“The Very William Blake of Living Landscape Painters”!
“He is the very William Blake of living landscape painters.” This quotation from the Illustrated London News for 10 May 1845 is particularly surprising in its context. It does not refer to Samuel Palmer or Edward Calvert, nor even to such extravagantly imaginative landscape painters as John Martin or Francis Danby, but was discovered by my wife Frances during her researches into contemporary press accounts of J.M.W. Turner. Apart from the fortuitous and, so far as I know, unparalleled linking of the names of the two artists with whom I personally have been most involved, it would seem quite extraordinary to find the unchallenged, if highly controversial, leader of painting in Britain in the 1840s described in terms of an artist so little regarded at this time as to make every mention of his name a matter for the record.
The context is, alas, disappointing insofar as any new light is thrown on the two artists. The article, a survey of Turner’s career, begins promisingly enough: “Art is never more the subject of conversation in the London circles of fashionable life than it is from the first Monday in May to the close of the Royal Academy Exhibition. Have you been to the Academy yet? Have you seen Mr. Turner’s landscapes, or Mr. Grant’s fine portraits? or what do you think of Collins or Maclise? are the questions that are regularly put to you . . . . ” There follows an account of Turner’s beginnings with topographical watercolors and his first Academy successes up to about 1815. “Mr. Turner is equally distinguished for the excellence of his oil pictures and his water-colour drawings. He has the art of poetizing everything . . . .” But his early works “are better of their kind than any of his after productions we can name”—this was a common criticism during Turner’s later years. “Mr. Turner is an artist upon peculiar principles. It is either the begin page 34 | fashion to admire him altogether, or to condemn him at a glance. The feverish glare of his present style - that systematic defiance of every kind of principle in art or appearance in nature—still continues to find admirers; and a book has been written of late, and it is a clever one, wherein every excellence in landscape art is found pre-eminent in Mr. Turner” - this was volume I of Modern Painters by “A Graduate of Oxford,” the young John Ruskin, published in 1843. Then follows the reference to Blake and a concluding sentence excepting certain of Turner’s recent paintings from those condemned for their “exaggeration.”
The chief interest would seem to be that Blake, as a visual artist, was even in the 1840s assumed to be well-known to the general reader as a figure of controversy and “exaggeration,” rather than being the “Pictor Ignotus” of the subtitle to the first, 1863 edition of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake. That the pre-Gilchrist view of Blake was a distorted one, largely based on fanciful anecdotes about the Visionary Heads, is not surprising, but that the reader of the Illustrated London News could be expected to take in a casual reference to Blake at all is perhaps worthy of note.