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To say that Blake was born an artist, is to say of course that as soon as the child's hand could hold a peneil it began to scrawl rough likeness of man or beast, and make timid copies of all the prints he came near. He early began to seek opportunities of educating hand and eye. In default of National Gallery or Museum, for the newly founded British Museum contained as yet little or no sculpture, occasional access might freely be had to the Royal Palaces. Pictures were to be seen also in noblemen's and gentlemen's houses, in the sale-rooms of the elder Langford in Covent Garden, and of the elder Christie: sales exclusively filled as yet with the pictures of the old and dark' masters, sometimes genuine, oftener spurious, demand for the same exceeding supply. Of all these chances of gratuitous instruction the boy is said to have sedulously profited : a clear proof other schooling was irregular.
The fact that such attendances were permitted, implies that neither parent was disposed, as so often happens, to thwart the incipient artist's inclination; bad, even for a small tradesman's son, as at that time were an artist's outlooks, unless he were a portrait-painter. In 1767, (three years after Hogarth's death), Blake being then ten years old, was put to Mr. Pars' drawing-school in the Strand.' This was the preparatory school for juvenile artists then in vogue : preparatory to the Academy of Painting and Sculpture in St. Martin's Lane, of the “Incorporated Society of Artists,' the Society Hogarth had helped to found. The Royal Academy of intriguing Chambers' and Moser's founding, for which George the Third legislated, came a year later. "Mr. Pars' drawing-school in the Strand' was located in the great room, subsequently a show-room of the Messrs. Ackermann's-name once familiar to all buyers of prints—in their original house, on the left-hand side of the Strand, as you go citywards, just at the eastern corner of Castle Court : a house and court demolished when Agar Street and King William Street
made. The school was founded and brought into celebrity
by William Shipley, painter, brother to a bishop, and virtual founder also, in 1754, of the still-extant Society of Arts,—in that same house, where the Society lodged until migrating to its stately home over the way, in the Adelphi.
Who was Pars? Pars, the Leigh or Cary of his day, was originally a chaser and son of a chaser, the art to which Hogarth was apprenticed, one then going out of demand, unhappily,—for the fact implied the loss of a decorative art. Which decadence it was led this Pars to go into the juvenile Art-Academy line, vice Shipley retired. He had a younger brother, William, a portrait painter, and one of the earliest Associates or inchoate R. A.'s, who was extensively patronized by the Dilettanti Society, and by the dilettante Lord Palmerston of that time. The former sent him to Greece, there for three years to study ruined temple and mutilated statue, and to return with portfolios, a mine of wealth to cribbing classic' architects,—contemporary Chambers', and future Soanes.
At Pars' school as much drawing was taught as is to be learned by copying plaster-casts after the Antique, but no drawing from the living figure. Blake's father bought a few. casts, from which the boy could continue his drawing-lessons at home: the Gladiator, the Hercules, the Venus de Medici, various heads, and the usual models of hand, arm, and foot. After a time, small sums of money were indulgently supplied wherewith to make a collection of Prints for study. To secure these, the youth became a frequenter of the print-dealers’ shops and the sales of the auctioneers, who then took threepenny biddings, and would often knock down a print for as many shillings as pounds are now given, thanks to ever-multiplying Lancashire fortunes.
In a scarce, probably almost unread book, affecting—despite the unattractive literary peculiarities of its pedagogue author—from its subject and very minuteness of detail, occurs an account, from which I have begun to borrow, of Blake's early education in art, derived
How sweet I roam'd from field to field,
And tasted all the summer's pride,
Who in the sunny beams did glide !
He shew'd me lilies for my hair,
And blushing roses for my brow;
Where all his golden pleasures grow.
With sweet May-dews my wings were wet,
And Phoebus fir'd my vocal rage;
And shut me in his golden cage.
He loves to sit and hear me sing,
Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;
And mocks my loss of liberty.
This may surely be reckoned equal precocity to that so much lauded of Pope and Cowley. It is not promise, but fulfilment. The grown man in vain might hope to better such sweet playfulness,— playfulness as of a child-angel's' penning-any more than noon can reproduce the tender streaks of dawn. But criticism is idle. How analyse a violet's perfume, or dissect the bloom on a butterfly's wing?
from the artist's own lips. It is a more reliable story than Allan Cunningham's pleasant mannered generalities, easy to read, hard to verify. The singular biography to which I allude, is Dr. Malkin's Father's Memoirs of his Child (1806), illustrated by a frontispiece of Blake's design. The Child in question was one of those hapless
prodigies of learning' who,—to quote a good-natured friend and philosopher's consoling words to the poor Doctor, — commence their 'career at three, become expert linguists at four, profound philo• sophers at five, read the Fathers at six, and die of old age at 'seven.'
‘Langford, writes Malkin, called Blake ‘his little connoisseur, and often knocked down a cheap lot with friendly precipitation.' Amiable Langford! The great Italians,— Raffaelle, Michael Angelo, Giulio Romano,—the great Germans,—Albert Dürer, Martin Hemskerk, — with others similar, were the exclusive objects of his choice; a sufficiently remarkable one in days when Guido and the Caracci were the gods of the servile crowd. Such a choice was 'contemned by his youthful companions, who were accustomed to laugh at what they called his mechanical taste!' 'I am happy,' wrote Blake himself in later life (MS. notes to Reynolds), 'I cannot 'say that Raffaelle ever was from my earliest childhood hidden ' from me. I saw and I knew immediately the difference between * Raffaelle and Rubens.'
Between the ages of eleven and twelve, if not before, Blake had begun to write original irregular verse; a rarer precocity than that of sketching, and rarer still in alliance with the latter tendency. Poems composed in his twelfth year, came to be included in a selection privately printed in his twenty-sixth. Could we but know which they were! One, by Malkin's help, we can identify as written before he was fourteen : the following ethereal piece of sportive Fancy, 'Song' he calls it :