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Youth and Apprenticeship, 1757-1778
William Blake ill. 1 was born in London on 28 November 1757 and was christened on 11 December in St. James’s Church. His mother, born Catherine Wright, was married twice. Evidence has recently emerged that she and her first husband, a hosier named Thomas Armitage, were members of the Moravian Church (Davies and Schuchard), and some readers have detected echoes of Moravian hymns in Blake’s poems. After Armitage died, Catherine left the Moravians and married James Blake, also a hosier. The Blakes kept a shop at 28 Broad Street and were in their mid-thirties when William arrived. Of his brothers and sisters, Robert (1762-87) was Blake’s favorite. His eldest brother, James (1753-1827), and a sister, Catherine (1764-1841), also figured prominently in his later life. As a child, Blake viewed the world in the light of what Wordsworth, in his Ode: Intimations of Immortality, would later call a “visionary gleam.” When he was about nine, he told his parents he had seen “a tree filled with angels” on one of his walks; he later reported a similar vision of “angelic figures walking” in a field among workers as they gathered in the hay (Gilchrist 1: 7). Unlike the child in Wordsworth’s poem, however, Blake never outgrew these visions. He was past fifty when he described seeing the rising sun as “an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty” (Erdman 566). Blake’s artistic ability also became evident while he was still a child. At age ten he was enrolled in Henry Pars’s drawing school, where he learned to sketch the human figure by copying from plaster casts of ancient statues. His father encouraged his interest and even bought him some casts of his own. The influence of his early exposure to Greek and Roman sculpture can be seen in Blake’s later work. The Farnese Hercules, for example, is the model for the figure of Giant Despair in Christian and Hopeful Escape from Doubting Castle, one of Blake’s illustrations to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1824-27). In his last illuminated work, Laocoön (c. 1826-27), ill. 2 he surrounds a wellknown classical sculpture with his own commentary on art, religion, and commerce. Besides plaster casts, the young Blake also began to collect inexpensive prints from shops and auctions. His taste ran to Raphael, Michelangelo, Giulio Romano, Albrecht Dürer, and Maerten Heemskerck, artists whose work was not widely appreciated at the time. He never wavered in his conviction that they were superior to the more fashionable painters of the Venetian and Flemish schools. In the catalogue for an exhibition of his own work in 1809, he accuses artists “who endeavour to raise up a style against Rafael, Mich. Angelo, and the Antique” of attempting to destroy art (Erdman 538). In 1772, having left Pars’s school, the fourteen-year-old Blake began his apprenticeship under James Basire, engraver to the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society. Basire was best known for his simple line engravings—a style many of his contemporaries considered outdated, but one that fit well with Blake’s preference for the firm outlines of artists like Albrecht Dürer. Basire’s usual subjects were antiquities and monuments, which he reproduced with austere precision; although he occasionally took on higher-profile projects, such as Benjamin West’s Pylades and Orestes, these were the exception rather than the rule. Prominent artists like West tended to prefer the services of Basire’s rivals, William Woollett (who engraved West’s best-known painting, The Death of General Wolfe) and Robert Strange. Many years later, Blake, remembering the slight to his employer, would call these two men “heavy lumps of Cunning & Ignorance” (Erdman 573). In Basire’s shop at 31 Great Queen Street in London, Blake learned the craft of copy engraving as it was practiced in England at the end of the eighteenth century. The standard method of preparing a copperplate for etching or engraving was time-consuming and labor-intensive. The original large sheet of copper had to be cut into appropriate sizes and the edges beveled to facilitate cleaning the ink off the plate and to prevent it from tearing the paper. The plate also had to be squared and its corners rounded, because the pressure of the printing press would leave an impression of the plate’s edges in the paper. Next, the surface had to be polished, cleaned, and covered with an acid-resistant
film, or “ground,” which was then darkened with soot to contrast with the copper. Onto this ground the design was then transferred and traced with a needle to expose the plate’s surface to acid, which bit the design into the copper (Viscomi, Blake 48-50). In a shop like Basire’s , most of the tedious preparatory work was carried out by apprentices like Blake. It is difficult to know which of the works produced in Basire’s shop during this period Blake himself may have engraved, because engravers’ apprentices were discouraged from developing their own individual styles, and their work was usually signed by the master. Among the projects in which modern scholars believe Blake probably had a hand were Jacob Bryant’s A New System, or, an Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774-76) and Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain, Part I (published 1786). These books represent two subjects—mythology and British history—in which Blake never lost interest. Bryant was an antiquarian and mythographer who, like many others in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, attempted to reconcile pagan mythology with the biblical account of history. He theorized that the original monotheism of the Old Testament had degenerated after the Flood into various forms of sun worship, from which all the other pagan gods and heroes descended. His work had a lasting influence on Blake, who as late as 1809 cites the authority of “Jacob Bryant, and all antiquaries” in support of his claim that “The antiquities of every Nation under Heaven” are equally sacred (Erdman 543). The plates for Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments were engraved after pencil sketches Blake made of the tombs of kings and queens in Westminster Abbey. Basire is said to have given him that assignment in order to get him out of the shop and away from the dissension that was brewing among the newer apprentices (Bentley, Blake Records 422). Blake probably engraved a number of the sketches himself, including the portraits of Henry III, Eleanor of Castile, Edward III, and Richard II. ill. 3 ill. 4 Eleanor in particular seems to have appealed to Blake’s imagination, for he returned to her as a subject for the historical print Edward & Elenor ill. 5 and, much later, for one of his Visionary Heads. Edward III, meanwhile, reappears as the protagonist of a dramatic fragment in Blake’s first volume of poetry, Poetical Sketches (1783). The earliest engraving that scholars can confidently attribute to Blake reflects his interest in early British history and legend. He later reworked and reprinted it with the title Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion ill. 6 and dated it 1773, the second year of his apprenticeship. The young Blake’s technique in the first state of this work, though competent, does not reveal much about him as an artist; his distinctive imagination emerges only in the way he combines the compositional elements. He takes the pensive, muscular figure from Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of St. Peter, but places him against a spare, brooding background of sea and rocky coast that evokes a mood reminiscent of the bleak seascapes of Anglo-Saxon verse. On the later state of this engraving, Blake identifies the figure as “One of the Gothic Artists who Built the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages” (Erdman 671)—an allusion to the legend that Joseph of Arimathea traveled to Britain and founded Glastonbury Abbey.
2. Artist and Engraver, 1779-1788
In 1779, at age twenty-one, Blake completed his seven-year apprenticeship with Basire and became a journeyman copy engraver, making his living by working on projects for London book and print publishers like Thomas Macklin, Harrison and Co., and Joseph Johnson. Macklin would later launch the Poets’ Gallery (1788) and the Macklin Bible (1790)—commercial ventures aimed, like John Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, at orchestrating a profitable combination of paintings, engravings, and literature. Blake’s earliest separate prints were stipple engravings for Macklin of scenes by the French Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose work was known in England primarily through engravings. ill. 1 ill. 2 The stipple method, with its patterns of tiny dots, was well suited for reproducing his paintings, which emphasized color and tone over line. Although he never mentions Watteau by name, Blake later expresses contempt for this emphasis on color among painters of the Venetian school, of which Watteau was a direct heir. The summer of 1780 was an uneasy time in England. In June, violent anti-Catholic demonstrations, the Gordon Riots, spread through London, and Blake may have witnessed the destruction firsthand. Alexander Gilchrist reports that on 6 June, the third day of the riots, Blake was involuntarily swept along before a large mob and watched as it stormed and burned Newgate Prison (1: 35). Later that same summer, a sketching trip with Thomas Stothard and another friend on the River Medway brought Blake afoul of the law when the artists, mistaken for spies, were arrested for approaching too near to the great naval base on the Medway near Upnor Castle. Stothard was a versatile commercial artist and a prolific book illustrator, and Blake was one of several engravers who helped to popularize his works during the 1780s; others included James Heath and William Sharp. The Novelist’s Magazine, published by Harrison and Co. in the early 1780s, showcased Stothard’s picturesque wash drawings, which Blake, Heath, and Sharp reproduced in a uniform technique that preserved the fashionable style of the originals. ill. 3 Blake also engraved some of Stothard’s illustrations for books published by Joseph Johnson, including William Enfield’s The Speaker (1780), ill. 4 the mathematician John Bonnycastle’s Introduction to Mensuration (1782), ill. 5 and Joseph Ritson’s A Select Collection of English Songs (1783). A number of Blake’s other new friends in the early 1780s were professional or amateur artists. John Flaxman, a neoclassical sculptor whose illustrations of Homer, ill. 6 Aeschylus, and Dante would one day spread his fame throughout Europe, was then beginning his career as a designer for Josiah Wedgwood’s popular line of classically inspired pottery. John Hawkins, a connoisseur, in 1784 tried unsuccessfully to raise enough money to send Blake to Italy, where he was to have completed his education in drawing by studying firsthand the works of the ancient sculptors and of Renaissance masters like Michelangelo and Raphael. George Cumberland, the author of Thoughts on Outline (1796), ill. 7 was, like Flaxman, dedicated to reviving the classical style. “I study your outlines,” Blake would write to him in 1799, “[. . .] just as if they were antiques” (Erdman 704). At the same time that he was working on commercial engraving projects, Blake was also preparing himself for a career as a painter. In 1779 he was admitted as a student to the Royal Academy of Art’s Schools of Design. Founded in 1769 to promote English art and artists, the Royal Academy provided formal training and annual exhibitions. There Blake pursued his study of drawing, gaining admission after a probationary period to the Schools’ collection of plaster casts of antique sculpture. ill. 8 ill. 9 Even as a student, Blake followed his own taste in art. When the elderly George Moser, Keeper of the Royal Academy, advised him to study Lebrun and Rubens instead of the “stiff” and “unfinished” works of Raphael and Michelangelo, the young Blake balked: “These things that you call Finishd are not Even Begun,” he later reported himself as having replied; “how can they then, be Finishd?” (Erdman 639). Blake not only studied at the Royal Academy but exhibited his work there as well, beginning in 1780 with The Death of Earl Goodwin, ill. 10 one of a series of watercolor drawings on the early history of England that also included such subjects as The Landing of Brutus, The Making of
Magna Carta, ill. 11 and The Penance of Jane Shore. In 1784, Blake exhibited a pair of thematically related works, A Breach in a City the Morning after the Battle and War Unchaind by an Angel. Fire, Pestilence, and Famine Following, ill. 12 depicting the ravages of war. The following year, he exhibited four works: The Bard, from Gray and three drawings illustrating the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers, the latter reflecting an increasing interest in Old Testament subjects. In all these drawings, Blake adheres to the prevailing neoclassical style as interpreted by such contemporary artists as James Barry.
Blake’s creative activities were not confined to the visual arts during these years. The early 1780s also saw the private publication of Poetical Sketches (1783), a collection of poems he had written over the previous fourteen years. These early efforts echo Blake’s English precursors from Spenser to the eighteenth century but also demonstrate his willingness to experiment with form and language. The series of four season poems that opens the volume suggests the range of influences the young poet had absorbed, drawing on sources as diverse as the Song of Solomon and the northern sublime popularized by James Macpherson’s poems of Ossian. Blake’s independent views in both aesthetics and politics are evident even in his first book: To the Muses explicitly critiques contemporary verse, accusing the muses of turning their backs on poetry altogether, and the fragmentary historical drama King Edward the Third explores the problematic role of war and imperialism in English history. The publication of Poetical Sketches was financed by Flaxman and two of his friends, the Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet, who hosted literary and artistic gatherings to which Blake had recently begun to be invited. One of those who attended frequently was Thomas Taylor, whose lectures on Greek philosophy, soon to be followed by translations from Plotinus, Proclus, and the Platonic dialogues, earned him the nickname “the Platonist.” Blake eventually became disillusioned with the Mathew circle; his unfinished satire An Island in the Moon (c. 1784-85) ill. 13 is a lively sendup of their social ambitions and affectations. Under names like “Inflammable Gass,” “Sipsop the Pythagorean,” and “Mrs. Nannicantipot,” Blake’s fellow guests gossip, philosophize, and show off their latest inventions, bursting frequently into song—and, at least once, into flame. Blake’s companion throughout these eventful years was Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), whom he had married in 1782. He had met his future wife, the daughter of a market gardener, during a stay in Battersea. Recently rejected by another woman, Blake told Catherine the story of his unsuccessful courtship; she pitied him and in turn won his affection (Bentley, Blake Records 517-18). The two were married 18 August at the church of St. Mary in Battersea and moved to 23 Green Street in London. Their marriage was by all accounts happy; one of the few recorded exceptions occurred when Catherine quarreled with Blake’s beloved younger brother Robert, and Blake insisted she kneel down and apologize to him (Gilchrist 1: 58-59). In 1784, Blake set up a printing and publishing partnership at 27 Broad Street with James Parker, who had also worked as an apprentice under Basire. The business apparently did not thrive. Only two prints, Zephyrus and Flora ill. 14 and Calisto, ill. 15 separate plates on mythological themes engraved by Blake after Stothard, are known to have been produced (Essick 141). The Blake-Parker partnership appears to have broken up by the end of 1785, and the Blakes moved to 28 Poland Street. Blake did little commercial engraving over the next two years, but 1788 was busier, culminating in a commission from the Boydells for Blake’s biggest commercial project of the decade: a large engraving of William Hogarth’s The Beggar’s Opera, Act III. ill. 16 The painting depicts a performance of John Gay’s famous ballad opera, the story of the highwayman MacHeath. The engraving took Blake nearly two years to complete.
3. Illuminated Printing and other Illustrated Books, 1789-1792
At the same time that he was working on these commercial projects, Blake was searching for a better way to print and publish his own work. About 1788, he invented relief etching, a process that was both more efficient and potentially more expressive and autographic than traditional intaglio etching. In intaglio graphics, the design must be transferred to the metal plate: either scratched lightly onto the waxed surface and then deepened with an engraving tool, such as a burin, or traced with a needle into an acid-resistant coating, the exposed pattern of lines and dots then being bitten into the plate with acid. Blake’s contemporaries usually tried to optimize quality and efficiency by combining these techniques in “mixed-method” engraving. In relief etching, on the other hand, the design is painted directly onto the copperplate using an acid-resistant varnish. When acid is applied to the plate, the unpainted surface, rather than the design itself, is eaten away, while the design is left standing in relief to be inked and printed. Because the design is above rather than below the surface of the plate, a relief etching also requires less pressure to print than a conventional intaglio etching or engraving. The printed version of a relief etching is, of course, a mirror image of the original design; this means that any text to be included must be written backwards. As a trained copy engraver, however, Blake had already had an opportunity to practice this skill. It was Blake’s late brother Robert who, according to John Thomas Smith, directed Blake toward this discovery. Robert had died in February 1787; Blake, who had remained constantly at his bedside for two weeks and reportedly collapsed into a continuous sleep for three days and nights after his death (Gilchrist 1: 59), continued to see his brother in visions. The following year, Robert appeared to him in such a vision and instructed him in a new method of printing his works without “the expense of letter-press” (Bentley, Blake Records 460). Appropriately, one of Blake’s first experiments in this medium was The Approach of Doom, ill. 1 a print based on one of Robert’s drawings. ill. 2 The real importance of relief etching for Blake, however, was not economic but aesthetic: unlike other methods of printing texts and designs available at the end of the eighteenth century, it did not separate invention from production. The need to keep these two activities united became one of Blake’s central tenets as an artist. Blake continued to employ relief etching in his first two illuminated books, All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion (both c. 1788). ill. 3 ill. 4 His decision to present their texts in the form of aphorisms (or “Principles,” as he calls them in All Religions are One) may have been inspired partly by the English translation of Johann Caspar Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man (1788), ill. 5 for which Blake engraved the frontispiece. The two tractates are part of Blake’s lifelong quarrel with the philosophy of Bacon, Newton, and Locke. Rejecting the rational empiricism of eighteenth-century deism or “natural religion,” which looked to the material world for evidence of God’s existence, Blake offers as an alternative the imaginative faculty or “Poetic Genius.” Much better known is Blake’s next illuminated book, Songs of Innocence (1789), ill. 6 a collection of short lyric poems and their accompanying designs. Deceptively simple at first reading, the Songs have affinities with eighteenth-century children’s literature but go beyond the traditional children’s book to question some of the unexamined assumptions of adult society. “Every child may joy to hear” such songs (Erdman 7), but some adults in Blake’s audience might well have been uncomfortable with the social critique implicit in such poems as The Chimney Sweeper, Holy Thursday, or Night. The nature of illuminated printing allowed the Blakes (Catherine assisted with the printing and hand coloring) to maintain control over the entire process of producing and marketing Songs and subsequent illuminated books. Later in the same year Blake produced The Book of Thel, ill. 7 an illuminated poem in unrhymed lines of fourteen syllables. Numerous allegorical interpretations have been suggested for this story of a young shepherdess who receives advice from a lily, a cloud, and a clod of clay, only to flee in the end from a “voice of sorrow” that rises from “her own grave plot” (Erdman 6). The designs present her as a pale and slender figure, clothed in a wispy gown, conversing with her
anthropomorphic mentors in a world defined by delicate watercolor washes. A very different kind of illuminated book grew out of Blake’s disillusionment with Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mystic in whose work he had begun to take an interest. Blake read and annotated at least three of Swedenborg’s books, and he and Catherine attended a meeting of the Swedenborgian New Jerusalem Church in April 1789. By 1790, however, interest had turned to opposition. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) ill. 8 apparently began as a four-page antiSwedenborgian pamphlet (Viscomi, "Lessons" 173), but it quickly grew into a full-blown satire flexible enough to accommodate a mixture of prose and verse, with settings spanning heaven and hell and a cast of characters that includes angels and devils, Old Testament prophets, John Milton, and Swedenborg himself. The section titled Proverbs of Hell contains some of Blake’s best-known aphorisms, such as “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” (Erdman 35). Blake apparently intended to publish his narrative poem Tiriel (c. 1789) ill. 9 ill. 10 in conventional letterpress with intaglio engravings, but it remained in manuscript accompanied by twelve wash drawings. Tiriel, a tyrant who curses his own children, has affinities with both Sophocles’s Oedipus and Shakespeare’s King Lear. The poem’s echoes of Greek tragedy and the designs’ strong classical associations may initially strike readers as derivative, but despite its traditional elements, Tiriel is noteworthy as one of Blake’s earliest experiments in constructing his own mythic world. Another letterpress project that was never completed, The French Revolution (1791), progressed as far as the page proofs of the first book, printed for Joseph Johnson. Although the title page announces “A Poem, in Seven Books,” only Book the First is known to exist. Based on the events of 1789, it mixes fact with fiction, though the proportion of history to myth is much higher than in later prophetic poems like America ill. 11 and Europe. ill. 12 In addition to his own manuscripts and illuminated books, Blake continued during the 1790s to engrave illustrations for London booksellers, particularly Joseph Johnson. To the third volume of The Antiquities of Athens (1794), ill. 13 James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s monumental work on classical architecture, Blake contributed four engravings after W. Pars of sculptures from the Temple of Theseus(Bentley, Blake Books 624). For Erasmus Darwin’s scientific poem The Botanic Garden (1791-1806), he engraved designs after Fuseli (Fertilization of Egypt and Tornado) ill. 14 ill. 15 ill. 16 and illustrations of the famous Portland Vase. Darwin’s poem and its copious notes probably suggested some of the biological and geological imagery that appears in Blake’s illuminated books of the mid-1790s. While engraving John Gabriel Stedman’s designs for his Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), a firsthand account of a slave rebellion, Blake became a close friend of the author. Though not an abolitionist, Stedman deplored the inhuman conditions to which Africans were subjected on sugar and tobacco plantations. His graphic descriptions and depictions of the torture inflicted by the slave owners offended some contemporary readers, but critics praised the quality of the illustrations. ill. 17 ill. 18 ill. 19 Blake both composed and engraved the six designs for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life (1791), a work of didactic fiction that offers an alternative to the eighteenth-century ideal of woman as an emotional creature of more sensibility than sense. Most of the illustrations depict the rational Mrs. Mason’s efforts to teach her two young female students the importance of charity and compassion by exposing them to scenes of poverty and suffering. ill. 20 ill. 21 His work for Johnson during the 1790s may have given Blake an opportunity to meet some of the more prominent radical thinkers and writers in England. Besides Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) attacked contemporary notions about women’s education and role in society, the Johnson circle included William Godwin, the author of Political Justice (1794); Thomas Holcroft, who was tried on charges of high treason in 1794 along with John Horne Tooke; Joseph Priestley, the prominent chemist and radical; and Thomas Paine, author of
The Rights of Man (1791-92), who fled England in 1792 to avoid arrest—tipped off, it was rumored, by Blake himself: “Blake advised him immediately to fly, for he said ’if you are not now sought I am sure you soon will be.’ Paine took the hint directly & found he had just escaped in time” (Bentley, Blake Records 530). The story may well be apocryphal, but it reveals the extent to which Blake’s name was associated with those of the leading radical figures of the decade.
The member of Johnson’s circle who played the most important role in Blake’s life, however, was Henry Fuseli, a Swiss artist who had emigrated to England. He and Blake greatly admired each other’s work: Blake considered Fuseli a century ahead of his time (Bentley, Blake Records Supplement 80), while Fuseli, for his part, pronounced Blake “d----d good to steal from” (Gilchrist 1: 52). The two formed a close friendship, and Blake engraved a number of Fuseli’s designs, both for book illustrations and as separate plates. ill. 22 When Blake returned to illuminated printing in 1793 after a three-year hiatus, his new books shared some themes prominent among the authors Johnson published. Oothoon, the victimized heroine of Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), ill. 23 adds her eloquent lament to the discourse on slavery and the rights of women. America a Prophecy (1793), the first of Blake’s Continental Prophecies, treats the American Revolution as an event with mythological as well as historical dimensions. Paine makes an appearance here, as do Washington, Franklin, and other American luminaries, but so do new figures from Blake’s personal mythology: Urizen, ill. 24 the wintry oppressor, and Orc, ill. 25 the fiery revolutionary, who act out the conflict on a cosmic scale. For Children: The Gates of Paradise, ill. 26 ill. 27 an emblem book comprising eighteen small intaglio etchings accompanied by brief inscriptions on the human condition, also appeared in 1793. Blake later revised the work as For the Sexes (c. 1820). ill. 28 ill. 29
4. Illustrated Books and Separate Prints, 1793-1799
Besides illuminated books, Blake designed and executed a number of separate plates in 1793. Although he produced many watercolor drawings of subjects from British history, Edward & Elenor (1793) ill. 1 is his only known engraving in that genre. It commemorates the moment when, according to legend, the queen risked her own life to suck the poison out of her husband’s wound. Blake’s Job (1793) ill. 2 grew out of drawings dating from the 1780s, and he revised the design for one of his Job watercolors of c. 1805. ill. 3 In Albion rose (1793), also known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion, a triumphant young male nude stands with outstretched arms before a glorious sunburst. ill. 4 Contrasting with his open and unselfconscious posture are The Accusers of Theft Adultery Murder (1793), who, though armed, crowd stiffly together in fright. ill. 5 Both these designs have affinities with the revolutionary themes of America: the vigorous young Albion suggests the youthful revolutionary Orc, while the title of the first state of The Accusers echoes the prediction in America that the tyrants’ “end should come” with the French Revolution(Erdman 57). In his next Continental Prophecy, Europe: a Prophecy (1794), Blake continued to mix his personal mythology with history and the ongoing conflicts of his own times. The frontispiece design to this book is perhaps the most familiar of all Blake’s images: an old man, his long white hair and beard blown to one side, kneeling in an orb surrounded by clouds and reaching one arm down to apply a pair of compasses to some unseen realm below. ill. 6 In the poem, the eighteen centuries of Christian history become a “female dream” of Enitharmon(Erdman 63), whose son Orc illuminates “the vineyards of red France” with the light of revolution (Erdman 66). In 1794, Blake produced a second collection of lyrics, Songs of Experience, ill. 7 as a companion volume for his earlier Songs of Innocence. He intended the two sets of poems, which he combined as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, to illustrate “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul” (Erdman 7). ill. 8 In one of the most anthologized poems in the English language, The Tyger, Blake frames this opposition as a question of origins. When the child in Innocence asks, “Little Lamb who made thee” (Erdman 8), he is already sure of the answer, but the question the adult speaker of Experience poses to the Tyger— “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” (Erdman 25) —resists any such certainty. The problem of origins is also central to the Urizen Books, a series of interrelated illuminated poems whose myths echo—and subvert— Genesis, Paradise Lost, and other traditional creation narratives. In Blake’s version, the act of creation is itself a fall into the material world, where flawed creators struggle with each other and with the intractable elements of the cosmos. The most ambitious work in this series is The [First] Book of Urizen (1794), ill. 9 a poem in nine chapters generously illustrated with relief-etched designs. Two related poems, The Book of Ahania ill. 10 and The Book of Los, ill. 11 followed in 1795. These are briefer and less lavishly illustrated than Urizen, and their texts are etched in intaglio rather than relief. In the same year, Blake produced his final Continental Prophecy, The Song of Los, ill. 12 consisting of Africa and Asia. In these last three illuminated books, Blake was experimenting with color printing techniques he would employ in his next major graphic project. The twelve large color-printed drawings of 1795 represent the culmination of Blake’s experiments with a new color-printing technique using opaque, glue-based pigments. The subjects of these designs range from the creation of Adam to the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, and include scenes from the Old Testament, Shakespeare, and Blake’s own mythology. Lamech and His Two Wives, ill. 13 based on an obscure and infrequently illustrated passage in Genesis 4:23-24, pictures the destructive passions that lead to murder and regret in the fallen world. An equally dire fate awaits those who come to The House of Death, ill. 14 a design based on a passage in Milton’s Paradise Lost also illustrated by Fuseli. Nebuchadnezzar ill. 15 shows an even lower mental and physical state—the human reduced to the animalistic. It has been suggested recently that the color print traditionally titled Hecate ill. 16 should actually be called The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy. Such a
change in title shifts the subject of the print from the traditional witch and moon goddess Hecate to Blake’s own mythological representations of the natural world as a place of joyless repression. Enitharmon, as the reigning deity of such a world, separates and casts spells upon the youthful male and female behind her. Like the full-page designs for The Song of Los, The Book of Los, and Ahania, they were printed from a flat surface instead of a relief-etched plate. In the same year, the bookseller and publisher Richard Edwards commissioned Blake to illustrate Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, a long didactic poem in blank verse that had achieved great popularity on the continent as well as in England. It was the biggest commercial project Blake would ever undertake. Within two years, he produced 537 watercolor designs to fit in large margins around rectangular blocks of Young’s text set in letterpress. ill. 17 ill. 18 For this prodigious effort, he reportedly received only twenty-one pounds. Blake engraved forty-three of his designs for the first of four projected volumes, which was also the last: Edwards went out of business not long after it appeared in 1797, and the project was abandoned. ill. 19 Meanwhile, Blake had begun work on his own long poem, divided, like Young’s Night Thoughts, into nine “Nights.” Originally titled Vala, the epic evolved into The Four Zoas, an exploration of the fourfold division of fallen consciousness. It remained in manuscript, heavily revised and accompanied by designs that, like his Night Thoughts illustrations, surround the text. Blake eventually abandoned the poem, probably around 1807, but used material from it in his two later epics, Milton ill. 20 and Jerusalem. ill. 21 Blake’s work on Night Thoughts also influenced a project very different from The Four Zoas: his watercolor illustrations for the poems of Thomas Gray, which Flaxman commissioned in 1797 as a present for his wife, Ann. By the following year Blake had completed a series of 116 watercolor designs around the letterpress text of Gray’s poems.
ill. 22 ill. 23
After spending two years on the ill-fated Night Thoughts, Blake had difficulty finding work as an engraver. “I am laid by in a corner as if I did not Exist,” he complained to Cumberland in 1799; “Even Johnson & Fuseli have discarded my Graver” (Erdman 704). As the decade drew to a close, he became increasingly dependent on private patrons. One of the most important of these was Thomas Butts, ill. 24 who, beginning about 1799, commissioned paintings on biblical subjects in watercolors and in an experimental medium Blake called “tempera” or “fresco.” These commissions provided Blake with the creative latitude he craved and the financial support he needed: between 1803 and 1810, they brought in some 400 pounds (Bentley, Stranger 186), one of Blake’s few reliable sources of income during those lean years.
5. Departure and Return, 1800-1808
In 1800 Blake left London and moved to a cottage near the home of another patron, William Hayley, in Felpham, Sussex. Hayley was a popular poet, the author of Essays on Sculpture (1800), for which Blake engraved three plates, including a portrait of Hayley’s son Tom, a student of Flaxman. ill. 1 The two found common ground in Tom’s death in May 1800; Blake, recalling his brother Robert’s death thirteen years earlier, wrote to Hayley “with a brothers Sympathy” for his loss (Erdman 705). Two months later, Blake visited Hayley at Felpham and was soon making preparations to move there. Eager to leave London and full of optimism about his new life in Sussex, he wrote to Hayley in September, “My fingers Emit sparks of fire with Expectations of my future labours” (Erdman 709). The stay at Felpham began auspiciously enough. Blake found the place “more Spiritual than London,” as he wrote to Flaxman on his arrival: “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates [. . .] voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard & their forms more distinctly seen” (Erdman 710). The following May, in a letter to Butts, he was still calling Felpham “the sweetest spot on Earth” (Erdman 715). ill. 2 Blake continued to work on commissions for Butts, while Hayley kept him busy executing plates for his Life of Cowper, ill. 3 illustrating his Ballads (1802), ill. 4 and even decorating his library with portraits of poets. As time went on, however, Blake began to resent Hayley’s insistence that he spend his time on such projects at the expense of his own artistic and poetic endeavors. He came to believe that, as he later wrote in Milton, “Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies” (Erdman 98). Hayley was certainly trying to be a corporeal friend, looking out for Blake’s financial interests, teaching him Greek and Latin, and worrying about his mental health. This last role was a familiar one for Hayley: eight years earlier, he had befriended the poet William Cowper and had tried unsuccessfully to intervene in his struggle with insanity. Blake, however, was not Cowper. Many years later, in his annotations to Spurzheim’s Observations on Insanity (1817), he recorded a vision in which Cowper told him, “You retain health & yet are as mad as any of us all [. . .] mad as a refuge from unbelief—from Bacon Newton & Locke” (Erdman 663). By 1803, Blake had decided to leave Felpham, but before he could do so an incident occurred that redoubled his distress. On 12 August, he found a soldier, John Scolfield, in the garden and insisted that he leave. The soldier refused, the two argued, and in the end Blake evicted him by force. Scolfield accused Blake not only of assault but of sedition, claiming he had damned the king, and Blake was indicted on the charges in October. The penalties for sedition in England during the Napoleonic wars were severe, and Blake spent the fall of 1803 in anguish, uncertain of his fate. Hayley hired a barrister to defend him, and he was acquitted the following January. Meanwhile, he and Catherine had moved back to London, renting rooms at 17 South Molton Street. Blake’s first major commercial project after his return to London was a set of illustrations for The Grave, a didactic blank-verse poem by Robert Blair. ill. 5 The publisher, Robert H. Cromek, paid Blake a small sum in 1805 for about twenty designs, with the understanding that he would engrave fifteen for publication. After seeing Blake’s etching of Deaths Door, ill. 6 however, Cromek changed his mind. He saw the ruggedness produced by Blake’s innovative use of white-line etching as mere carelessness (Bentley, Blake Records 172) and decided to turn over the engraving of Blake’s designs to the more fashionable Louis Schiavonetti. As with Young’s Night Thoughts, Blake had invested considerable effort and hope in a project that in the end seemed to have been pulled out from under him. Cromek also rejected Blake’s dedicatory vignette To the Queen, ill. 7 but did include a portrait of Blake himself engraved after Thomas Phillips. ill. 8 To the extent that Blake’s name was known in the early nineteenth century, it was largely as the artist of the Grave designs. While The Grave was still in progress, Blake began work on what was to become his largest original separate plate, a one-by-three-foot intaglio etching of Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims. Blake later told Linnell that Cromek had offered him twenty-one pounds for a painting of the
subject, “with the understanding that the remuneration for the whole would be made adequate by the price to be paid to Blake for the Engraving which Blake stipulated he should execute” (Bentley, Blake Records 464n). Blake became suspicious of Cromek’s intentions and refused to part with the painting; he later learned that Cromek had commissioned a similar design from his friend Stothard. Although Stothard was probably unaware of Cromek’s prior arrangement with Blake, both men became thieves in Blake’s eyes. Blake engraved and attempted to market his own design, but it did not sell well.
6. Exhibition and Illuminated Epics, 1809-1818
In 1809, Blake exhibited Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims along with fifteen other paintings in his brother’s shop at 28 Broad Street. The Descriptive Catalogue that he published to accompany the exhibit is as much an aesthetic manifesto as a catalogue. In it he defends his interpretation of Chaucer’s characters, presents his case against Venetian and Flemish painting, and argues that all great art must be based on the “distinct, sharp, and wirey [. . .] bounding line” (Erdman 558). Among the other works on display were The Bard, from Gray; Satan Calling Up His Legions; and a pair of temperas representing the “spiritual forms” of Nelson and Pitt. By far the largest painting exhibited was The Ancient Britons, a ten-by-fourteen-foot canvas (now lost) depicting three survivors of “the last Battle of King Arthur” (Erdman 542). It had been commissioned by William Owen Pughe, a Welsh antiquarian described by Robert Southey as a “good simple-hearted, Welshheaded man, [. . .] whose memory is the great storehouse of all Cymric tradition and lore of every kind” (Bentley, Blake Records 226). The three surviving Britons in the painting, according to Blake, represent “the human sublime,” “the human pathetic,” and “the human reason”: “They were originally one man, who was fourfold: he was self-divided, and his real humanity slain on the stems of generation” (Erdman 543). This division of the fourfold man was the subject of Blake’s own epic poems: the abandoned Four Zoas manuscript and the two illuminated books, Milton ill. 1 and Jerusalem, ill. 2 that grew out of it. The title page of Milton a Poem (c. 1804-18) is dated 1804, but it was not until c. 1811 that Blake produced the first three copies, and he continued working on the fourth until c. 1818. The poem is divided into two parts: in the first, Milton, inspired by a bard’s song, descends from heaven and returns to earth in order to correct the errors he had left behind; in the second, Milton’s female “emanation,” Ololon, also returns to earth, and the poem culminates in their apocalyptic union. Throughout Milton, Blake manipulates time and space in unconventional ways, and his characters’ identities change with disconcerting ease. In the designs, Blake experimented with new etching techniques that give the book a rough, primitive appearance. ill. 3
Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion, at 100 plates Blake’s longest illuminated book, took even longer to complete. Also dated 1804 on its title page, it was not printed in its entirety until about 1820. By the end of his life, Blake had hand-colored one copy, but he was unable to find a buyer for it. The poem tells of efforts to awaken the self-divided and sleeping giant Albion and reunite him with his female portion (or emanation), Jerusalem. Albion’s cruel sons and daughters and the nature goddess Vala impose obstacles and temptations, but Los (the artist’s imagination) eventually triumphs, with the help of Jesus, who is more prominent here than in any of Blake’s other illuminated books.
While writing his epic Milton, Blake was also at work on several series of watercolor drawings illustrating John Milton’s own poems. He had already produced a set of designs for Comus for the Rev. Joseph Thomas in 1801. ill. 4 Now he illustrated Paradise Lost (1807) ill. 5 and the Nativity Ode (1809) ill. 6 for Thomas and began producing designs for the same three poems for Butts as well. He later added illustrations for L’Allegro and Il Penseroso (c. 1816-20) ill. 7 ill. 8 and Paradise Regained (1821). ill. 9 Besides much-needed income, Blake’s Milton illustrations provided him with another vehicle for interpreting the works of his predecessor as an epic poet. Despite his efforts, the decade from 1808 to 1818 was not a profitable one for Blake. His one-man show in 1809 had not been a success. His dealings with Cromek had left him feeling bitter and cheated. Commercial work was scarce; there is no record of his having produced any commercial engravings from 1806 to 1813. During the second half of the decade he was at work on Flaxman’s illustrations to Hesiod ill. 10 as well as plates for Rees’s Cyclopaedia ill. 11 and Wedgwood’s catalogue of earthenware and porcelain, ill. 12 all probably at Flaxman’s recommendation. For the most part, however, he remained in obscurity.
7. John Linnell and the Final Years, 1818-1827
It was at this low point in his fortunes in 1818 that Blake first met John Linnell, the friend and patron who was to provide him with a circle of dedicated followers and a series of creative projects for the remaining years of his life. Linnell, then a twenty-six-year-old landscape painter, won Blake’s friendship both by bringing him work—which he desperately needed—and by attempting to understand him on his own terms. “I never saw anything the least like madness,” Linnell later recalled, “for I never opposed him spitefully as many did but being really anxious to fathom if possible the amount of truth which might be in his most startling assertions I generally met with a sufficiently rational explanation in the most really friendly & conciliatory tone” (Bentley, Blake Records 257). Through Linnell, Blake met John Varley, a fellow artist and avid astrologer, and in 1819 began sketching for him a series of Visionary Heads. Varley, who would later publish a Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828), ill. 1 took literally Blake’s claim that these historical and imaginary figures appeared and sat for him, and he encouraged Blake to record their features. By 1825, Blake had sketched over 100 of them, including Solomon, The Man who built the Pyramids, Merlin the magician, ill. 2 Edward I and William Wallace (king and revolutionary together on one sheet), ill. 3 and Harold Killed at the Battle of Hastings. ill. 4 Cancer, ill. 5 an astrological sign associated with Blake’s birth, may be in part a caricatured self-portrait. The vigorous musculature of Old Parr When Young ill. 6 might be interpreted as an embodiment of Blake’s own artistic energies even into old age. The most famous visionary head, The Ghost of a Flea, was later engraved by Linnell and published in Varley’s Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828). ill. 7 Blake’s professional relationship with Linnell’s doctor, Robert John Thornton, was somewhat rockier. Linnell introduced the two in 1819, and soon afterward Blake produced four small designs in relief etching to illustrate the third edition of Thornton’s school text of Virgil’s Pastorals (1821). ill. 8 Thornton apparently rejected these, for Blake soon set to work on preliminary drawings for execution in the more conventional medium of wood engraving. These engravings also disappointed Thornton, who decided to publish them only after hearing them praised by Linnell and other artists. ill. 9 Even then, he prefaced them with the disclaimer that they “display less of art than genius” (Bentley, Blake Records 271). Thornton may not have appreciated the rough simplicity of Blake’s Virgil designs, but they were to have a profound influence on a younger generation of artists who also came to know Blake through Linnell. One of them, Samuel Palmer, called the engravings “visions of [. . .] Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of poetry” (Bentley, Blake Records 271). The group, which called itself “The Ancients,” also included Edward Calvert, George Richmond, Frederick Tatham, and others. They referred to the two rooms at 3 Fountain Court in the Strand, where the Blakes lived from 1821, as “the House of the Interpreter,” an allusion to a passage from Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress that Blake had illustrated. Blake had moved there because of straitened finances, which also forced him to sell his collection of old-master prints that same year. Linnell was responsible for two major projects that occupied Blake’s final years: illustrations to the Book of Job ill. 10 and to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Between 1823 and 1825, Blake engraved twenty-one designs based mainly on watercolor illustrations of Job that he had done earlier for Butts. In 1824, he commenced a series of 102 watercolor illustrations of Dante, a project cut short by his death in 1827. ill. 11 ill. 12 According to Gilchrist, Blake, though in his late sixties, began studying Italian at this time in order to read Dante in the original (1: 334). In the final years of his life, Blake suffered from recurring bouts of an unknown disease that he called “that Sickness to which there is no name” (Erdman 781). The symptoms he described in his letters— “Shivring Fit[s],” “a gnawing Pain in the Stomach,” “a deathly feel all over the limbs”— are consistent with biliary cirrhosis, which can be caused by prolonged exposure to the fumes produced when acid is applied to copper plates (Robson and Viscomi)— Blake’s “infernal method”
of etching his illuminated books “by corrosives, which in Hell are salutary and medicinal” (Erdman 39). In a letter to Linnell dated 3 July 1827, he mentioned a “relapse” brought on, he thought, by a trip to Hampstead: “I find I am not so well as I thought [. . .] I have been yellow accompanied by all the old Symptoms” (Erdman 785). Blake had visited Hampstead often since Linnell had moved there three years earlier, even though he considered the place unhealthy. “When I was young,” he wrote to Linnell, “Hampstead Highgate Hornsea Muswell Hill & even Islington & all places North of London always laid me up the day after & sometimes two or three days with precisely the same Complaint & the same torment of the Stomach” (Erdman 775). Despite his symptoms, Blake expressed hopes of a quick recovery, but they proved unfounded. A little over a month later, on 12 August 1827, he died in his rooms at 3 Fountain Court. Even in the last stages of his illness, Blake continued to work. One of his final projects was a colored print of the frontispiece of Europe commissioned by Tatham, Ancient of Days copy F, on which he was reportedly at work just three days before his death (Bentley, Blake Records 109, 502). A set of watercolor illustrations to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and an illuminated manuscript of Genesis were left unfinished. ill. 13 To the devoted circle of young artists who surrounded Blake in his final years, even his death seemed beautiful. He died “in a most glorious manner,” Richmond wrote Palmer soon afterwards: “He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ—Just before he died His Countenance became fair—His eyes brighten’d and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven” (Bentley, Blake Records 346-47). Blake was buried on 17 August 1827, with The Ancients in attendance (Bentley, Blake Records 22). In keeping with his own wishes as reported by Smith, he joined his parents, aunt, and brother in Bunhill Fields cemetery (Bentley, Blake Records 475-76). Obituaries tended to emphasize his personal quirks at the expense of his literary and artistic achievements. The Literary Chronicle, for example, described him as “one of those ingenious persons [. . .] whose eccentricities were still more remarkable than their professional abilities” (1 September 1827, qtd. in Bentley, Blake Records 351), a view that persisted until Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, Pictor Ignotus appeared in 1863, finally securing his reputation as a major poet and artist. After Blake’s death, Catherine lived first with Linnell in Cirencester Place, then, beginning in 1828, with Tatham until shortly before her death in 1831. She continued to sell Blake’s works, most notably The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which brought a high enough price from the Earl of Egremont in 1829 to support her for the few years that remained. After her death, Blake’s unsold works were left in the hands of Tatham, who reportedly destroyed many of them.
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