Blake's Pictorial Imagination

Author(s): Anthony Blunt
Reviewed work(s):
Source: Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 6 (1943), pp. 190-212
Published by: The Warburg Institute
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/750432 .
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BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
By Anthony
Blunt
lake's first
biographer,
Alexander
Gilchrist, discussing
Stothard's
borrowings
from
Blake, says
of
the latter:
His own
compositions
bear the authentic first-hand
impress;
those unmistakable
traces,
which
no hand can
feign,
of
genuineness, freshness,
and
spontaneity;
the look as of
coming
straight
from another world-that in which Blake's
spirit
lived.
He,
in his cherished
visionary
faculty,
his native
power
and
lifelong
habit of vivid
invention,
was
placed
above all need or
inclination to borrow from others. If as
happens
to
all,
there occur occasional
passages
of un-
conscious reminiscence from the old
masters,
there is no
cooking
or
disguise.1
This estimate of Blake's art has
occasionally
been
challenged
over
points
of
detail,
but it is still
generally accepted by
critics of his work
;2
and it is the
object
of this article to show not
only
that
is Gilchrist
wrong
in the sense that one can
point
to a number of cases in which Blake made use of
the works of other artists for his own
compositions,
but that his whole method of work was based
on a close
study
of earlier
art,
and that he
constantly
and
regularly
makes use of the
great
traditions
to which he was heir.
The researches of Foster Damon and other scholars into Blake's
religious
and
philosophic
doc-
trines have
exploded
the
myth
that he was a sort of illiterate
visionary
and have
proved
that he
was
widely
read in the works of the
great mystics,
such as Boehme and
Paracelsus,
that he was
deeply
influenced
by Plato,
and that he derived
many
of his views from the
early
Christian Fathers and
heretics. It can be shown that in the field of the visual arts also he studied
widely
and made ex-
tensive use of what he learnt.
It must be said at once that the fact that Blake relied to a
great
extent on the work of his
predecessors
does not in
any
sense diminish our estimate of him as an
imaginative
artist. On the
contrary,
it is a
peculiar testimony
to the immense
power
of his invention that when he borrows
from others he
invariably
makes of what he takes
something wholly
his own. The
great imaginative
artists of all times have used the works of
others,
and it
may
be
proof
of
timidity,
not of
originality,
for a
painter
to cut himself off from what has
already
been achieved
by
his
predecessors.
It is now realized that Blake is not so
completely
isolated a
phenomenon
as was
thought
in the
i9th century,
and that other artists such as Fuseli and Flaxman not
only
used his ideas but were
also in certain
ways
akin to him in
spirit.
But the
arguments
set out below are
designed
to demon-
strate that his method of work was allied not
only
to that of these artists who
belong
in a sense
to the same
group,
but also to that of
painters,
such as
Reynolds,
with whom he felt himself to be
in the most violent
opposition.
The difference between Blake and
Reynolds
is not that one was an
eclectic and the other an artist
independent
of the influence of tradition. Both
borrowed,
but
each transformed what he took to suit his
particular
aim in
painting;
and their aims were diametric-
ally opposed.
Before, therefore, examining
the sources on which Blake drew it is essential to have a clear con-
ception
of his
purpose
as an
artist,
and for this it will be
necessary
to consider his other
activities,
not
only
his
poetry
but also the
general
outlines of his
philosophy
and the
development
of his mental
outlook.
Here
again
we shall
go wrong
if we consider Blake without
thought
for his
contemporaries.
He was not an isolated
figure,
but an extreme
representative
of a
tendency
which can be traced in
others. In his later
years
he worked with a
high degree
of
independence,
but even then he was not
1
A.
Gilchrist, Life of
William
Blake, Everyman edition,
I942, p.
45.
Earlier Nollekens had
expressed
almost the same
view: "In his choice of
subjects,
and in his
designs
in
Art,
perhaps
no man had
higher
claim to
originality,
nor ever
drew with a closer adherence to his own
conceptions;
and
from what I knew of
him,
and have heard related
by
his
friends,
I most
firmly
believe few artists have been
guilty
of
less
plagiarisms
than he. It is
true,
I have seen him admire
and heard him
expatiate upon
the beauties of Marc Antonio
and of Albert
Duirer;
but I
verily
believe not with
any
view
of
borrowing
an idea."
(J.
T.
Smith,
Nollekens and his
Times,
1829, II, p. 466.)
2
The
only
writer to
challenge
it
seriously
is Mr. Collins
Baker in his
extremely interesting
article in the
Huntingdon
Library Quarterly, IV, p. 359.
In this article Mr. Collins Baker
points
to various models used
by Blake,
and also
emphasizes
the fact that such
borrowing
is the
general
rule and not the
exception
with him.
190
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
x19r
devoid of
friends,
and in the
early part
of his life he was connected with various
groups
whose ideas
strongly
coloured his own.
He was born in
1757,
the son of a
tolerably
successful
shopkeeper
in Soho. His
family belonged
to the sect of
Swedenborgians,
one of those
emotional,
revivalist
groups
which flourished in the
second half of the
18th century,
and had their
largest following
in
England among
the lower middle
classes to which Blake
belonged.
His
early
life was coloured
by
this
religious training,
and he
only
turned
against Swedenborg
in about
1793.
It is
evident, however,
that from the
beginning
he was
gifted
with an
exceptionally strong imagination.
The stories about the visions which he saw as a
child are well known and need not be
repeated here,
but
they prove
that even
among
a circle of
"illuminati" he was
regarded
as
having peculiar
and somewhat
alarming
tendencies in this direction.
Blake's first contact with the intellectual world
was
at the salon of Mrs.
Mathew,
wife of a
London
parson,
who had collected round her a
group
of
blue-stockings.
In this
circle,
to which
Blake was introduced
by Flaxman, pious morality
was combined with a taste for
literature,
not the
poetry
of the
Augustans,
but
Shakespeare
and the
pre-Romantics
of the later 18th
century.
It was
through
the Mathews that Blake was enabled to
publish
his first
volume
of
verse,
the Poetical
Sketches,
in
1783.
Here Blake
appears
as a full adherent of the movement which was
preparing
the
way
for
Coleridge
and Wordsworth.
Gray, Collins, Young
and Thomson are his models from his own
century, coupled
of
course,
with
Macpherson; and, apart
from the
superb quality
of some of the
lyrics
and the fact that the author had
evidently
made a
very personal study
of the
Elizabethans,
it
would not be
possible
from this volume to
say
that Blake was
doing
more than
expressing
with
greater purity
the ideals towards which the most advanced of his
contemporaries
were
tending.
The
lyrical
tendencies in Blake were further
developed
in the
Songs of
Innocence
(1789)
and the
Songs of Experience (1794),
but while he was
composing
them he had come into contact with new
influences which
vitally
affected his view of life.
The French Revolution had
begun,
had reached its
crisis,
and had even
passed
its extreme
point.
Like
everyone
else in
England
Blake was
deeply
influenced
by
what took
place
in France.
About
1787
he met the bookseller
Johnson,
in whose house he came into contact with a
group
of
radicals, among
whom were
Godwin,
Tom
Paine,
and
Mary
Wollstonecraft. In the salon of the
Mathews he had been in an
atmosphere
of
enlightened culture,
without
any
marked
political
tendencies. Now he found himself
among
enthusiastic
supporters
of the doctrines of
liberty,
who
believed that the American Revolution had marked the first
step
towards the
millenium,
and that
the French Revolution would attain it. Blake seems to have shared their
general views,
and was
certainly
a violent
supporter
of the French Revolution in its earlier
stages.'
It must be
remembered, however,
that these
English
radicals did not in
any
sense form a coherent
revolutionary party. They
were a
group
of
individualists,
more interested
perhaps
in
speculation
than in action.
Beginning
with
practical
demands for
parliamentary reform, they
soon launched out
into the construction of ideal states which
may
have seemed near to realization in the fever created
by
events in
France,
but which
England,
with its
bourgeois
revolution
long passed
and a
solidly
established commercial and
land-owning oligarchy
in
power,
would resist
strongly
and
successfully.
They
were therefore doomed to
sterility
from the
start,
and the
very
remoteness and
unreality
of their
theories is in itself a
proof
of this. Godwin's
plea
for a world free of all state interference and coercion
of
any
kind could
only
be a
fantasy.
To
Blake, however,
as to all the members of this
circle,
these ideas seemed
intensely
real and
vitally important,
and he
expressed
them in a series of
revolutionary works,
in the
political
as well as
the
literary
sense. The earliest of these is his
poem,
The French
Revolution,
of which we know
only
the first
book, printed
but never
published by Johnson
in
1791.
This
poem
celebrates the
early
stages
of the
Revolution,
and holds
up
as models the first
protesters against tyranny, going
so far as
to make
Philippe Egalitd
into a hero. The other works which can
properly
be
regarded
as
political
are of a different
kind,
and reveal
already
how far Blake was from
understanding
the true
meaning
1
Mr. E. M. W.
Phillips,
in his
unpublished
dissertation on
"English Expressionist
Artists in the
19th Century," presented
in
I938,
has
already
called attention to the
importance
of
the French Revolution for Blake's
development.
I did not
have an
opportunity
of
reading
his thesis till the
part
of this
article
dealing
with this theme was
already planned
in
detail,
but his conclusions and mine
agree
in
many points.
192
ANTHONY BLUNT
of
developments
in France. America
('793)
and
Europe (1794)
are
songs
in
praise
of the
spirit
of
revolution as
freeing
man from
tyranny,
but
they
are written in terms
wholly
removed from
reality.
Revolution is not
thought
of as a
pratical activity,
but as a matter of
conflicting principles,
in
terms which are almost
theological.
In the Visions
of
the
Daughters of
Albion
(1793)
Blake treats
of more
specific
social
problems,
such as enforced
chastity
and its evil
effects,
but here
again
his
views are veiled in the
personal mythology
which he was
already beginning
to evolve. The most
interesting
of all the books of this
period
is the
Marriage of
Heaven and Hell
(1793),
in which Blake
expresses
for the first time what was to be a basic doctrine in all his later
writings, namely
his hatred
of reason or
restraint,
which has no other function than to limit and
destroy energy,
the
only
source
of
good. Man,
he
says,
can
only
attain salvation
by
the full
development
of his
impulses,
and all
restraint on them whether
by law, religion
or moral code is
wrong.
1794
was a crucial
year
for the
English
radicals in
general
and for Blake in
particular.
The
Terror had aroused a
feeling
of
panic
in this
country,
and had made the
English ruling
classes
aware how
grave
was the threat to their
position.
Reaction set
in,
and radical
groups
which
up
to then had been
regarded
with a certain
degree
of toleration were
violently persecuted.
Most of
Blake's friends suffered in one
way
or another. Paine fled to
France,
saved it is said
by Blake,
and
many
members of the London
Corresponding Society,
with which he was
connected,
were con-
demned to
long
sentences of
imprisonment
or
deportation.
Those of the
party
whose interests had
been more
purely theoretical,
such as
Godwin, escaped
actual
persecution;
but their
position
was
deeply
affected
by
what
happened
to their friends.
They
had in
any
case been shocked
by
the ex-
cesses of the
Terror,
and now
they
saw the whole
organization
to which
they belonged
broken
up.
As a result
they
found themselves in isolation and forced from the fields of
practical politics.
The
inevitable effect was that
they
were driven more and more in on themselves. Godwin fell back
on
pure speculation,
which was
regarded
as innocuous
by
Pitt's
government,
and continued to
evolve,
as it were in
vacuo,
his doctrines of
pure anarchy. Mary
Wollstonecraft devoted herself
to
problems
connected with the
position
and education of women. Others found different solutions
of the same kind.
On Blake also the effect of this reaction was
profound.
His interest in
politics
had
always
been
more emotional than
practical,
and after the events of
1794
he withdrew
entirely
into the field of
the intellect. His
anti-rationalism,
which had
separated
him even in his most active
days
from the
real
revolutionaries,
now becomes a dominant factor in his
life,
and he
plunges straight
down
the
path
to
mysticism.
The
energy
which had made him such a fervent
supporter
of the Revolution
in its earlier
stages-he
went about the streets of London
wearing
a red
cap-is
now turned into
the
sphere
of the
imagination.
He
consciously escaped
from active life and from
politics,
and in
his later
days
he summed
up
his view in characteristic form when he said to Crabb Robinson of
Christ: "He should not have attacked the
government.
He had no business with such matters."
1
And in 181 o he wrote in his Public Address:
I am
really sorry
to see
my Countrymen
trouble themselves about Politics. If Men were
Wise,
the Most
arbitrary
Princes could not hurt them. If
they
are not
wise,
the Freest Government is
compell'd
to be a
Tyranny.
Princes
appear
to me to be Fools. Houses of Commons and Houses
of Lords
appear
to me to be
fools; they
seem to me to be
something
Else besides Human Life.2
Even in his most
openly political days
Blake had
always
been
something
of an
anarchist,
and after
1794
he
develops
his theories of this kind to their furthest
point;
but he
applies
them to the intel-
lectual field alone. What Godwin worked out
theoretically
for the active
life,
Blake
applied
to the
sphere
of the
mind.3
He
never, however,
became a
reactionary,
and when he
came,
in
1798,
to
read and annotate
Bishop
Watson's attack on Tom
Paine,
his old
loyalties survived,
and he sided
violently
with the
revolutionary against
the narrow
orthodoxy
of the
bishop.4
In
1804, again,
he
1
Henry
Crabb
Robinson, Blake, Coleridge, Wordsworth,
Lamb,
ed.
by
E.
J. Morley, 1922,
p.
3.
2Works, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Nonesuch Press, I927, p. 819.
3
Blake disliked
Godwin,
and
disapproved
of
many
of his
views,
but the
analogy
between their doctrines of
anarchy is,
in
spite
of
that,
close.
4
His attitude to Voltaire is also
illuminating.
Blake hated
him as a Deist and a Materialist
(cf. Works, p. 10o7),
but he
hated still more the orthodox Christians who attacked him.
He said to Crabb Robinson: "I have had much intercourse
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
193
was a keen
supporter
of the foundation of
Phillips' Monthly Magazine,
which was to be the
organ
of the democratic
party
in the
literary
field.1
Blake was
ultimately
to find his salvation in
following
the
path
of
mysticism,
but it was not to
be an
easy task,
and the
despair
into which he was at first thrown is
apparent
in the
writings
of the
years
about
1795.
The later so-called "Lambeth books"- The Book
of Urizen
(1794),
the Book
of
Los
(1795),
Ahania
(1795)
and the
Song of
Los
(1795),
are the
gloomiest
of his
production.
Blake was at
this time obsessed with the horror of the world in which he
lived,
and all these works centre on the
problem
of evil
(which
for him meant the
deadening
of the
imaginative power),
the restraints to
which men were
subjected,
and the belief which he saw all around him that material
things
were
all that counted. To
express
this he evolved a new
system
of
cosmology,
which
incorporates many
old
heresies, particularly
features of Gnosticism. For him the creation of the world was an evil
act,
because it meant the descent from the infinite to the finite. The creator
must, therefore,
have been
an evil
genius,
not the God whose doctrines Christ
taught.
All the books mentioned above deal
with this theme-the creation as a
fall,
the evolution of
religion
as an evil force
restraining
man
from the true life of the
imagination,
the domination of
reason, which, separated
from
imagination
and
pleasure,
becomes the
greatest
cause of man's
sufferings.
These and similar themes are the
burden of this
complaint.
And he can offer no solution. The books
begin
and end on a note of com-
plete gloom.
Blake did
not, however, stay long
in this dark
night.
In the three
long poems
of the later
period
there is a
steadily growing
note of
optimism.
He did
not, however,
reach contentment under the
impulse
of external circumstances.
Having
cut himself off from the world he made it his business
to become free from its evil influences. He so
managed
his
practical
and
physical
existence that
by
his work as a hack
engraver
and
through
the kindness of a few
understanding patrons,
such as
Hayley
and
Butts,
he was able to
carry
on his own
spiritual
life in
freedom;
and his later evolution
can be studied
entirely
in terms of intellectual movements and influences.
The attainment of
spiritual peace
can be traced
through
three
long poems.
In the Four
Zoas
(1796-1804)
Blake is
only making
the first
steps.
There are still the
long descriptions
of the creation
in almost the same terms as in the later Lambeth
books;
but there is a difference in that Blake
envisages
an ultimate salvation
through
Christ.
Milton,
written between
1804
and
i8o8,
after Blake's
return from
Felpham,
is
yet
more
optimistic.
Error is
powerful
but it can in the
long
run be des-
troyed,
if
only
it can be
clearly
defined and so
recognized
as error. The final solution however is
found in
Jerusalem, begun
about
1804
but not finished
probably
until after 1820. Here
redemption
is
offered,
if
only
man will follow the
example
of Christ who died for love of
man,
and if he will
himself make the same sacrifice and live in mutual love and
forgiveness
of sins.2 There is still much
that is
gloomy
-and
turgid
in
Jerusalem,
but in the
great passages
about the Crucifixion there is a
tone of
ecstasy
which is in itself
proof
that Blake had at last attained to the state of
mystical
bliss
and
unity
with
God,
which is so
intensely
rendered in the illustrations to the
poem.
He
gives explicit expression
to his first
recovery
of the state of innocence in an ecstatic letter to
Hayley
written in October
1804:
I have
entirely
reduced that
spectrous
fiend to his
station,
whose
annoyance
has been the ruin
of
my
labours for the last
passed twenty years
of
my
life. . . .
Suddenly,
on the
day
after
visiting
the Truchsessian
Gallery
of
pictures,
I was
again enlightened
with the
light
I
enjoyed
in
my youth,
and which has for
exactly twenty years
been closed from me as
by
a door and
by
win-
dow shutters. . . . Dear
Sir,
excuse
my
enthusiasm or rather
madness,
for I am
really
drunk
with intellectual vision whenever I take a
pencil
or
graver
into
my hand,
even as I used to be
in
my youth,
and as I have not been for
twenty dark,
but
very profitable years.3
with Voltaire and he said to me I
blasphemed
the Son of Man
and it shall be
forgiven
me. But
they (the
enemies of
Voltaire)
blasphemed
the
Holy
Ghost in me and it shall not be
forgiven
them"
(Crabb Robinson, op. cit., p. 12).
It must also be
remembered that
throughout
his life Blake's
sympathies
remained with the
oppressed
and
against
the
oppressors,
whether in church or state.
1
Gilchrist, op. cit., p.
I8I.
2
The same doctrine is to be found in the
Everlasting Gospel,
c. 1818.
3 Works, p. I
io8 f.
194
ANTHONY BLUNT
Blake's
development
in
painting presents
a close
parallel
with his
general spiritual
evolution.
We are so familiar with his later
'mystical' compositions
that it is
necessary,
in order to redress the
balance,
to consider his
early
work in a certain detail. For if we focus our attention on the
paintings
which he executed before
1794
we shall find
that,
far from
being
an eccentric and
independent
genius,
he
appears,
as in the
poems
of the same
period,
to be a
competent
and
imaginative,
but not
even a
very
extreme
representative
of a
style
of
painting widely
current at the time.
His earliest known work is an
engraving
after
Michelangelo
(P1.
54a)
to which we shall return
later. In more
typical compositions
such as the "Penance of
Jane
Shore"
(c.
I778) (P1.
54b)
or
"Edward and Eleanor"
(c. 1779)
Blake is in no sense an innovator. His idiom is that of the senti-
mental neo-classical school of which West and Mortimer were the most
prominent
members in
England,
and which derived from the French classical tradition of Poussin as revived
by painters
such as Vien. In the
"Jane
Shore" he is a little more
naturalistic,
in that he introduces to some
extent the costume of the
16th
century,
the
period
to which the
subject belongs, though
the
draperies
are still treated in a
purely
classical
manner;
but in the "Edward and
Eleanor,"
the mediaeval
soldiers are dressed in Roman armour as Poussin or
Mengs
would have wished. In his illustrations
to
Mary
Wollstonecraft's
Original
Stories
from
Real
Life (1791)
the costumes
are,
as befits the
theme,
contemporary,
and Blake uses the rather
elegant
form of mannerism which was
being popularized
in
England by
Stothard. The Gates
of
Paradise
(1793)
shows a
greater
freedom of
imagination,
but
even here Blake fits into a current tradition and bases his
style
on the emblem books such as
Quailes
which were still
popular
at the time.1 In the water colours "Har and Heva"
(1788-9)
(P1.
54d)
and the "Breach in the
City" (1784)
there is a more Ossianic
grandeur,
but the forms are still those
of neo-classicism.2
At this
stage
therefore we can
say that, though
Blake was
opposed
to the most fashionable school
of his
day,
that of
Reynolds
and
Gainsborough,
he was not alone in his
opposition,
and
belonged
to a well-defined and
acknowledged group
of
progressive
artists.
Compared
with Fuseli he would
have seemed a
relatively
classical
painter.
The
gradual development away
from this traditional
style
can be seen in the illustrations to
the
'revolutionary'
books of
I793-4.
In most of the
plates
to these Blake has
already adopted
the
'mystical' style
to be
analysed below,
but
occasionally
he still introduces
contemporary scenes,
though
these are of
ordinary
life
(cf. Europe, p. 7, "Plague")
(P1.
54c).
On the
whole, however,
it is
rare after
1793
to find even these reminiscences of his earlier manner
except
in works which were
intended for
publication
and not for Blake's
private circle,
such as the illustrations to
Young
and
Gray,
in which he often takes
up again
the idiom of Stothard or Fuseli.
The contrast between Blake's
early
works and his later
mystical style
is so marked that detailed
analysis
is
unnecessary.
This can be summed
up by saying that,
as Blake
gives
free rein to his anti-
rational and
purely imaginative
tendencies in his
thought
and in his
poetry,
so in
painting
he
rejects
all the
principles
of rational and classical art which had been evident in his first
compositions-mixed
though
it was even there with elements of
fantasy-and
evolves a
completely imaginative style.
But
in
doing
so he does not take a
completely
new
path.
He
joins
that
great body
of artists who had
never conceived art to consist in the exact
rendering
of
nature,
but had used it as a vehicle for ideas.
He breaks
away
from the tradition of
Raphael
and
Poussin,
to which he had been
joined by many
ties,
and
goes
over to the
party
that includes the artists of the Middle
Ages,
most
early religious
artists,
and the Mannerists of the Counter-Reformation.
The
subjects
of his
early works,
as we have
seen,
are
usually
taken from
English history
or deal
with moral or historical
problems
of direct interest to his
contemporaries.
But after the crucial
years
of the Revolution his
inspiration
is drawn either from the Bible and the
great epics
of
English
1
Cf. plate 6, Works, p. 756.
2
Mention should perhaps be made here of a
recently
published
work attributed to the
early period
of
Blake,
see
the article
by George Hellman,
"The
Judgment
of
Solomon,"
Print Collector's
Quarterly, XXIX, p. 105.
This article
purports
to
prove
that a
large
oil
painting
discovered some
years ago
and a
drawing
connected with it are
early
works of Blake.
The reasons advanced for this view are
trivial,
and the
paint-
ing
must be
by
some
English
artist of the same
period
as
Blake but
certainly
not
by
him. It does
not, incidentally,
represent
the
Judgment
of
Solomon,
for the sketch does not
contain
any figures
which can be identified as the
mothers,
and the two women in the
painting
described
by
the author
as
depicting
these characters are
evidently only
attendants.
54
a-Blake, Joseph
of
Arimathea.
Engraving
(pp. 194, 200, 202)
b-Blake,
The Penance of
Jane
Shore.
Graham
Robertson
Coll.
(p. 194)
c-Blake, Plague, Europe, p. 7
(p. 194)
d-Blake,
Har and Heva. Water-Colour. Sir Edward Marsh Coll.
(PP.
194, 203)
55
a-Blake, America, p. 7 (p. 198) c-Blake,
Blair's
Grave, pl. 4 (P. 198)
b-Blake, Symbol
of Human
History,
Dante, pl.
28
(p. 198)
d-Blake, Study
for Blair's
Grave, pl. 4.
Water-Colour. Mrs. D. Y. Cameron
Coll.
(pp. 198, 208)
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
195
literature,
above all
Milton,
or else from his own
private mythology.
His
compositions
are no
longer
based on the reconstruction of a
clearly
defined
space,
and his
figures
hover or crowd into the
page
without consideration how
they
could exist there. The classical
principle
of a
subtly
varied
sym-
metry
is
exchanged
for a
composition
of
swirling.movement,
or for an exact
repetition
on both
sides,
which on classical canons would seem crude. His
figures
are
poised inexplicably
in the air or hurl
themselves down
through space
with unrestrained violence. One side of the
composition may
be
in
complete repose
and the other in violent turmoil. The linear
pattern
is often based on an un-
compromising
contrast of horizontal and vertical lines. A
gesture
is
repeated
over and over
again
in the same
design,
for the sake of dramatic
emphasis.
In the matter of
proportion
Blake becomes
completely arbitrary. Figures
are
elongated
or
squat
as the effect
demands,
and one
figure
will be four times the size of another in the same
group,
if
the
symbolism
of the theme indicates such a contrast. No
gesture
is ever
softened,
arms shoot across
the
page,
and faces
grimace.
Monsters and horrors
recur,
in forms which would have shocked
any
naturalist or classical artist. Add to all this a new attitude towards
colour,
which from
having
been
soft and restrained in the
early works,
becomes strident and
arresting,
or sweet and
ecstatic,
accord-
ing
to the
subject.
All these features made Blake's art seem
startling
and even mad to Blake's
contemporaries,
trained in the mellowness of
Reynolds
or the decent classicism of West. But
they
are
only
the
regular
stock-in-trade of most
religious artists,
and are the means which
any painter
will use if he
is bent on
conveying
an
intensely
felt idea rather than in
depicting
a
subject realistically.
A distinction must however be drawn between Blake and earlier artists in the
great religious
tradition. The
sculptor
who carved an
Egyptian god,
or the artist who illuminated a
manuscript
in the Middle
Ages belonged
to a well-defined tradition which was
readily
and
unconsciously
accepted by
most of his
contemporaries.
The Mannerists of the
Counter-Reformation, though
to
some extent Revivalist in
spirit,
were
part
of a
widespread
movement. But
Blake, though
he did
not work in
quite
the isolation in which he is
generally
said to have
lived,
was a
lonely figure,
dependent
for his
inspiration,
if not
always
for his
methods,
on his own
imagination,
and there is
for that reason an
exaggeration
in his
work,
an uncontrolled
quality,
which makes it reasonable
that he should have been considered as a madman not
only
in his own
day
but
throughout
most
of the
19th century.
Circumstances
compelled
him to
solitude,
and to a reliance on his own
judgment
that must
destroy
balance.
But he was not the
only
one who suffered in this
way.
In the circles
with which
he was most
closely connected,
Fuseli was
notoriously eccentric,
and
Cowper
and
Romney
died insane. It is
only
in some of the works of Blake's latest
period,
when he had reached
the
mystical
union which was his
goal
for
thirty years,
that this element of strain and
exaggeration
for a moment
disappears.
The best of the Dante
designs,
and of the illustrations to the Book of
Job
are
among
the
great religious
works of art of all time.
Before
examining
in detail the relation of Blake to earlier artists and the use he made of their
work,
it will
perhaps
clear
away
certain difficulties if we consider what
types
of work could have
been known to him.
Blake never left
England
and
indeed, apart
from four
years spent
at
Felpham
near
Chichester,
the whole of his life was
passed
in London. He had therefore no first-hand
knowledge
of the
great
works of art
preserved
on the Continent. Nor did the National
Gallery
exist in his time. His
only
opportunity
of
seeing foreign painting
in the
original lay
in the various
private
collections in London.
They
were not
many
in
number,
and often not
easily accessible,
but
during
Blake's lifetime
many
of the
great
French
collections,
such as the Orleans and Calonne
galleries,
were
transported
to this
country
and sold
by public
auction. In addition to this we know from Gilchrist that he saw the
collection of Count Truchsess when it was exhibited in
I804,
and that in his last
years
he was
frequently
at the house of the collector Aders. From all these sources he could have
gained
a know-
ledge
not
only
of the
great
Italian and French
masters,
but also of German and Flemish
painters
of the
I6th century.
It was not however
primarily
from
painting
that Blake derived his sustenance. He was
by pro-
fession an
engraver,
and it was with the world of
engraving
that he was in closest touch.
But,
in
addition to
being
an executant in this
field,
he was also a collector and a dealer. His earliest
attempt
196
ANTHONY BLUNT
to make his
living
was
by setting up
a
print-seller's shop
with a fellow
pupil
in Basire's
studio,
and
it is known that he formed a
large
collection of
engravings,
which he was forced to sell to
Colnaghi's
in
I821.1
His
taste,
which was
regarded
as eccentric at the
time,
was for the Italian and German
masters of the
I6th
century,
rather than the fluent
performers
of the 18th
century. Since, however,
he continued all his life to work for
publishers
as an
engraver
of the works of other
artists,
he was
always
in touch with what was
being
done in this
field, and,
as will be seen
later,
he made con-
siderable use of
newly-discovered
works of art and
archaeology published
in current books.
There was however another
equally important
source with which Blake was in touch. When
he was
working
under Basire he was
put
to draw in Westminster
Abbey,
and some of his
drawings
after tombs made at that time were
published
in
Gough's Sepulchral
Monuments
(1786
and
I798).
We know from Gilchrist that the influence on Blake of these studies was
very deep,
and we
may
suppose
that he did not limit his interest in Gothic
sculpture
to Westminster but also studied other
monuments of this kind in London. Moreover he was a
regular
attendant at the sale
room, where,
in addition to
prints,
he would have the
opportunity
of
seeing
mediaeval
manuscripts,
the influence
of which on his own
printed
books is evident.
Finally
Blake could have known
originals
from the various civilizations of
antiquity,
non-classical
as well as
classical,
in the British
Museum,
and in
private
collections such as that of Sir
John
Soane.
There is therefore evidence to show not
only
that Blake could have seen the
great
works of the
past,
but that he took
great pains
to
study
them.
It will be most convenient to examine Blake's
borrowings
from earlier art under four
headings:
(i)
Ancient art
(2)
Mediaeval art
(3)
Renaissance and Mannerist art
(4)
Oriental and
primitive
art
His attitude towards ancient and mediaeval art must be to some extent Gonsidered
together.
On
this,
as on so
many
other
subjects,
Blake made
many
statements which are decisive but not
always
consistent. In
general
for him mediaeval art was true
art,
and classical art a false and
degenerate
art. His most
explicit
declaration on this
subject
occurs in his discussion of
Virgil,
where he
says:
"Sacred Truth has
pronounced
that Greece and Rome . . .
,
so far from
being parents
of Arts and
Sciences,
as
they pretend,
were
destroyers
of all art.... Grecian is Mathematic Form: Gothic is
Living
Form. Mathematical Form is External in the
Reasoning Memory; Living
Form is Eternal
Existence"
;2
and we know from Blake's
general
theories that
"Reasoning Memory"
was the
faculty
which he most
strongly
hated. On occasions he uses classical as
synonymous
with
pagan,
and there-
fore for
something entirely
wicked.
Speaking metaphorically,
of Milton he
says:
"His tastes are
Pagan;
his house is
Palladian,
not Gothic."3
On the other hand we know from his own statements and from the evidence of his
contemporaries
that he
constantly
studied Greek and Roman
sculpture,
and on certain occasions even set it
up
as
a model of what art should be.
Writing
to
George Cumberland,
he talks of "the immense flood of
Grecian
light
and
glory
which is
coming
on
Europe,"4
and in his
Descriptive Catalogue
he
speaks
of
"the
greatest antiques"
as the models which he is
emulating.5
Gilchrist tells us moreover that he
studied the works of
antiquity
with
passion,
above all ancient
gems
and certain works of
sculpture.
It is in
any
case evident from his work that he often relied on formulae borrowed from classical
sculpture
to
express
his ideas.
This
apparent
contradiction is less
surprising, however,
if we examine his
particular
taste in
ancient works of art. His first
preference
was for
engraved gems
in which he
evidently
saw that
precision
of outline and of
minutely
defined form which he believed essential in all
drawing.
It is
1
Colnaghi's
records for that date have
unfortunately
been
destroyed,
so that we have no details about the contents of
the collection.
2
Works, p. 768.
3 Gilchrist, op. cit., p. 317.
4 Works, p. Io44.
5
Ibid., p. 798.
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
197
also
significant
that he considered the Belvedere Torso to be not
only
the
greatest
work of
antiquity,
but the one
truly original
work
produced by
Greece and Rome.1 On the other
hand,
when the
Elgin
marbles were
brought
to
England,
he was not enthusiastic about
them,
and we know from
Gilchrist that he
agreed
with Flaxman and Fuseli that the Theseus did not rank with the
very
finest relics of
antiquity.2
It
seems, therefore,
that he shared the taste of his
day
for 'ideal' Greek
art. The
style
of the Parthenon
sculptures
was too humanist and too rational for
him,
and he
pre-
ferred the more idealized Hellenistic works. We
may guess that,
had he seen
them,
he would also
have
preferred
the works of archaic Greek art to those of the
5th century.
The true
explanation, however,
of Blake's mixed attitude towards ancient art can
only
be under-
stood if we examine a curious
theory
which he held about the
origins
of classical civilization in
general.
Blake believed that the
only
book in which true
poetry,
that is to
say vision,
was to be found
was the Bible. The
prophets
of the Old Testament were the direct vehicles of divine
inspiration
and all later writers were
only
faint imitations of them. All classical
mythology
was
only
a reflection
of the Hebrew.3 On one occasion he
says:
"The
antiquities
of
every
Nation under
heaven,
is no less
sacred than that of the
Jews. They
are the same
thing,
as
Jacob Bryant
and all
antiquaries
have
proved.
How other
antiquities
came to be
neglected
and
disbelieved,
while those of the
Jews
are
collected and
arranged,
is an
inquiry worthy
both of the
Antiquarian
and the Divine."4 All
primitive
art
is, therefore,
sacred-an echo of Rousseau's
primitivitism-but
it so
happens
that the
only specimens surviving
in their
pure
state are those of the
Jews preserved
in the Bible.
By analogy
with this situation in literature Blake
argued
that the
Jews
must also have
produced
similar works of
inspiration
in the visual arts.
And, following up
this
analogy,
he concluded that the
works of classical and other
antiquity
are
only copies
of these lost
originals.
Greek
statues,
he
says
for
instance,
are
"copies, though
fine ones from
greater
works of the Asiatic
patriarchs."5
And on his
engraving
of the Laocoon he wrote:
"Jah
and his two
sons,
Satan and
Adam,
as
they
were
copied
from the Cherubim of Solomon's
Temple by
three Rhodians and
applied
to Natural
Fact,
or
History
of
Ilium."'
But as
copies
the works of classical civilization ranked
high: "Milton, Shakespeare,
Michelangelo, Rafael,
the finest
specimens
of Ancient
Sculpture
and
Painting
and
Architecture,
Gothic, Grecian, Hindoo,
and
Egyptian,
are the extent of the human mind.'7 The works of classical
antiquity
were therefore far from
being perfect
but
they
were useful as
among
the best
surviving
copies
of the ideal lost
originals,
and it is for this reason that
Blake,
while
condemning
them at one
moment, praises
them
enthusiastically
at another.
His reliance on ancient
art,
in
general terms,
is evident from
many
of his
designs.
His nudes
usually approximate
to the
sculptural type
familiar to all artists of his
period
and
copied by
his neo-
classical
contemporaries
such as Flaxman. Above
all, however,
he believed in the classical
practice
of
making drapery
a mere veil to the naked form which it covered. In a note to
Reynolds'
Discourses
he writes: "The
Drapery
is formed alone
by
the
shape
of the
Naked,"'
and it is recorded
by
Gilchrist
that his one
complaint against Disrer,
an artist whom he
greatly admired,
was that his
draperies
were too
rigid
and did not reveal the forms under them.9 It is true
that,
as
often,
he
exaggerated
the
qualities
which he admired in his
model,
and in
many
cases his own
draperies cling
so
closely
to the forms of the
body
as to be almost invisible. For
many
of his
figures
he even avoids the
sweep-
ing
robes of
antiquity
and
replaces
them for his male
figures by
what one can
only
describe as
tights
which fit the
figures
so
closely
that at first
sight they appear
to be nudes and the existence of
the
drapery
is
only
indicated
by
a line round
neck,
wrists or ankles where the
tights
end.
On the other hand
though,
when he borrowed these elements from
antiquity
he transformed
them in such a
way
that his
figures
have a
purely un-antique character. He had no
understanding
for the naturalism of classical art and even when he used an ancient
idiom,
such as the detailed
musculation of the male
nude,
he
exaggerated it so that it becomes unnaturalistic and a mere
1
Ibid., p. 781.
2
Gilchrist, op. cit., p. 302.
3 Cf.
Works, p. 898.
4
Ibid., p. 797.
5 Works, p. 78I.
6
Ibid., p.
764.
7 Ibid., p. 798.
8
Ibid., p. 993-
9
Gilchrist,
op.
cit., p. 302.
198
ANTHONY BLUNT
formula. This has often been made an accusation
against Blake,
but it is consistent with his
general
conception
of art. For him the human
figure
was
only
a
symbol
of a
spiritual
state;
and a naturalistic
rendering
of the nude on classical lines would not have
conveyed
his intention so
completely
as the
stylized
form into which he translated his
original.
It must also be remembered that he
very rarely
treats classical
subjects,
and he is
forced, therefore,
in his biblical and
mystical compositions
to
transform his ancient models into
something
more
patriarchal.
His attitude of mixed admiration and condemnation of classical art is
paralleled by
his views
on Greek
philosophy. Plato,
for
instance,
is
constantly coupled by
him with the names of
Bacon,
Newton and
Locke,
as one of the
high priests
of that rationalism which he hated. On the other
hand his own ideas are
permeated
with the influence of Platonic doctrines or
rather,
to be more
precise,
of
Neo-platonic
doctrines. This double attitude is characteristic of
Blake,
who often
picked
out one
quality
in a
system
of
thought
and identified it with the whole
system,
to be
entirely approved
or
entirely
condemned. What he
really
admired in Plato was the
mystical element, developed by
his successors the
Neo-platonists,
and what he hated was the rational
or,
as he describes
it,
the
mathematical
side,
which at certain moments blinded him to the other
aspect
of Plato's
philosophy.
In the same
way,
while
decrying
classical
art,
he sometimes makes direct use of it.
Apart
from
the
general borrowings already mentioned,
we can
point
to one or two instances in which he has
taken an ancient statue as a direct model for one of his
figures.
For instance in Plate
7
of America
(P1.
55a)
we see a naked
figure lying
on its face which
copies
almost
exactly
the
pose
of one of the
celebrated ancient
hermaphrodites, but,
as
always,
Blake has used this
figure
in a
completely
un-
classical manner
by placing
it beside an enormous
woolly
ram far
bigger
than the
figure itself,
the
whole
group being
set under one of those fanciful trees which
suggest
that Blake
may
have known
something
of Chinese art. An even clearer instance occurs in the illustrations to Dante. The
28th
drawing
(P1.
55b) depicts
a colossal
figure, symbolical
of the course of human
history, wearing
a crown
composed
of
rays.
Both the
general pose
of the
figure
and the crowned head are
clearly
taken from some ancient statue of
Helios,
but here
again
Blake has transformed his model
by giving
it a terror
quite contrary
to the
spirit
of ancient
sculpture.
Blake's relation to mediaeval art is much clearer and has been
generally
noticed. Most
critics,
however,
have been content with some
general
statement to the effect that he studied the tombs in
Westminster
Abbey
and that the books
printed by
his
special process
show the influence of mediaeval
manuscripts.
It is
possible,
however,
to be
considerably
more
precise.
The influence of his studies in Westminster
Abbey
is most
clearly
to be seen in the illustrations
to Blair's
Grave,
some of which are little more than direct
copies
of mediaeval monuments. In
one,
for
instance, showing
the
Counsellor, King, Warrior,
Mother and Child in the
grave
(P1.
55c, d),
Blake has
simply
taken Gothic
figures,
some of which can be almost
exactly
identified
(the
Coun-
sellor,
for
instance,
with the tomb of Edward the
Third),
and has
placed
them side
by
side under a
Gothic vault. In another illustration to this
poem,
"The Soul
hovering
over the
Body,"
the recum-
bent
figure
is
again
based on a Gothic tomb
sculpture,
but is transformed to some extent into a
neo-classical
type.
A similar fusion
appears
in the
frontispiece
to the
Songs of Experience
in which two
Gothic
figures, again
reminiscent of the tomb of Edward the
Third,
are mourned over
by
two
other
figures
which seem to have
stepped
out of
contemporary
neo-classical
painting.
Blake
was, however,
also influenced
by
other
types
of mediaeval
sculpture
as well as tomb-
figures.
Several of his water-colours contain
groups
which recall the bosses of mediaeval cathedrals.
"God
blessing
the Seventh
Day"
(P1.
56a),
the choir of
angels
in one of the illustrations for Milton's
Hymn
on the
Nativity,
and "The Son of Man" from the late
drawings
to the Book of Enoch are all
based on the
pattern
of a
figure
or
figures
enclosed in a circle of
flying angels
which is a
regular
formula in mediaeval bosses. There is even one such boss which is
reproduced by
Flaxman in his
lectures
(P1.
56b)
and was therefore
probably
known to
Blake,1
which
may
well have
provided
the
inspiration
for the Milton and Enoch
designs.
The same
pattern appears
in a rather different
form in one of Blake's last
works, plate 5
of the
Job series.2
1 Flaxman's
original drawing
after this boss is in one of the
unpublished
note-books in the Fitzwilliam
Museum,
Cam-
bridge.
2
A further
similarity
with
mediaeival sculpture may
be seen
in the
winged figure
in "The Elohim
creating
Adam." This
figure goes
back to ancient
prototypes,
but it is
strangely
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
199
The influence of mediaeval
manuscripts
is more
complex.
The whole
conception
of Blake's
printed
books,
with their
intermingling
of text and
ornament,
derives
directly
from the illumination
of the Middle
Ages.
In the
early books,
such as
Songs of
Innocence and
Experience,
his models seem to
have been late mediaeval
manuscripts
of the
I4th
and
I5th
centuries. The
pretty,
naturalistic details
of the
foliage
and
figures
are
closely
related to these
models,
and the whole mode of
colouring
with
its
light
and
gay
tones derives from the same source. But in his later work he
turns,
more
surprisingly,
to earlier
examples
of illumination. In his last
work, Jerusalem,
the
pages
have taken on a more
solemn
character,
and not
only
the
general layout,
but even the
grotesque beasts,
introduced
between the lines of the
text,
recall such models as I2th
century
Bestiaries with which he was
probably
familiar. The
colouring again
with its sombre brilliance confirms that his sources were
probably
i2th
century manuscripts
rather than later works.
It was
not, however, only
in his
printed pages
that he relied on
originals
of this
period.
In his
water-colours also we can find echoes of i2th
century designs
which are too close to be fortuitous.
The most
striking
of these
parallels
occurs in the water-colour of "St. Michael and the
Dragon"
(P1.
56c).
The circular
composition,
with the movement
leading
on from the human
figure
to that
of the
beast, suggests
the
designs
which artists of the I2th
century
loved to use in the initials of
their
manuscripts.
There
is," indeed,
one initial in the Winchester Bible
(P1.
56d)
so close in
character to Blake's
group
that it almost
suggests
a direct
borrowing.
The mediaeval
example
shows David
struggling
with the
lion,
and Blake seems to have blended in his
design
the movement
of the lion with the outline
provided by
the initial letter
itself,
and so has
produced
a
design
in which
the movement is even more
stylized
than in the
original.1
Another
instance, though perhaps
less
precise,
is worth
mentioning.
The celebrated
composition
of "Satan
smiting Job"
has
many
mediae-
val
qualities;
the almost
glowing
colour
suggests
not
only manuscripts
of the
type
which we are
discussing,
but also the stained
glass
of the Middle
Ages.2
The curious convention of
wavy
bands
which Blake uses for the clouds round the sunset is in
many ways
similar to what we find in illumina-
tions of the
I2th century, such,
for
instance,
as the Ascension in the York Psalter. But most curious
of all is the attitude
ofJob,
with his head thrown back in
pain
into a
quite
unnatural and
exaggerated
attitude,
for which we find a close
parallel
in a
figure
in the Aberdeen
Bestiary.
It would be too
much to
say
that Blake had
directly
imitated this
figure,
but he has
certainly
fallen back on a
formula
closely
related in
general
character to that used
by
the mediaeval artist.
Other echoes of the Middle
Ages
are common in Blake's work. The theme of his
frontispiece
to
Europe
(P1.
58a),
which shows God
setting
a
compass
to the
earth,
is one which recurs in mediaeval
art,
but not to
my knowledge
in the work of other
periods.3
In one of the Dante
designs
which
shows
Dante, Beatrice,
St.
Peter,
St.
James
and St.
John
the
Evangelist,
the three saints hover in
circular
glories
which
overlap
and form a
composition, strongly recalling
the roundel in a stained
glass window,
or a similar
design
common in
manuscripts
of the
I4th century.
Sometimes, moreover,
we find a
particular type
which
suggests
fusion of the Gothic with the
classical
type.
In Plate i i of the
Job engravings,
for
instance,
the bearded head of the monster which
terrifies
Job suggests
at first
sight
the ancient
Jupiter type,
but at the same time it has
something
of
the character of those
grotesque
heads familiar in Gothic
sculpture
in which the hair round a mask
is transformed into
foliage.
Blake no doubt knew this Gothic form from the
sculptures
in.St.
Stephen's
Chapel, Westminster,
which were
engraved
in the studio of his master Basire for the
Society
of
Antiquaries
in
1795.4
Or
again,
in the
painting
of "The
Virgin contemplating
the infant Christ
asleep on the cross," the attitude of the Virgin herself with bowed head and clasped hands, is one
familiar in late mediaeval
paintings
of St.
John
and the
Virgin
below the cross. It is a
type
used
by
Giotto in the Arena
"Entombment," occurring again
later in Fra
Angelico's
version of the same
similar in character to certain
I2th century figures,
such as
those in the reliefs on the side walls of the
porch
at Malmes-
bury.
1
Another
possible
connection with the Winchester Bible
occurs in a water-colour of the
Crucifixion,
of which the
present
whereabouts is unknown. It
shows,
below the
crosses,
a crowd of
figures
with hands
pointing upwards, forming
an
unusual silhouette in
many ways
similar to that in the initial
to Hosea I in the Winchester Bible.
2
The same type of colouring can be seen in other
composi-
tions, particularly
in coloured
prints
such as the
"Elijah."
3
For a discussion of the
iconography
of this
design,
cf. the
author's article in this
Journal, II, p. 53-
4
Cf. Plate
13
in
Plans,
Elevations and Sections . .
.
of
St.
Stephen's Chapel, Westminster, engraved by James Basire,
1795.
200 ANTHONY BLUNT
subject
in the Goldman
collection,
New York. In the
I6th
century
it was revived
by
Rosso in his
"Deposition"
at
Arezzo,
and
by
Holbein in a similar
subject engraved by Hollar,
in which form
Blake
may
well have known it.1
It is
evident, therefore,
that Blake's
general conception
of art was
deeply
influenced
by
his
study
of mediaeval
models,
but even when he borrowed ideas or
single figures
from such sources
he
usually
clothes them in forms taken from other models. We have
already
seen how he blends
mediaeval with neo-classical
elements,
but the idiom which he uses most
frequently
and most
consistently
was one derived from later
sources, particularly
from artists of the
i16th
century.
For him the two
gods
of
painting
were
Michelangelo2
and
Raphael.
It is a
commonplace
of
Blake criticism that his formula for
painting
the nude was based on
Michelangelo,
and this comment
is
usually coupled
with a
regret
that Blake
only
knew the Italian master
through engravings
after
his work and not in the
original.
A closer
analysis, however,
of the use which he made of Michel-
angelo's compositions
will
show, first,
that he
only
admired and understood certain elements in the
great Italian, and, secondly,
that he could see these
particular
elements
perhaps
more
cLarly
in
the
engravings
than in the
originals.
Blake's admiration for
Raphael
and
Michelangelo,
the two
purest representatives
of
High
Renaissance humanist
painting, may
seem at first
sight
to conflict with his
general conception
of
art as a non-rationalist and
visionary activity;
but in fact this is not the case.
Borrowings
from these
artists occur
throughout
Blake's
work,
but it is a curious fact that there seem to be no instances
in which Blake has turned to the works of their classical
period
as his models. It was not from the
"School of Athens" or from the
great compositions
on the roof of the Sistine
Chapel
that he learnt.
His
quotations
are almost
always
from the later works of the two
artists,
above all from the "Last
Judgment"
and the Pauline
chapel
frescoes of
Michelangelo
on the one
hand,
and from the
Loggie
or the
"Transfiguration"
of
Raphael
on the other. That is to
say,
Blake found himself in closest
sympathy
with those works of
Michelangelo
and
Raphael
in which these artists were
breaking
away
from
High
Renaissance humanism and
laying
the foundations of Mannerism.
It would be
impossible
to
analyse
all the instances in which Blake relies on these two
artists,
but
it will be worth while to discuss certain individual cases. His earliest known work is an
engraving
entitled
"Joseph
of Arimathea
among
the rocks of Albion"
(P1.
54a),
which is an exact
copy
of one
of the
figures
from the "Crucifixion of St.
Peter,"
a debt
acknowledged by
Blake in his
inscription
on the
plate.
It is
perhaps
characteristic that even at this
early
date Blake is
using Michelangelo's
figure
for a
purpose entirely
his own. The title to the
engraving
reads: "This is One of the Gothic
Artists who Built the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark
Ages, Wandering
about in
sheepskins
and
goatskins
of whom the World was not
worthy;
such were the Christians in all
Ages."'3
Mr.
Laurence
Binyon
has
pointed
out that
according
to the
legend Joseph
of Arimathea
brought
the
gospel
to
England,
and since for Blake
religion, poetry
and art were the same
thing, Joseph
becomes
for him a
symbol
of all those who 'treasured the
Light
in
darkness,'
whether in
religion
or art.4
Another
Michelangelesque
source on which Blake
habitually
drew was the series of
figures
representing
the Ancestors of Christ in the lunettes below the
ceiling
of the Sistine
Chapel.
These
belong,
it is
true,
to an earlier
period
than the Pauline
frescoes,
but
they already
show
Michelangelo's
tendency
towards Mannerism. The most
interesting example
of his use of these
figures
occurs in
1
The motive of the Christ child
asleep
on the cross is one
common in Italian art of the
I7th century (cf. Male,
L'art
religieux apris
le concile de
Trente, p. 331),
and Blake
presumably
saw Guido Reni's version of the
subject
in the Orleans collec-
tion when it was sold in London in
1798.
This is one of the
few instances in which Blake seems to have been influenced
by I7th century
artists. Another curious instance is a borrow-
ing
discovered
by
Mr. Collins Baker. The
donkey
which
occurs in Blake's "Hecate" and is
repeated
in the
"Riposo"
is taken from a
plate
in Alexander Browne's Ars
Pictoria,
of
1675,
a work
largely
based on the
principles
and
examples
of late Flemish Mannerism.
2
He engraved, and probably designed, the portrait
of
Michelangelo
at the end of Fuseli's lectures, published
in
18oi. The head of this
figure
is taken from Ghisi's
portrait
engraving (Steinmann,
Die
Portraitdarstellungen
des Michel-
angelo, pl. 30),
and the motive of the
walking-stick may
derive
from Leoni's medal
(ibid., pl. 50)
which is itself based on the
right-hand figure
in the lunette
representing
Salmon, Booz,
and Obeth in the Sistine
chapel.
3 Works, p. 86I.
4 Binyon,
The
Engraved Designs of
William Blake, p.
35-
56
a-Blake,
God
blessing
the Seventh
Day.
Water-Colour.
Graham Robertson Coll.
(p. I98)
b-Gothic Boss. From Flaxman's Lectures
(p. 198)
c--Blake,
St. Michael. Water-Colour.
Fogg
Art
Museum,
Boston
(p. 199)
d-Initial from the Winchester Bible. Win-
chester Cathedral
Library (p.
199)
57
a-Blake, Faith, Hope,
and
Charity. Tempera.
Private Coll.
(p.
201) b-Blake, Pity.
Water-Colour. Tate
Gallery (pp. 201, 208)
c-Florentine School, 14th
Cent.
Charity.
Museo Bar-
dini
(p. 201)
d-Blake, Pity. Drawing.
Brit. Mus.
(p. 201) e-Raphael,
God
appearing
to Isaac. Vatican
Loggie
(p. 201)
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
201o
the "Newton" which is based
very closely
on an
engraving by
Ghisi after the
sleeping figure
in the
group
of Roboam and Abias. In this case we are
fortunately
able to
prove
Blake's
knowledge
of
the
original,
since there is in the British Museum a
drawing by
him which is an exact
copy
of the
engraving.1
The
Ancestors, however, frequently
turn
up
elsewhere. In the illustrations to
Gray,
for
instance,
we find
figures
seated and seen full face in an attitude of
gloomy contemplation
which
recall the left-hand
figure
in the Aminadab lunette.
A more
complex
instance is to be found in the
tempera painting
of
"Faith, Hope
and
Charity"
(P1.
57a).
The
figure
of Faith on the
left, seeing
as in a
glass darkly,
is a fusion of different
Ancestors. The attitude is a
general
reminiscence of several
figures,
and the
contemplative
stare
recalls the Naason. This
composition
is
yet
another instance of the
blending
in Blake of mediaeval
with later elements. The
figure
of
Charity
in the middle reminds us of certain
13th
century
Florentine
Charities
(P1.
57c),
and the relation in scale between this
figure
and the two minute naked
figures
at her feet is one which would be normal in a mediaeval
manuscript
but
quite contrary
to classical
canons.
To these instances of
particular borrowings
should be added certain cases of more
general
imitation. Blake's "Last
Judgment," painted
in i8o8 for
Lady Egremont,
is based in its whole
conception
on
Michelangelo's
fresco of the same
subject.
The
spaceless composition
of
falling,
rising
or
floating figures
is
purely Michelangelesque,
and the individual
groups
of
figures clinging
together
are constructed
according
to his
principles.
These entwined
groups
occur
constantly
in
Blake,
for instance in the "Meditations
among
the
Tombs,"
and in some of the
Job plates (e.g.
pl. 16),
and the Dante
designs ("The
Circle of the
Lustful").
Although
Blake
placed
the name of
Raphael
next to that of
Michelangelo among
his ideal artists
his influence is not so
widely
visible.
We
know, however,
that he studied him from his earliest
days
and in
1780
he
engraved
four
plates
after his
designs
for "The Protestant's
Family
Bible."
By
a curious
error, presumably
due to the
engraver
of the ornamental borders to these
plates,
two of them are inscribed "Rubens
del.,"
a
confusion which can
hardly
have
pleased
Blake for whom Rubens was the
type
of
everything
to be
avoided in
painting.
These four
engravings
are all based on
compositions
from the
Loggie, though
they
are
considerably altered,
in order to fit
Raphael's oblong compositions
into the
upright
format
of the book. One of them
represents Joseph's
dream from which Blake later borrowed the
group
of
sheep
in the
background,
which he uses in
plates 5
and 28 of the
Songs of
Innocence.
Another curious instance of
borrowing
from
Raphael
occurs in one of Blake's
apparently
most
spontaneous
and
original designs,
the
"Pity"
(P1.
57b, d),
where the
figure
at the
very top
with out-
stretched arms is an echo of God the Father in the
Loggie painting
of "God
appearing
to Isaac"
(P1.
57e).
Another
possible
connection with
I6th
century
Italian art in this
design
can be seen in
the hair of the central
figure
blown out almost
straight
in the wind. This
suggests
that Blake
may
have had in mind a
representation
of Occasio such as that shown in the
painting by
Girolamo da
Carpi
of "Chance and Penitence" in the Dresden
gallery.
These
examples support
what has been said
above, namely
that it was the Mannerist rather than
the classical elements in
Michelangelo
and
Raphael
that attracted Blake. If this view is
accepted,
we need not
regret
that Blake knew these artists
indirectly through engravings
rather than in the
original.
The
prints
after
Michelangelo
and
Raphael
with which Blake was familiar were executed
by
their Mannerist followers and therefore tended to
exaggerate
the non-classical
qualities
in their
work. It is therefore
possible
that Blake would have found these 'translations' more to his taste
than the
originals,
and I am inclined to believe that he
might
have felt himself somewhat lost if he
had been faced
with, say,
the
Segnatura
frescoes themselves.
Moreover the connection between Blake and other artists of the
I6th century
confirms his
taste for Mannerist rather than humanist art.
These connections must be divided into two classes: those in which we can
say
almost
definitely
1
Cf. the author's article in this
Journal, II, p. 61, P1. I
i.
In his notes to the new edition of Gilchrist
(p. 382)
Ruthven
Todd states that there is another
drawing
in the British
Museum
by
Blake after
Michelangelo
which is connected
with the
frontispiece
to Malkin's A Father's Memoirs
of
his
Child, designed by
Blake. In the
present
circumstances it is
impossible
to check
this,
but I am unable to find
any
Michel-
angelesque original
for the
engraving.
202 ANTHONY BLUNT
that Blake knew and used a
particular original,
and those in
which,
in
spite
of close
similarity,
there
is reason to believe that Blake could not have known the model which he
appears
to be
copying.
Of the first
type
the most
interesting example
is the
frontispiece
to
Europe
(P1.
58a)
which has
already
been mentioned in connectiori with its mediaeval theme. In a
previous
article on the
symbolism
of this
plate'
I indicated
Michelangelo's
"Conversion of St. Paul" and Giovanni da
Bologna's figure
of the
Appenines
as the source for the formal side of this
design. But, although
the
idiom which he uses derives
ultimately
from such
models,
it is
possible
to
point
to other Italian
Mannerist works which are
probably
his more immediate sources. In
1756
there was
published
in
Italy
a volume of
engravings
after the works of
Pellegrino
Tibaldi which was almost
certainly
accessible to Blake. In this we find
many
of the elements of Blake's
design.
In one
composition
representing
"Christ in
glory"
(P1.
58c)
we find the dramatic
downpointing
arm which derives
ultimately
from
Michelangelo's
Christ in the "Conversion of St.
Paul";
but in another
plate repre-
senting "Neptune"
(P1.
58b)
we see also the
huge
muscular
leg
and knee of Blake's
figure and,
in
elementary form,
the hair and beard
swept
out almost
horizontally by
the wind. As
always
Blake
has
exaggerated
his model and has made these last features into
something entirely stylized according
to his own
inventions,
but the
similarity
is so
great
as to make it almost certain that he was
drawing
on this
original.2
Another
very
curious instance of
borrowing
from Italian Mannerism occurs in one of Blake's
most famous
prints,
the "Glad
Day," which,
as has been shown in a
previous
article in this
Journal,3
is based almost
exactly
on an
engraving illustrating
the
proportions
of the human
figure
in Scamozzi's Idea dell'Architettura Universale.4 In this
case, however,
the
borrowing
is more exact
than in the
frontispiece
to
Europe.
"Glad
Day"
is an
early work, dating
from about
1780,
and at
this
time,
as we have
already
seen from the
"Joseph
of Arimathea"
(P1.
54a),
Blake sometimes
used the works of other artists in a more wholesale manner. In this case he has
copied
Scamozzi's
figure
with
only
the smallest
alterations, although
he has contrived to
give
it a character so com-
pretely
his own that the
print
has
always
been
regarded
as one of his most
spontaneous
creations.
Other cases of
apparent
reminiscences from Italian art are almost as close. For
instance,
in
Blake's water-colours of
"Jacob's
Dream"
(P1.
58e)
the
great spiral staircase,
on which
elongated
and
elegant figures walk,
is
extraordinarily
close to one of Salviati's frescoes in the Palazzo Sacchetti
in Rome
(P1.
58d). Here, however,
we are faced with the fact
that,
as far as is
known,
these frescoes
were neither
engraved
nor
copied
before Blake's time. It seems therefore almost certain that he
cannot have known Salviati's
composition.
The resemblance between the two works need
not,
however,
be
regarded
as
entirely
fortuitous. Salviati formed his
style
on the
study
of
early
Roman
and Florentine Mannerist
artists,
who were the models that Blake also studied and admired. It
seems, therefore,
that the connection between the two
paintings
can be
explained by
the fact that
Blake and
Salviati, starting
from the same
premises
and
working
on
principles
of art which were
basically similar, arrived, logically enough,
at similar conclusions.
Blake
himself, moreover, recognized
that such a
phenomenon
was
likely
to occur in his art.
On one occasion he was accused of
having copied
a
figure
in his
"Canterbury Pilgrims"
from a
painting
in Aders' collection. He said that his own
design
was executed
many years
before
seeing
the
painting,
but added that there was "no wonder in the
resemblance,
as in
my youth
I was
always studying
that class of
paintings."5
There are other instances of the same
phenomenon.
Blake's
allegorical painting
of "Nelson
guiding
Leviathan"
(P1.
59a)
shows a naked
figure standing
encircled
by
a mass of twisted
nudes,
poised irrationally
in
space.
This unusual form of
composition
comes
very
close to a
type
used
by
Pontormo in his fresco of "Christ in
glory"
in San
Lorenzo,
Florence. This fresco is now lost and is
only
known from a
drawing
in the Uffizi
(P1.
59b).
It
was, apparently,
never
engraved,
and
again
1
Cf. this Journal, II, p. 62.
2
The same form of beard reappears in one of the
drawings
for Paradise
Regained.
Cf.
Figgis,
The
Paintings
of
William
Blake,
pl.
28.
3Vol.
II, p.
65.
4
Mr. Collins Baker in the article
already quoted
has
pointed
out that Blake borrows on another occasion from a
diagram-
matic
figure
of this kind. The Adam in the
"Temptation
of
Eve" is based on a
figure
on
pl. 23
of Alexander Browne's
Ars
Pictoria,
1675.
5
Gilchrist, op. cit., p. 373-
58
a-Blake,
The Ancient of
Days.
Colour Print. Whitworth Art
Gallery,
Manchester
(pp. 199, 202, 207)
b-Neptune. Engraving
after
Pellegrino
Tibaldi, 1756 (p. 202)
d-Salviati, Fresco,
Palazzo
Sacchetti,
Rome
(p. 202)
c-Figure
from "Christ in
Glory."
Engraving
after
Pellegrino
Tibaldi
(p. 202)
e-Blake, Jacob's
Dream. Water
Colour. Graham Robertson
Coll.
(p. 202)
59
a-Blake, Nelson, Tempera.
Tate
Gallery
(pp. 202, 206)
b-Pontormo,
Christ in
Glory,
Drawing.
Uffizi
(p. 202f.)
c-Blake, Pitt, Tempera.
National
Gallery (p. 206)
d-Blake,
The Ghost of a
Flea, Drawing.
Tate
Gallery
(p. 203)
e-Florentine
School,
c.
1550.
Detail. Aix-en-
Provence
(p. 203)
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
203
therefore we must assume that Blake did not know the
composition.
The same
explanation, however,
applies
as in the case of Salviati. Pontormo also derived from the same
originals
that Blake knew.
It should be added that here
again
several individual
figures
in Blake's
design
derive from Michel-
angelo's
"Last
Judgment."
More curious is the case of one of Blake's most celebrated
drawings
from his series of
Visionary
Heads drawn for
Varley
at the
very
end-
of his life. Blake claimed that he drew these heads from
visions which
appeared
before
him, and,
from the circumstantial
way
in which he discussed the
behaviour of his
supernatural visitors,
there is no doubt that he was
describing
his
experiences
accurately.
On the other hand Blake's mind was so
deeply
soaked in works of art which he had
studied,
that these visions often took on forms reminiscent of
existing
works of
art,
or at
any
rate of
traditional
styles.
The head of
Corinna,
for
instance,
is akin to classical or neo-classical
figures.
Even the most celebrated of
them,
"The Ghost of a Flea"
(P1.
59d),
has a close
family
likeness to
certain monsters which
appear
in Italian Mannerist
painting.
There
is,
for
instance,
in a Florentine
painting
of about
1550
a
figure
of Satan
(P1.
59e)
which is
strangely
close to Blake's
head, particularly
to the extra sketch made
by
him of the vision when it disturbed his work
by opening
its
mouth,
Blake
having begun
to draw it with its
jaws
closed. The Italian
picture
in
question,
now in the
Museum of
Aix-en-Provence,
in Blake's
day
was
probably
in a
private
collection in that
town,
and
it
appears
never-to have been
engraved.
Blake
may
of course have known a similar monster in an
engraving
of the same
period,
but it is also
possible
that this is
yet
another case of
similarity
based
on common sources.1
Gilchrist
says
of Blake that his "ideal home was with Fra
Angelico,"2
and in his more
placid
compositions
there is much to remind us of this master. We have
already
noticed one
similarity
between their
paintings
in a
point
of
detail,
but
beyond
that no direct contact is traceable.
There
is, however,
reason to believe that Blake
may
have been influenced
by
the artists of the
early
Italian Renaissance. He could have known them
indirectly through
the sketches made
by
Flaxman in
Italy,
which included
copies
after
Ghiberti,
Donatello and other artists of the
Quattro-
cento.
They
were also
beginning
to be accessible to the
public through
the
engravings
in
Ottley's
Italian School
of Design,3
Metz' Imitations
of
Ancient and Modern
Drawings (1798),
and the Etruria
Pittrice
(1791
).
Here
again, however,
evidence of direct influence is hard to find. Gilchrist
compares plate
2 of
the
Job
series with
Orcagna,
and
plate
21
with Luca della Robbia.4 The
similarity
with
Orcagna
is
only general,
but the
group
on the left in
plate
21 is close in
general
formation and in individual
types
to della Robbia's choir of
angels
in the
Opera
del Duomo in Florence.
Two other cases occur in which Blake comes
very
close to the
Quattrocento.
The
early
water-
colour of "Har and Heva"
(P1.
54d)
is
strikingly
similar in character to
Botticelli, particularly
to
the "Mars and Venus" now in the National
Gallery.
This
painting, however,
had
not, yet
come to
England,
and Blake cannot have known it
though
he
may
have known work similar in character.
In the "Burial of Moses" the
angels
at the
top
of the
composition
remind us of
Quattrocento figures
such as those on Ghiberti's relief on the
Reliquary
in the Museo Nazionale in Florence.
Blake did
not, however,
confine his admiration to Italian artists. He was an enthusiastic admirer
of
Darer
and of the German and Flemish
engravers
of the same time. We know moreover that he
saw
original paintings
of this
type
in the collections of Truchsess and Aders in London. It is not
therefore
surprising
to find similarities to their work in his
designs.
The closest
parallel
is to be
found in his coloured
print
of "Nebuchadnezzar"
(P1. 6oa)
which
goes
back to certain
figures
in
German
engravings5 (P1. 6ob).
Gilchrist tells us that Samuel Palmer also noticed this
similarity
but
he
told Gilchrist that Blake
only
saw the
prints
in
question many years
after he made his own
design.6
The
similarity
is so
close, however,
that it is difficult to believe Palmer's statement. When
1
Figgis
has
pointed
out that a monster of the same
type
occurs in two earlier
water-colours by Blake,
the
"Pestilence,"
and "David and Goliath"
(The Paintings of
William
Blake,
P.
47
and
pls.
66, 67).
2
Gilchrist, op. cit., p. 303.
3
Published
1823
and
I826,
but from
drawings
made
many
years
earlier.
4 Op. cit., p. 292
f.
5
Cf. this
Journal, I,
P1. 25.
6
Op. cit., p. 77.
Damon
(op. cit., p. 328)
on the other hand
states that the Nebuchadnezzar is derived from an
engraving
in Richard Blome's Bible
Commentary,
of
1703.
I have been
unable to trace a
copy
of this work.
204
ANTHONY BLUNT
Blake was
impressed by
a
figure
in
any
work of art he seems to have absorbed it
completely
into his
stock of visual
images,
and it became as much a
part
of the store as elements which he had drawn
from nature or from
any
other source. It
is, therefore, quite likely
that when Palmer showed him
the German
prints containing
a
figure
like his
Nebuchadnezzar,
Blake had
entirely forgotten
that
he had ever seen a
print
of this
kind,
and he
probably
had no idea that he had been
inspired by
such a model.1
We have further evidence of his
study
of German
engravings
in the water-colour
illustrating
the "Whore of
Babylon"
(P1.
6oc)
from the
Apocalypse.
His
composition
shows a woman in
oriental dress seated on a seven-headed monster. In
general type
this
group goes
back to Durer's
woodcut of the same
subject
which was no doubt known to Blake and which had been
popularized
in Alciati's Emblemata where it is used to
symbolize
False
Religion.
In some
ways, however,
Blake's
water-colour is closer to a
drawing by
an
anonymous
German artist of the
I6th
century formerly
in the
Oppenheimer
collection
(P1
6od).
The monster here is
very different,
but the woman herself
wears oriental costume like Blake's
figure.
As
always, however,
there is
nothing
in Blake's
composi-
tion which looks second-hand. He has transformed his model
by giving
the monster human
heads,
and he has filled the
design
with a crowd of minute
figures entirely
of his own invention. It seems
nevertheless
likely
that Blake had some such model in mind in this case since on other occasions
when he treats the same
subject
he uses a
completely
different formula.2
It must also be from Durer or from
contemporary
Flemish
engravings
that Blake derived the
grotesque
heads which he introduces so
forcibly
in some of his
compositions
of the Crucifixion. In
general
character
they
remind us of
Jerome
Bosch. Another
possible
connection with Flemish art
is to be found in Plate
99 ofJerusalem.
For the "Union of the soul with God"
(P1.
6oe)
Blake seems
to have turned to the familiar
pattern
used in
representations
of the
Prodigal
Son embraced
by
his
father. The
example
which comes closest to Blake's
design
is an
engraving by
Martin de Vos
(P1.
6of)
in which the father
wears
a broad-brimmed hat which could almost be the
original
which
Blake transformed into the halo round the head of God.3
Finally
mention must be made of a
very
curious sheet of sketches
by
Blake which seem to
betray
a German
origin.
This sheet is
preserved
in the Whitworth
Institute, Manchester,
and bears on
the recto sketches for
plates
in
Europe
and The
Marriage of
Heaven and Hell. On the verso is another
very
faint sketch for the same
subjects,
but over it are drawn
groups
of small
figures
in curious
attitudes.
Figgis4 interprets
these as
experiments
in
figure composition,
in which Blake was
trying
out various
patterns
for future
compositions.
It is in itself
improbable
that Blake would use such an
abstract
approach:
his method was to find a
pattern
to
express
a vision or
idea,
rather than to
play
with
patterns
for their own sake. It has been
suggested,5
with
greater plausibility,
that Blake was
experimenting
with the idea of an
alphabet
in which each letter is
composed
of human
figures.
Moreover the
alphabet
is
Hebrew,
not Latin.6
Alphabets composed
of human
figures
were known
in the Middle
Ages
and the
Renaissance,7
and in one of
them, by
Peter
F16tner,
dating
from about
1535-40,
the letters
O
and N are
very
close to Blake's
groups.
Fl6tner's
engraving
is
excessively
rare,
but imitations of it
by Jost
Amman
(1567)
and
by
an
anonymous
wood-cutter
working
for
Martin
Weygel8
were made and
may
well have been familiar to Blake. We know that Blake knew
a little
Hebrew,
for he wrote to his brother in
1803
that he was
learning
the Hebrew
alphabetS
and his
engraving
of the Laocoon bears a few words in Hebrew
script.10
It is therefore
quite probable
that Blake was here
adapting
the scheme of Flotner's Latin
alphabet
to the Hebrew letters.1
1
In another
context,
Illustrations to
Young, Night Thoughts,
night vii,
he
gives
a
totally
different
rendering
of it.
2
Cf. Illustrations to Young, Night Thoughts, night
viii.
3
A
possible
connection with Holbein should also be men-
tioned. In Blake's "Procession from
Calvary,"
the dead
Christ is of a
very
unusual
type,
naked
except
for a loin
cloth,
and laid out
stiffly
on the bier. Holbein's celebrated "Dead
Christ" at Basel shows a similar
type,
which Blake
may
have
known
through
a
copy
or a derivative.
4Op. cit., p.
82.
5 B.F.A.C.,
Blake
Centenary Exhibition,
I927,
catalogue,
p. 51-
6
Two of the letters are ambiguous. They might be the
Latin
O
and
N,
or the Hebrew Samech and
Aleph badly
formed.
7
Cf. the article
Alphabet
in Otto Schmidt's Reallexikon zur
deutschen
Kunstgeschichte,
1937.
8
Cf. E. F.
Bange,
Peter
Flitner, 1926, p.
2 1.
9
Works, p.
o1072.
o Ibid., p.
764.
11
The dates do not
entirely agree,
since the sketches on the
recto
suggest 1792-93,
ten
years
before Blake was
learning
the
60
a-Blake, Nebuchadnezzar,
Colour Print. Tate
Gallery (p. 203)
b-Lucas
Cranach,
The
Were-Wolf,
Detail.
Woodcut
(p. 203)
c-Blake,
The Whore of
Babylon,
Water-Colour,
Brit. Mus.
(p. 204)
d-German, I6th
Cent.,
The Whore
of
Babylon. Drawing. Formerly
Oppenheimer
Coll.
(p. 204)
e-Blake.
Jerusalem, p. 99 (p. 204)
f-Martin de Vos. The
Prodigal
Son.
Engraving (p. 204)
61
a-Blake,
The Chariot of
Inspiration, Jerusalem, p. 46 (p. 205) f-Blake,
Beulah Throned on a
Sunflower, Jerusalem, p. 53 (p. 206)
b, c, d-Sculptures
from
Persepolis.
After
Ouseley's
Travels,
1821
(p.
205)
e-Blake,
Lost
Drawing.
Lithograph by
W. B. Scott
(p. 205)
g-Devi.
After E. Moor's Hindu Pantheon
(p. 206)
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
205
So far the models which we have found Blake
using were, though
not
perhaps among
the most
widely copied
at his
time,
at
any
rate in the
general
tradition of artistic sources. But there is one
more class of works of art on which he
unquestionably
drew which is more
peculiar.
Blake's lifetime
covered one of the most active
periods
in the
development
of
archaeology
in the fields of non-classical
art. It was the moment when the
study
of ancient Asiatic and
Egyptian
civilizations was
becoming
for the first time a science. And there is
strong
evidence to show that Blake was interested in the work
of his
contemporaries
in this field.
The most remarkable
example
of this influence occurs in a
plate
from
Jerusalem
(P1. 6Ia),
in
which is
depicted
a
peculiarly splendid design
of a chariot drawn
by
human-headed bulls. The
wheels and shafts of the chariot are
composed
of
serpents,
and from the foreheads of the monsters
drawing
it there
grow
snake-like forms which end in hands. On the backs of the monsters ride
bird-headed, winged figures.
This is
generally
admitted to be one of Blake's most
magnificent pages,
and the resemblance of the monsters
drawing
the chariot to the
great figures
from Nineveh has often
been noticed. One critic
goes
so far as to
speak
of the
prophetic insight
which
inspired
Blake to
create in advance the monsters which
Layard
was to uncover
thirty years
later. This view
is,
of
course, nonsense,
and it
only requires
a
glance
at the
engravings published by
earlier travellers to
the
East,
de
Bruin, Kaempfer, Niebuhr, or,
in Blake's own
day, Ouseley,
to see where he found the
model for his
design.
The
winged,
human-headed bulls of
Persepolis
had been described since the
i6th
century,
drawn in the
17th
and
accurately engraved
in the
18th.
As
parallels
for Blake's
designs
I illustrate
(P1.
6
Ib,
c, d) plates
from
Ouseley's
Travels in Various Countries
of
the
East,
of which the
second volume
dealing
with Persia was
published
in
1821,
when Blake was still at work on
Jerusalem,
because the various elements of his
composition
are most
conveniently
shown there. In
P1. 6Ic
we see the
winged
human-headed
bull,
of which Blake has
reproduced
not
only
the actual features
but to an
extraordinary
extent the monumental character. There is reason to
suppose, however,
that Blake as usual was not
merely copying
a
single model,
but
combining
various features of dif-
ferent works of the same kind. For the bird-headed creatures
riding
on the backs of the monsters
are
very
close to those
depicted
in another
plate
in
Ouseley
(P1.
6
Ib),
and it is
perhaps
not fanciful
to
suppose
that the
single-horned
bulls of the
capital
shown in
P1.
6 Id
suggested
the strained attitude
of the
human
heads
and,
in
elementary form,
the
serpent-like
horns which
sprout
from their fore-
heads. Should
any
doubt remain as to the
probability
of Blake
having actually
used these
originals,
it is worth
adding
that he must have known these or
closely
similar
models,
since
among
the
engrav-
ings
executed
by
him for the
Cyclopedia
of Abraham Rees are three
plates illustrating sculpture
from
Persepolis, copied
from the work of one or other of the travellers mentioned
above.1
A further
example
of the influence of Persian
sculpture
occurs in one of the Dante
drawings,
number
6I1, representing
Nimrod. The
figure
has the same
long, tight
curls which we
see,
for
instance,
in the head from
Persepolis engraved
in
Ouseley, plate
xliv.
This is
by
no means the
only example
of Blake's
study
of non-classical
antiquity.
Plate
78
of
Jerusalem
shows a bird-headed
figure, which, though
not
Egyptian
in
character,
is
probably
derived
from the
Egyptian gods
of the same
type
which had been well-known since the
17th century.
Other
examples point
to the influence of the Far East. We have
already
noticed the oriental dress in the
"Whore of
Babylon,"
and the Chinese character of certain trees in Blake's
printed books, notably
in
page 7
of America
(P1. 55a);
but other
examples
show a closer resemblance. A lost
drawing
reproduced by
William Bell Scott
(P1.
6
e)
shows two
elephant-headed figures
which can
only
be
derived from Indian
representations
of
Janesa.
Indian
sculpture
was
beginning
to be known in
England
in Blake's time and
specimens
of it were to be seen in the British
Museum,
from which
Hebrew
alphabet.
But we know from the Rossetti
manuscript
that he often used his old note-books
again
after an interval
of some
years.
Blake
evidently
devoted considerable attention
to the
study
of
lettering.
His
printed
books show the most
elaborate
experiments
in
every
sort of
script-Roman,
Gothic,
cursive. In some
cases, e.g.
in the
title-pages
to the
Songs of
Innocence and
Experience,
he seems to foreshadow the
picturesque
and
grotesque alphabets
which were to flourish
in the middle of the
i9th century
in the
designs
of artists such
as
Cruikshank,
and which survive
to-day
in the cover of
Punch.
1
The
symbolism
of this
plate
is not
altogether clear,
but the
most
likely explanation
is the
following.
The monsters are the
bulls of
Luvah,
or Passion. The snakes are reason or the
material
world,
which restrain them. The two members
ending
in hands which
grow
from the heads of the bulls
probably represent inspiration. They spring
from their fore-
heads
(the mind)
which are crowned with
laurel,
the
symbol
14
206
ANTHONY BLUNT
perhaps
Flaxman drew the
plates illustrating
such work in his Lectures on
Sculpture.1
Further evidence
is to be seen in Blake's
allegorical painting
of "Pitt
guiding
Behemoth"
(P1.
59c),
in which the
big
halo decorated with
figures
and
ending
in a
point
at the
top
is
purely
Buddhist in
type.
In this case
Blake himself
gives
a clue to his
source,
since he writes of the
picture
and its
companion
"Nelson
guiding
Leviathan"
(P1.
59a):
"The two
pictures
of Nelson and Pitt are
compositions
of a
mytho-
logical cast,
similar to those
Apotheoses
of
Persian,
Hindoo and
Egyptian Antiquity,
which are
still
preserved
on
ruide
monuments."2 Yet another instance is the
plate
of Beulah enthroned on a
sunflower in
Jerusalem
(P1.
6
If),
which recalls
engravings
in Edward Moor's Hindu
Pantheon,
a work
known to Flaxman and therefore
probably
to Blake.3 Of these
engravings
the closest to the artist's
design
is one of Devi
(P1. 61g).4
Blake did
not, however,
confine his
study
of
early
art to the
East,
and he was
acquainted
with
the
prehistoric
art of this
country.
He often refers to this in his
writings,
and there are at least
two
representations
in his
designs
of the druid
temple
at
Stonehenge,5
with which he was no doubt
familiar
through
the works of
English antiquaries.6
Blake's interest in the
early
art of the Near and Far East and of
Europe
is
explained by
the
theory
to which we referred in connection with his attitude towards classical art. Blake
coupled
the
productions
of
Egyptian
and Asiatic civilizations with those of
antiquity
as
among
the best
surviving copies
of the lost
originals
which he
supposed
the
Jewish patriarchs
to have created. He
seems even to have felt that the more
'primitive'
works of the Near East were
perhaps
truer to these
imaginary
models.7
He
believed, moreover,
that he had one means
by
which he could
actually
recover the
originals
of which all these works were but the debased
copies. By inspiration, by visions,
he could see the
originals.
The
passage
about the Pitt and Nelson
paintings, quoted
in
part above, explains
this
point.
Blake describes them as:
.
. .
similar to those
Apotheoses
of
Persian, Hindoo,
and
Egyptian Antiquity,
which are still
preserved
on rude
monuments, being copies
from some
stupendous originals
now lost or
perhaps
buried till some
happier age.
The artist
having
been taken in vision into the ancient
republics,
monarchies and
patriarchates
of
Asia,
has seen these wonderful
originals,
called in the Sacred
Scriptures
the
Cherubim,
which were
sculptured
and
painted
on walls of
Temples, Towers,
Cities, Palaces,
and erected in the
highly
cultivated states of
Egypt, Moab, Edom, Aram, among
the Rivers of
Paradise, being originals
from which the Greeks and Hetrurians
copied
Hercules
Farnese,
Venus of
Medicis, Apollo Belvidere,
and all the
grand
works of ancient art.
They
were
executed in a
very superior style
to those
justly
admired
copies, being
with their
accompaniments
terrific and
grand
in the
highest degree.
The Artist has endeavoured to emulate the
grandeur
of those seen in his
vision,
and to
apply
it to modern
Heroes,
on a smaller scale.8
The
examples quoted
above of Blake's
borrowing
from the work of earlier artists
may
have
given
the
impression
that he was indiscriminate in what he took. But this is the reverse of the truth.
It has
already
been said that Blake's intentions in
painting
or
writing
were
singularly clear,
and in
of
poetry.
One
points forward,
and the other has
apparently
just
handed a
pen,
the vehicle of
poetry,
to one of the
winged
genii riding
on the bulls. The seated
figures probably repre-
sent
Los, inspiration,
and Enitharmon his
emanation,
the
man with the bowed head and the woman with her
eyes
closed, indicating
the state of
poetry
in the material world
before it attains the state of
pure
vision. The
difficulty
in
interpreting
this
plate
lies in the fact that it seems to have no
connection with the text of the
poem
at the
point
where it
occurs,
unless we associate it with the line on the next
page:
"Shudder
not,
but
Write,
and the hand of God will assist
you.")
1 Blake had read Wilkins' translation of the
Baghavat-
Gheeta,
and even executed a
drawing
called "the
Brahmins,"
of which the
subject, according
to his own
statement,
was
Mr. Wilkins
making
his translation
(Works, p.
804).
2
Works, p. 780.
3
Cf.
Flaxman,
Lectures on
Sculpture,
p. 52.
4
Edward
Moor,
Hindu
Pantheon,
edit.
I861,
pl.
33.
5
Jerusalem, pl. 7o
and
Milton, pl.
4.
e
In his
Descriptive Catalogue
he writes: "The British Anti-
quities
are now in the Artist's hands."
(Works, p. 796.)
7
Blake is not
entirely
consistent on this
point,
since in his
notes on the Laocoon he
speaks
of
Egypt
and
Babylon,
"Whose Gods are the Powers Of This
World,
Goddess
Nature,
Who first
spoil
and then
destroy Imaginative
Art."
(Works, p. 766.)
But in this case he is
thinking
of
Egyptian
and
Babylonian
art in relation to his
imaginary Jewish
originals,
whereas in other cases he is
thinking
of them in
relation to
existing
works.
8
Works, p. 786.
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
o207
both fields he
only
used those models which fitted his
general conceptions.
We know that he read
with enthusiasm the works of the
great mystics
and that he studied ancient
religion
not
only
in its
classical but in its
pre-classical
forms. From these sources he built
up
to a
large
extent his own
mystical
beliefs. In the same
way
in his
painting
he made use
only
of those
types
of art which were
sympathetic to him. All the styles mentioned in the above analysis as objects of Blake's admiration
can be
grouped broadly
under the term
Religious
Art. Whether it was from
early
Persian
sculpture,
12th
century manuscripts,
or Italian Mannerism that he
borrowed,
it was
always
from an artist
who
regarded
the function of art as subservient in one
way
or another to the needs of the
super-
natural. To
complete
the
picture
it is worth while
noticing
the forms of art of which Blake dis-
approved
and which he never used as models. We can find no trace in his work of the influence
of such schools as the Venetian
I6th
century,
or the Dutch naturalists.
They
were for him
altogether
too muCh
occupied
with the material world. His
arch-enemies, however,
were the
painters
of the
Baroque.
Rubens he hated as a
vulgar materialist,
and the non-classical Italian and French artists
of the
17th
and
I8th
centuries as ostentatious and frivolous. We
might
at first
sight expect
that he
would find the content of
Baroque painting sympathetic,
but it was
expressed
in terms too
earthy
for his mind.
Compared
with the more
purely spiritual style
of the Italian Mannerists it was too
far removed from Heaven. Even the
great
humanist tradition of the Renaissance was almost a
closed book to him
and,
as has been shown
above,
what he admired in artists of this school was their
non-humanist side.
The above
analysis
has
mainly
been concerned with
showing
what Blake borrowed and
why
he
borrowed it. It
may
be worth while to consider a little more
closely
how he used the elements which
he found elsewhere.
When
talking
of his
painting,
Blake
always spoke
of his
inspiration
in the same terms as when he
was
thinking
of his
poetry.
He said
that
his
poems
were taken down at the immediate dictation of
his
spirits
and that he never altered them afterwards.
Fortunately
we know from his
notebook,
the Rossetti
manuscript,
that this is far from
being
the case. The
pages
of this book are covered
with
rough drafts,
full of corrections and often
containing
several different versions of a
single passage.
In his
poetry
Blake was nearer to
using
the methods common to other
poets
than he
admitted,
and
the same is true of his
paintings.
He told his friends that he
simply copied
his visions
exactly
and
mechanically
on to the
paper;
but his visions
automatically
took on forms which he had seen
in the works of others. Of the
frontispiece
to
Europe
(P1.
58a),
for
instance,
he said that he was
inspired by
a vision which hovered over his head at the
top
of the staircase in his house in
Lambeth,1
but we have
already
seen that
by
the time he had
produced
the finished
composition
he had used
to
express
his vision idioms taken from the common store of artists.
We
can, however,
be rather more
precise,
and see to some extent at what
stage
in the evolution
of his
designs
these idioms introduced themselves. In the case of the
Europe frontispiece,
there is
another
drawing
of the same
subject
which shows a
totally
different
conception
of the theme. God
the Father is here shown
kneeling,
and
placing
the
compasses
on the earth in front of him. Was
this Blake's
original vision,
or did he see the
figure
with arm stretched downwards? In all
probability
he saw neither in the first instance but some much more generalized vision to which he later gave
these two alternative forms. It is worth
noticing
in this context that there is a
parallel
in mediaeval
art for this second
drawing
of the
subject
in a stained
glass
window at Malvern.
Here,
it is
true,
God the Father is shown
standing,
but the
general conception
is similar and Blake
may
well have
known another mediaeval
design
of this
kind."
In some of the
early works, particularly
in "Glad
Day,"
we have seen that Blake
transposes
his
model
directly
into his own
composition,
but this was not his normal
practice
and it is never found
in the works of his mature
period.
We can see more
accurately
the
process
of
thought
which he
went
through by studying
three
compositions,
the
"Pity,"
the "Creation of
Eve,"
and the "Coun-
sellor, King, Warrior,
Mother and Child" from Blair's Grave. For the
"Pity"
two
preliminary
drawings exist,
both in the British
Museum,
but one
unfortunately
inaccessible at the
present
time.
1
Gilchrist, op. cit., p.
io6.
2
Cf. G. M.
Rushforth,
Medieval Christian
Imagery, 1936,
frontispiece.
208 ANTHONY BLUNT
But
by comparing
the
published drawing
(P1.
57b, d)
with the finished
design
we can form some idea
of how the latter
developed.
The
drawing
shows almost the
same
motives as the
print
but not in
the same form. The woman in the
foreground
lies in an attitude of
pain entirely
different from the
rigid sculpturesque pose
of the final
design.
The
very top figure
in the
print
does not
appear
at all
and the other
figure, catching up
the new-born
babe,
is indicated in much less
stylized
form. We
can therefore
say
that between the first sketch and the finished
print
Blake has reduced his
figures
to a more
stylized
idiom and it is at this
stage
that reminiscences of earlier art
begin
to
appear.
The woman in the
foreground approximates
almost to Gothic tomb
sculpture;
the
figure
with
outstretched
arms,
borrowed as we have seen from
Raphael,
is
added;
and the wind-blown hair of
the central
figure
takes on the stiff lines
recalling
the
painting
of Girolamo da
Carpi.
Something
of the same sort
happens
in the "Creation of Eve" and the Blair
design.
Blake's first
sketch for the "Eve" shows the
design
in
-purely
schematic
form,
with a
simple
indication of the
attitudes of the
figures.
It is
only
in the finished
painting
that the two nudes
slip
into the convention
of ancient
sculpture,
and that the
drapery
of the Creator assumes
classical, clinging
folds. The
wash
drawing
for the Blair
composition
(P1.
55d)
shows the
figures lying
in rather free
attitudes,
in
a
setting composed
of a
vague
cloud. Between this sketch
and
the
design
as
engraved
Blake turns
them into tomb
statues,
and
gives
them the
rigid setting
of a Gothic
canopy.
Here
again
the borrowed
elements,
in this case from Gothic
originals, only
come in at a
relatively
late
stage.
It seems therefore as
though
Blake's
original
visions were
general conceptions
of the
compositions
which he was
preparing,
rather than the detailed and
complete images
of which he boasted. The
evolution from
drawing
to finished
design
seen in these three cases is no more than the normal
process
of artistic
development
common to artists of Blake's time.
In order to
complete
our view of Blake's
practice
in
using
the work of other artists in his
paintings
it will be worth while to consider
briefly
what he himself
says
on the
subject.
His views on
copying
are
mainly
to be found in his
marginal
annotations to
Reynolds' Discourses,
and
they
are best
analysed
by
means of a
comparison,
or rather a
contrast,
with
Reynolds'
ideas.
In the Discourses
Reynolds
sets out for the benefit of other artists a
complete theory
of
eclecticism,
based on doctrines
traditionally
held in
Italy,
since the time of Lomazzo and the
Carracci,
and in
France since the foundation of the
Academy.
For
Reynolds painting
is
essentially
an imitation
of
nature;
but nature is
imperfect
and full of
ugliness
or of accidental features which are not true to
her real intention. The aim of the artist must be to eliminate these
ugly
and accidental elements
by
a
process
of
generalizing;
and this
generalizing
can best be achieved
by following
the
examples
of the
great
masters both ancient and modern and
by combining
the
particular
features for which
each of them was eminent.
With this Aristotelian eclecticism Blake differed on
every point. Basically
he was a
visionary
artist,
and he denied
Reynolds'
first
premise, namely
that art was an imitation of nature. He even
hated and
despised
nature.
No Man of Sense ever
supposes
that
copying
from Nature is the Art of
Painting;
if Art is no
more than
this,
it is no better than
any
other Manual
Labour; anybody may
do it and the fool
often will do it best as it is a work of no Mind.1
Imagination
is
My World;
this world of Dross is beneath
my
Notice.2
Natural
objects always
did and now do
weaken,
deaden and obliterate
Imagination
in me.3
Nature and
Fancy
are Two
Things
and can Never be
Joined.'
To
Reynolds'
Aristotelian view of nature Blake
opposes
a
purely Neo-platonic
doctrine. What he
paints
is the vision which he sees with his
imagination,
and this vision is not
dependent
on nature
but
springs up spontaneously
in the mind. When
Reynolds
writes: "this
great
ideal
perfection
and
beauty
are not to be
sought
in the
heavens,
but
upon
the earth.
They
are about
us,
and
upon every
1
Works, p.
8i6.
2
Ibid., p. 820.
3 Ibid., p. 1024.
4 Ibid., p. 1075. It should be
noticed, however,
that Blake
admitted
portrait
as a
genre
of
painting,
but as one
totally
different from
history painting
and inferior to it. For
portrait
he allowed that the closest attention to nature is desirable
and
necessary. (Works, pp.
I058, IO065.)
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION
209
side of
us,"
Blake writes in the
margin,
"A Lie! A
Lie!"1;
and elsewhere in the Discourses he
comments, "Knowledge
of Ideal
Beauty
is Not to be
Acquired.
It is Born with us. Innate Ideas
are in
Every Man,
Born with
him; they
are
truly Himself"2;
and
again,
"All Forms are Perfect in
the Poet's
Mind,
but these are not Abstracted nor
compounded
from Nature but are from
Imagination."3
To
Reynolds'
statement: "It is vain for
painters
or
poets
to endeavour to invent
without materials on which the mind
may
work....
Nothing
can come of
nothing,"
Blake
writes,
"Is the Mind
Nothing?"4
In his comments on Wordsworth's
poems
he writes: "W. must know that
what he writes valuable is not to be found in
Nature,"5
and
goes
on to refer to the sonnet translated
by
Wordsworth from
Michelangelo,
in which occur the lines:
Heaven-born,
the Soul a heaven-ward course must
hold;
Beyond
the visible world She soars to
seek,
(For
what
delights
the sense is false and
weak)
Ideal
form,
the universal mould.
Nature is not for Blake the
object
of imitation at
all;
at
most,
it is the source from which the
painter
draws the vehicles for
conveying
his ideas. He cannot therefore be concerned with the
ugliness
or the
beauty
of nature.
Everything
in nature is
equally
useful as a vehicle. The vital
point
is to
give
to each
object
its
peculiar
character,
which is
quite
distinct from and
independent
of its
goodness
or
badness,
its
beauty
or
ugliness.
"Leanness or Fatness is not
Deformity,
but
Reynolds
thought
Character Itself
Extravagance
and
Deformity."6
And when
Reynolds
writes: "Peculiar
marks,
I hold to
be, generally,
if not
always, defects,"
Blake scribbles in the
margin:
"Peculiar
Marks are the
only
Merit."
Blake is
equally opposed
to
Reynolds'
idea of
generalizing.
For him on the
contrary
the first
need of the artist is to be
particular.
"To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone
Distinction of Merit."'8 Or
again: "Singular
and
particular
detail is the foundation of the
Sublirpe."9
This was the basis for Blake's well-known and
repeated
demand that the artist must
pursue pre-
cision and exactness of detail. He
claimed, moreover,
that the visions which he saw with his
imagina-
tion
were, "infinitely
more
perfect
and more
minutely organized
than
anything
seen
by
his mortal
eye."10
Hence his obsession with outline which led him to admire
many
classical
artists,
such as
Poussin,
with whom otherwise he can have had little in common.
It is clear from the above views that Blake can have had no room in his theories for
Reynolds'
ideas on the imitation of other masters as a
guide
in
making
the selection
necessary
to arrive at a
general
idea of nature. He differed further from
Reynolds
on another vital
point. Following
the
precepts
of the
accepted theory
of
eclecticism, Reynolds
recommended the artist to combine the
peculiar qualities
of artists whose aims and methods were different. For Blake this was an
impos-
sibility,
and he
picks
out with
delight
those
passages
in which
Reynolds, having
recommended this
kind of
eclecticism,
is forced to admit that it is not
really
feasible. When
Reynolds
writes: "the
summit of excellence seems to be an
assemblage
of
contrary qualities,"
Blake comments: "A Fine
Jumble" ;11
and in another
passage
where
Reynolds
is
recommending
the same
process
Blake notes:
"Sir
Joshua
in other Places owns that the Venetian Cannot Mix with the Roman or Florentine."12
Blake indeed
goes further, and,
with his
very
clear ideas of what he himself wanted to do in
painting,
maintains that it is
impossible
for one artist
consciously
to imitate another unless
they
are
pursuing
similar
objectives.
I do not believe that Rafael
taught
Mich.
Angelo,
or that Mich.
Angelo taught Rafael, any
more than I believe that the Rose teaches the
Lily
how to
grow,
or the
Apple
tree teaches the
Pear tree how to bear Fruit
;13
1
Ibid., p. 988.
2
Ibid., p. 989.
3
Ibid.,
loc. cit.
Ibid., p.
1004.
5
Ibid., p.
1024.
6 Ibid., p. 990.
'
Ibid., p.
1005.
8
Ibid., p. 977.
9 Ibid., p. 988.
o10 Ibid., p. 795.
11
Ibid., p. 998.
12
Ibid., p. 999.
13
Ibid., p. 980.
210o
ANTHONY BLUNT
and elsewhere he exclaims:
How ridiculous it would be to see the
Sheep Endeavouring
to walk like the
Dog,
or the Ox
striving
to trot like the
Horse; just
as Ridiculous it is to see One Man
Striving
to Imitate Another.1
In fact we
may say
that whereas
Reynolds
recommends the
painter
to imitate other
artists,
what
Blake advises is
simply
that he should
copy
them. He means
this, moreover,
in the most literal sense
of the word.
Copying
is for him a
process by
which the artist learns the
language
of
art,
not the
source from which he derives ideas.
Reynolds says,
"How
incapable
those are of
producing anything
of their
own,
who have
spent
much of their time in
making
finished
copies,
is well known to all who
are conversant with our
art,"
to which Blake
replies angrily:
This is most
False,
for no one can ever
Design
till he has learn'd the
Language
of Art
by making
many
Finished
Copies
both of Nature and Art and of whatever comes in his
way
from Earliest
Childhood. The difference between a bad Artist and a Good One Is: the Bad Artist Seems to
copy
a Great deal. The Good one
Really
does
Copy
a Great
deal,
and a little later:
Servile
Copying
is the Great Merit of
Copying.2
This
theory
of Blake
explains
the
apparent
contradiction between his
complete
reliance on the
imagination
and the recurrence in his work of echoes from other artists. When Blake
copied
an
engraving
or
painting
he
did
so
exactly,
and the
image
which he
copied
became so
firmly imprinted
in his mind that he could draw on it
instantly
when he needed it as a vehicle to
convey
his own
idea.3 It is worth
noticing
that
Reynolds'
notebooks are full of
rough
sketches based on the
paintings
of
others,
which he used later for his own
compositions.
From Blake on the other hand we have
very
few
copies surviving,
and those which exist are mechanical and
exact,
as for
instance,
the
drawings
in the British Museum after Ghisi's
engravings
of
Michelangelo's
Ancestors of Christ. We
are,
I
think,
entitled to conclude that the
process
of
copying
left such a clear
impression
of the
original
in Blake's mind that there was no need for him to
preserve
his
copy.
* * *
We have so far considered Blake's relation to earlier
artists,
but to round off the
picture
it will
be
necessary
to
say something
about his relation to his
contemporaries.
It has
already
been said that the view of him as a
completely
isolated individualist is
false,
and
his connections in his
early days
with
painters
like West and Mortimer have been mentioned. Even
in his later
years,
however, though
his work was
only
known to a
few,
he was
always
in close contact
with a small circle of
artists,
whose aims were in one
way
or another related to his own. It
may
therefore be worth while to define his
position
more
precisely.
His wholehearted
opposition
to the fashionable school of
Reynolds
and
Gainsborough
is too well
known to need
any
further comment.
Hogarth's
realism was
equally
distasteful to
him,
but with
other artists he felt himself in some
degree
of
sympathy.
He
admired,
for
instance,
the classicism
of
Barry
whom he mentions
frequently
as
unfairly neglected
in his
lifetime,
and he
couples
him
with Mortimer as
among
the
great
"historical and
poetical
artists" of
England.4
With Stothard his relations were more
complex.
Their violent
quarrel
over the incident of the
Canterbury Pilgrims paintings
led him to
say
the most brutal
things
about this
painter,
but there is
no doubt that in such works as his
engravings
for
Buirger's
Lenore and in the illustrations to
Gray
he
often comes near to Stothard's somewhat sweet
elegance.
A far more
congenial figure
was
Flaxman,
with
whom, however,
as with almost
everyone else,
Blake
quarrelled
at certain moments. To some extent the mixture of Gothic and classical elements
which we have seen in Blake is also to be found in Flaxman. Not
only
did he
occasionally
execute
1
Ibid., p. 1003.
2
Ibid., p. 984.
3
It should be added that
Reynolds constantly urges
the
artist to
adapt
what he borrows for his own
purpose.
Blake in
practice
did
this,
and does not therefore comment on
Rey-
nolds' advice on this
point.
4 Works, p. 82t1.
62
a-Flaxman,
The
Hypocrites
and
Caiphas.
Woodcut.
Dante, Inferno
(p. 211)
c-Flaxman,
Antaeus. Woodcut.
Dante,
Inferno
(p. 211)
b-Blake,
The
Hypocrites
and
Caiphas.
Water-Colour.
Dante, p. 44
(p. 211)
d-Blake,
Antaeus.
Water-Colour.
Dante, pl. 77 (p.
21
1)
BLAKE'S PICTORIAL IMAGINATION 211
tombs in the Gothic manner but in his
notebooks,
now
preserved
in the Fitzwilliam Museum,
Cambridge,
sketches after Gothic
sculpture,
such as the
figures
on the west front at
Wells, appear
side
by
side with
drawings
after the
antique. Moreover,
as we have
already seen,
Flaxman shared
Blake's interest in Far Eastern
art,
and in the ancient civilizations of the Near East. In a moment
of
irritation,
but
probably justifiably,
Blake accused Flaxman of
borrowing
from
him,1
and Gilchrist
supports
this
view, quoting
as an
example
Flaxman's monument to Collins in Chichester Cathedral.
It is true that the two
figures
in the
pediment
on the tomb are
very
close in attitude to those on the
frontispiece
to the
Marriage of
Heaven and
Hell,
to which Gilchrist refers as the Flaxman model. It
is even
possible
that Flaxman
may
have had this model in
mind,
but he is more
likely
to have known
a similar
group
in Roman reliefs.2
But in other cases it is
quite
clear that the stream of influence flowed in the
opposite
direction.
There
are,
for
instance,
two
designs
in Flaxman's and Blake's illustrations to Dante which
appear
to be related
(P1.
62a, b).
The
subject
in
question
is that of
Caiaphas
and the
Hypocrites.
Both
versions show the same
type
of
heavily
hooded
figures walking
in
procession past
the naked and
bearded
figure
of
Caiaphas lying
crucified. Blake's version is
grander
and more elaborate than
Flaxman's,
but the connection is
evident,
and in this case the dates are clear. Flaxman's
design
was
published
in
I793,
whereas Blake did not
begin
his illustrations to Dante until after 1820. If
therefore one of these works influenced the
other,
the
original
must be Flaxman's.3
In
general, however,
even when
they
were
illustrating
the same
subject,
as in the Dante
series,
their
approaches
are
very
different. The
comparison
between the two versions of the
giant
Antaeus
setting
down Dante and
Virgil
will
bring
out the contrast
(P1.
62c, d).
Flaxman has done
everything
in his
power
to reduce this
intrinsically
monstrous scene to a classical convention. He has minimized
the difference in scale between the
giant
and the two
poets by making
the former kneel so that the
smaller
figures
come
up nearly
to his knee. Blake takes
pains
to
produce exactly
the
opposite
effect.
His
giant
stands in a contorted attitude and stretches down to
deposit
Dante on the rock below.
His hand is almost as
huge
as the
figure
of the
poet.
In Flaxman the
giant
is formed into a
compact
mass and behaves with
decorum;
in Blake he is
suspended
in the most
precarious
attitude and
sprawls grotesquely
across the
composition.
Blake was interested in
giving
clear
expression
to
exactly
those
supernatural qualities
in the
scene,
which
frightened
Flaxman and which he
deliberately
avoided,
so that his
giant
becomes a classical hero from late Greek
sculpture.
There is also a connection between Blake and another neo-classical
sculptor,
Thomas
Banks,
the Academician and friend of Flaxman. His relief of "Thetis and her
Nymphs"
in the Victoria
and Albert Museum has in
elementary
form the
swirling design
of which Blake made such brilliant
use in the "Circle of the Lustful" in the
Dante
illustrations.
Another artist for whom
Blake,
more
surprisingly,
felt admiration was
Romney-not
the
Romney
of the fashionable
portraits,
but the
Romney
who
painted
and drew heroic
compositions
after
Milton,
Shakespeare
and the Bible. His admiration for this artist is
expressed
in his letters to
Hayley,
and Blake
may
have been to some extent
exaggerating
his
feelings
in order to flatter his
patron
who was not
only
a friend of
Romney
but was
engaged,
when Blake wrote to
him,
in
writing
the
artist's
biography.
On the other hand he is so
explicit
in his enthusiasm that it cannot be
entirely
false. On several occasions he
applies
the word sublime to
him,4 and,
in his letter written in October
1804,
in which he describes his
recovery
of that
peace
of mind which he had lost for
twenty years,
he attributes this
recovery
in
part
to "the
spiritual
aid of
Romney," or,
as we should
say,
to the
study
of his work. There
are, moreover, among Romney's drawings
not executed for commission
but
produced
as the
spontaneous expression
of his own ideas some which are
very
close indeed
1
Ibid., p.
8 Io.
2
Cf. a
sarcophagus reproduced by Montfaucon, L'Antiquitl
Expliqule, I719, V, pl.
lxxxix. The dates are obscure and it is
difficult to establish the
priority
of the one work or the other.
Flaxman
began
to
design
the monument for Collins in Rome
in
I792
and finished it in
England
in
I795.
The
Marriage of
Heaven and Hell was
probably engraved
in
1793,
and since the
figures
in
question
do not
appear
in Flaxman's earlier draw-
ings
he
may
not have introduced them into his
design
till
after this date.
3
Mr. Collins Baker in the article
quoted
above has noticed
this
borrowing
from Flaxman. He also calls attention to
Blake's
borrowings
from the various works of
archaeology
produced during
the later
I8th
century.
4
Works, pp. 1103,
1105.
212 ANTHONY BLUNT
to Blake in
general
character. The sketch in the Fitzwilliam Museum
(P1.
63a), which, according
to
Romney's son, may
have been intended to
represent
"the
Spirit
of God
moving upon
the face
of the
waters,"
has a
striking affinity
to
'designs by
Blake such as the
"Pity"
or a
pencil
sketch in
the Rossetti
manuscript (page 78).
It is conceived in terms of
light
and shade which Blake would
not have
approved, but,
in the
emphatic gesture
of the outstretched arms and in the
general imagina-
tive
intensity,
it is close to Blake's ideals.
The artist with whom he was most
continuously
on
good
terms was the
Swiss, Fuseli,
about
whom he wrote one of his few
friendly epigrams.
In Fuseli we find the Mannerism which we have
so
frequently
seen
occurring
in Blake. But his Mannerism was of a different kind. He
belongs
rather to the tradition of
aristocratic,
neurotic
Mannerists,
of whom the
types
were Bandinelli and
Bellange.
Indeed some of his
drawings
are little more than
copies
from works
by
the former. Fuseli
himself said "Blake is damned
good
to steal
from,"1
and there is no doubt that he did on occasions
borrow ideas from his
English
friend. But the admiration was not on one side
only.
Blake was a
fifm defender of Fuseli's work2 and in
many
of his
engravings
executed for
publication, particularly
in the illustrations to
Gray,
he comes close to Fuseli's manner. There are even cases in which we
can
say
that Blake seems to have borrowed from
Fuseli,
rather than vice versa. Gilchrist3
notices,
for
instance,
that the
repetition
of
pointing
arms in Blake's tenth
plate
for the Book
ofJob, published
in
1825,
recalls the same
gesture
in Fuseli's
painting
of the "Three Witches" which was
already
engraved
in
18o7.4
It is
possible, however,
to
point
to another
borrowing by
Blake from Fuseli.
One of the most dramatic
figures
in Blake's
compositions
is the bearded old man with outstretched
arms who hovers at the
top
of the "Lazar House"
(P1.
63b),
dated
I795;
but we can find an almost
identical
figure
in Fuseli's
drawing
of the "Fertilization of
Egypt,"
which was
copied
and then
engraved by
Blake as an illustration to Erasmus Darwin's Botanic
Garden, published
in
1791 (P1.
63c).
In this case also the dates are clear
enough
to
prove
that
priority belongs
to Fuseli.5
Though
Blake and Fuseli have
many qualities
in
common, yet
their ultimate aims were different.
Fuseli, though
eccentric in his distortions of
nature,
was not a
visionary artist,
and it is characteristic
that in his theoretical
writings
he is a
pure
Aristotelian in his view of
nature,
and
explicitly
attacks
the
Neo-platonic
doctrines in which Blake believed.6
These were the artists with whom Blake was most
closely
in contact
during
his
maturity,
but
there were others who admired his work and
praised
those
specimens
of it which
appeared
before
the
public.
Gilchrist
mentions,
for
instance, Benjamin
West
(then
President
of the
Royal Academy)
and ten other
Academicians, among
them
Cosway, Lawrence,
Nollekens and Stothard as
supporters
of Cromek's scheme for
publishing
Blake's illustrations to Blair's Grave. In his last
years, moreover,
Blake attracted a small circle of devoted
followers, among
whom Samuel Palmer and Calvert were
the most
distinguished.
These men not
only
admired Blake as a
man,
as a
poet
and as a
thinker,
but also followed his methods and transmitted to some
degree
his
style
to later
generations.
1
Gilchrist,
op.
cit., p. 45.
2Cf.
Works, p.
1121.
3Op. cit., p. 293.
4Blake
incidentally uses this motive
again
in the Three
Accusers on
p. 93
of
Jerusalem.
5 A similar
figure appears
in
Raphael's painting
of
Jacob's
Dream in the
Loggie,
but Fuseli's model is more
likely
to have
been the
Jupiter
Pluvius from the column of Marcus Aurelius
(cf. Montfaucon, L'Antiquiti Expliquwe,
I719,
I, pl. xiii)
(P1. 63d)
in which the function as well as the form of the
figure
is related to Fuseli's
conception.
Flaxman also uses this
figure
in
plate 15
of the Inferno
designs, engraved
in
1793-
6
Lectures on Painting, 182o, pp. 15, 17.
63
a-Romney,
The
Spirit
of God. Water-Colour.
Fitzwilliam Museum,
Cambridge (p. 212)
b-Blake,
The Lazar House. Water-Colour. Tate
Gallery
(p. 212)
c-Blake,
after Fuseli. The
Nile,
Brit. Mus.
(p. 212)
OV iTON
d-Jupiter
Pluvius. After
Montfaucon, L'Antiquite' Expliquie, 1719 (p. 212)

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