By the mid 1790s, Blake had clearly demonstrated his talents as an engraver but had failed to establish his reputation more widely. Blake hoped that a commission by the publisher Richard Edwards to engrave a large folio edition of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts would change this, producing 537 large watercolours by 1796. Unfortunately, by the time this vast project, described by Bentley as “one of the most ambitious and sensational illustrated books of that or any other time in England” (Stranger 172), was completed in late 1797 it received no advertising or reviews and was a commercial disaster for Blake. Thus although some of Blake’s friends such as George Cumberland were looking after his interests, the late 1790s proved to be a very difficult time for him and Catherine.
Friendship & patronage: Butts & Hayley
In 1799, Blake found what Bentley describes as ‘the perfect patron’ (Stranger 185) in the person of Thomas Butts. Butts, a Joint Chief Clerk in the Commissary General of Musters, recognised the value of Blake’s work and commissioned some fifty biblical paintings, paying the artist more than £400 between 1803-10. More than this much valued income, however, Thomas and his wife Elizabeth, or Betsy, provided moral support and friendship, and Blake wrote to them frequently over the subsequent years.
It was also during this time that Blake engaged in relations with another patron who, for the next four years, was to influence his life in much more dramatic ways. William Hayley, a wealthy and liberal squire from Eartham, Sussex, and a popular poet of the day, was first introduced to Blake by John Flaxman in 1784, when plans were devised to try and send the engraver to Rome. Hayley, a generous man for all Blake’s later ingratitude, invited the Blakes to nearby Felpham, hoping to help the couple financially and also to calm what he saw as a troubled mind, similar to that of his friend, William Cowper.
Initially, the Blakes were delighted with their new home, William writing that it was “a perfect Model for Cottages & I think for Palaces of Magnificence” (cited in Stranger 213). Blake began work almost immediately on commissions for Hayley, beginning with illustrations for the broadsheet ballad of Little Tom the Sailor, and he also discovered an aptitude for miniature portraits. Yet by January 1802, Blake was already finding the work for Hayley tedious, interfering with his own projects including the completion of an epic he had begun while working on Night Thoughts, called Vala, later revised as The Four Zoas, and a new prophetic work based on the life of John Milton. Although the couple were already planning to return to London, in 1803 an incident was to occur that further marred their memories of Felpham.
Vala, or The Four Zoas, was subtitled “The torments of Love & Jealousy in The Death and Judgement of Albion the Ancient Man”. This is the most extensive of Blake’s Prophetic Books, and he began work on the manuscript probably in 1796 while engraving illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, continuing to revise the text until about 1807 although the poem was left unfinished. The Four Zoas introduces or expands the role of many principle characters in Blake’s mythology, and was conceived as an attempt to provide a more or less coherent account of this mythology, detailing the wars between the Zoas, “Four Mighty Ones… in every Man” (3.4, E300) whose conflict leads to the fall of the Ancient Man, later identified by Blake as Albion. The poem is divided into nine “Nights” (following the schema of Young’s Night Thoughts) that culminate in a vision of the final judgement.
Trial for sedition
In the spring of 1803 a troop of the First Regiment of Royal Dragoons was quartered in Felpham in response to the threat of invasion by French troops. On 12 August, one of the soldiers, John Scofield, had come to visit the ostler at the Fox Inn where the troops were staying and found him in Blake’s garden. After an altercation, Blake asked Scofield to leave, eventually pushing him out of the garden. Two days later, Scofield and another private, John Cock (spelt by Blake as Kock and Kox), prepared evidence that Blake had “Damned the King of England – his Country and his Subjects – [and said] that his soldiers were all bound for Slaves & all the poor people in general” (cited in BR 160).
On 16 August, Blake was charged with sedition. The problem for Scofield was that the charge would not hold on the allegation of one witness (hence the involvement of Cock), but despite character testimonies of other villagers in Blake’s favour prosecution was set for October. In the meantime, the Blakes left Felpham for London in September, moving into 17 South Molton Street, before returning to hear the prosecution charges on 4 October. The trial itself took place in January 1804.
Hayley volunteered as a character witness (having almost certainly loaned Blake the money for his bail), and arranged for Samuel Rose to serve as attorney. The trial took place at Chichester and Blake was acquitted. Initially, he was immensely grateful to Hayley (who served him well in this incident), but later paranoia was to lead him to associate the wrongs he felt he had suffered at the hands of his former patron with the injustices brought against him by Scofield, Cock and others involved in the accusation.
Milton & Jerusalem
Returning to a London in the grip of war, the Blakes found life in the capital extremely difficult, although William did record a moment of illumination following a visit to the Truchsessian Picture Gallery in October 1804:
Suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery of pictures, I was again enlightened with the light I enoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by window-shutters. (Letter to Hayley E756)
Despair and depression did not leave him, however, and although Blake engaged in a number of commercial projects over the next decade, most notably illutrations on Robert Blair’s The Grave in 1808 for Robert Cromek, Blake always felt he was denied the recognition he deserved. In the case of The Grave, although Blake prepared the designs the lucrative engraving work was passed to Louis Schiavonetti after Cromek saw a specimen that Blake had prepared and was shocked at what he believed was its poor quality. Similarly, in 1809, Blake organised an exhibition of his work at his brother’s haberdashery shop in Broad Street, producing a Descriptive Catalogue to accompany the exhibits: what little response there was generally consisted of hostile reviews and he retreated from public view for some ten years.
Yet this period of disappointment also saw the second great burst of Blake’s imaginative work in illuminated printing. His inability to complete The Four Zoas to his satisfaction led instead to the composition of his two longest, often most obscure but also most impressive prophetic books. Milton a Poem had been begun while the Blakes were resident in Felpham, a critical retelling of Milton’s spiritual life that recast the epic poet’s religion, politics and sexual ideas. In 1804 he also started to compose a remarkable history centred on the figure of the giant Albion, representative of both England at war and universal man, entitled Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion. For the best part of two decades, Blake worked on these dense and beautiful works of art while he felt himself more neglected by the wider public.
As its title suggests, Milton a Poem is a reworking of the work of John Milton, drawing principally on the epic poems Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained but also incorporating a wide range of ideas from Milton’s prose tracts on divorce, religion and history. Divided into two books (although the original title page suggested that it was to be an epic in 12 books), the poem tells the descent of Milton from heaven into Ulro (Blake’s version of hell) to recover his female emanation Ololon. The “Preface” to Milton also contained the lines beginning “And did those feet in ancient time” which later became the famous hymn “Jerusalem”.
The second of Blake’s two final great illuminated epics, Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, represents the epitome of Blake’s art of book making. Work began on Jerusalem in 1804 (the date on the title page) and Blake had probably completed about 60 plates by 1807. By 1820, he was able to print three complete copies, and in 1827 two more, including the beautifully coloured Copy E.
Jerusalem is Blake’s most extensive Prophetic Book and the most lavishly designed (using gold in one copy) but which, after high hopes, he despaired of getting a buyer for, as he wrote in a letter to George Cumberland in 1827. It is also one of the most complex and dense of Blake’s books, almost entirely lacking in a linear structure but rather presenting a cycle of motifs from Blake’s mythology to depict the fallen state of Albion and the struggle of Los to retern him to a state of eternity. The book is divided into four chapters with a frontispiece that explains how on his couch of death Albion separated into his spectre, reason, and his emanation, Jerusalem; to bring him back from this state, Los enters through death’s door out of friendship to save Albion.
Page created 8 April, 2018. Page updated 15 April, 2018.