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III. – WILLIAM BLAKE, PAINTER AND POET.
The exhibition in Boston, New England, of a number of William Blake's pictures, brought together from various quarters, gives opportunity for a more complete view of his singular power than has been possible before on this side of the Atlantic. Ever since the publication of Gilchrist's Life of Blake, in 1863,* there has been an intelligent curiosity respecting him as a painter, stimulated by the glimpses of concealed beauty which the photo-lithographs in that book grudg ingly permitted, and not wholly discouraged by the so-called fac-simile reproductions which have been published at different times. Blake's fame as a painter has rested mainly, however, upon the enthusiastic testimony of a few capable witnesses; his reputation as a designer has had a durable foundation in the copies of the Book of Job’ which have found their way to America ; his place as a poet has been more clearly defined by the attention which has been given to his lyrics, and the obscurity in which his visionary books have been suffered to lie. It is not impossible now, with the added evidence of this interesting collection, to form a fairly clear conception of the limitations of Blake's genius, and to note some of the directions which it takes; of its scope and power no one will wish to pronounce confidently until he has seen all of his work, for genius has a way of surprising the unwary, and new examples of power give new and unexpected pleasure.
The circumstances of Blake's life may quickly be recited. He was born in London, November 28, 1757, and he died in London, August 12, 1827. Excepting four years spent at Felpham, by the sea, in Sussex, the seventy years of his life were passed in London. He married Catherine Boucher in his twenty-fifth year, and left her a childless widow. He was a poor man as the world counts poverty, and at po time during his life did his profuse work bring him more than the plainest living. When ten years old his artistic tendencies were so strongly intimated that his father, a modest hosier, did not hesitate to send him to a drawing-school, and afterwards to apprentice him to an engraver. He worked from the designs of others until ten years before his death, when he engraved thirty-seven plates for Flaxman's Hesoid, and he used his graver to the last upon his own inven
A new edition of this book, with a number of hitherto uncollected letters of Blake, is to be published during the present year.
tions. Before he had gained his freedom he had begun original work, and during the twenty years of his maturity, that is, from his thirtieth to his fiftieth year, he was engrossed with the execution of composite works in text, line, and colour, of which the authorship, design, and mechanical process of reproduction were his own. Even in his early engraving he imported conceptions of his own, so that we may set aside his artisanship as an engraver, reckoning it of little value in any estimate of his distinctive work, and consider him as an artist armed with a technical knowledge of engraving, and an experimental knowledge of certain mechanical processes, which he used mainly for fixing and multiplying his own designs.
Of the amount of work done by him it is not easy to make an exact statement. In Gilchrist's Life there are annotated lists of Blake's paintings, drawings, and engravings, confessedly imperfect, in which between eight and nine hundred subjects are noted as having been treated by him, some in colour, some in black and white, and some with his graver ; but, besides these, we must reckon the very important amount of work bestowed on the prophetic books, and a list of more than two hundred engravings from the designs of other artists. Enough can be gathered from this to show that Blake was an industrious man, and, what is more to the purpose, to indicate how very imperfect is the material now from which we may estimate his genius. The author and editors of Gilchrist's Life used every effort to get sight of his work, yet they are obliged to confess to not having seen, among other things, a hundred and fourteen designs to Gray's Poems, owned by the Duke of Hamilton, and reported to be among the very finest works executed by Blake.'
The published designs of Blake, those, that is, that take their place in the ordinary method of book-illustration, afford a fairly good introduction to a study of his more unusual work. He worked at a time when there were ambitious enterprises by publishers, who were fired with zeal, perhaps, by witnessing the expansive undertaking of Alderman Boydell in his truly British monument to Shakspere's genius. Blake was rather an impracticable man with the publishers, and they found it less easy to make a card of him than of the more pliant and graceful Stothard, yet they followed the advice of Fuseli and of others and went to Blake for illustrations, which it was promised by Blake's admirerz would sell their books. In one instance only was there anything like substantial success, and this was reached by passing Blake's work through the translating power of another engraver. Blair's Grave, with c'esigns by Blake, engraved by Schiavonetti, must have been very thoroughly published, from the great number of copies which have presented themselves in all quarters since Blake's name has come forward. In America some bookseller's enterprise found a fresh field, and in many families the book has for years been a wellknown show-book. There are few, open to any influence of art, who do not at once confess the attractiveness of these engravings. The style of execution by Schiavonetti is favourable to their popularity: bold, strong, free from quiddling lines, they hold with a firm grasp the conceptions of the artist. The topics treated, also, are elemental; they are typical passages in human life and death, and require no subtle interpretation. Then the statuesque beauty of design appeals clearly to the eye, the classic forms are presented in a tender warmth and palpitate with a human sympathy. One does not need to be a student of Blake, or, indeed, to know anything of his place in art, to be at once impressed and moved by these inventions.
But a familiarity with the artist's mind and mode enables one to penetrate a little further, and to discover, through the mask of Schiavonetti, characteristic features of Blake. The visionary eye, that farseeing, vivid, and wide-open orb which looks at one from so many of Blake's figures, and most significantly from Blake's own face in both the portraits of him, is here ; and here, too, that poetic sense of youth's slender uprightness, and of age's patriarchal hoar wisdom, which again and again stand as ever renewed types in his treatment of human life. The exaggerations of his figure-drawing have, doubtless, been toned down by the engraver ; but in one instance Blake himself may have been to blame, since it is hard to believe that an engraver of Schiavonetti's skill would have chosen deliberately the feebler and less grammatical form ; the title-page of Blair's Grave shows an angel with a trump blowing a tremendous blast in the ear of a skeleton; the dead bones are half raised to hear the alarm, but the skeleton rests on the forearm in an entirely impossible manner; the descending angel is hung unaccountably in the air-reverse the page, and one sees a standing figure ; but Blake had elsewhere, in his own engravings of his designs illustrative of Young's Night Thoughts, given the same conception, only there the descending figure really rushes down with impetuous speed, and the startled skeleton raises itself with a weird and quite possible movement.
The illustrations to Young's Night Thoughts preceded the work on the Grave, and were engraved by Blake himself. The result is by no means so satisfactory, partly through Blake's deficiences as an engraver at this time, partly through what we may call miscalculation of effect.
It is not impossible that, were the page of Young reduced in size, we should not be so disturbed by the inadequacy of the engraved lines ; great figures in little more than outline stretch in wide reach over the large page, and wherever there is a defect in drawing or feeling, it is exaggerated by the rather empty style of engraving. Still, there are some passages of great sweetness and majesty, and very often singularly unique adaptations of the design to the thought. One thing especially should be noticed—the persistence with which Blake treated his work in a decorative as separate from a pictorial spirit, aiming to make the page a composition in which the stubborn square of printer's type should compose with his engraved lines, great fertility of resource is shown in this. How perfectly he understood and displayed this spirit of decorative design will appear when we come to speak of other more characteristic work. A completely illustrated edition of the Night Thoughts was projected, but only four parts were ever published ; these appeared in a luxuriousness of paper and print. In the list of Blake's works, among the undated ones, is a subject which is shown in the Boston collection, and named conjecturally, after the list, Young burying Narcissa, illustrative of the linesWith pious sacrilege, a grave I stole ;
and muffled deep In midnight darkness, whispered my last sigh. It is an impressive picture, which has little in common with the engraved illustrations to the Night Thoughts.
An episode in Blake's life brought him for four years into close connection with the commonplace Hayley, a decorous court poet and Cowper's biographer. For him Blake made and engraved designs, including one which appears in the Boston collection, a broadsheet, • Little Tom, the Sailor.' Hayley wrote a humdrum ballad with charitable intent, and Blake furnished two designs to stand at the head and foot of the sheet. He calls the process by which he executed these "wood-cutting on pewter;' and the inferiority of the material is evident in the prints. But these are, nevertheless, admirable illustrations of vigorous wood-engraving, and give a sense of Blake's fine judgment as an artist in his handling of material. The beauty of the lower design, where the mother turns from her cottage, lingers long in one's mind.
Another excellent illustration of Blake's faculty as an engraver i seen in his very early print, • Joseph of Arimathea on the Rocks of Albion,' professedly a copy from Michael Angelo, done in Blake's seventeenth year, and already exhibiting, especially in its treatment of
light on the water, his mystic sense of supernal beauty. The most interesting example, however, of his power in the kind of work which we are now examining is to be found in his large engraving of Chaucer's “Canterbury Pilgrims. A comparison of the work with Stothard's rival picture at once discloses the superior technical skill and grace of the successful artist, but a comparison of Blake's work with Chaucer's establishes a greater agreement of truth between poet. and painter. The harshness of Blake's work is apparent; so, too, is its quaint mannerism, but a nearer view shows a vigour of treatment, a broad generalisation of group and landscape, and an attention to historically conceived details, which bring Blake's work very distinctly into range as a presentation of Chaucer's images, and out of the place which Stothard's picture occupies, of a temporary and local translation of Chaucer's story. Not that we do not here have Chaucer Blaked off upon us, but Blake's conception of the subject was from an angle coincident with Chaucer's; and the acutest reader of Chaucer will be the most ready to acknowledge Blake as a showman. When Blake exhibited, with other pictures, the fresco from which this engraving was taken, he published a descriptive catalogue, well worth reading for its shrewd analysis of the characters in Chaucer's · Pilgrims, so different from the smooth, conventional interpretation which Stothard, in common with other contemporaries, gave. Says Blake :
The characters of Chaucer's 'Pilgrims' are the characters which compose all ages and nations. As one age falls another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same ; for we see the same characters repeated again and again in animals, vegetables, minerals, and in men. Nothing new occurs in identical existence. Accident ever varies. Substance can never suffer change or decay. Of Chaucer's characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and, consequently, they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps. Names alter, things never alter. I have known multitudes of those who would have been monks in the age of monkery who in this deistical age are deists. As Newton numbered the stars, and as Linnæus numbered the planets, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men. The painter bas, consequently, varied the heads and forms of his personages into all Nature's varieties; the horses he has also varied to accord to their riders; the costume is correct according to authentic monuments.
He then proceeds with a running commentary upon the separate characters, answering to what he has undertaken to say with lines in his engravings. Something of the same vagary will be discovered in both, but both justify Lamb's opinion of the catalogue, that it was the finest criticism of Chaucer's poem he had ever read.'