GALLERY SIX: William Blake's illustrations to The Grave
and The Book of Job
"If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise."
Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
WILLIAM BLAKE HAS BEEN ONE OF MY FAVOURITE PEOPLE since I first came across his work as a student. The very first time was on the cover of the John Updike novel Couples. It showed a slightly strange drawing or watercolour of Adam and Eve lying asleep in the Garden of Eden. Or so the back cover of the book informed me.
Next time I was in the college library I searched the shelves for anything by or about William Blake and found an exquisite copy of his sublime illustrations to The Book of Job and my fascination with Blake's troubled pilgrimage through life began.
BELOW COMES A SMALL EXHIBITION of William Blake's 1808 illustrations (or 'Inventions' as he liked to call them) for Robert Blair's poem The Grave. In his lifetime it was his best-selling work, but the story behind these pictures is a glowing example of why Blake was doomed to poverty despite the goodwill and admiration of many contemporaries. Robert Cromek, an engraver turned publishing entrepreneur, commissioned the designs from Blake for the 1743 poem, which still enjoyed enormous popularity sixty years later thanks to the prevailing fashion for Gothic melancholy, or 'graveyard poetry' as Blake called it. Cromek raised a subscription to fund the book largely on the strength of Blake's name. Among those ordering copies in advance are personalities well known to anyone familiar with Blake's life and times: Thomas Butts, his faithful patron; Samuel Palmer, Henri Fuseli, John Flaxman, Lady Bedingfield, James Watt of Birmingham and over 500 others who are listed at the start of the book.
The deal was that Blake should engrave his own designs but, having secured the subscriptions, Cromek handed the designs over to Louis (or Luigi) Schiavonetti (1765-1810) whose smooth engraving style he judged more to the public taste. As a result, of the estimated £1800 the book brought in, £600 went to Schiavonetti and just £20 to Blake. This led Blake to dub the usurper 'Assassinetti' and describe Cromek as "A petty, Sneaking Knave who loves the Art but 'tis the Art to Cheat". However, he got his revenge in the sense that the pictures are still famous while Cromek and Schiavonetti would now be totally forgotten without Blake. To be fair to Schiavonetti though, he did an excellent job and was almost certainly not aware of having helped rob poor William.
Another peculiarity of the book was that it was published with the pictures bunched together at the end instead of facing the relevant verses; which as it happens does them no harm at all, as pointed out in the publisher's comment below (though this was probably just their excuse for not quite being able to see how the poem and illustrations fitted together). They were later printed separately from the poem by Blake's friends. Their order was also changed but I'm presenting them here as they appear in the 1813 edition of Cromek's book which I happen to have, thanks to the ridiculous generosity of my good friend Tom Casey of Dublin who found it at auction in Ireland and decided I would give it a good home.
Click on the thumbnails for enlargements and the original caption for each picture,
presumeably edited from Blake's own descriptions.
OF THE DESIGNS
By the arrangement here made, the regular progression of Man, from the first
descent into the Vale of Death, to his admission into Life eternal, is
exhibited. These Designs, detached from the Work they embellish, form
of themselves a most interesting Poem.
NOT THE LEAST WONDERFUL THING about Blake and his life was the manner of his leaving it in 1827, much as he had pictured it in the 'Good Old Man' above and elsewhere - though it must be said that Blake's own attitude towards death was very different from the overall tone of Blair's poem. For him it was more of an adventure, a plunge into light rather the dark. So confident was he of his visions that he seemed almost eager to enter fully into them, regretting only the temporary separation from his wife Katherine. Here's how Allan Cunningham described his final days in Lives of the most eminent British Painters, Sculptors and Architects (John Murray, London 1830):
"He had reached his seventy-first year, and the strength of nature was fast yielding. Yet he was to the last cheerful and contented. 'I glory,' he said, 'in dying, and have no grief but in leaving you, Katherine; we have lived happy, and we have lived long; we have been ever together, but we shall be divided soon. Why should I fear death? nor do I fear it. I have endeavoured to live as Christ commands, and have sought to worship God truly - in my own house when I was not seen of men.' He grew weaker and weaker - he could no longer sit upright; and was laid in his bed, with no one to watch over him save his wife, who, feeble and old herself, required help in such a touching duty.
"The Ancient of Days was such a favourite with Blake, that three days before his death, he sat bolstered up in bed and tinted with his choicest colours and in his happiest style. He touched and retouched it - held it at arm's-length, and then threw it from him, exclaiming, 'There! that will do! I cannot mend it.' He saw his wife in tears - she felt this was to be the last of his works - 'Stay, Kate! (cried Blake) keep just as you are - I will draw your portrait - for you have ever been an angel to me' - she obeyed, and the dying artist made a fine likeness.
"The very joyfulness with which this singular man welcomed the coming of death, made his dying moments intensely mournful. He lay chaunting songs, and the verses and the music were both the offspring of the moment. He lamented that he could no longer commit those inspirations, as he called them, to paper. 'Kate,' he said, 'I am a changing man - I always rose and wrote down my thoughts, whether it rained, snowed, or shone, and you arose too and sat beside me - this can be no longer.' He died on the 12 of August 1828 without any visible pain - his wife, who sat watching him, did not perceive when he ceased breathing."
AS BLAKE DIED ALMOST DESTITUTE, his young friend and occasional patron John Linnell took Katherine on as a housekeeper, also taking charge of all his unsold works. Linnell, incidentally, is the one who commissioned Blake's masterpiece engravings for The Book of Job, which astonished even his critics at the time because of his mastery of the medium.
BLAKE'S ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE BOOK OF JOB