunity of perusing.—Ed.
FRANCIS OLIVER FINCH.
On the twenty-seventh of August, 1862, the old Society of Painters in Water Colours lost, in Mr. Finch, one of their earliest members, who had long enjoyed, in the highest degree, their confidence and esteem, and the warm affection of such as had the pleasure of knowing him intimately.
He was the last representative of the old school of landscape-painting in water-colours,—a school which had given pleasure to the public for half a century, and contributed to obtain for Englishmen in that department of art an European reputation.
When he left school, he was articled as a pupil to Mr. John Varley. from whose studio came also two of our most eminent living artists, one of whom has engraved, con amore, Varley’s Burial of Saul and from such a work we may estimate the value of his influence and instruction. It led to the study of refined models, and pointed to sentiment, as the aim of art. It will probably be acknowledged, that the aim was essentially right, and that, if the old school did not arrest and detain the eye by intricate imitation, yet that it was massive and manly, and that its tendency was to elevate and refine. It is difficult to call to mind a single work by Mr. Finch, that did not suggest happy and beautiful lands, where the poet would love to muse: the moonlit glade, the pastoral slope, the rocky stream, the stately terrace, and mouldering villas or casements opening on the foam—
‘Of perilous seas in fairy lands forlorn.’
of Blake from John Varley, whose pupil he was for five years, and his imagination had been much excited by what he had heard. For once, expectation was fulfilled. In Mr. Finch’s own felicitous words, Blake ‘struck him as a new kind of man, wholly original, and in all things. Whereas most men are at the pains of soften¬ing down their extreme opinions, not to shock those of others, it was the contrary with him.’ Yes! he was a new kind of man; and hence his was a new kind of art, and a new kind of poetry.
Edward Calvert was another attached friend of this period. He introduced himself to Blake, was received most kindly, as if he had been an old friend; and there¬after enjoyed the privilege of calling on and walking with him. It is a touching sight to summon before one’s mental eyes this of the grey-haired visionary, opening his soul to these fresh-hearted youths. They all came to know one another,
How the society estimated his works, was shown by their occupying some of the most conspicuous places on the walls.
He had imagination, that inner sense which receives impression of beauty as simply and surely s we smell the sweetness of the rose and woodbine. when a boy, he chanced to light on the poetry of Keats, and a plaster figure-maker, seeing him hang with longing eye over a cast of the poet’s head which lay in his shop, made him a present of it, and he bore it home in triumph. At this time Keats was known to the public only by the ridicule of a critique.
Those who were intimate with Mr. Finch will find it difficult to name a an more evenly and usefully accomplished. Besides modern languages and scientific acquisition, he had large general knowledge. His conversation was never obstructive, and it never flagged; it was solemn, playful, or instructive, always at the right time and in the right place. an eminent friend, a sagacious observer of men, said that he never thought a friendly dinner party complete, unless Finch were at the table: ‘It was like forgetting the bread.’
He had read much, and was familiar with the great poets and satirists; knew the philosophy the mid, and had observed men and manners. Of those departments of knowledge which lay apart, his good sense enabled him to take at least the relative dimensions. Knowledge apprehends things in themselves; wisdom sees them in their relations. He taught his young friends that goodness was better even than wisdom, and the philosophy which is conversant with the unseen than any ingenuities of technical science. He said he thought e ought not to claim a monopoly of wisdom, because we had discovered that steam would turn a wheel.
It is difficult to convey a notion of his musical genius, because the skill of amateurs, after all the time which is lavished to acquire it, so seldom amounts to ore than the doing indifferently what professors do well; but it was not so with him: it seemed to be his natural language—an expression of that melody within, which is more charming than
and would often meet and talk over their views on art; other views than were commonly current in that era of Lawrence, Shee, and the rest Blake and his house used to be familiarly spoken of among them as ‘The House of the Interpreter.’ I can still trace something of the mystic Poet’s influence, surviving the lapse of more than thirty years, in all who ever knew and loved Blake; as of men who once in their lives had, as it were, entertained an angel not unawares.
Let us pause and listen to the reminiscences of one of these
any modulation of strings or voices. The writer has felt more pleasure in sitting by his piano-forte, listening to fragments of Tallis, Croft, or Purcell, with the interlude, perhaps, of an Irish melody, than from many displays of concerted music. To music his friend resorted at the right time; after his temperate dinner, as Milton directs in his ‘Tractate.’
Nor was his pen unused, and he could use it well. ‘His endeavour,’ says one who knew him best, ‘to benefit his young friends, will be long and affectionately remembered, nor is it probable that those of maturer age will easily forget his gentle influence and wise counsel.
Of his social and moral excellence it is difficult to speak in so short a notice, for the heart overflows with memories of his active kindness, and the skill is lacking to condense a life into a paragraph.
In all the domestic relations, he was exemplary; throughout his single and married life his good mother never left his house but for her grave, to which the unremitting kindness had smoothed the passage. He did not work alone: were another resting by his side, t might be tod that, with one will and purpose, there were two hearts equally busy in ‘devising liberal things.’ His hospitality was not adjusted to his interest, nor his table spread for those who could repay beef with venison; but for old friends who were in the shade; for merit and virtue in distress or exile; for pale faces which brought the recommendation of sorrow. Let us bear with his simplicity! Perhaps, when he made a feast,’ he consulted a very old fashioned BOOK as to the selection of his guests.
The writer willingly incurs the ridicule of those who believe goodness to be only a refined selfishness, when he looks back, as far as boyhood, to recal some single piece of slight or rudeness, some hard unkindness or cold neglect, some evil influence or moral flaw in his old friend’s character, and cannot find it. Were there many such, sarcasm might break her shafts.
Our great satirist said that, if his wide experience had shown him, twelve men like Arbuthnot, he never would have written the ‘Travels.’
A symmetrical soul is a thing very beautiful and very rare. who does not find about him and within him grotesque mixtures, or unbalanced faculties, or inconsistent desires; the understanding and the will at feud, the very will in vacillation; opinions shifting with the mode, and smaller impertinencies which he forgives, if they are not his own, for the amusement they afford him?
Let those who knew Francis Finch be thankful: they have seen a disciplined and a just man—‘a city at unity with itself.’ S.P.
friends of Blake’s later years. They are embodied in a Letter on Blake, kindly addressed by Mr. Samuel Palmer to the present writer when first commencing the collection of materials for this biography, some years before they began to take shape:—
‘Kensington, Aug. 23d, 1855.
‘MY DEAR SIR,
‘I regret that the lapse of time has made it difficult to recal many interesting particulars respecting Mr. Blake, of whom I can give you no connected account; nothing more, in fact, than the fragments of memory; but the general impression of what is great remains with us, although its details may be confused; and Blake, once known, could never be forgotten.
‘His knowledge was various and extensive, and his conversation so nervous and brilliant, that, if recorded at the time, it would now have thrown much light upon his character, and in no way lessened him in the estimation of those who know him only by his works.
‘In him you saw at once the Maker, the Inventor; one of the few in any age: a fitting companion for Dante. He was energy itself, and shed around him a kindling influence; an atmosphere of life, full of the ideal. To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter; and the high gloomy buildings between which, from his study window, a glimpse was caught of the Thames and the Surrey shore, assumed a kind grandeur from the man dwelling near them. Those may laugh at this who never knew such an one as Blake; but of him it is the simple truth.
‘He was a man without a mask; his aim single, his path straightforwards, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy.
‘His voice and manner were quiet, yet all awake with intellect. Above the tricks of littleness, or the least taint of affectation, with a natural dignity which few would have dared to affront, he was gentle and affectionate, loving to be with little children, and to talk about them. ‘That is heaven,’ he said to a friend, leading him to the window, and pointing to a group of them at play.
‘Declining, like Socrates, whom in many respects he resembled, the common objects of ambition, and pitying the scuffle to obtain them, he thought that no one could be truly great who had not humbled himself “even as a little child.” This was a subject he loved to dwell upon, and to illustrate.
‘His eye was the finest I ever saw: brilliant, but not roving, clear and intent, yet susceptible; it flashed with genius, or melted in tenderness. It could also be terrible. Cunning and falsehood quailed under it, but it was never busy with them. It pierced them, and turned away. Nor was the mouth less expressive; the lips flexible and quivering with feeling. I can yet recal it when, on one occasion, dwelling upon the exquisite beauty of the parable of the Prodigal, he began to repeat a part of it; but at the words, ‘When he was yet a great way off, his father saw him,’ could go no further; his voice faltered, and he was in tears.
‘I can never forget the evening when Mr. Linnell took me to Blake’s house, nor the quiet hours passed with him in the examina¬tion of antique gems, choice pictures, and Italian prints of the sixteenth century. Those who may have read some strange passages in his Catalogue, written in irritation, and probably in haste, will be surprised to hear, that in conversation he was any¬thing but sectarian or exclusive, finding sources of delight throughout the whole range of art; while, as a critic, he was judicious and discriminating.
‘No man more admired Albert Dürer; yet, after looking over a number of his designs, he would become a little angry with some of the draperies, as not governed by the forms of the limbs, nor assisting to express their action; contrasting them in this respect with the draped antique, in which it was hard to tell whether he was more delighted with the general design, or with the exquisite finish and the depth of the chiselling; in works of the highest class, no mere adjuncts, but the last development of the design itself.
‘He united freedom of judgment with reverence for all that is great. He did not look out for the works of the purest ages, but for the purest works of every age and country—Athens or Rhodes, Tuscany or Britain; but no authority or popular consent could influence him against his deliberate judgment. Thus he thought with Fuseli and Flaxman that the Elgin Theseus, however full of antique savour, could not, as ideal form, rank with the very finest relics of antiquity. Nor, on the other hand, did the universal neglect of Fuseli in any degree lessen his admiration of his best works.
‘He fervently loved the early Christian art, and dwelt with peculiar affection on the memory of Fra Angelico, often speaking of him as an inspired inventor and as a saint; but when he approached Michael Angelo, the Last Supper of Da Vinci, the Torso Belvidere, and some of the inventions preserved in the Antique Gems, all his powers were concentrated in admiration.
‘When looking at the heads of the apostles in the copy of the Last Supper at the Royal Academy, he remarked of all but Judas, ‘Every one looks as if he had conquered the natural man.’ He was equally ready to admire a contemporary and a rival. Fuseli’s picture of Satan building the Bridge over Chaos he ranked with the grandest efforts of imaginative art, and said that we were two centuries behind the civilization which would enable us to estimate his Ægisthus.
‘He was fond of the works of St. Theresa, and often quoted them with other writers on the interior life. Among his eccen¬tricities will, no doubt, be numbered his preference for ecclesias¬tical governments. He used to ask how it was that we heard so much of priestcraft, and so little of soldiercraft and lawyercraft. The Bible, he said, was the book of liberty and Christianity the sole regenerator of nations. In politics a Platonist, he put no trust in demagogues. His ideal home was with Fra Angelico: a little later he might have been a reformer, but after the fashion of Savanarola.
‘He loved to speak of the years spent by Michael Angelo, without earthly reward, and solely for the love of God, in the building of St. Peter’s, and of the wondrous architects of our cathedrals. In Westminster Abbey were his earliest and most sacred recollections. I asked him how he would like to paint on glass, for the great west window, his ‘Sons of God shouting for Joy,’ from his designs in the Job. He said, after a pause, ‘I could do it!’ kindling at the thought.
‘Centuries could not separate him in spirit from the artists who went about our land, pitching their tents by the morass or the forest side, to build those sanctuaries that now lie ruined amidst the fertility which they called into being.
‘His mind was large enough to contain, along with these things, stores of classic imagery. He delighted in Ovid, and, as a labour of love, had executed a finished picture from the Metamorphoses, after Giulio Romano. This design hung in his room, and, close by his engraving table, Albert Dürer’s Melan¬choly the Mother of Invention, memorable as probably having been seen by Milton, and used in his Penseroso. There are living a few artists, then boys, who may remember the smile of welcome with which he used to rise from that table to receive them.
‘His poems were variously estimated. They tested rather severely the imaginative capacity of their readers. Flaxman said they were as grand as his designs, and Wordsworth delighted in his Songs of Innocence. To the multitude they were unintelligible. In many parts full of pastoral sweetness, and often flashing with noble thoughts or terrible imagery, we must
regret that he should sometimes have suffered fancy to trespass within sacred precincts.
‘Thrown early among the authors who resorted to Johnson, the book-seller, he rebuked the profanity of Paine, and was no disciple of Priestley; but, too undisciplined and cast upon times and circumstances which yielded him neither guidance nor sympathy, he wanted that balance of the faculties which might have assisted him in matters extraneous to his profession. He saw everything through art, and, in matters beyond its range, exalted it from a witness into a judge.
‘He had great powers of argument, and on general subjects was a very patient and good-tempered disputant; but materialism was his abhorrence: and if some unhappy man called in question the world of spirits, he would answer him ‘according to his folly,’ by putting forth his own views in their most extravagant and startling aspect. This might amuse those who were in the secret, but it left his opponent angry and bewildered.
‘Such was Blake, as I remember him. He was one of the few to be met with in our passage through life, who are not, in some way or other, ‘double minded’ and inconsistent with them¬selves; one of the very few who cannot be depressed by neglect, and to whose name rank and station could add no lustre. Moving apart, in a sphere above the attraction of worldly honours, he did not accept greatness, but confer it. He ennobled poverty, and, by his conversation and the influence of his genius, made two small rooms in Fountain Court more attractive than the threshold of princes.
‘I remain, my dear Sir,
‘Yours very faithfully,
To Alexander Gilchrist, Esq.’