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

The final months, 1827

Blake began, in the spring of 1825, to have periodic bouts of ‘Shivering Fit[s]’ and ‘Ague’—perhaps a return of the abdominal maladies he had suffered in Felpham (letters to Linnell, Blake, 773–4). Although growing ever weaker in the winter of 1826–7, he carried on heroically with the Dante designs and a small calling card for his old friend Cumberland. In April 1827 Blake told Cumberland that he had been ‘near the Gates of Death & have returned very weak & an Old Man feeble & tottering, but not in Spirit & Life not in The Real Man The Imagination which Liveth for Ever’ (Blake, 783). A failing liver caused jaundice, but still he laboured on. According to Tatham, in his last few days Blake coloured an impression of the Ancient of Days (the frontispiece to Europe) and drew Catherine Blake's portrait (Bentley, Records, 527–8).
Blake died at 3 Fountain Court on 12 August 1827. Three days later, Richmond informed Palmer that Blake:

     died on Sunday Night at 6 Oclock in a most glorious manner. He said He was              going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy      hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ—Just before he died His Countenance        became fair—His eyes brighten'd and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw       in Heaven. (Bentley, Records, 346–47)

The precise cause of Blake's death is not known, but the most detailed analysis of the symptoms suggests biliary cirrhosis, possibly caused by years of inhaling cupreous fumes while etching (Robson and Viscomi). Blake was buried on 17 August at Bunhill Fields, Finsbury, traditionally a cemetery for nonconformists where his parents and other family members were interred. Yet, according to Smith, Blake had requested a funeral service ‘of the Church of England’ (Bentley, Records, 476). Catherine Blake went to live with Linnell, but after about six months she moved to Tatham's home, where she served as housekeeper. In 1829 the earl of Egremont purchased from her Blake's The Characters in Spenser's Faerie Queene, a companion to the Canterbury pilgrims painting, for 80 guineas, a sum sufficient to supply her needs for the rest of her life. She died on 18 October 1831, leaving to Tatham the remaining stock of Blake's works, possibly including manuscripts which Tatham destroyed. After reprinting some of Blake's illuminated books, he claimed that most of the copperplates had been stolen (Gilchrist, 1.126); only one small fragment of a relief-etched plate has survived.

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