Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

A career in the arts, 1779-1787

At the end of his apprenticeship in August 1779, Blake began his career as a journeyman copy engraver. He was hired by the print-publisher Thomas Macklin to execute stipple engravings after Watteau and by several booksellers, including the liberal publisher Joseph Johnson, to engrave illustrations. Many of these were based on designs by Thomas Stothard, a friend of Blake's from at least 1780 and an artist just beginning a career as Britain's most prolific book illustrator. Blake became part of a circle of engravers regularly employed to reproduce Stothard's designs.

Blake's efforts as a commercial engraver in the 1780s are what one would expect for a young man trained in that craft. His ambitions in the arts, however, extended beyond what copy engraving could satisfy—or was expected of engravers. He began training as an original artist by enrolling, probably in July 1779, as a student in the Royal Academy of Arts. After a three-month probation, Blake was granted permission to study works in the academy's collections, featuring casts of classical sculpture, for six years. Among his first compositions was a series of watercolours illustrating the history of England from the legendary arrival of Brutus to the reign of Edward IV. Blake exhibited one design, The Death of Earl Goodwin, at the Royal Academy in 1780. Many other drawings based on historical, literary, and biblical subjects followed, with two on the consequences of warfare in the academy's 1784 exhibition and four on the story of Joseph in 1785. These works exhibit the strong outlines and frieze-like arrangement of figures typical of the then dominant neoclassical style, but with an attempt at monumentality influenced by Michelangelo, Raphael, and Blake's contemporary James Barry. Blake was aiming at a career in ‘history’ painting, then considered the highest genre of pictorial expression.

Blake's circle of friends was growing. In addition to Stothard, Blake became acquainted in the early 1780s with the sculptor John Flaxman, the connoisseur John Hawkins, the artist (and later biographer) John Thomas Smith, and George Cumberland, an amateur artist and collector of early Italian prints. In 1784 Hawkins tried, but failed, to raise funds to send Blake to Italy. Stothard, Flaxman, and Cumberland would play significant roles in Blake's later life. The arts provided a common interest for these young men and prompted activities such as sketching tours. One such, on the River Medway late in the summer of 1780, proved memorable. Stothard, Blake, and another friend strayed too close to the naval base near Upnor Castle and the trio was briefly detained as suspected spies. This may not have been the first time Blake was caught up in political events. A few months earlier, London had been swept by the anti-Catholic Gordon riots. According to Gilchrist (1.35), Blake ‘encountered the advancing wave’ of the mob and ‘was forced … to go along in the very front rank, and witness the storm and burning’ of Newgate prison.

Blake's social life in the early 1780s included romantic interests. His first proposal of marriage was rejected. He told his broken-hearted tale to Catherine Sophia Boucher (1762–1831) [see Blake, Catherine Sophia], the daughter of a market gardener, and a bond of affection soon developed (Tatham in Bentley, Records, 517–18). About a year after first meeting, they were married on 18 August 1782 in the church of St Mary, Battersea. Catherine may have been illiterate, or at least embarrassed by her penmanship, for she signed the register with an X. Blake probably lived in his father's house until his marriage; soon after, the couple took lodgings at 23 Green Street, near Leicester Square. Little is known about Catherine Blake, but she managed the family purse and, in later years, would place an empty plate before her husband at mealtime to remind him of monetary necessities (Gilchrist, 1.313). She was the most important person in Blake's adult life, a constant companion, helpmate, and faithful believer in his genius. The couple had no children.

From the age of twelve Blake had been testing his powers as a poet. Some of these efforts were privately published as Poetical Sketches (1783). The collection shows an indebtedness to eighteenth-century verse, but also an uneasiness with its conventions and a desire to reach back to earlier models—Shakespeare, Spenser, and the supposedly ancient works of Ossian—to revivify present sensibilities. The cost of producing the volume was borne by Harriet Mathew, her clergyman husband, and Flaxman, who had introduced Blake into the Mathew home, one ‘frequented by most of the literary and talented people of the day’ (Smith in Bentley, Records, 456). The group included Thomas Taylor ‘the Platonist’, who apparently instructed Blake in mathematics (Bentley, Records Supplement, 94–5). Blake had impressed these worthies by reciting and singing his compositions, but by 1784 he became uncomfortable with their pretentious conversations. His criticism found expression in An Island in the Moon (c.1784–5), a fragmentary manuscript that playfully satirizes contemporary speculations in the arts and sciences.

It may have been a small inheritance from his father, who died in July 1784, that helped Blake begin a print-publishing partnership with another former Basire apprentice, James Parker. The two families moved to 27 Broad Street, next door to the Blake family home. Blake probably acquired his engraver's rolling press at this time. Only two prints bear the partnership's imprint and the business may have ceased when the Blakes moved to 28 Poland Street, Soho, late in 1785. Blake's first attempt at artistic and financial independence had not prospered.

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