William Blake: Failing Better

“You may smile at me calling another Poet a Mystic”, replied Samuel Taylor Coleridge having been sent a copy of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence, “but verily I am in the very mire of common-place common-sense compared with Mr Blake.” Even the relatively few Londoners acquainted with Blake and his work – many of them radical intellectuals such as the Godwin-Wollstonecrafts – occasionally wondered if he was a candidate for Bedlam. Intense mysticism, an involved invented mythology, determined and opinionated contrariness in politics and religion and a uniquely unconventional visual style: any one of these traits would have marked a man of the English Regency as an incurable weirdo. Blake had all of them and more.

From all this might follow the conclusion that he was what would now described as an Outsider Artist, and yet that would be quite wrong. Blake had studied at the Royal Academy Schools and, despite being unable to accommodate himself to the prevailing oil painters’ aesthetic, he exhibited works (not in oils) at nine of the influential annual exhibitions. Meanwhile he had acquired professional credentials in the prints trade. There survives a huge ledger containing the records of the Stationers’ Company, the entries beautifully inscribed in a combination of copperplate and archaic handwriting. Here the 15-year-old Blake appears as bound apprentice in 1772 for the sum of £52 to James Basire of Lincoln’s Inn Fields, a well-known copy-engraver. The apprentice seems to have acquired from Basire the burin-engraver’s skills with such ease that, only a year later, he was capable of making an expert reproduction after a figure from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes, ‘Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion’. He was then put to do the drawings for a prestigious edition of the monuments of Westminster Abbey, including detailed portraits of kings and queens from the Abbey’s carved tomb effigies. The results are conventional enough images, though the lineaments of the Blakean style are there: full-face portraits with the flowing hair and intense expressions that would become even more individualised in his great later pictures of Job, Satan, or Nebuchadnezzar.

After Basire, and the Royal Academy (where, nominally an engraving student, he mainly drew and painted), Blake built a print-making practice of his own, and was fitfully quite successful. In 1791 his engraving after one of Hogarth’s Beggar’s Opera paintings sold so well that he and his wife could move to a respectable address at Lambeth, where Blake operated his roller-press in the front ground-floor room.

It was on this press that Blake created some of his most individual works. These “illuminated books” – the best-known are Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are “all-through” designs in which words, pictures and decoration were treated as a single entity and engraved directly onto the copper plate by the innovative method of relief etching – with the poems written out in mirror script. Nothing resembling them had been done since the illuminated texts of the Middle Ages, but even they are remote ancestors. Blake had, in effect, invented the artist’s book.

It was these works that caught the attention of Coleridge. Certainly they bemused their readers, but at least they were seen and talked about. Where Blake most spectacularly failed – I mean in terms of public recognition – was in making the transition from poet and print-maker to the more prestigious status of painter. It was not from want of trying. From May until September 1809, almost two decades after his success with The Beggar’s Opera, he presented sixteen of his most ambitious paintings for sale to the public, ten of which are still known today. Compared to the Royal Academy’s lofty exhibition space, or the well-appointed showrooms of London’s more fashionable artists, this show was housed in rooms above his brother James’s hosiery shop in Golden Square, Soho. The space was far from ideal. It was up a narrow flight of stairs and so cramped so that the largest picture, the lost The Ancient Britons – at five feet wide – must have occupied almost the whole of one wall. Indeed Golden Square had only one advantage for Blake, though an important one: it was free, and free was all at this stage that  he could afford.

Blake was 52 and now, with patronage and commissions hard to come by, he and his wife had sometimes been so poor that Catherine Blake would sit her husband down to dine in front of an empty plate. But with this presentation of his works in “the grand style”, every one for sale, he hoped the public would be filled with his own visionary enthusiasm. They would at last embrace his genius, give him recognition and buy his work.

Three of Blake’s most abiding beliefs shine strongly from these paintings: in line-drawing, in imagination over reason and in his country. The first is attributable to his traditional training as a line engraver. For him “the great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is that the more distinct, sharp and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art”. He was thinking like an engraver, of the old school – one for whom the burin was more important than newer printmaking techniques such as mezzotint, with their subtle tonal effects.  This primacy of line over tone invaded his attitude to painting too, leading to a bitter distaste for the most admired painters of the era – Reynolds and Gainsborough and their heroes Rubens, Rembrandt and Titian. Blake’s highly polemical catalogue, which he threw in with the two shillings and sixpence entrance money for the Golden Square exhibition, rages against “demon” artists who privilege colour over line and employ  “that infernal machine called Chiaro Oscuro”.

The transformative power of Blake’s mind, which enabled him to defy every fashionable intellectual trope of his time, is omnipresent in the paintings. An image from Shakespeare describing how Prince Hal mounts his war horse, turns into an allegory of the “horse of intellect” being mastered by the human imagination, taking the form of one of Blake’s beloved angels. There, lines from Thomas Gray inspire an opposite vision: the last Welsh bard killing himself in face of the advancing English army. The picture, in Blake’s catalogue note, is a riposte to the “sordid drudgery of facsimile reproduction”, for it “exists and exults in immortal thoughts”. And in response to the Napoleonic wars the spiritual forms of Nelson and Pitt are represented, one directing the sea monster Leviathan, the other guiding the land creature Behemoth, whilst “ordering the Reaper to reap the Vine of the Earth, and the Plowman to plow up the Cities and Towers”. Blake’s slightly faulty technique and materials have left these, and other examples of what he called his “frescoes”, badly darkened and difficult to read today. But they are surely as strange as any historical painting ever was.

In much better condition today, and without overt visionary content, is Sir Jeffrey Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims on their Journey to Canterbury. Blake venerated Chaucer as the founder of English literature, and his mounted pilgrims setting out from the Tabard Inn in a narrow frieze-like arrangement are not only men and women of their time, but “the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life”. This painting sparked one of the sharpest conflicts of Blake’s career when he accused the printer Cromek, and the artist Thomas Stothard, of pirating his idea. To Blake’s despair, Stothard’s clearly more conventional treatment was a lot more popular than his own.

Mounted with such hope, the Golden Square exhibition proved to be little short of a fiasco. In the five months of its presentation hardly anyone came to see it, nothing was sold, and Blake’s reputation was advanced not at all.  To think about this most distinctive of all English artists, at this vulnerable moment of his career, not merely failing but “failing better” is not only melancholy, but very touching.

Blake was forced to carry on along his lonely path, writing drawing and painting in an ever more eccentric – and to us not only marvellous but lovable – fashion. He founded no school and trained no studio assistants to ensure his legacy. His only known apprentice did not last the course, and it was not until a few years before his death in 1827 that he at last found a degree of recognition as a master, though more in the role of inspirer than of teacher. This happened when he was discovered by a group of young, almost juvenile artists led by Samuel Palmer who became besotted by Blake’s visionary ideas, particularly revering a set of tiny crepuscular wood engravings Blake had made in 1821 to illustrate Virgil’s Pastorals. Calling themselves the Ancients (though they were all in their teens and twenties) they adopted Blake as their cult leader, and referred to his home, to which they made frequent pilgrimage, as the House of the Interpreter. Whenever Palmer arrived there he is said to have made obeisance at the door before going in. Of the illustrations of Virgil, another Ancient, Edward Calvert, wrote that ‘They are done as if by a child, several of them careless and incorrect, yet there is a spirit in them, humble enough and of force enough to move simple souls to tears.’ Here is one of them, Colinet departs in Sorrow, of which the original measures only 35 x 75 mm. 

Superficially the work of George Richmond, another Ancient, is closer to Blake’s drawing style, but it was Palmer’s debt that ran deeper. His recollection of knowing Blake, many years on, is highly evocative. “He was energy itself and shed around him a kindling influence… To walk with him in the country was to perceive the soul of beauty through the forms of matter.”


Posted on October 5th, 2019


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