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

Epic ventures, 1795-1800

Blake ceased producing illuminated books in 1795, probably owing to poor sales of all but Songs of Innocence and of Experience and the commencement of other, time-consuming projects. In the previous year, Blake had begun to print his relief etchings in dense, glue-based pigments. He used the technique to create a group of twelve large colour prints without accompanying texts in 1795. Most were printed planographically rather than from relief surfaces. They are among his most powerful designs, with subjects ranging from the Bible to Shakespeare and Milton. Word and image were further disengaged when, in 1796, the miniature painter Ozias Humphry commissioned a selection of colour-printed designs without texts from Blake's illuminated books. Blake next separated his colouring medium from printing and began to produce his so-called ‘tempera’ or ‘fresco’ paintings on biblical subjects. He exhibited two at the Royal Academy, The Last Supper in 1799 and The Loaves and Fishes in 1800. The temperas were commissioned by Thomas Butts, a clerk to the commissary general of musters, the government office in charge of military pay. Butts became Blake's major patron for his drawings and paintings, hiring him to execute over eighty watercolours, also illustrating the Bible, between 1800 and 1805. Presumably Butts had financial resources beyond his clerk's salary, but the source of additional funds is not known. Perhaps ‘like most government servants of the period, the system of fees and patronage allowed him to acquire a modest fortune’ (Ackroyd, 206).

Butts is the source for a famous incident related by Gilchrist. Visiting the Blakes while they lived in Lambeth, Butts found the couple nude in their garden summer house. ‘“Come in!” cried Blake; “it's only Adam and Eve you know!” Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character’ (Gilchrist, 1.115). Although friends who met Blake later in his life and Butts's grandson denied the tale, it does not seem out of character for the man who wrote that ‘The nakedness of woman is the work of God’ and that ‘Art can never exist without Naked Beauty displayed’ (Blake, 36, 275). Similarly, Tatham's story (Bentley, Records, 521) about how ‘Blakes blood boiled’ when he saw a boy punished by having his foot tied to a log befits the man who wrote:

     A Robin Red breast in a Cage
     Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
     (Blake, 490)

Blake began the largest commercial project of his career in 1795. The publisher Richard Edwards contracted Blake to execute designs for Edward Young's then famous poem, Night Thoughts, first published in 1742–6. With his usual attention to what he called ‘minute particulars’ (Blake, 194), Blake carefully translated Young's words into pictures; but by using his own vocabulary of images, Blake created a visual commentary on the poem. By 1797 Blake had produced 537 large watercolours surrounding the printed text of Night Thoughts. The modest fee of £21 was probably based on the expectation of much more to follow for engraving the designs. Forty-three plates grace the 1797 volume, the first of four announced, but Edwards closed his business shortly thereafter and no further instalments appeared. Blake's immense labours had failed to produce profit or fame.

The Night Thoughts project inspired two others. Blake's 116 watercolours illustrating the poems of Thomas Gray, which repeat the format of the Night Thoughts designs, were commissioned in 1797 by Flaxman as a gift for his wife. Probably in the previous year, Blake began to compose an epic, first titled Vala and later changed to The Four Zoas as layers of revision accumulated. Like Young's poem, Blake's is divided into ‘Nights’ and treats some of the same vast subjects—life, death, immortality. Blake wraps these issues in his own mythology centred on the Zoas (Urizen, Los, Luvah, Tharmas) and their female counterparts, or ‘emanations’. These beings, their speeches, and contentions, represent phenomena both physical and mental, the two being one in Blake's system. Blake probably worked on the manuscript and its marginal drawings, many sexually explicit, until 1807, but finally abandoned a poem that had spiralled beyond control.

Blake's fortunes waned as the new century approached. In August 1799 he told Cumberland that ‘even Johnson & Fuseli have discarded my Graver’ (Blake, 704). Lacking these employers, Blake turned increasingly to patrons for his paintings and drawings. Among these were Butts, a good friend by 1799, and Dr John Trusler, who commissioned a watercolour of Malevolence and apparently tried to instruct the artist in its composition. Blake could not brook interference with his talents and defended his work in two letters of August 1799, the second implying that Trusler was an ‘Idiot’ (ibid., 702). Patronage ceased.

Another prospect began more propitiously. Blake had been in contact with the popular writer William Hayley, or at least his son Thomas, a student of Flaxman's, since June 1796. By February 1800 Blake was engraving plates for Hayley's Essay on Sculpture. Hayley was dissatisfied with Blake's copy of a portrait of Thomas, but Blake seems not to have reacted as he did with Trusler. The professional relationship became more personal when Thomas died in May and Blake wrote a letter of condolence to Hayley comparing the father's grief to his own when, years earlier, Blake's brother had died at a similarly early age. The growing friendship between the men, each perhaps a replacement for the other's loss, was strengthened by Hayley's tendency to take under his wing talented men who, he believed, needed him to direct their genius. Blake was a good candidate, a man of heightened imagination who also possessed artisanal skills Hayley could use advantageously.

Blake visited Hayley in July 1800 at his home in Felpham on the Sussex coast. There they apparently came to an informal agreement: Blake would take up residence in Felpham—he immediately made arrangements to rent a cottage—and Hayley would engage him on several designing and engraving projects. Blake had confessed to Flaxman, in a letter written just before his trip, that he was emerging ‘from a Deep pit of Melancholy’ (Blake, 706), a return to optimism stimulated by the developing relationship with Hayley. Letters to friends through the summer evince Blake's overwrought joy as he and his wife prepared to move to their new home. He associated the change in residence, an escape from ‘Londons Dungeon dark’, with financial and artistic independence, for under Hayley's patronage Blake hoped to be sufficiently compensated, yet able to ‘be Poet Painter & Musician as the Inspiration comes’ (letter to Cumberland, 1 Sept 1800, in Blake: an Illustrated Quarterly, 32, 1998, 4–5). The journey took all day, 18 September. The party included Blake's sister Catherine; the seven chaises of household goods included his rolling press.

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