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   Chapter 7 BLAKE AND FLAXMAN

Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century By Virginia Tatnall Peacock Characters: 24128

Updated: 2017-12-04 00:02


Ten years before Boswell went to live at 56 Great Queen Street, William Blake was serving an apprenticeship to James Basire, the well-known engraver, whose house was close by at No. 31 in the same street. Basire's residence has gone the way of all bricks and mortar; but happily Soho still preserves the corner house at No. 28 Broad Street, in which Blake was born. He was born there on the 28th November 1857, over his father's hosiery shop, and it was there that the first of his strange visions came to him; for he used to say that when he was only four years old he one day saw the face of God at the window looking in upon him, and the sight set him a-screaming. When he was four or five years older, you hear of him taking long rambles into the country; and it was on Peckham Rye that other visions came to him. Once he saw a tree there "filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars"; and once, on a summer morning, he saw "the haymakers at work, and amid them angelic figures walking." In his matter-of-fact fashion he recounted the first of these two visions on his return home, and his mother had to intervene to prevent the honest hosier and conscientious Nonconformist, his father, from thrashing him for telling a lie.

At the age of ten Blake was journeying to and from the house in Broad Street to Mr. Paris's academy in the Strand, taking drawing lessons. He was already writing poetry, too, and before he was fourteen had written one of the most beautiful and glitteringly imaginative of his lyrics:-

"How sweet I roamed from field to field,

And tasted all the summer's pride,

Till I the Prince of Love beheld

Who in the sunny beams did glide.

He showed me lilies for my hair,

And blushing roses for my brow;

He led me through his gardens fair

Where all his golden pleasures grow.

With sweet May-dews my wings were wet,

And Phoebus fired my vocal rage;

He caught me in his silken net,

And shut me in his golden cage.

He loves to sit and hear me sing,

Then, laughing, sports and plays with me;

Then stretches out my golden wing,

And mocks my loss of liberty."

In a preface to his first published volume, the Poetical Sketches, which contains this lyric, his Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter verses, "My Silks and fine Array," and other lovely songs, he says that all the contents were "commenced in his twelfth, and occasionally resumed by the author till his twentieth year." From fourteen till he was twenty-one Blake was living away from home with his master, Basire, the engraver; then he went back to his father's, and commenced to study at the recently formed Royal Academy, and in 1780 exhibited his first picture there, "The Death of Earl Godwin." Marrying in 1782, he set up housekeeping for himself at 23 Green Street, Leicester Square, and began to move abroad in literary society. Flaxman, already his friend, introduced him to Mrs. Mathew, a lady of blue-stocking tendencies, who held a sort of salon at 27 Rathbone Place; and here, in 1784, "Rainy Day" Smith made his acquaintance. "At Mrs. Mathew's most agreeable conversaziones," he says, "I first met the late William Blake, to whom she and Mr. Flaxman had been truly kind. There I have often heard him read and sing several of his poems. He was listened to by the company with profound silence, and allowed by most of his listeners to possess original and extraordinary merit." He knew nothing of musical technique, but sang some of his verses to airs that Smith describes as "singularly beautiful." His republican opinions and general unorthodoxy and daring outspokenness, however, did not make for social amenity, and it was not long before he dropped out of these elegant circles, and withdrew to his mystic dreamings and the production of paintings and poetry that the majority could not understand. A strangely beautiful and wonderful Bird of Paradise to break from the nest over that hosier's shop at the corner of Broad Street, Soho!

BLAKE'S HOUSE. SOHO.

When his father died, in 1784, Blake's brother James took over and continued the business; and in the same year Blake himself opened the shop next door (No. 27) as an engraver and printseller, in partnership with James Parker, who had been one of his fellow-apprentices under Basire. Here he had his younger brother, Robert, with him as a pupil; and he used to say that when Robert died, in 1787, he saw his soul ascend through the ceiling, "clapping its hands for joy." Falling out with Parker, Blake removed, in this year of his brother's death, to 28 Poland Street, near by, where he said Robert's spirit remained in communion with him, and directed him, "in a nocturnal vision, how to proceed in bringing out poems and designs in conjunction"; and the Songs of Innocence, published in 1789, was the result of this inspiration. The method, as Alexander Gilchrist has it, "consisted in a species of engraving in relief both words and designs. The verse was written, and the designs and marginal embellishments outlined on the copper with an impervious liquid. Then all the white parts, or lights (the remainder of the plate, that is), were eaten away with aquafortis or other acid, so that the outline of letter and design was left prominent, as in stereotype. From these plates he printed off in any tint required to be the prevailing (or ground) colour in his facsimiles; red he used for the letterpress. The page was then coloured up by hand in imitation of the original drawing, with more or less variety of detail in the local hues." A process of mixing his colours with diluted glue was revealed to him by St. Joseph. Mrs. Blake often helped him in tinting the designs, and it was her work to bind the books in boards. In the same year (1789) he put forth the finest of his long mystical poems, The Book of Thel.

Leaving Poland Street in 1793, Blake moved across London to Lambeth, and made himself a new home at 13 Hercules Buildings. Gilchrist, one of his earliest biographers, made a mistake in his identification of this house, and until a year or two ago it was believed that Blake's residence in that place had been pulled down. On a recent investigation of the Lambeth rate-books by the County Council authorities, however, it became clear that, instead of being on the west side of the street, as Gilchrist supposed, No. 13 was on the east side, next door but one to Hercules Hall Yard. Somewhere between 1830 and 1842 the whole road was renumbered, and Blake's house had become No. 63, and was in 1890 renumbered again, and became, and is still, No. 23 Hercules Road. Whilst he was living here, Mr. Thomas Butts, of Fitzroy Square, became his most liberal and most constant patron; and on calling at Hercules Buildings one day, Mr. Butts says he found Blake and his wife sitting naked in their summer-house. "Come in!" Blake greeted him. "It's only Adam and Eve, you know." But Mr. Butts never took this as evidence of Blake's madness: he and his wife had simply been reciting passages of Paradise Lost in character.

BLAKE. 23 HERCULES ROAD.

At Hercules Buildings Blake did a large number of paintings and engravings, including the 537 coloured drawings for Young's Night Thoughts, and some of the greatest of his designs, such as the "Job" and "Ezekiel" prints; and here, too, he completed certain of his Prophetic Books, with their incomprehensible imagery and allegory, and what Swinburne has called their "sunless and sonorous gulfs." From Hercules Buildings also came "Tiger, tiger, burning bright, in the forests of the night," and the rest of the Songs of Experience. Then, in 1800, Hayley, the poet of the dull and unreadable Triumphs of Temper, persuaded him to move into the country and settle down in a cottage at Felpham; from which, because he said "the visions were angry with me at Felpham," he returned to London early in 1804, and took lodgings on the first floor of 17 South Moulton Street, Oxford Street.

BLAKE'S HOUSE. SOUTH MOULTON ST.

Nevertheless, at Felpham he must have been working on his Jerusalem, and on Milton, A Poem in Two Books, for these were issued shortly after his arrival in South Moulton Street. He writes of Jerusalem in one of his letters: "I have written this poem from immediate dictation, twelve, or sometimes twenty or thirty, lines at a time, without premeditation, and even against my will"; and in a later letter, speaking of it as "the grandest poem that this world contains," he excuses himself by remarking, "I may praise it, since I dare not pretend to be any other than the secretary-the authors are in eternity." Much of Jerusalem is turgid, obscure, chaotic, and so impossible to understand that Mr. Chesterton declares that when Blake said "that its authors were in eternity, one can only say that nobody is likely to go there to get any more of their work." But it is in this poem that Blake introduces those verses "To the Jews," setting forth that Jerusalem once stood in-

"The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John's Wood,"

and that then-

"The Divine Vision still was seen,

Still was the human form divine;

Weeping in weak and mortal clay,

O Jesus! still the form was Thine.

And Thine the human face; and Thine

The human hands, and feet, and breath,

Entering through the gates of birth,

And passing through the gates of death";

and in Jerusalem you have his lines "To the Deists," the first version of his ballad of the Grey Monk, with its great ending:-

"For a tear is an intellectual thing,

And a sigh is the sword of an Angel King,

And the bitter groan of a martyr's woe

Is an arrow from the Almighty's bow."

For my part, I wish it were possible for some of our living poets to go again to those authors in eternity and get some more of such stuff as this, even if we had to have it embedded in drearier lumps of nonsense than you find in Jerusalem.

Blake's wife, daughter of a market-gardener, a woman so uneducated that she had to sign the marriage register with her mark, was not only an excellent housekeeper and domestic drudge, but was in perfect sympathy with him in his work, and had the greatest faith in his visions. Moses, Julius C?sar, the Builder of the Pyramids, David, Uriah, Bathsheba, Solomon, Mahomet, Joseph, and Mary-these were among Blake's spiritual visitants at South Moulton Street. They came and sat to him, and he worked at their portraits, "looking up from time to time as though he had a real sitter before him." Sometimes he would leave off abruptly, and observe in matter-of-fact tones, "I can't go on. It is gone; I must wait till it returns"; or, "It has moved; the mouth is gone"; or, "He frowns. He is displeased with my portrait of him." If any one criticised and objected to the likeness he would reply calmly, "It must be right. I saw it so." In all probability he meant no more than that he conjured up these sitters to his mind's eye; but his friends took him literally, and he acquiesced in their doing so, and has been dubbed a madman in consequence.

Many times his wife would get up in the nights "when he was under his very fierce inspirations, which were as if they would tear him asunder, while he was yielding himself to the Muse, or whatever else it could be called, sketching and writing. And so terrible a task did this seem to be that she had to sit motionless and silent, only to stay him mentally, without moving hand or foot; this for hours, and night after night." It is not easy to realise that this burning, fiery spirit did once live in these South Moulton Street rooms, surrounded by his vivid and terrific imaginings, and then could pass out of it and leave it looking so dull and decorous, so ordinary, so entirely commonplace. But here he indubitably lived, so discouraged by neglect and hampered by poverty that he could not afford to issue any more large books like the Jerusalem, and in 1809 made a desperate attempt to appeal to the public by holding an exhibition of his frescoes

and drawings on the first floor of his brother's hosiery shop in Broad Street. Very few visitors attended; but among the few was Lamb's friend, Crabb Robinson, and when he went he had the room to himself. He paid for admission, recognised that these pictures were the work of no ordinary artist, and bought four of the catalogues, one of which he sent to Lamb; and when, on leaving, he asked the custodian whether he might come again free, James Blake, delighted at having a visitor, and one, moreover, who had bought something, cried, "Oh yes-free as long as you live!" But the exhibition was a failure. The popular painters of Blake's day were Reynolds, Gainsborough, and men of their schools. Blake was born out of his time, and contemporary society had nothing in common with him-no comprehension of his aim or his outlook-and dismissed him as an astonishing lunatic. When some drawings of his were shown to George III., his Majesty could only gaze at them helplessly and ejaculate a testy "Take them away! take them away!" The noble designs for Blair's Grave, and the frescoes of The Canterbury Pilgrimage, were among the important works done at South Moulton Street, which Blake quitted in 1821, making his last change of residence to 3 Fountain Court, Strand-a house kept by his brother-in-law, Baines. Here he occupied a room on the first floor for some six years, and when he was nearing his seventieth year, died, after a short illness, on Sunday, the 12th August 1827. He lay dying in his plain back room, serene and cheerful, singing songs to melodies that were the inspiration of the moment; towards evening he fell silent, and passed quietly away, a poor woman, a neighbour who had come in to sit with his wife, saying afterwards, "I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel."

You have only to look at the portraits of Blake, at the broad forehead-the forehead of a revolutionary, as he himself said-the sensitive mouth, the large, intent, vision-haunted eyes, to know that his outward appearance fairly adequately revealed the manner of man that he really was. He was under five feet six in height and thick-set, but so well proportioned that he did not strike people as short. "He had an upright carriage," says Gilchrist, "and a good presence; he bore himself with dignity, as not unconscious of his natural claims. The head and face were strongly stamped with the power and character of the man. There was a great volume of brain in that square, massive head, that piled-up brow, very full and rounded at the temples, where, according to phrenologists, ideality or imagination resides. His eyes were fine ('wonderful eyes,' some one calls them), prominently set, but bright, spiritual, visionary-not restless or wild, but with a look of clear, heavenly exaltation. The eyes of some of the old men in his Job recall his own to surviving friends. His nose was insignificant as to size, but had that peculiarity which gives to a face an expression of fiery energy, as of a high-mettled steed-a little clenched nostril, a nostril that opened as far as it could, but was tied down at one end. His mouth was wide, the lips not full, but tremulous, and expressive of the great sensibility which characterised him. He was short-sighted, as the prominence of his eyes indicated-a prominence in keeping with the faculty for languages, according to phrenologists again. He wore glasses only occasionally." His poverty forced him to study economy in the matter of dress. Indoors he was not slovenly, but generally wore a threadbare old suit, the grey trousers of which had been rubbed black and shiny in front like a mechanic's. When he walked abroad he was more careful, and dressed plainly but well, something in the style of an old-fashioned tradesman, in black knee-breeches and buckles, black worsted stockings, shoes that tied, and a broad-brimmed hat.

But for a memorable description of Blake in his habit as he lived, you must read this letter that was written to Gilchrist by Samuel Palmer, who knew him intimately in his latter years:-

"Blake, once known, could never be forgotten.... In him you saw at once the maker, the inventor; one of the few in any age; a fitting companion for Dante. He was a man 'without a mask'; his aim single, his path straightforwards, and his wants few; so he was free, noble, and happy. His voice and manner were quiet, yet all awake with intellect. Above the tricks of littleness, or the least taint of affectation, with a natural dignity which few would have dared to affront, he was gentle and affectionate, loving to be with little children and talk about them. 'That is heaven,' he said to a friend, leading him to a window and pointing to a group of them at play.

"Declining, like Socrates, whom in many respects he resembled, the common objects of ambition, and pitying the scuffle to obtain them, he thought no one could be truly great who had not humbled himself 'even as a little child.' This was a subject he loved to dwell upon and to illustrate. His eye was the finest I ever saw; brilliant, but not roving, clear and intent, yet susceptible; it flashed with genius, or melted in tenderness. It could also be terrible.... Nor was the mouth less expressive, the lips flexible and quivering with feeling. I can yet recall it when, on one occasion, dwelling upon the exquisite beauty of the parable of the Prodigal, he began to repeat a part of it; but at the words, 'When he was yet a great way off his father saw him,' he could go no further; his voice faltered, and he was in tears.

"He was one of the few to be met with in our passage through life who are not in some way or other double-minded and inconsistent with themselves; one of the very few who cannot be depressed by neglect, and to whose name rank and station could add no lustre. Moving apart, in a sphere above the attraction of worldly honours, he did not accept greatness, but conferred it. He ennobled poverty, and, by his conversation and the influence of his genius, made two small rooms in Fountain Court more attractive than the threshold of princes."

One of Blake's warmest friends for many years was the great sculptor, John Flaxman. With none of Blake's lawless, glowing imagination, Flaxman's drawings in his illustrations to Homer, and his designs on some of the Wedgwood pottery, have a classical correctness-a cold, exquisite beauty of outline-that are more suggestive of the chisel than of the pencil or the brush; and it is in the splendid sculptures with which he has beautified Westminster Abbey, St. Paul's, and many other of our cathedrals and churches that his genius found its highest expression. In his work as an artist Blake was largely influenced by Flaxman. They and Stothard used to meet at Mrs. Mathew's; but there came a day when the friendship between these three was broken. Blake thought Flaxman had appropriated one of his designs, and there seems no doubt that Stothard did so, on the prompting of an unscrupulous picture-dealer; and you have Blake lampooning them both, as well as Hayley, with whom he had also fallen out, in epigrams that were not always just, and probably represented nothing worse than a passing mood, as thus:-

"My title as a genius thus is proved:

Not praised by Hayley, nor by Flaxman loved."

"I found them blind, I taught them how to see,

And now they know neither themselves nor me."

To Flaxman.

"You call me mad; 'tis folly to do so,-

To seek to turn a madman to a foe.

If you think as you speak, you are an ass;

If you do not, you are but what you was."

To the same.

"I mock thee not, though I by thee am mocked;

Thou call'st me madman, but I call thee blockhead."

Flaxman was not, like Blake, a born Londoner, but his family came from York, and settled down in London when he was six months old. His father had a shop in New Street, Covent Garden, where he made and sold plaster casts. Flaxman emerged from a sickly childhood, and developed into a sufficiently wiry and energetic man, though he remained feeble in appearance, so high-shouldered as to seem almost deformed, with a head too large for his body, and a queer sidelong gait in walking. He married in 1782, and, after living for five years in a very small house at 27 Wardour Street, Soho-where he was elected collector of the watch-rate for the parish-he and his wife went to Italy, and spent seven years in Rome. Whilst he was there he fulfilled a commission for Romney, and collected and sent over to England a selection of casts from the antique, that Romney required for the use of students in his Hampstead painting-room.

Returning from Italy in 1794, Flaxman took up residence at 17 Buckingham Street, Euston Road, and lived here through all his most famous years, till he died in 1826. Blake visited him here, and Haydon, and other of his artistic circle; for though he went little into society, he was unpretentiously hospitable, fond of entertaining his chosen friends, greatly esteemed and beloved by his pupils, models, and servants, and the poor of the neighbourhood, especially the children. He went about among the latter habitually, filling his sketch-book with drawings of them, and invariably carrying a pocketful of coppers to drop into the small grubby hands that were ready to receive them.

The district hereabouts has degenerated since Flaxman's day. His house was dull, insignificant, rather mean-looking, and now it looks more so than ever, amid its grimy surroundings-a pinched, old, dreary little house, that is yet transfigured when you remember the glorious visitors who have crossed its threshold, and that it was at this same dead door the postman knocked one day near the end of September 1800 and delivered this letter from Blake, who was then newly gone out of London and had not had time to begin to grow tired of his cottage at Felpham:-

"Dear Sculptor of Eternity,-We are safe arrived at our cottage, which is more beautiful than I thought it, and more convenient.... Mr. Hayley received us with his usual brotherly affection. I have begun to work. Felpham is a sweet place for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen; and my cottage is also a shadow of their houses. My wife and sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace....

FLAXMAN'S HOUSE. BUCKINGHAM STREET. EUSTON ROAD.

"And now begins a new life, because another covering of earth is shaken off. I am more famed in heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my brain are studies and chambers filled with books and pictures of old, which I wrote and painted in ages of eternity before my mortal life; and these works are the delight and study of archangels. Why then should I be anxious about the riches and fame of mortality? The Lord our Father will do for us and with us according to His divine will, for our good.

"You, O dear Flaxman, are a sublime archangel-my friend and companion from eternity. In the divine bosom is our dwelling-place. I look back into the regions of reminiscence, and behold our ancient days, before this earth appeared in its vegetable mortality to my mortal vegetated eyes. I see our houses of eternity, which can never be separated, though our mortal vehicles should stand at the remotest corners of heaven from each other.

"Farewell, my best friend. Remember me and my wife in love and friendship to our dear Mrs. Flaxman, whom we ardently desire to entertain beneath our thatched roof of rusted gold."

Later, when they quarrelled, Flaxman was not an archangel, but a blockhead and an ass; but that quarrel is not to be taken too seriously. Their houses of eternity were not separated, though their mortal vehicles were estranged; and it was on hearing Flaxman was dead that Blake said finely, "I can never think of death but as a going out of one room into another."

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