« PreviousContinue »
RETURNING to 1782–3, among the engravings executed by Blake in those years, I have noticed after Stothard, four illustrations—two vignettes and two oval plates—to Scott of Amwell's Poems, published by Buckland (1782); two frontispieces to Dodsley's Lady's PocketBook—“The morning amusements of H.R.H. the Princess Royal and her four sisters’ (1782), and 'A Lady in full-dress' with another 'in the most fashionable undress now worn' (1783);- and The Fall of Rosamond, a circular plate in a book published by Macklin (1783). To the latter year also, the first after Blake's marriage, belong about eight or nine of the vignettes, after the purest and most lovely of the early and best designs of the same artist-full of sweetness, refinement, and graceful fancy—which illustrate Ritson's Collection of English Songs (3 vols. 8vo.); others being engraved by Grignon, Heath, &c. In the first volume occur the best designs, and—what is remarkable designs very Blake-like in feeling and conception ; having the air of graceful translation of his inventions. Most in this volume are engraved by Blake, and very finely, with delicacy, as well as force. I may instance in particular one at the head of the Love Songs, a Lady singing, Cupids fluttering before her, a
singularly refined composition; another, a vignette to Jemmy Dawson, which is, in fact, Hero awaiting Leander; another to When Lovely Woman, a sitting figure of much dignity and beauty.
In after-years of estrangement from Stothard, Blake used to complain of this mechanical employment as engraver to a fellowdesigner, who he asserted) first borrowed from one that, in his servile capacity, had then to copy that comrade's version of his own inventions—as to motive and composition his own, that is. The strict justice of this complaint I can hardly measure, because I know not how much of the Design he afterwards engraved was actually being produced at this period-doubtless much. We shall hereafter have to point out that a good deal in Flaxman and Stothard may be traced to Blake, is indeed only Blake in the Vernacular, classicized and (perhaps half-unconsciously) adapted. His own compositions bear the authentic first-hand impress; those unmistakable traces, which no hand can feign, of genuineness, freshness, and spontaneity; the look as of coming straight from another world—that in which Blake's spirit lived. He, in his cherished visionary faculty, his native power and life-long habit of vivid Invention, was placed above all need or inclination to borrow from others. If, as happens to all, there occur occasional passages of unconscious reminiscence from the Old Masters, there is no cooking or disguise. His friend Fuseli, with characteristic candour, used to declare, · Blake is
d d good to steal from!'
Certainly, Stothard, though even he could by utmost diligence only earn a moderate income—for if in request with the publishers he was neglected by picture-buyers—was throughout life, compared with Blake, a prosperous, affluent man. He had throughout, the advantage of Blake with the public. Hence early, some feeling of soreness in his uncompliant companion's bosom. Stothard had the advantage in the marketable quality of his genius, in his versatile talents, his superior technic attainments—or, rather, superior con
sistency of attainment; above all, in his inborn grace and elegance. He could make the refined Domestic groups he so readily conceived, whether all his own or in part borrowed, far more palatable to the many, the cultivated many—cultivated Rogers for example, his life-long patron—than Blake could ever make his Dantesque sublimity, wild Titanic play of fancy, and spiritually imaginative dreams. I think the latter, as we shall see when we come to the Songs of Innocence and Experience, was at this period of his life influenced to his advantage as a designer by contact with Stothard's graceful mind; but that any capability of grander qualities occasionally shown by Stothard was derived, and perhaps as unconsciously, from Blake. And Stothard's earlier style is far purer and more 'matterful,' to use an expression of Charles Lamb's, than the sugarplum manner of his latter years. In Stothard as in Blake, however nominally various the subject, there is the tyrannous predominance of certain ruling ideas of the designer's. Stothard's tether was always shorter than Blake's; but within the prescribed limits, his performance was the more (superficially) perfect, as well as soft, and rounded
In 1784 I find Blake engraving after Stothard and others in the Wit's Magazine. The Wit's Magazine was a Monthly Repository for the Parlour Window'—not designed (as the title in those free-speaking days might warrant a suspicion) to raise a blush on Lady's cheek :- a miscellany of innocently entertaining rather than strictly witty gleanings, and original contributions mostly amateur. A periodical curious to look back upon in days of a weekly Punch! It would be difficult now to find a literary parallel to Mr. Harrison's plan of creating a spirit of emulation, and rewarding genius :' by awarding 'one silver medal' per month to the best witty tale, essay, or poem,” another to the best answer to the munificent proprietor's 'prize enigmas. A full list of the names and addresses of successful candidates for Fame is appended to each
of the two octavo volumes to which the Magazine ran. A graceful grotesque, the Temple of Mirth, of Stothard's design, is the frontispiece to the first number: a folding sheet forcibly engraved by Blake in his characteristic manner of distributing strongly contrasted light and shade and tone. To it succeeded, month by month, four similar engravings by him after a noted caricaturist of the day, now forgotten, S. Collings : on broad-grin themes, such as The Tithe in Kind, or the Son's Revenge, The Discomfited Duellists, The Blind Beggar's Hats, and May Day in London. After which, an engraver of lower grade, one Smith, (quære, our friend Nollekens Smith ?) executes the engravings; and after him a nameless one. The engraving caricatures, of the earth earthy, for this ‘Library of Momus' was truly a singular task for a spiritual poet!
Some slight clue to the original Design of this period in a somewhat different key is given by the Exhibition-Catalogues, which report Blake as making a second appearance at the Academy in 1784. In that year,—the year of Reynolds's Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse, and Fortune-Teller,—hung in the Drawing and Sculpture Room, two designs of Blake's: one, War unchained by an Angel—Fire, Pestilence and Famine following ; the other, a Breach in a City—The Morning after a Battle. Companion-subjects, their tacit moral—the supreme despicableness of War, was one of which the artist, in all his tenets thorough-going, was a fervent propagandist in days when War was tyrannously in the ascendant. This, by the way, was the year of Peace with the tardily recognised North American States. I have not seen those two drawings. The same theme gave birth about twenty years later to four very fine watercolour drawings,—for Dantesque intensity, imaginative directness, and power of the terrible : illustrations of the doings of the Destroying Angels that War lets loose-Fire, Plague, Pestilence, and Famine. Of the second-named we give here a reduced version. Another very grand and awe-inspiring illustration of still later date,