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“Visions of Blake, the Artist”: An Early Reference to William Blake in the Times

John Clark Strange, the nineteenth-century collector and prospective biographer of William Blake, recorded in his manuscript journal that on 6 April 1859, following a conversation with Samuel Palmer’s brother William at the British Museum, he “pursued inquiries abt Blake in various books in the Library and made extracts therefrom viz. Stothards Life—Songs of Innocence & Experience by Blake—B’s illustrations to Dante—Hayleys Life—Times Newspaper.”11. G. E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Records, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) [hereafter referred to as BR(2)] 717. In an annotation begin page 47 | back to top to this journal entry G. E. Bentley, Jr., observes that “no account of Blake in The Times is known before 1901.22. BR(2) 717fn. In fact an account of William Blake had appeared in this newspaper 70 years earlier. On Wednesday 27 January 1830 the Times printed an extract from Allan Cunningham’s “Life of Blake,” recently published in the second volume of Cunningham’s Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1830).33. Times Wednesday 27 January 1830, page 3, column E. This reference was discovered with the assistance of Palmer’s Full Text Online <http://historyonline.chadwyck.co.uk/info/pfto.htm>, which contains a reference to “‘Blake, the Artist, His Visionary Portraits’ 27? 1830 (page 3 col. e) [full date/reference not supplied].” The article was traced to the 27 January 1830 edition of the Times using a microfilm of the newspaper for that year. The passage is exactly the same as that printed in the first edition of Cunningham’s The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, 6 vols. (London: John Murray, 1829-33) 2: 140-79, except for three minor details: the Times prints “stopped” instead of Cunningham’s “stopt”, “stepped” instead of “stept”, and places a comma and dash after “The answer was” instead of a colon. Cunningham’s life of Blake (2nd ed.) is reprinted in BR(2) 628-60. In this extract, which the Times titled “Visions of Blake, the Artist,” Cunningham describes Blake’s drawing of the Visionary Heads of William Wallace and Edward I: 4. The excerpt in the Times continues: “That’s lucky,” said his friend, “for I want the portrait of Edward too.” Blake took another sheet of paper, and sketched the features of Plantagenet; upon which his majesty politely vanished, and the artist finished the head of Wallace. “And pray, Sir,” said a gentleman who heard Blake’s friend tell his story—“was Sir William Wallace an heroic-looking man? And what sort of personage was Edward?” The answer was,—“There they are, Sir, both framed and hanging on the wall behind you, judge for yourself.” “I looked (says my informant) and saw two warlike heads of the size of common life. That of Wallace was noble and heroic,—that of Edward stern and bloody. The first had the front of a god, the latter the aspect of a demon.” Blake’s companion was almost certainly John Varley, for whom Blake drew numerous Visionary Heads (c. 1819-25) (BR[2] 346-69 and pl. 54).

Visions of Blake, the Artist.—He was requested to draw the likeness of Sir William Wallace—the eye of Blake sparkled, for he admired heroes. “William Wallace!” he exclaimed, “I see him now—there, there, how noble he looks—reach me my things!” Having drawn for some time, with the same care of hand and steadiness of eye as if a living sitter had been before him, Blake stopped suddenly, and said, “I cannot finish him—Edward the First has stepped in between him and me.”4
The article ends: “Family Library: Lives of the Artists.” Perhaps the Times’ excerpt from Cunningham’s biography was the account of William Blake that Strange encountered “and made extracts therefrom” at the British Museum in April 1859.

Bentley observes that Cunningham’s Lives “had an extraordinarily powerful effect in bringing the poet-artist’s name before the public”55. BR(2) 504. and “provoked a spate of comment upon Blake ....”66. BR(2) 503. Blake Records cites six reviews published during February and early March 1830 which featured discussion of Blake and excerpts from Cunningham’s life of Blake.77. BR(2) 503-10. The extract from Cunningham’s Lives published in the Times in January 1830, ten days before the Athenaeum and the London Literary Gazette reviews of the same work, must have introduced the name of “Blake, the artist” to an even wider audience.

The article may also have assisted Blake’s widow, Catherine Blake. The first edition of Cunningham’s “Life of Blake” concludes: 8. BR(2) 657.

The affection and fortitude of this woman [Catherine Blake] entitle her to much respect. She shared her husband’s lot without a murmur, set her heart solely upon his fame, and soothed him in those hours of misgiving and despondency which are not unknown to the strongest intellects. She still lives to lament the loss of Blake—and feel it.8

By January 1830, Catherine lived independently in lodgings (according to George Cumberland, “at a Bakers”) at either 17 Upper Charlton Street, 17 Charlton Street, or 17 Upper Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Square.99. See BR(2) 754, 498, 546, 495. Catherine’s move from Frederick Tatham’s residence to this address approximately nine months earlier may have been facilitated by a small legacy from her brother-in-law and former landlord at 3 Fountain Court, Henry Banes.1010. See Angus Whitehead, “‘I also beg Mr Blakes acceptance of my wearing apparel’: The Will of Henry Banes, Landlord of 3 Fountain Court, Strand, the Last Residence of William and Catherine Blake,” Blake 39.2 (fall 2005): 78-99. G. E. Bentley, Jr., suggests that Catherine Blake’s sale of Blake’s large watercolor drawing of “The Characters of Spenser’s Faerie Queene” to his former patron George O’Brien Wyndham, third Earl Egremont, in late July 1829 “is likely to have kept Catherine out of want for the rest of her life.”1111. BR(2) 499. However, on 25 February 1830 the collector Haviland Burke showed John Linnell a letter from Rev. Dr. John Jebb, Bishop of Limerick “enquiring | how he c.d best serve M.rs Blake.” Linnell advised Burke “to recommend to the B—[ishop] | to purchase the works of Mr B— | from Mrs B.”1212. BR(2) 509. In a paper currently in preparation, I will explore Catherine Blake’s marketing (as well as finishing and reprinting) of her late husband’s works still in her possession, March 1829-October 1831. Catherine’s sale of her stock of her late husband’s works therefore continued after July 1829, ensuring that she could continue to live independently. The Times’ excerpt from Cunningham’s “Life of Blake” of January 1830 must have served to advertise extensively Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects and make known to a wider audience the life and work of William Blake. It may also have been indirectly responsible for drawing wider attention to the plight of Blake’s widow and therefore for an increased number of inquiries from potential buyers regarding Catherine Blake’s remaining stock of her husband’s paintings, drawings and engravings.

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