AMID unavoidable regrets that all it seems possible to glean regarding a life of great gifts and independent aims, which has away beneath the very eyes of many now living, is already exhausted, it remains only to add a few further notes of critical or personal detail; a few pages of summary, and of matters accessory to the main subject.
To begin with the first of these:—
The reader has already seen that Blake applied the term fresco to his own pictures in a somewhat unusual sense. According to the literal meaning of the word, he cannot be said to have ever painted a fresco in his life. To Mr. Linnell I am indebted for the following explanation of the matter—an explanation which also throws light on the cause of the lamentable decay into which some of Blake’s ‘frescos’ and temperas have already fallen. ‘He evidently founded his claim to the name fresco on the material he used, which was water-colour on a plaster ground (literally glue and whiting); but he always called it either fresco, gesso, or plaster. and he certainly laid this on too much like plaster on a wall. when so laid on to canvas or linen, it was sure to crack and, in some cases, for want of care and protection from damp, would go to ruin. Some of his pictures in this material on board have been preserved in good condition, and so have a few even on cloth. They come nearer to tempera in process than to anything else, inasmuch as white was laid on
and mixed with the colours which were tempered with common carpenter’s glue.’ Nollekens Smith also tells us that Blake ‘would, in the course of painting a picture, pass a very thin transparent wash of glue-water over the whole of the parts he had worked upon, and then proceed with his finishing.’ Those who may be curious to have a minute description of how to manipulate these materials may find one in an Italian treatise entitled Di Cennino Cennini, Trattato della Pittura messo in luce la prima volta con annotazioni dal Cavaliere Giuseppe Tambroni. Roma; Coi Torchj di Paolo Sabriucci, 1822; of which, chap. xix. headed Colla di Spichi, is specially devoted to the subject. ‘I believe,’ writes Mr. Linnell, ‘that the first copy of Cennino Cennini’s book seen in England was the one I obtained from Italy, and gave to Blake, who soon made it out, and was gratified to find that he had been using the same materials and methods in painting as Cennini describes, particularly the carpenter’s glue.’
Blake was a severe designer,—says another friend, on the same topic,—and the richness of oils did not please him nor comport with his style; nay, so vehement an antagonist was he to oils (see Descriptive Catalogue), that he used to assert that all really great works were in water-colour; and, regarding the plaster ground and the absence of an oily vehicle as the important and distinguishing characteristic of fresco, and the peculiarity from which it takes its name,—that of being executed on a wet surface,—as a comparatively trivial one, he naturally enough took pleasure in adopting that designation for his own pictures.
A few fragmentary notes concerning Blake’s principles or practice, written down as they were gathered, have not yet been included here. Though slight they are not without interest, and it will be better not to omit them.
He worked at literature and art at the same time, keeping the manuscript beside him and adding to it at intervals, while the
graver continued its task almost without intermission. He despised etching needles, and worked wholly with the graver in latter years.
He used to say, ‘Truth is always in the extremes,—keep them. I suppose he meant the same thing in saying, ‘If a fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.’
He hated the bold, abrupt, off-hand style of drawing. ‘Do you work in fear and trembling?’ he asked a student who came to him for advice. ‘Indeed I do, sir,’ ‘Then you’ll do,’ was the rejoinder. All the grand effects of design, he thought, depended on niceties not to be got at once. First put in the action, then with further strokes fill up. so, he believed, worked the great masters.
He felt his way in drawing, notwithstanding his love of a ‘bold, determinate outline,’ and did not get this at once. Copyists and plagiarists do that, but not original artists, as it is common to suppose: they find a difficulty in developing the first idea. Blake drew a rough dotted line with pencil, then with ink; then colour, filling in cautiously, carefully. At the same time he attached very great importance to ‘first lines, and was wont to affirm:—‘First thoughts are best in art, second thoughts in other matters.’
He held that nature should be learned by heart, and remembered by the painter, as the poet remembers language. ‘To learn the language of art, copy for ever, is my rule,’ said he. But he never painted his pictures from models. ‘Models are difficult—enslave one—efface from one’s mind a conception or reminiscence which was better.’ This last axiom is open to much more discussion than can be given it here. From Fuseli, that often-reported declaration of his, ‘Nature puts me out,’ seems but another expression of the same wilful arrogance and want of delicate shades, whether of character or style, which we find in that painter’s works. But Blake’s natural tendencies were in many respects far different, and it is deeply to be regretted that an antagonism, which became more and more personal as well as
artistic, to the petty practice of the art of his day,—joined no doubt to inevitable sympathy with this very Fuseli, fighting in great measure the same battle with himself for the high against the low,—should have led to Blake’s adopting and unreservedly following this dogma. Poverty, and consequent difficulty of models at command, must have had something to do with it too,. The truth on this point is, that no imaginative artist can fully express his own tone of mind without sometimes in his life working untrammelled by present reference to nature; and, indeed, that the first conception of every serious work must be wrought into something like complete form as a preparatory design without such aid, before having recourse to it in the carrying out of the work. But it is equally or still more imperative that immediate study of nature should pervade the whole completed work. Tenderness, the constant unison of wonder and familiarity so mysteriously allied in nature, the sense of fulness and abundance such as we feel in a field, not because we pry into it all but because it is all there: these are the inestimable prizes to be secured only by such study in the painter’s every picture. and all this Blake, as thoroughly as any painter, was gifted to have attained, as we may see especially in his works of that smallest size where memory and genius may really almost stand in lieu of immediate consultation of nature. But the larger his works are, the further he departs from this lovely impression of natural truth; and when we read the above maxim, we know why. However, the principle was not one about which he had no misgiving, for very fluctuating if not quite conflicting opinions on this point might be quoted from his writings.
No special consideration has yet been entered on here of Blake’s claims as a colourist, but it is desirable that this should be done now in winding up the subject, both because his place in this respect among painters is very peculiar, and also on account of the many misleading things he wrote regarding colour, carried away at the
moment, after his fiery fashion, by the predominance he wished to give to other qualities in some argument in hand. Another reason why his characteristics in this respect need to be dwelt upon is, that certainly his most original and prismatic system of colour, in which tints laid on side by side, each in its utmost force, are made by masterly treatment to produce a startling and novel effect of truth, must be viewed as being, more decidedly than the system of any other painter, the forerunner of a style of execution now characterizing a whole new section of the English School, and making itself admitted as actually involving some positive additions to the resources of the art. some of the out-door pictures of this class, studied as they are with a closeness of imitation perhaps unprecedented, have nevertheless no slight essential affinity to Blake’s way of representing natural scenes, though the smallness of scale in these latter, and the spiritual quality which always mingles with their truth to nature, may render the parallel less apparent than it otherwise would be. In Blake’s colouring of landscape, a subtle and exquisite reality forms quite as strong an element as does ideal grandeur; whether we find him dealing with the pastoral sweetness of drinking cattle at a stream, their hides and fleeces all glorified by sunset with magic rainbow hues, or revealing to us, in a flash of creative genius, some parted sky and beaten sea full of portentous expectation. One unfailing sign of his true brotherhood with all the great colourists is the lovingly wrought and realistic flesh-painting which is constantly to be met with in the midst of his most extraordinary effects. For pure realism, too, though secured in a few touches as only greatness can, let us turn to the dingy London street, all snow-clad and smoke-spotted, through which the little black chimney-sweeper wends his way in the Songs of Experience. Certainly an unaccountable perversity in colour may now and then be apparent, as where, in the same series, the tiger is painted in fantastic
streaks of red, green, blue, and yellow, while a tree stem at his side tantalizingly supplies the tint which one might venture to think his due, and is perfect tiger-colour! I am sure, however, that such vagaries, curious enough no doubt, are not common with Blake, as the above is the only striking instance I can recall in his published work. But, perhaps, a few occasional bewilderments may be allowed to a system of colour which is often suddenly called upon to help in embodying such conceptions as painter never before dreamed of: some old skeleton folded together in the dark bowels of earth or rock, discoloured with metallic stain and vegetable mould; some symbolic human birth of crowned flowers at dawn, amid rosy light and the joyful opening of all things. Even a presentment of the most abstract truths of natural science is not only attempted by this new painter, but actually effected by legitimate pictorial ways; and we are somehow shown, in figurative yet not wholly unreal shapes and hues, the mingling of organic substances, the gradual development and perpetual transfusion of life.
The reader who wishes to study Blake as a colourist has a means of doing so, thorough in kind though limited in extent, by going to the Print Room at the British Museum, which is accessible to any one who takes the proper course to gain admission, and there examining certain of Blake’s hand-coloured prints, bound in volumes. All those in the collection are not equally valuable, since the various copies of Blake’s own colouring differ extremely in finish and richness, as has been already noted here. The Museum copy of the Songs of Innocence and Experience, is rather a poor one, though it will serve to judge of the book; and some others of his works are here represented by copies which, I feel convinced, are not coloured by Blake’s hand at all, but got up more or less in his manner, and brought into the market after his death. But two volumes here—the Song of Los, and especially the smaller of the two collections of odd plates from his different works, which
is labelled Designs by W. Blake, and numbered, inside the fly-leaf, 5240—afford specimens of his colouring, perhaps equal to any that could be seen.
The tinting in the Song of Los is not throughout of one order of value; but no finer example of Blake’s power in rendering poetic effects of landscape could be found, than that almost miraculous expression of the glow and freedom of air in closing sunset, in the pate where a youth and maiden, lightly embraced, are racing along a saddened lowlit hill, against an open sky of blazing and changing winder. But in the volume of collected designs I have specified, almost every plate (or more properly water-colour drawing, as the printed groundwork in such specimens is completely overlaid,) shows Blake’s colour to advantage, and some in its very fullest force. See, for instance, in plate 8, the deep unfathomable green sea churning a broken foam as white as milk against that sky which is all blue and gold and blood-veined heart of fire; while from sea to sky one locked and motionless face gazes, as it might seem, for ever. Or, in plate 9, the fair tongues and threads of liquid flame deepening to the redness of blood, lapping round the flesh-tints of a human figure which bathes and swims in the furnace. Or plate 12, which like the other two really embodies some of the wild ideas in Urizen, but might seem to be Aurora guiding the new-born day, as a child, through a soft-complexioned sky of fleeting rose and tingling grey, such as only dawn and dreams can show us. Or, for pure delightfulness, intricate colour, and a kind of Shakespearian sympathy with all forms of life and growth, as in the Midsummer Night’s Dream, let the gazer, having this precious book once in his hands, linger long over plates 10, 16, 22, and 23. If they be for him, he will be joyful more and more the longer he looks, and will gain back in that time some things as he first knew them, not encumbered behind the days of his life; things too delicate for memory or
years since forgotten; the momentary sense of spring in winter-sunshine, the long sunsets long ago, and falling fires on may distant hills.
The inequality in value, to which I have alluded, between various copies of the same design as coloured by Blake, may be tested by comparing the book containing the plates alluded to above, with the copies of Urizen and the Book of Thel, also in the Print Room, some of whose contents are the same as in this collected volume. The immense difference dependent on greater finish in the book I have described, and indeed sometimes involving the introduction of entirely new features into the design, will thus be at once apparent. In these highly-wrought specimens, the colour has a half floating and half granulated character which is most curious and puzzling, seeming dependent on the use of some peculiar means, either in vehicle, or by some kind of pressure or stamping which had the result of blending the transparent and body tints in a manner not easily described. The actual printing from the pate bearing the design was, as I have said and feel convinced, confined to the first impression in monochrome. But this perplexing quality of execution reaches its climax in some of Blake’s ‘oil-colour printed’ and hand-finished designs, such as several large ones now in the possession of Captain Butts, the grandson of Blake’s friend and patron. One of these, the Newton, consists in great part of a rock covered with fossil substance or lichen of some kind, the treatment of which is as endlessly varied and intricate as a photograph from a piece of seaweed would be. It cannot possibly be all handwork, and yet I cannot conceive no mechanical process short of photography which is really capable of explaining it. It is no less than a complete mystery, well worthy of any amount of inquiry, if a clue could only be found from which to commence. In nearly all Blake’s works of this solidly painted kind, it is greatly to be lamented that the harmony of tints is continually impaired by the
blackening of the bad white pigment, and perhaps red lead also, which has been used,—an injury which must probably go still further in course of time.
Of the process by which the designs last alluded to were produced, the following explanation has been furnished by Mr. Tatham. It is interesting, and I have no doubt correct as regards the groundwork, but certainly it quite falls short of accounting for the perplexing intricacy of such portions as the rock-background of the Newton. ‘Blake, when he wanted to make his prints in oil,’ (writes my informant), ‘took a common thick millboard, and drew in some strong ink or colour his design upon it in such oil colours and in such a state of fusion that they would blur well. He painted roughly and quickly, so that no colour would have time to dry. He then took a print of that on paper and this impression he coloured up in water-colours, re-painting his outline on the millboard when he wanted to take another print. This plan he had recourse to, because he could vary slightly each impression; and each having a sort of accidental look, he could branch out so as to make each one different. The accidental look they had was very enticing.’ Objections might be raised to this account as to the apparent impracticability of painting in water colours over oil; but I do not believe it wold be found so, if the oil colours were merely stamped, as described, and left to dry thoroughly into the paper.
In concluding a biography which as for its subject a life so prone to new paths as was that of William Blake, it may be well to allude, however briefly, to those succeeding British artists who have shown unmistakeably something of his influence in their works. Foremost among these comes a very great though as yet imperfectly acknowledged name,—that of David Scott of Edinburgh, a man whom Blake himself would have delighted to honour, and to whose high appreciation of Blake the motto on the title-page of the present
book bears witness. Another proof of this is to be found in a MS. note in a copy of the Grave which belonged to Scott; which note I shall here transcribe. I may premise that the apparent preference given to the Grave over Blake’s other works, seems to me almost to argue in the writer an imperfect acquaintance with the Job.
‘These, of any series of designs which art has produced,’ (writes the Scottish painter), ‘are the most purely elevated in their relation and sentiment. It would be long to discriminate the position they hold in this respect, and at the same time the disregard they may be held by some who judge of them in a material relation; while the great beauty which they possess will at once be apparent to others who can appreciate their style in its immaterial connexion. But the sum of the whole in my mind is this: that these designs reach the intellectual or infinite, in an abstract significance, more entirely unmixed with inferior elements and local conventions than any others; that they are the result of high intelligence of thought, and of a progress of art through many styles and stages of different times, produced through a bright generalizing and transcendental mind.
‘The errors or defects of Blake’s mere science in form, and his proneness to overdo some of its best features into weakness, are less perceptible in these than in others of his works. What was a disappointment to him was a benefit to the work,—that it was etched by another, who was able to render it in a style thoroughly consistent, (but which Blake has the originality of having pointed out in his series from Young, though he did not properly effect it,) and to pass over those solecisms which would have interrupted its impression, in a way that, to the apprehender of these, need scarcely give offence, and hide them from the discovery of others. They are etched with most appropriate and consummate ability.’ David Scott, 1844.
In the list of subscribers appended to Blake’s Grave we find
the name of ‘Mr. Robert Scott, Edinburgh.’ This was the engraver, father of David Scott, to whom, therefore, this book (published in 1808, one year after his birth) must have come as an early association and influence. That such was the case is often traceable in his works, varied as they are in their grand range of subject, and even treatment. And it is singular that the clear perception of Blake’s weak side, evident in the second paragraph of the note, did not save its writer from falling into defects exactly similar in that peculiar class of his works in which he most resembles Blake. It must be noticed, however, that these are chiefly among his earlier productions, (such as the Monograms of Man, the picture of Discord, &c.) or else among the sketches left imperfect; while the note dates only five years before his untimely death at the age of forty-two. This is not a place where any attempt can be made at estimating the true position of David Scott. Such a task will need, and some day doubtless find, ample limit and opportunity. It is fortunate that an unusually full and excellent biographical record of him already exists in the Memoir from the hand of a brother no less allied to him by mental and artistic powers than by ties of blood; but what is needed is, that his works should be collected and competently placed before the world. An opportunity in this direction was afforded by the International Exhibition of 1862; but the two noble works of his which were there, were so unpardonably ill-placed (and that where so much was well seen which was not worth the seeing), that the chance was completely missed. David Scott will one day be acknowledged as the painter most nearly fulfilling the highest requirements for historic art, both as a thinker and a colourist (in spite of he great claims in many respects of Etty and Maclise), who had come among us from the time of Hogarth to his own. In saying this, it is necessary to add distinctly, (for the sake of objectors who have raised, or may raise, their voices,) that it is not only, or even chiefly, on his intellectual
eminence that the statement is based, but also on the great qualities of colour and powers of solid execution displayed in his finest works, which are to be found among those deriving their subjects from history.
Another painter, ranking far below David Scott, but still not to be forgotten where British poetic art is the theme—was Theodore von Holst, an Englishman, though of German extraction; in may of whose most characteristic works the influence of Blake, as well as Fuseli, has probably been felt. But Holst was far from possessing anything like the depth of thought or high aims which distinguished Blake. At the same time, his native sense of beauty and colour in the more ideal walks of art, was originally beyond that of any among his contemporaries, except Etty and Scott. He may be best described, perhaps, to the many who do not know his works, s being in some sort the Edgar Poe of painting; but lacking, probably, even the continuity of closely studied work in the midst of irregularities which distinguished the weird American poet, and has enabled him to leave behind some things which cannot be soon forgotten. Holst, on the contrary, it is to be feared, has hardly transmitted such complete record of his naturally great gifts as can secure their rescue from oblivion. It would be very desirable that an account of him and his works should be written by some one best able to do so among those still living who must have known him. It is a tribute due to an artist who, however imperfect his self-expression during a short and fitful career, forms certainly one of the few connecting links between the early and sound period of English colour and method in painting, and that revival of which so many signs have in late years been apparent. At present, much of what he did is doubtless in danger of being lost altogether. specimens from his hand existed in the late Northwick collection, now dispersed; and some years since I saw a most beautiful work by him—a female head or half figure—among the pictures at Stafford
House. But Holst’s sketches and designs on paper (a legion past numbering) were for the most part more expressive of his full powers than his pictures, which were too often merely sketches enlarged without reference to nature. Of these, a very extensive collection was possessed by the late Serjeant Ralph Thomas. What has become of them? Among Holst’s pictures, the best are nearly always those partaking of the fantastic or supernatural, which, however dubious a ground to take i art, was the true bent of his genius. A notable instance of his comparative weakness in subjects of pure dignity, may be found in what has been pronounced his best work, and was probably about the most ‘successful’ at the time of its production; that is, the Raising of Jairus’s Daughter, which was lately in the gallery at the Pantheon in Oxford Street, and probably still remains there.
Of any affinity in spirit to Blake which might be found existing in the works of living artists, it is not necessary to speak here; yet allusion should be should be made to one still alive and honoured in other ways, who early in life produced a series of Biblical designs seldom equalled for imaginative impression, and perhaps more decidedly like Blake’s works, though quite free from plagiarism, than anything else that could be cited. I allude to One Hundred Copper-plate Engravings from original drawings by Isaac Taylor, junior, calculated to ornament all quarto and octavo editions of the Bible. London: Allan Bell & Co. Warwick Square. 1834.
Strange as it may appear, I believe I am right in stating that these were produced in youth by the now venerable author of the Natural History of Enthusiasm, and many other works. How he came to do them, or why he did no more, I have no means of recording. They are very small and very unattractively engraved, sometimes by the artist and sometimes by others. In simplicity, dignity, and original thought, probably in general neglect at the
time, and certainly in complete disregard ever since, they bear a close affinity to the mass of Blake’s works, and may fairly be supposed to have been in some measure inspired by the study of them. The Witch of Endor, the Plague Stayed, the Death of Sampson, and many others, are, in spirit, even well worthy of his hand, and from him at least would not have missed the admiration they deserve.
Having spoken so far of Blake’s influence as a painter, I should be glad if I could point out that the simplicity and purity of his style as a lyric poet had also exercised some sway. But, indeed, he is so far removed from ordinary apprehensions in most of his poems, or more or less in all, and they have been so little spread abroad, that it would be impossible to attribute to them any decided place among the impulses which have directed the extraordinary mass of poetry displaying power of one or another kind, which has been brought before us from his day to our own. perhaps some infusion of his modest and genuine beauties might add a charm even to the most gifted works of our present rather redundant time. One grand poem, on the same footing as his own (or even a still more obscure one) as regards popular recognition, and which shares exactly, though on a more perfect scale than he ever realized in poetry, the exalted and primeval qualities of his poetic art, may be found in C. J. Wells’s scriptural drama of Joseph and his Brethren, published in 1824 under the assumed name of Howard. This work is, perhaps, the solitary instance, within our period, of poetry of the very first class falling quite unrecognised and continuing so for a long space of years. Its time, however, will most assuredly still come. It is impossible here to make any but a passing allusion to it, as affording, in nits command of various character, including even the strongest and most earthly passion, but all working within a circle of spiritual influence,—a perfect parallel with the productions of Blake’s genius, though rather, perhaps, with its more complete development in painting, than its always somewhat fragmentary written expression.
The same remarks would apply to Wells’s prose Stories after Nature (1822).
A very singular example of the closest and most absolute resemblance to Blake’s poetry may be met with (if only one could meet with it), in a phantasmal sort of little book, published, or perhaps not published but only printed, some years since, and entitled, Improvisations of the Spirit. IT bears no author’s name, but was written by Dr. J. J. Garth Wilkinson, the highly-gifted editor of Swedenborg’s writings, and author of a Life of him: to whom, as has been before mentioned, we owe a reprint of the poems in Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. These improvisations profess to be written under precisely the same kind of spiritual guidance, amounting to abnegation of personal effort in the writer, which Blake supposed to have presided over the production of his Jerusalem, &c. The little book has passed into the general (and in all other cases richly-deserved) limbo of the modern ‘spiritualist’ muse. It is a very thick little book, however unsubstantial its origin; and contains, amid much that is disjointed or hopelessly obscure, (but then why be the polisher of poems for which a ghost, and not even your own ghost, is alone responsible?) many passages and indeed whole compositions of a remote and charming beauty, or sometimes of a grotesque figurative relation to things of another sphere, which are startlingly akin to Blake’s writings,—could pass, in fact, for no one’s but his. Professing as they do the same new kind of authorship, they might afford plenty of material for comparison and bewildered speculation, if such were in any request.
Rarely indeed have any specimens of Blake appeared in or Collections from the Poets. In two recent instances of the kind, however, the collector has himself been a poet; and here at last such editorship, the only true one for the purpose, brings among its good fruits the presence of Blake in the gathering. I allude to The Children’s Garland, edited by Coventry Patmore; and Nightingale
Valley, a collection also understood to have been formed by a poet of deserved reputation, and containing, besides extracts, an appreciative notice of Blake.
The reader has now reached the threshold of the Second Part of this volume, throughout which he will be fortunate enough to be communicating directly with Blake’s own mind, in a series of writings in prose and verse, many of them here first published. Now perhaps no poet ever courted a public with more apparent need for some smoothing of the way, or mild forewarning, from within, from without, or indeed from any region whence a helping heaven and four bountiful winds might be pleased to waft it, than does Blake in may of the ‘emanations,’ as he might himself have called them, contained in this our Second Part. yet, on the other hand, there is the plain truth that such aid will be not at all needed by those whom these writings will impress, and almost certainly lost upon those whom they will not. On the whole, I have thought it best to preface each class of these Selections with a few short remarks, but neither to encumber with many words their sure effect in the right circles, nor to do battle with their destiny in the wrong. Only it may be specified here, that wherever any pieces occurring in Blake’s written note-books appeared of a nature on the privacy of which he might have relied in writing them, these have been passed by in the task of selection. At the same time, all has been included which seemed capable in any way of extending our knowledge of Blake as a poet and writer, in the manner he himself might wished to do so. Mere obscurity or remoteness from usual ways of thought were, as we know, no bar to publication with him; therefore, in all cases where such qualities, even seeming to myself excessive, are found in conjunction with the lyrical power and beauty of expression so peculiar to Blake’s style as a poet (and this, let us not forget, startlingly in advance of the time at which he wrote), I have thought it better to include the compositions so qualified.
On the other hand, my MS. researches have often furnished me with poems which I treasure most highly, and which I cannot doubt will dwell in many memories as they do in mine. But as regards the varying claims of these selections, it should be borne in mind that an attempt is made in the present volume to produce, after a long period of neglect, as complete a record as might be of Blake and his works; and that, while any who can here find anything to love will be the poet-painter’s welcome guests, still such a feast is spread first of all for those who can know at a glance that it is theirs and was meant for them; who can meet their host’s eye with sympathy and recognition, even when he offers them the new strange fruits grown for himself in far-off gardens where he has dwelt alone, or pours for them the wines which he has learned to love in lands where they never travelled.
END OF VOLUME I.