« PreviousContinue »
further cultivation of the profession (or trade sometimes) of literature, while he was still clerk of the works to Chantrey, was rendered easy to him on the strength of that volume alone.
On this, as on other occasions of the kind, Cromek fulfilled to admiration his legitimate part as publisher. While he picked the brains of his protégés—Blake, Stothard, Cunningham—and stopped the pay, he could not help doing them incidental good service, in dragging them forward a stage with the public; a service which genial Allan Cunningham seems always to have remembered with a kind of tenderness.
One more illustrative anecdote. *Cromek,' as Mr. Peter Cunninghamı mildly puts it, ‘had rather lax ideas about meum et tuum
when valuable autographs were laid before him. I remember an • instance of this, which I have heard my father relate. Sir Walter • Scott was talking to him of some of the chief curiosities he pos
sessed at Abbotsford. “I had once (I am sorry to say once) ' an original letter from Ben Jonson to Drummond of Hawthornden, • all in Ben's own beautiful handwriting : I never heard of another.” *My father mentioned one he had seen in London in Cromek's hands.
Scott used some strong expression, and added, “The last person • I showed that letter to was Cromek, and I have never seen it
since."' Crómek had favoured Scott with a visit during his Dumfries tour of 1809.
After this unexpectedly vivid ray of evidence as to character, Mr. Cromek's bare word cannot be taken, when he contradicts the positive assertion of simple, upright, if visionary Blake, that Cromek • had actually commissioned him to paint the Pilgrimage before
Stothard thought of his.' We doubt the jocose turn given the denial—that the order had been given in a vision, for he never gave it,' will not serve. The order was a viva voce one. And that, like a previous vivâ voce agreement, is even easier to forget than the ownership of an autograph worth, perhaps, ten pounds in the market. Mr. Blake was not aware of the desirableness of getting a man's hand to a bargain. There is no palming off a signature as visionary.
During these three years of bookmaking, Cromek had, as printseller, published engraved portraits of Currie and of Walter Scott, after Raeburn. Meanwhile, the grand speculation of all, Schiavonetti's engraving of Stothard's best picture,-a subject new to art, as freshly and gracefully handled,—had been going on slowly, though not unprosperously. Ingenious Cromek made it pay its own expenses : in this way.
Besides the stinted sixty pounds, the original price of the picture, Cromek, while it was in progress, and assuming daily new importance, had engaged to add another forty, in consideration of unforeseen labour and research, and of extra finish: this to be paid as soon as collections from the subscribers came in. But when the time for payment arrived, came excuses instead, on the score of heavy expenses incurred for advertising, exhibiting, &c. The picture itself the dexterous man sold for £300, some say £500; but still excused himself, to quiet Stothard, on the old grounds. The poor artist never handled solid cash again from that quarter; though, through his own exertions, he realized another hundred or two by repetitions of his masterpiece for various patrons.
In June 1810, just as Cromek had issued his Select Scottish Songs, the enterprise received its first check. The fine etching for the engraving was completed, but further progress was stayed by the failing health (in a consumption) of the gifted Italian, to whose hands it had been committed. On the 7th of that month, Schiavonetti, who had entered on life at beautiful Bassano, quitted it at Brompton, at the premature age of forty-five. Schiavonetti was to have had £840 for his engraving, but only lived to receive, or entitle himself to, £275. In the following autumn,—the same in which Blake's print of his Canterbury Pilgrimage, and Cromek's Nithsdale and Galloway Song appeared,--the plate was confided to Engleheart, who worked on it from the 20th of September to the end of December, receiving some £44. But heavier troubles now involved both print and proprietor. On Cromek, too, consumption laid its hand, arresting all his ingenious and innocent schemes, or, as Smith calls it, the long ‘endeavour to live by speculating on the talents of others.' Lengthened visits to native Yorkshire failed to stay the inevitable course of his malady, and he returned to Newman Street, there to linger another year of forced inaction, during which poor Cromek and family,—comprising a wife, two young children, and a dependent sister,—were reduced to great straits. Doubtless, many a valuable autograph and Desigu had then to be changed into cash. So that we have to pity the predacious Yorkshireman after all. On the 12th March 1812, at the age of forty-two, he went where he could jockey no more men nor artists.
The widow had her fresh difficulties in realizing the property her husband's scheming brain had created; had first to raise money for the engraver to proceed with the Pilgrimage. The engraver then in view was Lewis Schiavonetti's brother, Niccolò, who had worked in Lewis's studio, and caught his manner. To finish the plate, he wanted three hundred and thirty guineas, in three instalments, and fifteen months' time. To raise the first instalment, Mrs. Cromek parted with a good property,-sold the remainder and copyright of Blake's Blair, for £120, to the Ackermanns, who re-issued the book in 1813, with biographic notices of Blair, Cromek, and Schiavonetti. Then Niccolò followed in his brother's steps to an early grave. This last in the chain of sorrowful casualties caused further delays. The plate,—Mrs. Cromek borrowing the necessary money with difficulty from her father,—was at last, after having passed under the hands of three distinct engravers, finished by James Heath, or in his manufactory rather. Thence it eventually issued, a very much worse one for all these changes than when poor Lewis Schiavonetti's failing hand had left it a brilliant, masterly etching. It had an extraordinary
sale, as everybody knows, and proved exceedingly profitable to the widow. The long-cherished venture turned out no despicable dower for a needy man, living by his wits, to leave her. As for the producer of the picture, who, artist-like, had forborne to press the adventurer in his straits, or the widow in hers, his share in this great success was a certain number of copies of the print (commercially useless to him), as an equivalent for the long deferred £40. Such I gather from Mrs. Bray's Life of Stothard, and other sources, to have been the fluctuating fortunes of the most popular of modern prints ; of an enterprise which, thanks to Cromek's indirect courses, excited, first and last, so much bitterness in the mind of Blake.
YEARS OF DEEPENING NEGLECT. 1810—17. [ET. 53—60.)
I HAVE mentioned that Blake's Canterbury Pilgrimage (the fresco) was bought by Mr. Butts. Among the drawings executed, at this period, for the same constant patron, was a grandly-conceived scene from the apocalyptic vision, the Whore of Babylon :—a colossal, sitting figure, around whose head a wreath of figures issues from the golden cup of Abominations ; below, is gathered a group of kings and other arch offenders. This drawing (dated 1809) formed one in the numerous collection of Blake's works sold at Sotheby's by Mr. Butts' son, in 1852, and is now in the British Museum Print-room. There, also, a few other drawings and a large, though not complete, collection of Blake's illustrated books, are now accessible to the public; thanks to the well-directed zeal of the present Keeper, Mr. Carpenter.
In these years, more than one of Blake's old friends had dropped away. In December 1809 died, of asthma, Fuseli's ancient crony, Johnson, who had more than once extended to Blake what little countenance his hampered position, as a bookseller who must live to please, allowed. In March 1810 the friendly miniature painter, Ozias Humphrey, died. Hayley, as we foretold, lost sight of Blake. Mr. Butts, steady customer as he was, had already a house-full of his works.
December 26, 1811, is the engraver's date affixed to a small reduction, by Blake, of a portion of the Canterbury Pilgrimage,– including eight of the principal figures in the left-hand corner,