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Ant. I.— The Life of William Blake, illustrated from his Works.
By the late Alexander Gilchrist, of the Middle Temple. 2 vols.
1863. VOU know, dear, the first time you saw God, was when you were four
years old, and He put His head to the window, and set you screaming. This singular remark was made by Mrs. Blake to her husband, at the close of a life in which Visions (as he called them) had formed what William Blake was disposed to regard as the real, essential portion. It was of visionary images that he spoke and wrote ; above all, they were the subjects of his art during a career of fifty industrious years. Such an artist—a rare being at all times—appears especially strange regnante Georgio III.; and we are much indebted to the writer who, before the last of those who knew the seer had gone, has enabled us, in some degree, to become familiar with Blake, and to comprehend the conditions under which he produced works which, at once in their wildness and their originality, are without parallel in English art.
Taking into account the long interval which separates us from Blake, who died, an old man, in 1827, and the fact that Mr. Gilchrist was himself removed before the conclusion of his work, we consider this book one of the most satisfactory amongst our recent biographies, a province of literature in which England has not been particularly eminent. It is brief—a praise which few readers will quarrel with us for placing first—for the Life is contained in one volume. It appears to unite the chief available records of Blake with a complete account of his works; and, from the fortunate accident that Blake gave his ideas to the world by engraving, the illustrations are able to convey a much more adequate picture of the artist, as artist, than is generally possible. What we mainly miss is a fuller statement, from letters or from printed criticism, of what Blake's contemporaries thought of him. How much could be collected for this purpose ve know not. The two friends who knew Blake best, and were best qualified to judge him, were Stothard and Flaxman. Blake
* We are indebted to the owner of the copyright for the use of the illustrations which we have transferred to these pages. Vol. 117.—No. 233.
is entirely passed over in the published Life of the first, and of Flaxman we have, as yet, no detailed biography. It is possible that letters from them may, however, be in existence, which might serve to fill the blank we regret. Mr. Gilchrist writes in a language which, if not free from a certain mannerism, is at least clear and animated, and is alive to those characteristic incidents which are in place (and only in place) in biography. When a very young man he published a Life of Etty, which, though much superior in accuracy and completeness to the superficial volumes which have formed the brief • In Memoriam of most of our recent artists, was seriously disfigured by its style. This is the most perfect imitation of Mr. Carlyle's manner we have ever had the ill-fortune to meet with. Perhaps it was not surprising that the peculiar merits of the Life of Sterling,' by that distinguished writer, should have fascinated a youthful biographer; and, although much less prominent, yet decided traces, of this fascination remain in the Blake—something of hero-worship in the comparisons drawn between Blake and his contemporaries, and something of abruptness and off-hand criticism in the incidental remarks. Crudities such as these, like spurts of the pen, are just what a fervent writer, animated with his task, throws off currente calamo; they are the natural protests of honest admiration for one who never found his due recognition in life, against that smirking, complacent, and complimentary worship of charlatanerie, which is the besetting sin of the English public in matters of art; they are in refreshing contrast to the mealy-mouthed' belaudations of everything, from worst to best, which superficial or time-serving writers fancy proofs of catholic taste. But they are also flaws which a sober judgment effaces in giving its last touches; and, had Mr. Gilchrist been spared to his task and to us, we may hope that he would have effaced them.
To complete our short sketch of the quality of this book, let us add that, by aid of Mr. Linton's well-known skill as a woodcutter, and of some new process in photographic engraving, it has been illustrated with a copiousness and a skill which leave little to desire. Blake's poems (of which more anon), with his scanty pieces in prose, have been wisely added by Mr. D. G. Rossetti, and accompanied with notes, which, though not free from occasional fancifulness and fanaticism, show much of that delicate taste in poetry that we should expect from the admirable translator of Dante's lyrics. Finally, Mr. W. Rossetti, known to the serious students of art as one of our most intelligent and accomplished critics, has compiled a descriptive and critical catalogue of Blake's drawings and paintings, which is a model of brevity,
fulness, and good sense. By this indispensable adjunct to an artist's life, the labour of love which so many hands have built up in Blake's honour has been, on the whole, well completed. Sero, sed serio.
The early circumstances of Blake were not unlike those of Turner, Both were born of fathers belonging to the small tradesman class, and both saw the light and spent their youthful years within the duskiest recesses of London—Turner near Covent Garden, Blake (born 1757) in the scarcely less unpicturesque region of Carnaby Market, Golden Square. Yet two men could hardly be named whose art is more free from the associations of the great city. By ten years old there was no mistaking the vocation of our young artist; indeed, to the angelic eyes which Blake imagined about him, his style might have been already prefigured. Beside the vision quoted above, he had seen a tree at Peckham Rye (presumably on one of his earliest insights of the country a hundred years since), clustered with as many angels as leaves. We do not find that the parents interfered much, for blame or praise, with the boy's chosen pursuit. He grew up in those quiet ways and sheltered byplaces which are the best home of young Genius, drew casts from the antique, frequented sale-rooms to pick up old Italian and German prints (Dürer, the early line engravings from Raphael, and the like), and was finally apprenticed to an architectural engraver in 1771. This artist-one of several who bore the name Basire, was among the first to attempt accurate delineations of our Gothic buildings, being employed by the Society of Antiquaries on their · Monumenta ;' he was also (says Mr. Gilchrist) 'well grounded in drawing, of dry, bard, monotonous, but painstaking, conscientious style,' admired for its · firm and correct outline.' But he cannot have shared his pupil's enthusiasm for the early masters of engraving; and from some expressions we infer that Blake, later in life, regretted the mechanical
cross-hatchings' (always the vice of English engraving) in which he had been grounded by Basire. A comparison of his early copper-plates, 'The Gates of Paradise,' with the Illustrations to Job,' will show that it was not until he cut the latter work, that the technical method of Dürer or Marcantonio told decisively on Blake as an engraver.
Let us now try to mark out the influences which, during Blake's youth, contributed to form his style. The main direction of it, indeed, as with all creative minds, must be sought within. On the singular structure of Blake's own soul we shall afterwards speak more fully, endeavouring to bring out, by degrees, its many and perplexing aspects. Here it will be enough to say that from the first he appears to have had that vivid imagination
which painted as literal objects of sight, the images called up by the mind, combined with an equally marked deficiency in that regulative intellect and cultivated experience which would have enabled him to separate the 'within' from the 'without,' and to guide, rather than to follow, his own visionary conceptions. Already, as we have noticed, at ten years old, he saw a tree at Peckham Rye filled with angels. Working under Basire in the Abbey, he now not only discovered the tenderness and invention of the old Gothic art, which were hidden from the eyes of his contemporaries, but divined its origin. Joseph of Arimathea, according to Blake, was one of the Gothic artists who built the cathedrals in what we call the dark ages, wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins.' Fancies and judgments of this kind are not uncommon amongst clever children, or amongst grown-up people of vivid imagination and untrained mind. Most remarkable examples are given by Bunyan, in that astonishing autobiography which we think the greatest effort of his great genius. There is nothing wonderful in seeing visions and dreaming dreams, unless they are accompanied by mature intellectual or imaginative power. They were, indeed, so accompanied in Blake. But whilst in the case of Bunyan the visionary impulse (as an object of real belief) passed away or transfigured itself into the sublime realities of his immortal allegory, in the less powerful and coherent nature of the artist the marriage of imagination and reason was never completed. To the close of his life we find Blake more or less unable to distinguish between fact and fancy; between what he had learnt from other artists, or from the books which he was illustrating, and the immediate inspirations of his own fertile genius. Add to this his total inexperience as a writer; that though he read much, he read (as his notes on Lord Bacon and Sir Joshua Reynolds prove) without judgment, and was early seized on by Ossian and Swedenborg; that he was apt to speak, as self-trained men are wont, without reserve or qualification; nay, when provoked, was not without a pleasure in mystifying his hearer; lastly, that he was of a peculiarly vivid, untiring, and courageous mind, restrained by no fears, and modified by no counter-arguments, and we have (we think) the key to Blake's psychological peculiarities. How these affected his art, we hope afterwards to show.
Led away, perhaps, by the fascination of so peculiar a talent as Blake's, and by the force with which he ascribed his work to direct internal prompting, Mr. Gilchrist appears to us very decidedly to overrate Blake's originality in style. A good deal in Flaxman and Stothard may be traced to Blake, is, indeed, only Blake in the vernacular, classicised, and (perhaps half-unconsciously) adopted. He was placed above all need or inclination
to borrow from others. His friend Fuseli, with characteristic candour, used to declare Blake is d--d good to steal from.'
Whether Fuseli, whose own inventive faculty outran his power of expressing himself as an artist, stole from Blake, or no, it will not be doubted by those who are acquainted with his works, that he, at any rate, set a powerful impress upon Blake. They appear to have become friends about 1780, when the ages of the two sufficiently indicate the relation in which they really stood—Blake twenty-two, the enthusiastic and highly-educated Swiss thirty-nine. The first important picture produced by Fuseli after this date is 'The Nightmare. This is significant, both of Fuseli and of his influence over Blake, an influence of which Blake's style of drawing throughout his life, but especially during the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, bears unmistakeable traces. The differences between the two friends might, perhaps, be summed up thus: that Fuseli, in spite of his dreamy tendencies, was saved, by his better education, from the aimless wildness (ill-named extravagance or madness) of Blake; whilst Blake, in his turn, possessed of a force and tenderness of imagination to which Fuseli had no claim, saw and drew Visions, where the other composed and painted Nightmares.
Mr. Gilchrist gives no adequate proof of the assertions we have quoted above in reference to Flaxman and Stothard. Nor does acquaintance with their works appear to us in any way to confirm these assertions. Here and there, amongst Flaxman's drawings, occurs a visionary sketch, which more or less recalls Blake. Stothard's graceful designs, about the middle of his life, resemble in general style Blake's own early manner, however, of their works, there is no sign of resemblance; nothing in the exquisite studies from contemporary life and manners with which Flaxman began his career, or in the delicate transfusions from Raphael and Watteau, recreated by his own charming fancy, that characterise the close of Stothard's long and honoured life. With the Hellenic element which forms the most conspicuous and the best known part of Flaxman's genius, Blake has even less of sympathy. The two artists are wide apart as Greek and Goth. Where they resemble each other, the likeness is due to the fact that both were influenced by the mystical religious element of the time. Allan Cunningham's interesting sketch *
* We are glad to learn that a detailed Life of Flaxman (we hope, not without copious illustrations) is in preparation by Mr. Teniswood. As an English artist Flaxman ranks with our four or five) greatest men. As a sculptor, he is, in our judgment, beyond comparison the most gifted inventor since Michel Angelo. When Canova came to England, to be caressed by our noblemen of taste, his generous nature revolted against the total neglect of Flaxman. But his protest (like