BLAKE’S INSANITY: AN UNRECORDED EARLY REFERENCE
Published references to William Blake prior to the appearance of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of Blake in 1863 are uncommon, generally brief, all too often inaccurate—but still worthy of notice as curious bits of Blakeana. G. E. Bentley, Jr., in his monumental Blake Books, attempts to list “all works published before 1863 which refer to Blake at all, except catalogues,” as he states in his Introduction.1↤ 1 Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977, p. 10. Selections from brief references to Blake, 1831-62, are reprinted in Bentley, ed., William Blake: The Critical Heritage (London and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), pp. 220-69. A previously unnoticed reference appears in Thomas John Gullick and John Timbs, Painting Popularly Explained, first published in London in 1859 by “Kent and Co. (late Bogue), Fleet Street.” A two-page overview of “The Rise of Modern Water-Colour Painting” appears towards the end of this 318-page discussion of painting techniques. There (pp. 302-04), the authors note the early masters of the British school of watercolorists, including Paul Sandby, John Cozens, and Thomas Girtin. The section concludes with the following two sentences: ↤ 2 P. 304. Blake’s name does not appear in the highly selective index. Timbs later wrote a sketch of Blake’s life, based mostly on Gilchrist, in his English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (London: Chatto and Windus, 1875), pp. 339-50.
[Joseph Mallord William] Turner is even greater in water-colours than in oil; but several other eminent oil painters have distinguished themselves also in water-colour painting. The following are some of the principal deceased masters of this branch of art, viz., [William] Blake, and [Richard] Dadd (who both died insane), [Thomas] Rowlandson (the caricaturist), [George Fennel] Robson, [George] Barrett, [John] Varley, Samuel Prout, [Peter] Dewint, and Copley Fielding.2
It is surprising to find Blake included in an 1859 list of “principal deceased masters” in water-color; his appearance here suggests that Blake’s begin page 101 | artistic reputation was being quietly resurrected shortly before the publication of Gilchrist’s biography. But the most remarkable feature of the passage is the symmetry of its errors: Blake was dead, but did not die insane; Dadd was insane, but did not die until 1886.
Gullick and Timbs very probably lifted some of their misinformation from A Handbook to the Water Colours, Drawings, and Engravings, in the [Manchester] Art Treasures Exhibition, Being a Reprint of Critical Notices Originally Published in “The Manchester Guardian” (London, 1857).3↤ 3 First noted in connection with Blake in Suzanne R. Hoover, “Fifty Additions to Blake Bibliography: Further Data for the Study of His Reputation in the Nineteenth Century,” Blake Newsletter, 5 (Winter, 1971-72), 169. See also Bentley, ed., Blake: The Critical Heritage, p. 258; Bentley, Blake Books, p. 660 no. A563. The original “Notices” in the Manchester Guardian have not been traced. On p. 297 of their book, Gullick and Timbs refer to the Catalogue (different from the Handbook) of the 1857 Manchester exhibition and on p. 303 they refer to the Handbook, the authorship of which they attribute to “Mr. Tom Taylor.” In this work, pp. 12-13, the anonymous author compares Blake and Dadd and asserts that “both were mad . . . [but] Blake’s fancies were lovely, rather than terrible.”4↤ 4 P. 12; quoted from Bentley, Blake Books, p. 660.
The statement—premature by a mere twenty-seven years—that Dadd was deceased may have resulted from a misreading of other published statements. The Art-Union of October 1843 took note of Dadd’s insanity, his murder of his father in August 1843, and his subsequent confinement. The journal apostrophizes the unfortunate man as follows: “The late Richard Dadd. Alas! . . . for, although the grave has not actually closed over him, he must be classed among the dead.”5↤ 5 Vol. 5, p. 267; quoted from Patricia Allderidge, The Late Richard Dadd, exhibition catalogue (London: The Tate Gallery, 1974), p. 9. Allderidge notes the reference to Dadd in Painting Popularly Explained, but does not record its authors or the reference to Blake. Perhaps Gullick and Timbs misconstrued this (or some other) elegy for Dadd’s psychological demise, and this prompted them to list him, along with Blake, among the principal, insane, and deceased British masters of watercolor.