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“Great and Singular Genius”: Further References to Blake (and Cromek) in the Scots Magazine

The generous review of “Blake’s Illustrations of Blair’s Grave” in the Scots Magazine of November 1808 has been known for some time.11. The review is reprinted in my note “Blake, The Grave, and Edinburgh Literary Society,” Blake 24.1 (summer 1990): 35-36. No critic, however, has yet noted the existence of two short anonymous notices, earlier in the same magazine, which paved the way for the volume’s reception in Edinburgh. The first, in July 1807, appeared as the first of three paragraphs in the “Scottish Literary Intelligence” column. It announces the forthcoming Blake-Blair volume and describes an exhibition, organized by the book’s publisher Robert Cromek, in St. James’s Square in Edinburgh. The exhibition featured Blake’s original paintings for Robert Blair’s poem The Grave, as well as a painting to illustrate The Canterbury Tales: 2. Anon., “Scottish Literary Intelligence,” Scots Magazine, and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany 69 (1807): 522.

A Splendid Edition of Blair’s Grave is about to be published, illustrated with paintings by Mr Blake, an artist and poet of great and singular genius. These paintings are now exhibiting in James’s Square No. 9. by Mr Cromek, a very ingenious young artist, who proposes to engrave them for the abovementioned work, for which he is now taking in subscriptions. A beautiful painting of the procession of Chaucer’s pilgrims is exhibited at the same time, and Mr Cromek is also taking in subscriptions for an engraving which is to be made from it.2
The “paintings” by Blake here were presumably the set of nineteen watercolors which have recently come to light, in what has been described as “the most exciting Blake discovery” in many decades, “and arguably the most important since Blake began to be appreciated in the second half of the nineteenth century.”33. Martin Butlin, “New Risen from the Grave: Nineteen Unknown Watercolors by William Blake,” Blake 35.3 (winter 2002-03): 68-73 (68). The paintings apparently remained in Edinburgh after the exhibition, and were sold to a Scottish collector in 1836. See also G. E. Bentley, Jr., “Thomas Sivright and the Lost Designs for Blair’s Grave,” Blake 19.3 (winter 1985-86): 103-06. Evidently at this time in 1807, Cromek was planning to engrave Blake’s designs himself. It is unclear whether the painting of “Chaucer’s pilgrims” is the well-known one by Thomas Stothard, commissioned by Cromek and finished in begin page 48 | back to top 1807, or the watercolor which Blake completed at about the same time, and which was also commissioned by Cromek.44. For Stothard’s and Blake’s rival illustrations to Chaucer, see Peter Ackroyd, Blake (London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995) 271-72, and G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1969) 209, 216-17. Blake exhibited his own painting for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in London in May 1809.

Meanwhile, Cromek’s reputation in Edinburgh continued to grow as a result of his lucrative researches into Scottish poetry. The December Scots Magazine announced that “An interesting literary discovery of unpublished works of the late Robert Burns, has been made by Mr Cromer [sic], in a late tour through Scotland.” Many Scots readers would have been stirred by this glowing account of newfound poems and letters by Burns being “rescued from oblivion” by Cromek.55. Anon., “Scottish Literary Intelligence,” Scots Magazine 69 (1807): 925. Coming so soon before the Blake-Blair volume, this advance publicity for Cromek’s edition of Reliques of Burns probably contributed to the success of The Grave, with Blake’s designs, in Edinburgh.

No mention of Blake appeared in the Scots Magazine between July 1807 and September 1808. But in that month, the magazine noted the actual publication of Blair’s Grave and its engravings by Luigi Schiavonetti based on Blake’s paintings. This briefer notice gives the size of the volume and its price of two pounds, twelve shillings and sixpence: “Illustrations of Blair’s Grave, in 12 Etchings, executed by Louis Schiavonetti, from the Original Inventions of William Blake, 4to. 2l. 12s. 6d.”66. Anon., Scots Magazine 70 (1808): 683. The notice is the second of three paragraphs in the “New Works Published in Edinburgh” section for September 1808. The long review of The Grave, praising Blake for his “genius” and “beautiful” though “eccentric” designs, followed quickly in November.77. Scots Magazine 70 (1808): 839-40.

There appear to be no further citations of Blake in the Scots Magazine.88. The Scots continued publishing until the end of 1826. One article of some interest (as it mentions a few of Blake’s fellow engravers) is the anonymous “Account of a Society Formed for the Encouragement of the Art of Engraving” (72 [August 1810]: 590-92). But in December 1808, its readers were told that Cromek’s long-awaited work on Burns was now in print: “Reliques of Robert Burns: consisting chiefly of original Letters, Poems, and Critical Observations on Scottish Songs. Collected and published by R.H. Cromek. 8vo. 10s. 6d.”99. Anon., “New Works Published in Edinburgh,” Scots Magazine 70 (1808): 923. The identical notice (with a few changes in capitalization) appeared in the same column for January 1809 (71: 46). Long extracts from the Reliques of Burns followed in January 1809, and a laudatory review in March.10 10. Anon., “Cromek’s Reliques of Burns,” Scots Magazine 71 (1809): 30-33 and 198-203 (the title is taken from the table of contents for March). The appearance of these articles, coming so soon after the same journal’s review of The Grave, would have given Cromek quite a high profile among Scottish readers. No critic has noted that Cromek was probably of Scots descent (though born in England). Each of his five volumes was Scottish in some way, and his unusual surname is remarkably close to the Scottish Gaelic words “crom,” “cromack,” or “cromag,” which mean “anything twisted or bent, particularly fingers” (Blake would have enjoyed that!). “Cromack” is also a variant spelling of the Gaelic word “crummock,” meaning “a cow with twisted horns” (see the Scottish National Dictionary, 1952 edition, III: 251-52 and 267). Then, in August 1809, the same journal announced that “Mr Cromek is receiving subscriptions for an Historical Portrait of Mr Walter Scott, from the admired Picture by [Henry] Raeburn, which appeared at the last Exibition [sic] of Scottish paintings.”1111. Anon., “Scottish Literary Intelligence,” Scots Magazine, and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany 71 (1809): 605.

Around 1810, Cromek’s reputation in Scottish circles began to wane. Perhaps this was due in part to Walter Scott’s influence, for Scott told one publisher that “Cromek is a perfect Brain-sucker living upon the labours of others.”1212. Letter to John Murray, 3 Dec. 1810, The Letters of Sir Walter Scott, ed. H. J. C. Grierson, 12 vols. (London: Constable, 1932-37) II: 409-10 (409). Cromek’s two-volume Select Scotish Songs, published in 1810, received neither review nor notice of any kind in the Scots Magazine. When his final book, Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, came out in 1811, a polite but lukewarm review commended Cromek’s “copious” notes and “good deal of valuable information” on the subjects of “witchcraft” and “fairies.”1313. Anon., “Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song . . . by R.W. [sic] Cromek, F.A.S. Ed., Editor of the Reliques of Robert Burns,” Scots Magazine 73 (June 1811): 441-47 (444, 445). “F.A.S. Ed.” identifies Cromek as a fellow of Edinburgh’s Antiquarian Society. The Nithsdale volume has some relevance to Blake, because many of its supposed folk songs were in fact by Allan Cunningham, who later wrote the well-known chapter on Blake in his Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters. The imposture was detected by James Hogg, but Hogg was unable to find a publisher for his review on the subject; Hogg’s review, alas, has never been traced, although he says he kept the manuscript until at least 1832 (see his “Memoir of the Author’s Life” and “Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott,” ed. Douglas Mack [Edinburgh: Scottish Academic P, 1972] 73). Cromek’s death in 1812 passed unnoticed in the Scots Magazine.

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