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

Patronage and the arts, 1805-1817

Blake's commercial prospects (and probably his spirits) were again rising when, late in the summer of 1805, he was commissioned by the engraver and would-be publisher Robert H. Cromek to illustrate Robert Blair's poem The Grave, first published in 1743. Blake quickly produced about twenty designs for ‘the insignificant sum of one guinea each’ (Smith in Bentley, Records, 464). Fifteen were selected for Blake to engrave, as Cromek announced in a November prospectus. Blake etched one design, Death's Door, as an example; Cromek exhibited it, along with the drawings, at his shop. The darkly reticulated white-line etching proved so out of step with contemporary tastes that Cromek soon hired the fashionable engraver Louis Schiavonetti to engrave all twelve designs actually published. Blake's loss of this potentially lucrative commission motivated his detached mood, as ‘one who cares little for this World’, in his letter of 11 December 1805 to Hayley (Blake, 767). Relations with Cromek may have remained polite until the publisher rejected Blake's dedicatory vignette ‘To the Queen’ in May 1807. Blake recorded his opinion of Cromek in his notebook:

     Cr— loves artists as he loves his Meat
     He loves the Art but tis the Art to Cheat.
     (ibid., 509)

When The Grave finally appeared in 1808, it included a frontispiece based on Thomas Phillips's 1807 portrait of Blake. The painting emphasizes Blake's hypnotic eyes, by all accounts his most prominent feature and even more evident in an anonymous wash drawing (probably a self-portrait) of c.1803.

The unhappy results of Blake's dealings with Cromek did not forestall another attempt to reach a wide audience. Blake began preparations in 1806 for a panoramic engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims starting on their journey. The project was soon embroiled in controversy. When Blake learned that Stothard was painting a similar scene for Cromek, he believed that the publisher, having first commissioned Blake's design and seen the preliminary drawings, had stolen his idea. Although Stothard was almost certainly innocent of any double-dealing, Blake was furious with his old companion. Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims, Blake's largest print, found few purchasers when he published it in 1810. The engraving of Stothard's version, published in 1817, was a popular success.

The Grave and Canterbury imbroglios, coupled with reactions to his work of the sort represented by Robert Southey's condescending review of the 1805 Ballads illustrations, led to Blake's discomfort with commerce in the arts. He felt ‘stigmatised as an engraver, who might do tolerably well, if he was not mad’ (Malkin in Bentley, Records, 424). A few words Blake jotted in his notebook offer an even darker self-description: ‘Tuesday Janry. 20. 1807 between Two & Seven in the Evening—Despair’ (Blake, 694).
There are no known commercial engravings from Blake's hand between 1806 and 1813. Sales to Butts of watercolours, paintings, a set of the large colour prints designed in 1795, and several illuminated books became a major source of income. During a five-year period beginning in 1806, Butts paid Blake over £400, including fees for teaching engraving to his son (Bentley, Records, 175–6). Among the more important projects were series of watercolours illustrating Milton's major poems. The Revd Joseph Thomas commissioned a group of eight designs for Comus in 1801, followed by Paradise Lost (1807) and ‘On the Morning of Christ's Nativity’ (1809). Between 1808 and 1815, Blake produced similar sets for Butts, to which he added twelve illustrations to ‘L'allegro’ and ‘Il penseroso’ about 1816–20. Perhaps prompted by the ‘Day of Judgment’ design he drew for Blair's Grave, Blake painted a more elaborate watercolour of that subject for Butts in 1806. A year later, the countess of Egremont commissioned a similar watercolour, for which Blake wrote a detailed description. Patronage supplied what commerce denied.

The 1808 Royal Academy exhibition included two of Blake's watercolours, but a year later he complained that his designs were ‘regularly refused’ by the academy (Blake, 527). Blake took matters into his own hands and, in May 1809, opened an exhibition of his tempera paintings and watercolours at the family home, 28 Broad Street, now occupied by his brother James. The display may have lasted until June 1810, when Charles and Mary Lamb saw Blake's paintings. Among the sixteen works were ‘Apotheoses’ (‘Prospectus’, Blake, 527) of Admiral Nelson, William Pitt, and Napoleon; the tempera of Chaucer's pilgrims; Satan Calling up his Legions; and The Ancient Britons, Blake's largest painting, commissioned by the Welsh antiquary William Owen Pughe, now lost but reported to have been 10 by 14 feet. A letterpress Descriptive Catalogue contains notes on each design, the longest an analysis of Chaucer's characters and the errors in Stothard's portrayal. This catalogue, along with the harshly critical annotations of c.1808 to Joshua Reynolds's Discourses and the ‘Public address’ and ‘A vision of the last judgment’ Blake drafted in his notebook c.1810, presents his basic aesthetic concepts: the rejection of classical art in favour of a synthesis of the Hebraic and the Gothic (also boldly stated in the ‘Preface’ to Milton and there intertwined with a rejection of Hayley's tastes), the superiority of line to colour (in part an inheritance from Blake's training as a line engraver), and the unity of conception and execution (in part a reaction against the complaint that Blake could conceive but could not adequately execute his sublime images). As he wrote in the ‘Public address’, ‘Resentment for Personal Injuries’ played a role in shaping Blake's views (Blake, 574).

There is no record of sales resulting from the 1809 exhibition. The single review, by Robert Hunt in The Examiner on 16 September 1809, mocked the paintings and branded the artist ‘an unfortunate lunatic’ (Bentley, Records, 216). After 1810, even commissions from Butts appear to have slowed as Blake sank deeper into obscurity and into his visions as he laboured on Jerusalem and on another painting of the last judgment, measuring 7 feet by 5 and ‘containing upwards of one thousand figures’ (Smith in Bentley, Records, 467), left unsold at Blake's death and now lost. It was during this period that Catherine Blake told the artist Seymour Kirkup, ‘I have very little of Mr. Blake's company; he is always in Paradise’. In June 1814, George Cumberland's son found Blake ‘still poor still Dirty’—the dirt probably ink from printing copperplates (Bentley, Records, 221, 232). After a period of coolness between the two in 1808, Blake was once again on good terms with Flaxman, on whose recommendation Blake received, by September 1814, the commission to engrave Flaxman's thirty-seven outline illustrations to Hesiod. Without this employment, lasting until 1817, and work (also gained with Flaxman's help) engraving illustrations for Rees's Cyclopaedia and Wedgwood's catalogue of earthenware, the Blakes might have fallen into dire poverty.

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