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The preliminary charges of launching Blake in the career of a Painter, were too onerous for the paternal pocket; involving for one thing, a heavy premium to some leading artist for instruction under his own roof, then the only attainable, always the only adequate training. The investment, moreover, would not after all be certain of assuring daily bread for the future. English engravers were then taking that high place they are now doing little to maintain. Apprenticeship to one would secure, with some degree of artistic education, the cunning right hand which can always keep want at arm's length: a thing artist and littérateur have often had cause to envy in the skilled artisan. The consideration was not without weight in the eyes of an honest shopkeeper, to whose understanding the prosaic craft would more practically address itself than the vague abstractions of Art, or those shadowy promises of Fame, on which alone a mere artist had too often to feed. Thus it was decided for the future designer, that he should enter the to him enchanted domain of Art by a back door as it were. He is not to be dandled into a Painter, but painfully to win his way to an outside place. Daily through life, he will have to marry his shining dreams to the humblest, most irksome realities of a virtually artisan life. Already it had been decreed that an inspired Poet should be endowed with barely grammar enough to compose with schoolboy accuracy.
At the age of fourteen, the drawing-school of Mr. Pars in the Strand, was exchanged for the shop of engraver Basire in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields. There had been an intention of apprenticing Blake to Ryland, a more famous man than Basire ; an artist of genuine talent and even genius, who had been well educated in his craft; had been a pupil of Ravenet, and after that (among others) of Boucher, whose stipple manner he was the first to introduce into England. With the view of securing the teaching and example of so skilled a hand, Blake was taken by his father to Ryland ; but the negotiation failed. The boy himself raised an unexpected scruple. The sequel shows it to have been a singular instance—if not of absolute prophetic gift or second-sight—at all events of natural intuition into character and power of forecasting the future from it, such as is often the endowment of temperaments like his. In after life this involuntary faculty of reading hidden writing continued to be a characteristic. 'Father,” said the strange boy, after the two had left Ryland's studio, 'I do not like the mans face : it looks as if he will live to be hanged !' Appearances were at that time utterly against the probability of such an event. Ryland was then at the zenith of his reputation. He was engraver to the king, whose portrait (after Ramsay) he had engraved, receiving for his work an annual pension of 2001. An accomplished and agreeable man, he was the friend of poet Churchill and others of distinguished rank in letters and society. His manners and personal appearance were peculiarly prepossessing, winning the spontaneous confidence of those who knew or even casually saw him. But, twelve years after this interview, the unfortanate artist will have got into embarrassments, will commit a forgery on the East India Company :-and the prophecy will be fulfilled.
The Basire with whom ultimately Blake was placed, was James Basire, the second chronologically and in merit first of four Basires ; all engravers, and the three last in date (all bearing one
Christian name) engravers to the Society of Antiquaries. This Basire, born in London, 1730, now therefore forty-one, and son of Isaac Basire, had studied design at Rome. He was the engraver of Stuart and Revett's Athens (1762), of Reynolds's Earl Camden (1766), of West's Pylades and Orestes (1770). He had also executed two or three plates after some of the minor and later designs of Hogarth : the frontispiece to Garrick’s Farmer's Return (1761), the noted political caricature of The Times, and the portrait sketch of Fielding (1762), which Hogarth himself much commended, declaring he did not know his own drawing from a proof of the plate.' The subjects of his graver were principally antiquities and portraits of men of note,—especially portraits of antiquaries : hereditary subjects since with the Basire family. He was official engraver to the Royal as well as the Antiquarian Society. Hereafter he will become still more favourably known in his generation, as the engraver of the illustrations to the slow-revolving Archæologia and Vetusta Monumenta of the Society of Antiquaries,—then in a comparatively brisk condition,—and to the works of Gough and other antiquarian big-wigs of the old, full-bottomed sort. He was an engraver well grounded in drawing, of dry, hard, monotonous, but painstaking, conscientious style; the lingering representative of a school already getting old-fashioned, but not without staunch admirers, for its 'firm and correct outline,' among antiquaries; whose confidence and esteem,—Gough’s in particular,—Basire throughout possessed.
In the days of Strange, Woollett, Vivares, Bartolozzi, better models, if more expensive in their demands might have been found; though also worse. Basire was a superior, liberal-minded man, ingenuous and upright; and a kind master. The lineaments of his honest countenance (set off by a bob-wig) may be studied in the portrait by his son, engraved as frontispiece to the ninth volume of Nichols's Literary Anecdotes. As a Designer, Blake was, in
essentials, influenced by no contemporary; as engraver alone influenced by Basire, and that strongly-little as his master's style had in common with his own genius. Even as engraver, he was thus influenced, little to his future advantage in winning custom from the public. That public, in Blake's youth, fast outgrowing the flat and formal manner inherited by Basire, in common with Vertue (engraver to the Society of Antiquaries before him), and the rest, from the Vanderguchts, Vanderbanks, and other naturalized Dutchmen and Germans of the bob-wig and clipped-yew era, will now readily learn to enjoy the softer, more agreeable one of M'Ardell, Bartolozzi, Sherwin.
His seven years' apprenticeship commenced in 1771, year of the Academy's first partial lodgement in Old Somerset Palace--and thus (eventually) in the National Pocket. As he was constitutionally painstaking and industrious, he soon learned to draw carefully and copy faithfully whatever was set before him,—altogether to the Basire taste, and to win, as a good apprentice should, the approval and favour of his master. One day, by the way (as Blake ever remembered), Goldsmith walked into Basire's. It must have been during the very last years of the poet's life: he died in 1774. The boy -as afterwards the artist was fond of telling- mightily admired the great author's finely marked head as he gazed up at it, and thought to himself how much he should like to have such a head when he grew to be a man. Another still more memorable figure, and a genius singularly german to Blake's own order of mind, the ‘singular boy of fourteen,' during the commencement of his apprenticeship, may 'any day have met unwittingly in London streets, or walked * beside: a placid, venerable, thin man of eighty-four, of erect figure
and abstracted air, wearing a full-bottomed wig, a pair of long * ruffles, and a curious-hilted sword, and carrying a gold-headed 'cane,—no Vision, still flesh and blood, but himself the greatest of modern Vision Seers,-Emanuel Swedenborg by name ; who came