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Bernard Barton’s Contribution to Cunningham’s “Life of Blake”: A New Letter

In 1824 James Montgomery solicited Charles Lamb for a contribution to his Chimney-Sweepers’ Friend and Climbing Boys’ Album to benefit “The Society for Ameliorating the Condition of Infant Chimney Sweepers.” Though Lamb submitted nothing of his own, he suggested Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper,” and sent Montgomery a copy of the poem, slightly altered. Bernard Barton (1784-1849), who also contributed to the Album, seems to have been intrigued by Blake’s poem, and apparently wrote Lamb for more information. Lamb responded in May 1824, describing “The Tiger” as “glorious, and Blake as “one of the most extraordinary persons of the age” (Lucas 2: 426). Barton, known primarily as a Quaker poet and as one of Lamb’s correspondents, had begun writing to Lamb in 1822, complaining that conditions at Messrs. Alexanders’ bank in Woodbridge, where he clerked, did not permit him to continue his career as a poet. In 1812, Barton had published Metrical Effusions, followed by Poems by an Amateur (1818), Verses on the Death of P. B. Shelley (1822), Devotional Verses (1826), A Widow’s Tale (1827), and A New Year’s Eve (1828). In addition, he had published poems in London Magazine, including, in 1823, a “Sonnet to Elia.” Before striking up a correspondence with Lamb, he had also, since 1812, been in correspondence with Robert Southey.

Six years after Lamb sent the Blake poem to Montgomery, Allan Cunningham’s brief life of Blake was published in Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects (London, 1830), sometime before 6 February 1830, when a begin page 17 | back to top review of it appeared in the Athenaeum (Blake Records 377-78). G. E. Bentley, Jr., has noted that “The publication of Cunningham’s life of Blake provoked a spate of comments upon Blake in the spring of 1830,” and he has reprinted generous selections from the reviews (Blake Records 377-401).11 “The two biographical accounts by Cunningham and J. T. Smith are the last of major importance published by Blake’s contemporaries” (Blake Books 22). Though Barton’s friend and correspondent Robert Southey expressed a very low opinion of Blake (Blake Records, 398-400), Barton’s enthusiasm for the painter, kindled by Lamb, inspired him to write a sonnet to Blake’s associate John Linnell22 Blake Records 394; eventually Linnell gave Barton one of the prints from Blake’s unfinished Dante series along with an etching of his own (Blake Records 400). and to contact Cunningham with information about Lamb’s 1824 remarks on Blake. Eventually, Barton supplied Cunningham with a full copy of Lamb’s remarks on Blake. However, after Cunningham’s initial request for Lamb’s remarks, Barton wrote, in the letter here presented, that he would need to seek Lamb’s permission before forwarding the extract to Cunningham. The interim was only a few weeks, and Cunningham had Lamb’s letter in time to include it in the second edition of Lives (1831).

Bernard Barton to Allan Cunningham

Woodbridge 2/24/30

Dear Allan

I do not see that I can, consistently with the delicacy and good faith due to such a friend and correspondent as Chas. Lamb, give thee the extract referred to without first having his consent, but I write him by this night’s post to request him to give it, & I have said all I can to induce him to meet thy wishes & mine.—For I would not for five guineas, but thou shouldst have it, as I consider it a sort of miniature off-hand Lamb sketch of Blake, in the very best Elia style—and in my view it implies no slight compliment to Lamb’s critical taste & penetration to find him writing of Blake in May 1824 in terms now applied to him by the unanimous voice of Critics & Critical Journals—Probably thou art acquainted with Lamb whose present address is Chase-side, Enfield, if so perhaps a line or a call from thee may have more influence with him than aught I could urge—Do pray try and keep the proof sheets of Blake back for a few days till we can manage this matter—as a further inducement for thee to do this perhaps I can give thee a clue to fresh channels of information about Blake—

My friend Major Moor (an intimate &c of Southeys) a Gent. resident near here, says that Dawson Turner of Yarmouth was acquainted with Blake, corresponded with him he believes & has many or several of his drawings or plates. Moor tells me too that there is a good deal about Blake in Dr. Malkin’s Life of his Son B. Heath Malkin,33 Barton is mistaken here; Malkin’s son is Thomas William Malkin. The engraving mentioned is, indeed, designed and engraved by Blake, though Cromek’s name appears on it. who died quite a boy, & that a Portrait or Portraits in that Volume were engraved & designed by Blake. The Book itself is I suppose easy to be got sight of & I dare say its Author would be very willing to give any information in his power. I state these trifles as Turner and Malkin are both persons of considerable eminence whose testimony to the talent, genius, & worth of his subject any Biography might be formed of and such as are worth procuring if they can be obtained without much delay or trouble—I consider thy Life of Blake as the very gem of the Volume, good as the others undoubtedly are—In a letter I had this week from Martin (the celebrated Painter & Engraver) he says—“It gave me the greatest pleasure to find that your opinion of the Life of Blake is entirely coincided with mine, for I have not been more delighted with any book that I have read lately than with these Lives of the Painters, especially with that of Blake”—If therefore we can in any way add to its interest by any such accumulation either of intelligence, or of tributes to Blake’s honorable fame from persons of just celebrity the delay of a few days would be well compensated—Excuse the freedom I take in thus offering my opinion unasked for the sake of my desire to raise yet higher one thou hast so happily rescued from comparative oblivion—I shall be most grateful indeed for any specimen of Blakes nor will its value be slightly enhanced by my being indebted for it to his Biographer—Directly I hear from Lamb I will write thee—

Thine most heartily


P.S. thy Letter does not specify in its date where Belgrave Place is—I can only direct as thine is dated—I should be glad if only of a line just to know this comes safe—that if I receive Lamb’s consent I may transcribe & forward the extract without any misgivings of reaching thee in due course—was there ever a Plate from Blake’s Drawing of the Ancient of Days?44 Not a drawing, as Barton supposes, but a colored etching.

Unpublished MS: W. Hugh Peal Collection, University of Kentucky Library. Postmark: 10 F-NOON Fe 25, 1830. / Woodbridge./ Address: Allan Cunningham. Esq/24 Belgrave Place/ London.

Among the “fresh channels of information” which Barton suggests that Cunningham check, Benjamin Heath Malkin’s Father’s Memoirs of His Child (1806) was already known to the author, who made use of it in preparing the first edition of Lives (1830).55 See Blake Records 479, where Bentley notes that Cunningham uses Malkin’s text of “The Tyger.” Apparently, however, Barton’s suggestions begin page 18 | back to top that he should contact Edward Moor, Dawson Turner, and John Martin were new, and no doubt would have revealed more information about Blake if Cunningham had chosen to follow up.66 Turner and Moor seem to have been on Barton’s mind at this time. On 28 April 1830, he recommends to his friend William S. Fitch that he also should visit Turner, and mentions asking Moor how to address a letter to Sir Walter Scott (Literary Correspondence of Bernard Barton 75).

Edward Moor (1771-1848) was known primarily for his work on Hindu mythology, The Hindu Pantheon (1810), which, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, “for more than fifty years remained the only book of authority in English upon its subject.”77 This judgment is confirmed by Peg DeLameter in “Some Indian Sources in the Art of Paul Klee” (The Art Bulletin 66 [1984]: 657-73]) who judges that Hindu pantheon “included all that was then known about the Hindu religion.” He had been a cadet in the East India Company at Madras and Bombay, where he joined the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1796, and where he served from 1782 to 1806,88 See also Literary Correspondence of Bernard Barton 67. when he returned to England. In 1833 he was involved in publishing a new edition of Hogarth (Literary Correspondence of Bernard Barton, 86). At Moor’s death Barton privately published A Brief Memorial of Major Edward Moor (Woodbridge: Edward Pite, 1848). As Joseph Burke has shown, Blake was undoubtedly familiar with Moor’s work, deriving his design for “Lucifer” from one of Moor’s images, that of the Hindu goddess Durga, consort of Siva (Burke 124, plates 98 and 100). Considering the large volume of scholarship which has been amassed on the sources of Blake’s ideas and myths, it would be intriguing to know how Moor, an art collector and accomplished student of Indian culture, might have responded, in turn, to Blake.

Dawson Turner (1775-1858), the son of a wealthy banker, was himself a banker, as well as a botanist and an antiquary. He published large and impressive books, including Botanist’s Guide through England and Wales (1805). On 9 June 1818, in answer to Turner’s request for information, Blake had responded with a list of prices for Songs, for six of the minor prophecies, and for a group of engravings (Letters of William Blake 142), though Blake Books does not record that he actually purchased any. Barton was reputedly a good friend of Turner, and made several visits to his home, at one point recommending that a friend pay a call as well (Literary Correspondence of Bernard Barton 75). In 1844, shortly after a visit with Barton at Ipswich, Henry Crabb Robinson visited Turner in Yarmouth and was shown his “library treasures.” While Barton reports, in the letter above, that Turner had “many or several” of Blake’s works, Robinson does not mention any items by Blake in Turner’s collection, though he remarks on seeing letters of Cowper, Coleridge, Lamb, Wordsworth and Southey (Henry Crabb Robinson 2: 645-46). Turner sold a large collection of manuscripts to the British Museum in 1853. His library of more than 8,000 volumes was sold at auction in 1853 and more than 40,000 letters and manuscripts were sold after his death in 1859. In both cases, catalogues were published.99 G. E. Bentley, Jr.’s exhaustive scholarship list no works by Blake in Turner’s collection, though Turner kept the two Blake letters.

John Martin (1789-1854) was known in this period primarily for his monumentally large paintings of biblical subjects, particularly “Belshazzar’s Feast,” about which Lamb wrote, disapproving of its excessive realism in “On the Barrenness of the Productions Modern Art” (1833).1010 See “John Martin” in Morton Paley, The Apocalyptic Sublime (Yale UP, 1986: [122-54] for a discussion of Lamb’s criticism of Martin. Though Martin and Blake were aware of one another, they do not seem to have been well acquainted, and it is unlikely that there is any direct influence or connection between Blake’s 1807-08 illustrations to Paradise Lost and Martin’s 24 mezzotints on that subject in 1823.1111 See James Treadwell, “Blake, John Martin, and the Illustration of Paradise Lost” Word and Image 9 (1993): 363-82. Martin often acted as engraver for his own works. Although he was successful, and, according to the DNB, found patronage under Princess Charlotte,1212 According to his biographer, John Balston, in 1816 Martin was appointed Historial Landscape Painter by Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold (95). he was, like Blake, an avowed critic of the Royal Academy, and something of a radical. Martin was apparently friendly with Barton, and engraved the frontispiece for Barton’s A New Year’s Eve (1828) (Balston 118). One would like to know more about the opinion of an established painter like Martin, whose affinities with Blake (as engraver, critic of the Academy, and creator of prophetic visions) might have provided a unique perspective on Blake’s art.1313 In fact, Martin and Blake were linked in one article of the period, which found resemblances in the extravagant style of the two painters. In 1834 Richard Henry Horne objected to Martin’s “phantasmagoria,” which resembled those of Blake and Fuseli. “Art. XI- illustrations of the Bible. By John Martin. Parts I to VI.-4to. “Westminster Review 20 (1834): 452-65, cited in Blake Books Supplement 515.

The evidence of the revisions of the second edition of Cunningham’s Lives indicates that Cunningham did not follow up on Barton’s suggestions to interview Martin, Dawson or Moor. A week or two after writing the letter above, Barton sent Cunningham Lamb’s remarks, which Cunningham inserted into the second edition. As Barton suggests, Lamb’s comments are the earliest expression of admiration of Blake among the established or well-known writers of Blake’s time, and Cunningham seized on them for that reason. (Although Wordsworth had previously expressed admiration for Blake’s poetry, he did so only in conversation with Henry Crabb Robinson [Robinson 1:85].) Cunningham introduces Lamb’s begin page 19 | back to top opinion in terms which project Lamb as a nearly infallible critic:

The impression which the talents and oddities of Blake made on men of taste and genius, is well described by one whose judgment in whatever is poetical no one will question. Charles Lamb had communicated to James Montgomery’s book on chimney sweepers the little song by Blake, which I have already quoted; it touched the feelings of Bernard Barton so deeply, that he made inquiries of his friend about the author, upon which he received the following letter in explanation, written some six years ago.” [Blake Records 496]

In the second edition, as Robinson first noted, Cunningham somewhat softened his judgment of Blake as a “madman,”1414 In Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers 1: 394; Bentley writes that in the first edition, Cunningham portrayed Blake as “a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde, sanely engraving for the booksellers by day and madly writing Urizen by night” (Blake Records 477). a change for which Barton and Lamb seem at least partly responsible. Cunningham reprinted Lamb’s remarks much as they had appeared in the original manuscript: 15 There is no plate in Blake’s Night Thoughts which precisely answers to Lamb’s description. Lucas suggests his illustrations to Blair’s The Grave, perhaps The Soul Hovering over the Body Reluctantly Parting with Life (Lucas 2: 426) (a design which Robert Hunt had described as “absurd”) [Blake Records 196]), though Lamb may well be confusing his recollection of the Blair engraving with somewhat similar ones in Night Thoughts, pl. 19 or 40, indicating that Lamb had probably seen both Night Thoughts and The Grave. The best treatment of this is in Blake Records, where G. E. Bentley, Jr. suggests that the engraving referred to by Lamb in 1816 (in Lucas 2: 185) as “The good man at the hour of death” is a reference to Blake: “. . . Lamb may have combined in his mind’s eye one of the Grave plates above with another from Night Thoughts in which Death is clearly shown with a feathered dart—though the dart is not aimed at ‘Good man at the hour of death’ (Plates XXI, XXVII, XX)” (Blake Records 284-85n4). 16 Lamb’s remark about the “hard, dry” quality of Blake’s pictures is echoed in Barton’s letter to Linnell: “There is a dryness and hardness in Blake’s manner of engraving which is very apt to be repulsive to print-collectors in general—to any indeed who have not taste enough to appreciate the force and originality of his conceptions” (22 April 1830, Literary Correspondence of Bernard Barton 74). He thanks Linnell for the loan of “copy of Blakes Inventions for the Book of Job,” with a view toward possible purchase: “Were I a rich man, I would gladly and instantly purchase it for its curiosity. . .” (73). 17 In a letter from Robinson to Edward Quillinan, Robinson says of Blake that “Lamb used to call him a ‘mad Wordsworth’[.]” Mark Reed, “Blake, Wordsworth, Lamb, Etc.: Further Information from Henry Crabb Robinson” (Blake 3 [1970]: 76-84). Reed speculates that Lamb may have made the remark in defense of Blake, replying “to a conversational report that Wordsworth regarded Blake as a madman with a remark like ‘So he is—a mad Wordsworth’” (80).

Your recent acquisitions of the Picture and the Letter are greatly to be congratulated. . . . Blake is a real name, I assure you, and a most extraordinary man, if he be still living. He is the Robert [that is, William] Blake, whose wild designs accompany a splendid folio edition of the Night Thoughts, which you may have seen, in one of which he pictures the parting of soul and body by a solid mass of human form floating off God knows how from a lumpish mass (fac simile to itself) left behin[d] on the dying bed.15 He paints in water colours marvellous strange pictures, visions of his brain, which he asserts that he has seen. They have great merit. He has seen the old Welsh bards on Snowdon—he has seen the Beautifullest, the Strongest, and the Ugliest Man, left alone from the Massacre of the Britons by the Romans, & has painted them from memory (I have seen his paintings) and asserts them to be as good as the figures of Raphael & Angelo, but not better, as they had precisely the same retro-visions & prophetic visions with themself. The painters in Oil (which he will have it that neither of them practice) he affirms to have been the ruin of art, and affirms that all the while he was engaged in his Water paintings, Titian was disturbing him, Titian the Ill Genius of Oil Painting. His Pictures, one in particular, the Canterbury Pilgrims (far above Stothard’s) have great merit, but hard, dry,16 yet with grace. He has written a Catalogue of them with a most spirited criticism on Chaucer, but mystical and full of Vision. His poems have been sold hitherto only in Manuscript. I have never read them; but a friend at my desire procured the Sweep Song. There is one to a Tiger, which I have heard recited, beginning:

Tiger Tiger burning bright,
Thro’ the desarts of the night—

which is glorious, but, alas! I have not the Book; for the man is flown, whither I know not—to Hades or a Mad House17—but I must look on him as one of the most extraordinary persons of the age.

[Letter to Bernard Barton, 15 May 1824. MS: Henry E. Huntington Library; by permission of The Huntington Library; also published in Lucas, Letters 2: 424]

Blake of course was neither in a madhouse nor in Hades; he was at living in the narrow rooms of 3 Fountain Court, the Strand, not far from the East India House, where Lamb clerked. And Lamb undoubtedly soon learned more about Blake’s fate, since several of his friends were to buy some of Blake’s works within the following three years.1818 Among Lamb’s acquaintance, the following owned Songs: Charles Dilke, T. G. Wainewright (purchased in 1827), Henry Crabb Robinson (1825), and Mrs. Charles Aders (1825) (Blake’s Writings 1: 685). It is possible that George Dyer bought Marriage of Heaven and Hell before 1821 (Blake’s Writings 1: 693), and Robinson and Wainewright purchased it in 1827. Wainewright, in the September 1820 issue of The London Magazine, claimed that he had been introduced to “Jerusalem” by a Dr. Tobias Ruddicombe, M.D. (possibly a pseudonym for the red-haired Blake himself), who proposes to give an account of it in the next issue (Blake Records 265-66). By 1825, Robinson owned Visions of the Daughters of Albion (Blake’s Writings 1: 696), and he also borrowed Europe (Blake’s Writings 2: 705). On 29 December 1826 Blake’s health caused him to refuse an invitation from Mrs. Charles Aders to visit and view their collection of old masters. Blake’s letter to Mrs. Aders alludes to a previous meeting (Blake’s Writings 2: 1663). After Blake’s death, Robinson bought two prints of the Canterbury pilgrimage from Catherine Blake, meaning to give one to Lamb (Robinson 1: 353, 356). The remarks on Blake, however, exemplify Lamb’s independent-minded taste, as well as his consistency. He had become acquainted begin page 20 | back to top with Blake’s work 14 years previously when Robinson took him, along with his sister, to see the Blake paintings on display at the Broad Street, Golden Square, exhibition on 11 June 1810 (William Blake’s Writings 827.) There, Lamb gained possession of Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue, which he had bound with his own “Confessions of a Drunkard” (see Blake Records 215-19, 225, 226). His references to “the Beautifullest, the Strongest, and the Ugliest Man,” to Michelangelo and to Titian are paraphrased or recollected from that work. The exhibit seems to have made a strong impression both on Lamb and on Robinson, who wrote an article on Blake based on the exhibit and on Malkin’s publication of some of Blake’s poems (Robinson 1: 15). It should not be assumed that Lamb’s reference to the possibility of Blake’s being in a madhouse is dismissive, though it is probably influenced by Southey’s and Robert Hunt’s ill opinion of Blake. Lamb himself had once been confined, and his sister went periodically into the care of “madhouses.” Such an occurrence would not have lessened his respect or admiration for a writer or an artist. Lamb’s long struggle with his own depression and with his sister’s bipolar disorder might, in fact, help to explain Lamb’s sympathetic and admiring attitude toward Blake.

Generally, the new letter from Barton to Cunningham printed here provides further confirmation of J. A. Wittreich’s claim that Barton should be placed among the very few of Blake’s contemporaries who “registered profound admiration for the bard’s work and [who] unhesitatingly placed him within that constellation of geniuses which a troubled age produced but ignored” (91). It also indicates that Cunningham was apparently at work on the second edition of Lives within a few weeks of the publication of the first edition. However, the main significance of this letter is in what Barton calls “fresh channels” of information about Blake. He mentions names of several persons to Cunningham, suggesting that they might provide more information about Blake, including two names of admirers of Blake who may be new to Blake scholarship.

Works Cited

Balston, Thomas. John Martin 1789-1854: His Life and Works. London: Gerald Duckworth, 1947.

Bentley, G. E., Jr. Blake Books. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1977.

—. Blake Books Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1995.

—. Blake Records. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1969.

—. Blake Records Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1988.

—. William Blake’s Writings. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1978.

Burke, Joseph. “The Eidetic and the Borrowed Image: an Interpretation of Blake’s Theory and Practice of Art.” In Honour of Daryl Lindsay: Essays and Studies. Ed. Franz Phillipp and June Stewart. Melbourne: Oxford UP, 1964. 110-127.

DeLameter, Peg. “Some Indian Sources in the Art of Paul Klee. The Art Bulletin 66 (1984): 657-73.

Dictionary of National Biography.

Henry Crabb Robinson on Books and Their Writers. 3 vols. ed. Edith J. Morley. London: Dent, 1938.

The Letters of Charles and Mary Lamb. 3 vols. ed. E. V. Lucas. New Haven: Yale UP, 1935.

The Letters of William Blake with Related Documents. ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford: Clarendon, 1980.

The Literary Correspondence of Bernard Barton. ed. James Barcus. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1966.

Reed, Mark. “Blake, Wordsworth, Lamb, Etc.: Further Information from Henry Crabb Robinson” Blake 3 (1970): 76-84.

Wittreich, Joseph Anthony, Jr. “William Blake and Bernard Barton: Addendum to BNB—Entry No. a852.” Blake Studies 1 (1968): 91-94.

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