Part 4: Last Years

In the years between his 1809 exhibition and 1818, Blake lived in considerable obscurity. Many of those who met him or knew of him during this period, such as Robert Southey or Henry Crabb Robinson, tended to view him at best as eccentric, at worst insane. However, a few old friends such as Flaxman did succeed in obtaining some commissions, such as a series of engravings based on Flaxman’s designs for an edition of Hesiod’s works between 1814 and 1817. He also made seven plates for Abraham Rees’s Cyclopaedia between 1815 and 1819.

Blake also continued on his own works, such as illustrations to the poetry of Milton as well as the large prophetic books. He also hoped to resume book publishing, although by the Summer of 1819 his commissions had been more or less exhausted and he was in considerable financial difficulty. It had been forty years since he had completed his apprenticeship to Basire, and in that time nearly all his projects had ended in failure.

Friendship with John Linnell

Book of Job
The Book of Job, 1825. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Changes in both the appreciation of Blake’s work and his material circumstances was to begin with a friendship that started in 1818, when the painter and engraver John Linnell was introduced to the older artist by George Cumberland Jr, son of Blake’s old acquaintance. Linnell, like Blake, was a Dissenter but, unlike him, had made considerable success in the world through portrait and landscape painting. By introducing Blake to a number of artists and potential patrons and customers, he enabled the older artist to live in relative security in his final years, while being very clear as to the nature of Blake’s personality:

I soon encountered Blake’s peculiarities and [was] somewhat taken aback by the boldness of some of his assertions[.] I never saw anything the least like madness for I never opposed him spitefully as many did but being really anxious to fathom if possible the amount of truth which might be in his most startling assertions I generally met with a sufficiently rational explanation in the most really friendly & conciliatory tone. (Cited in Stranger 367)

Linnell commissioned, or introduced him to patrons who would in turn commission, the most important works of Blake’s later artistic career, including his engravings for the Book of Job, illustrations to Dante, and a series of woodcuts for a new edition of The Pastorals of Virgil, edited by Dr Robert John Thornton. Thornton, who was the family doctor of the Linnells, was disturbed by the unconventionality of Blake’s illustrations, and was uncertain as to whether they should be included until a chance meeting with several artists at a dinner party who warmly praised the woodcuts.

It was at about the time that the woodcuts appeared in 1821 that the Blakes moved into their final residence, 3 Fountain Court, off the Strand. Their rooms, as Henry Crabb Robinson and others were to note, were extremely poor, and yet, despite this, Blake appeared to live his final years in considerable happiness.

The Ancients and the Visionary Heads

As well as his friendship with Linnell, Blake befriended a number of young men who referred to themselves as the Ancients. Meeting once a month in London as well as less frequently in Shoreham, Kent, they included Edward Calvert, Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Frederick Tatham, and they often referred to the Blake residence as The House of the Interpreter in reference to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Visionary Head
Socrates, A Visionary Head. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Impressed by Blake’s powers of concentration and vision, the Ancients espoused a more archaic form of art than was fashionable in painting of the period, although in some respects their pastoral vision may often seem to have more in common with features of the poetry of William Wordsworth and other Romantic poets than Blake’s work. Peter Ackroyd is probably right to remark that “It is not at all clear that they properly understood him” (1995 339). Nonetheless, after decades of neglect they provided an artistic community for Blake that helped to sustain him in his final years, being particularly influenced by his woodcuts to The Pastorals of Virgil and incorporating some of his techniques and approaches to art in their own work that, in turn, became influential on the Pre-Raphaelites.

Another figure introduced to Blake by Linnell was the painter John Varley, who was deeply interested in occult matters such as astrology, as well as being a serial debtor, approaching the matter with a cheerful manner: “If it were not for my troubles I should burst with joy!” he is once meant to have said (cited in Stranger 369). Although Blake was sceptical of Varley’s arcane interests, in 1819 he began to draw a series of visionary heads for the younger artist, images of figures such as the man who built the pyramids, Wat Tyler and King David, as well as the ghost of a mass murderer reincarnated as a flea. Varley himself was convinced of the occult nature of these visions, although Blake’s own understanding of his visionary experiences was much less materialistic and there is some evidence, as Linnell pointed out, that he was gently mocking the other artist at times. At the time of his death, these encounters with ‘spiritual’ guests comprised one of the best known stories about Blake, feeding greatly into speculation that he was mad.

Reputation at the time of his death

Blake died on August 12, 1827. At the time of his death, he had been working on a coloured print of his famous illustration, “The Ancient of Days” and, according to Tatham, declared: “There I have done all that I can[;] it is the best I have ever finished” (cited in Stranger 436). He was buried in Bunhill Fields on the 17.

Blake was not completely obscure at the time of his death. Obituaries appeared in the Literary Gazette and other periodicals, and brief biographies were published by John Thomas Smith in Nollekens and his Times (1828) and Allan Cunningham in Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, And Architects (1830). Yet Bentley is correct to refer to the decades after Blake’s death as that period when he became a “fading shadow”: during the nineteenth century he had remained on the margins of the London artistic and literary scene, and while many contemporaries were more generous in their estimation than the early Victorian public, which if it knew of Blake at all considered him mad, most of them outside his immediate circle of friends and acquaintances believed his work obscure and frequently untutored.

By the time that Alexander Gilchrist came to write his Life of Blake in the 1860s, that work was almost unknown, and those few who remained alive such as Samuel Palmer and John Linnell were now becoming old men. Gilchrist’s biography transformed Blake’s reputation spectacularly, transforming the pictor ignotus into the most important artist of his generation. Supported by emerging figures such as the Rossetti brothers (who edited selections of his poetry for a new readership) and Algernon Charles Swinburne (who produced an extremely influential critical work on Blake’s poetry), the shadow became one of the brightest stars of Romantic art and literature, an inspiration not only to the Pre-Raphaelites who greatly admired his works but subsequent generations of writers, artists and readers.

 

 

Page created 8 April, 2018. Page updated 15 April, 2018.