Samuel Palmer. Part 2 The Shoreham Ancients, William Blake and later life

Samuel Palmer by George Richardson (1829)
Samuel Palmer by George Richardson (1829)

Samuel Palmer was seventeen years old when he met the painter John Linnell and they would remain friends for life, a period stretching almost sixty years, albeit on occasions their relationship was somewhat strained during Palmer’s marriage to Linnell’s daughter. Linnell was born in London in 1792.  His background was very different to the middle-class prosperity of Palmer’s family.  His father, although a respectable carver and gilder, was not a wealthy man and whereas Palmer, who lived in the semi-rural outskirts of London, and was indulged and pampered by his parents, Linnell had to survive the murkiness of the depressing bleak streets of Bloomsbury.   Linnell was a landscape artist and portrait painter who found himself constantly in competition with the great John Constable.  At the time Linnell met Palmer the latter had rather lost his way artistically. Palmer wrote honestly about his worries regarding his art:

“…by the time I had practised for about five years I entirely lost all feeling for art … But it pleased God to send Mr. Linnell as a good angel from Heaven to pluck me from the pit of modern art…”

John Linnell inspired Palmer.  He offered artistic advice and instruction.   He took him to art galleries and introduced him to other artists, most notably William Blake who was to have a profound influence on Palmer.

The Rising of the Lark by Samuel Palmer (c.1839)
The Rising of the Lark by Samuel Palmer (c.1839)

Linnell’s mentoring of Palmer was of great importance as it was Linnell who brought to the attention of Palmer  the artists of the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods, such as Albrecht Dürer, and the fourteenth century muralists, Francesco Traini, Buonamico Buffalmacco and Benozzo Gozzoli who were responsible for decorating the cemetery, Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, Italy.

Interior hallway of Campo Santo showing restoration work of some of the murals
Interior hallway of Campo Santo showing restoration work of some of the murals

This magnificent building was said to have been built around a shipload of sacred soil from Golgotha, brought back to Pisa from the Fourth Crusade in the 12th century.  An inscription near the right gate tells us that the construction of the Camposanto started in year 1277 and finished in the late 15th century.

Another influence on Palmer around this time was the works of art of Henry Fuseli.  The National Gallery in London was not built until 1824 so Palmer would spend time at the Dulwich Gallery (opened in 1817) copying the works of the Masters and was fortunate to be allowed to view the private collection of the German merchant and insurance agent Carl Aders which included many works by artists of the Primitives movement.  However one of the greatest influences on Palmer was William Blake.  Blake was introduced to him by Linnell in 1824, who at the time, because of his art work, was viewed by many of the art establishment as an obscure and impoverished figure and thought to be just a harmless madman.  Palmer had always been a visionary and this was enhanced once he entered the world of William Blake

Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)
Early Morning by Samuel Palmer (1825)

In 1824, Palmer’s health once again deteriorated.  He suffered from asthma and bronchitis, and so he decided to follow his mother’s old remedy of leaving London and heading to the South Coast.  He visited the Kent village of Shoreham, and two years later he moved there permanently, buying himself a small run-down house, which he called Rat Abbey maybe because of his fellow dwellers in the old building!  A short time later, his father sold up his book selling business and left London and joined his son in Shoreham.  He rented half of a large house with the name Waterhouse which was situated on the banks of the River Darent.  Samuel Palmer’s nurse, Mary Ward, and his brother William joined Samuel snr. and also came to live there. The Water House proved to be of use to Samuel as it often housed visiting guests and fellow artists when there was no room at Rat Abbey.  Finally in 1828 Samuel Palmer left his small house and went to live with his father at Water House and stayed there for the rest of his time in Shoreham and it was during those heady days in Shoreham that Samuel first encountered John Linnell’s daughter Hannah whom he would later marry.  Palmer loved his new home and we can witness his contentment shown in his autobiographical letter published in The Portfolio art journal of that time.  He wrote:

“…Forced into the country by illness, I lived afterwards for about seven years at Shoreham, in Kent, with my father, who was inseparable from his books, unless when still better engaged in works of kindness. There, sometimes by ourselves, sometimes visited by friends of congenial taste, literature, and art and ancient music wiled away the hours, and a small independence made me heedless, for the time, of further gain; the beautiful was loved for itself …”

It was during his time in Shoreham that he founded, along with George Richmond and Edward Calvert, an artistic group of painters that were all inspired by William Blake.  The group were known as The Ancients or the Shoreham Ancients.  They were an artistic brotherhood who would meet both in Shoreham at Palmer’s home and at Blake’s apartment home in London.  This like-minded group of painters were followers of William Blake and were attracted to archaism in art, a style which has the deliberate intention to emulate a style of the past to suit contemporary vision.  With the exception of Palmer, most of the members of the “brotherhood” were former students of the Royal Academy, who had broken away from the confines of academic teaching and concentrated on their idealized vision of the past.

Samuel Palmer by George Richmond, watercolour and body colour on ivory, 1829
Samuel Palmer by George Richmond, watercolour and bodycolour on ivory, 1829

The Ancients were in existent around the same time as another art group was formed in Rome by some nineteenth century German painters.  They were known as the Nazarenes a derisory title which was used against them by detractors because of the biblical manner in the way they dressed and their Christ-like long hair and beards.  Samuel Palmer used to wear revivalist-type clothes and in a portrait in the National Portrait Gallery in London we see him with long hair and a full beard wearing a round-necked pleated smock under a coat.  It was during this time that critics believe that Samuel Palmer created his best works of art.  They were small landscapes which were almost composed of just a single colour using watercolour or ink. The depictions enforced Palmer’s religious belief which identifies God with the universe, or regards the universe as a manifestation of God and all the food derived from the fields were gifts from God.

An example of a Samuel Palmer painting of this time and type is one he completed in 1825 entitled The Valley Thick with Corn which is part of the six so-called Oxford Sepias, a group which now belongs to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.   The six pictures were completed between 1825 and 1835 at a time when Palmer found inspiration in the landscape around his home village of Shoreham.  The area was inspirational for him and it allowed him to produce, what some believe to be, some of the greatest English pictures of the 19th century.

The Valley Thick with Corn by Samuel Palmer (1825).
The Valley Thick with Corn by Samuel Palmer (1825).

The Valley Thick with Corn is a beautiful brown ink pen drawing which has been finished off with a layer of varnish.  This coating has aged over the years and has now given the work a rich yellow-brown finish.  The setting for the painting is undulating cornfields.  The darkness of the picture suggests it is late evening with the full moon rising over distant rounded hills and a tall thin church spire. A horse drawn cart can just be made out in the top left of the picture, as it trundles up a steep track.   In the foreground we see an elderly bearded man dressed in what looks like Elizabethan clothes lying on the ground surrounded by ears of corn.  He is stretched out and rests on his elbow.  On his lap lies an open book so he could be reading, albeit he looks as if he has fallen asleep.  Behind and to the right of him we see two cows slowly making their way through the cornfields.  To the left, in the mid ground, we see upright sheaves of corn which have been harvested and awaiting collection and behind them are sheep tended by the shepherd who sits under a tree and plays music to them on his pipes.

In a Shoreham Garden by Samuel Palmer (1830)
In a Shoreham Garden by Samuel Palmer (1830)

In 1829 Palmer completed his work entitled In a Shoreham Garden.  It is a wonderful work at a time which is looked upon as the height of Palmer’s achievements. The picture is a small watercolour heightened with gouache on stiff smooth cardboard often referred to as Bristol Board.  The work, measured just 28 x 22 cms and remained in Palmer’s own collection, no doubt in memory of Shoreham, the village he had loved so much.   It now resides in Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum.  It is full of light and colour with the dominating feature being an apple fruit tree in full blossom on the end of a path within a walled garden.  The tree is loaded with flowers.  In fact, besides the side of a wooden building in the right foreground the picture is an abundance of colourful flowers, bushes and trees which reach up to the sky.  In the background we see a lady wearing a long flowing red dress gazing out to something out of view to the right of the painting.  It is thought that the painting was a scene from the garden of his and his father’s Water Garden house.  It is now part of the V&A collection.

The Magic Apple Tree by Samuel Palmer (1830)
The Magic Apple Tree by Samuel Palmer (1830)

What is thought to be a companion piece to In a Shoreham Garden is one of his other 1830 works, The Magic Apple Tree.

Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star by Samuel Palmer (c.1830)
Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star by Samuel Palmer (c.1830)

Around 1830, Palmer also completed a work entitled Cornfield by Moonlight, with the Evening Star.  It was a small painting measuring just 19 x 30cms.  The painting is now considered one of Palmer’s finest moonscape paintings.  We see a man carrying a staff, dressed in a long smock and wearing a wide brimmed hat walking through a cornfield with his dog.  In the foreground there are again sheaves of corn.  The sky is dark, lit up by a waxing sickle moon and an evening star, which could be, because of its brightness, the planet Venus.  The light emitting from the moon is probably much stronger than it would be for such a moon but it serves to illuminate the land.  There is no documentation to tell us the location of the scene but the rolling hills we see was characteristic of the Shoreham area.

In 1835, after ten years in the Kent village, Palmer left Shoreham and went to live back in London.   He had hoped to earn some money by selling some of the work he had accumulated whilst at Shoreham and he also hoped that he would be able to make some money by teaching art in the capital.

Samuel Palmer and Linnell’s eldest daughter, Hannah, married on 20th September, 1837 after an engagement which lasted several years.  Linnell had always been supportive of the match unlike his wife who was somewhat opposed to the liaison.  Samuel Palmer, funded by his new in-laws, and his new wife Hannah set off on their honeymoon to Italy in October 1837, a journey which would last two years and one that Palmer’s mother-in-law was vehemently opposed to..

 Dream in the Apennines by Samuel Palmer (1864)
Dream in the Apennines by Samuel Palmer (1864)

A later painting by Samuel Palmer, one of his largest watercolours measuring 94 x 130cms, may have come from sketches he made during the honeymoon.  It was exhibited in 1864 and entitled Dream in the Apennine.  The depiction is a view of Rome as seen from the south-east.  It is now owned by the Tate in London.  When it was first exhibited it came with a note which read:

“…Suddenly, at a turn in the mountain road, we looked for the first time on that Plain; the dispenser of law, the refuge of philosophy, the cradle of faith. Ground which Virgil trod and Claude invested with supernatural beauty was sketched – but with a trembling pencil...”

In the foreground we see a young girl peering over the edge of a stone wall at the fast flowing river below.  She is throwing stones into the valley below.  There are goats standing behind her which may well be in her charge.  Behind and to the left of the girl we see a fully laden cart being pulled by a pair of mighty oxen which are being controlled by a young man.  A small child rushes towards the cart to add a few more bunches of flowers to the already filled large wicker baskets.  In the distance, on the plain we can see the Eternal city and the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.

The Lonely Tower by Samuel Palmer (1879)
The Lonely Tower by Samuel Palmer (1879)

The last work of Samuel Palmer which I am looking at was an etching which he completed in 1879 entitled The Lonely Tower.  The scene before us was first exhibited as a watercolour at the Watercolour Society by Palmer in 1868.  Along with the watercolour there was a quotation from Il Penseroso (The Serious Man), a poem by Palmer’s favourite poet, John Milton.

“…Or let my lamp at midnight hour,

Be seen in some lonely tower,

Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,

With thrice great Hermes…”

Palmer and his family were living at Furze Hill House in Reigate and from his study he could look out towards Leith Hill and the folly, built in 1765 which is at its summit.  It could be this that he saw when he painted The Lonely Tower.    It is a depiction of a remote hilltop tower standing on the edge of a cliff with its single light shining out against a darkening sky.  It is now the remains of what once had a greater purpose.  We see a crescent moon against a horizon which is filled with clouds and stars which sparkle brightly.   Below and to the left of the light we see a man struggling to get his ox-cart up a steep track.  On the opposite side of the deep ravine we see two shepherds gazing up at the light and the night sky.  Flying over the ravine we see a barn owl. It is such an atmospheric and haunting picture. The Irish poet W B Yeats referred to the work in his poem Phases of the Moon:

“…He has found, after the manner of his kind,

Mere images; chosen this place to live in

Because, it may be, of the candle-light

From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist

Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:

The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,

An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil;

And now he seeks in book or manuscript

What he shall never find…”

This was by far the most evocative of Palmer’s late works.

Leith Hill Folly
Leith Hill Folly

Hannah and Samuel’s first son was born on January 27th 1842.  He was named Thomas More Walter George Palmer, Thomas More, after the famous fifteenth century statesman and philosopher who was councillor to Henry VIII, and George after Samuel’s good friend George Richmond.  He was a boy who grew to be a studious young man during which time he survived many boyhood scrapes whilst in Grammar school prior to going to Oxford University.  Sadly his father’s dream that his son would get to Oxford was dashed when the young man’s health deteriorated in 1859 and eighteen months later, after a long and painful illness, died on July 11th 1861.  He died at the tender age of nineteen.  Both Hannah and Samuel were devastated.  Samuel Palmer never got over his loss.  In his work The Lonely Tower the Great Bear star constellation depicted in the sky in the background is said to be as it was on the night his son died and as he looked skyward in grief. It was forever engraved on his mind.

The couple had another son Alfred Herbert Palmer who was born in 1860.  He went on to publish a biography of his father The Life and Letters of Samuel Palmer in 1892.

Samuel Palmer's grave in St Mary Magdalene Church Reigate
Samuel Palmer’s grave in St Mary Magdalene Church Reigate

Samuel Palmer died on May 24th 1881 aged seventy-six.  Palmer’s father-in-law and mentor John Linnell died six months later.  Palmer’s wife Hannah died twelve years later and the two are together in a cemetery in St Mary Magdalene churchyard in Reigate.  A strange twist to this story is the fact that in 1909, many of Palmer’s Shoreham works were destroyed by his surviving son Alfred, who burnt a great quantity of father’s sketchbooks, notebooks and original works. His reasoning behind the destruction was that he believed that nobody would not be able to make head nor tail of the material and that he wished to save it from a more “humiliating fate”.   Alfred Herbert Palmer died in 1931.

Samuel Palmer in Old Age by John Linnell
Samuel Palmer in Old Age by John Linnell

There is so much about Samuel Palmer I haven’t included in the two blogs but I hope that there is enough in them to tempt you to read more about the artist and I recommend an excellent book which will tell you all you about the great man.  It is written by Rachel Campbell-Johnston the chief art critic and poetry critic for the Times.  The book is entitled Mysterious Wisdom.  The Life and work of Samuel Palmer.

The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy by William Blake

The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy by William Blake (1794)

Today I am once again dipping my toe into the strange world of William Blake the 18th century painter, printer, book illustrator and poet.  I went through his life story in a couple of my earlier blogs (October 30th and November 1st) and if you haven’t read them I urge you to go to them now before you read about this painting as it may just give you a better understanding as to why an artist would depict such weird but wonderful scenes.  My Daily Art Display featured painting today has three titles.  It is usually known as The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy but is often referred to as The Triple Hecate or simply The Hecate.   It is a colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper.   

If, like me, you have never heard of Enitharmon or Hecate, let me take you into Blake’s strange world of mythopoeia, his own fictional mythology.  We are all used to hearing tales of Greek and Roman mythology but William Blake made up his own mythology with its own characters.   I suppose he can be compared with Tolkien and his stories of Middle Earth or C S Lewis and his tales of Narnia.   For Blake, who all his life experienced visions of heavenly bodies whom he would communicate with, his mythological characters were real.

Enitharmon is a major female character in William Blake’s mythology and she plays a major role in some of his prophetic books.   In this work Blake portrays her as an androgynous Hecate, one with a combination of male and female characteristics, as can be seen in this coloured print.   Hecate is the goddess of witchcraft and you may have come across her in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  She appeared to the three witches in the play, as they sat around their bubbling cauldron, she came to them demanding to know why she has been excluded from their meetings with Macbeth.   To William Blake she represents female domination and sexual restraints that limit the artistic imagination.  After her birth, Enitharmon asserts that women will rule the world, with Man being given Love and Women being given Pride. This would create within men a fear of female dominance that would in turn bring them under control of the females.

Do you remember the famous lines spoken by the three witches in Macbeth as they surrounded the cauldron?

“Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.”

It is therefore not a coincidence that in Blake’s print we can see a frog or a toad, a bat and a snake?  The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy is a large colour print and is plate 5 of Europe, a book written by Blake in 1794 which has the opening line:

“..Now comes the night of Enitharmon’s joy!..”

 In the book, Enitharmon sets the trap of false religion which dominated Europe, for eighteen hundred years between the time of Christ’s birth and the French Revolution.  The night of Enitharmon’s joy is when she establishes her Woman’s World with its false religion of chastity and vengeance.   Blake used pen and ink to give strong outlines to the figures, and to draw locks of hair, the bat, and the donkey’s mane and rough coat. The owl has eyes which have been highlighted with a bright opaque red wash.  The figures have been given form and roundness by washes of intense but transparent colour.   The sky is dark as are the lichen-covered rocks in the left of the work.  A strange-looking evil winged spectre hovers above Enitharmon’s head as a large donkey to the left nibbles on what little vegetation can be found amongst the rocks.

This is yet another weird work by Blake and once again I hesitate to think what was constantly going through his mind as he conjured up these images.

The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake

The Ghost of a Flea by Wiliam Blake (c.1820)

In my previous blog I left off the story of William Blake with him still living in London.  Today I will conclude the short biography of the great man.

 In 1800, Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex and began to work on illustrations to go with the poetry of the poet William Hayley.  It was during his time in Felpham that Blake began to write his epic poem, Milton: a Poem and it was the preface to this work which includes a poem:

And did those feet in ancient time.
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land

The poem later became the words for the anthem, Jerusalem which was set to music quite emotively by the composer Hubert Parry in 1916.

Blake had always been radical and had, on a number of occasions, fell foul of authority.  His most serious run-in with the law came in 1803 when he and a drunken soldier, John Schofield, who was part of a troop which was billeted at the local pub.  The soldier had strayed into Blake’s cottage garden and the two had a physical altercation during which Schofield alleged that Blake had verbally damned King George III.  Blake was charged with voicing seditious and treasonous words against the monarch.  Blake on the other hand contested that the charges were a “fabricated perjury”.  A pre-trial hearing at the local quarter sessions in Petchworth found sufficient evidence to send Blake to stand trial in Chichester in the January of the following year but fortunately for the artist the jury found him not guilty.

In 1804 he left his Sussex home and returned to London where in the following years he was to illustrate many books including Milton’s Paradise Lost as well as illustrative work for bibles. Blake showed work at the exhibition of the Associated Painters in Water-Colours  in 1812 and exhibited some pictures at the Royal Academy of Arts, but these works were greeted with silence.  In 1809 and 1810 he organised a retrospective exhibition of his work in rooms above his brother’s hosiery shop in London.  The exhibition gave him the chance to show his Canterbury Illustrations, which were a set of illustrations he had done for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, along with some of his other works.  To accompany the exhibition he put together a prospectus, entitled Descriptive Catalogue,   which described and explained the works on display. 

The Descriptive Catalogue

His exhibition was not a success and only a few people saw the exhibits.  The journalist and art critic Robert Hunt wrote about the exhibits and the accompanying catalogue.   Of the display, Hunt said the pictures were “wretched” and of the write-up of them in the catalogue he said Blake’s words were “a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity”.  It is interesting to note that the Descriptive Catalogue which received such bad reviews is now looked upon as a brilliant analysis of Chaucer’s work.   Robert Hunt concluded his review by saying that in his opinion Blake was “an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement”.  More devastating reviews followed and Blake was shattered and began to withdraw more and more from public life.

Later in his life Blake began to sell a great number of his works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, his most important patron who saw Blake more as a friend than a man whose work held artistic merit; this was typical of the opinions held of Blake throughout his life.  The largest Blake collection ever formed, was assembled by Thomas Butts probably between 1799 and  1810, and between 1820 and  1827. It consisted of over 200 biblical temperas and watercolors, Milton illustrations, color-print drawings, illuminated books, illustrated books, and engravings.

 In 1818 Blake is introduced to the English landscape painter John Linnell who became one of his best friends and ardent patrons.  It was Linnell who gave Blake the two largest commissions he ever received for single series of designs.  He paid £150 for drawings and engravings of The Inventions to the Book of Job.  In 1826, the year before Blake’s death Linnell commissioned him to produce etchings and watercolours illustrating Dante’s Divine Comedy.  Although he never lived to complete the commission, the illustrations he produced of the poem were not viewed merely as accompanying works, but rather they were considered to be a critical revision of Dante’s masterpiece.  There was in his pictures a commentary on the particular spiritual and moral aspects of Dante’s text.

Blake died in August 1827.  According to the biography, Blake by Peter Ackroyd, on the day of his death, Blake worked tirelessly on Linnell’s Dante series commission. Completely exhausted, he stopped working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Looking at her, Blake said, “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.”  Having completed this portrait which is now lost, Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses.  At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died.

Throughout his life Blake spoke about visions he had.  They started at the age of four and carried on throughout his life.  These visions were often connected to beautiful religious themes and imagery, and probably inspired him to paint his spiritual works and God and Christianity were at the heart of all his writings.  He stuck to the belief that in some way he had been instructed to create his art works by the Archangels and that the works he completed were read and looked at by these heavenly bodies.

His attitude to life, his visions and his works leads one to believe that he was bordering on insanity and William Wordsworth said of him:

“…There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott…”

My Daily Art Display featured picture is entitled The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake, which he completed in 1820 and in some ways highlights how disturbed his mind was at this time.  It is a tempera heightened with gold on mahogany
support and is quite small measuring just 21cms x 16 cms.  The work can be seen at Tate Britain in London but unfortunately has degraded quite badly mainly due to the technique Blake used to create the work.

William Blake had been introduced to John Varley, an English watercolourist,  by his friend and patron John Linnell in 1818.  Varley was some thirty years Blake’s junior but notwithstanding this age difference, he and Blake became great friends and soon became one of Blake’s circle of admirers who had called themselves The Ancients.  As Varley believed strongly in astrology,  he was attracted to Blake’s visionary tales of heaven and angels and how he was able to converse with these heavenly creatures.  Blake would often call on Varley and the latter was energized by the spiritual portraits that Blake drew when they were together.  Often late in the evening when Blake was at Varley’s home they would take part in séances at which Varley would summon a long-dead historical person or mythological creature, describe his vision to Blake, who would quickly sketch it.  It was at one such séance in 1819 that Blake conjured up an image of a flea.  In George Bentley’s book The Stranger from Paradise, A Biography of William Blake, he quotes Varley’s account of what happened that evening:

“…As I was anxious to make the most correct investigation in my power, of the truth of these visions, on hearing of this spiritual apparition of a Flea, I asked him if he could draw for me the resemblance of what he saw: he instantly said, ‘I see him now before me.’ I therefore gave him paper and a pencil with which he drew the portrait… I felt convinced by his mode of proceeding, that he had a real image before him, for he left off, and began on another part of the paper, to make a separate drawing of the mouth of the Flea, which the spirit having opened, he was prevented from proceeding with the first sketch, till he had closed it…”

The imagery and Blake’s imagination which conjured up such a horrific image of the creature is both awesome and terrifying.  The flea depicted in this work is monstrous in size and muscular in body.  Its long voracious tongue slithers out from its mouth to lap up blood from the acorn-shaped bowl which is held in its left hand.  Its right hand is behind its back and the fingers of the hand grasp a thorn.  It appears part human, part reptilian and in the picture it moves from right to left past a set of heavy stage-like curtains as if on a stage.  Look at the upper part of the body.  Blake has given the creature a thick neck and a small scaly head with bulging and staring eyes.  It reminds me of a head of a gargoyle and one has to remember that Blake in his early days was sent around the Gothic churches of London to sketch and it could be some of the Gothic carvings he saw stuck in his mind.

On the back of the panel are the words:

“…The Vision of the Spirit that inhabits the body of a Flea, and which appeared to the late Mr. Blake, the Designer of the vignettes for Blair Grave and the Book of Job. The Visions first appeared to him in my presence, and after wards till he had finished this picture. The Flea drew blood on this…”

John Varley bought the work from William Blake in 1820 and in 1892 it was sold on to Graham Robertson, the William Blake collector for £10.50 at a Sotheby’s auction.   Graham Robertson’s collection of works by William Blake was  recognised as the most distinguished in existence. His purchases of the group of masterpieces had mainly come from the Butts family who were descendent of Blake’s friend and patron, Thomas Butts.  Robertson lent the work to the Tate in 1913 and eventually donated it to the gallery in 1948.

There is no doubt that this is an unsettling picture, dark in tone and yet has some shimmering golden tints.  There is no doubt that Blake, albeit looked upon as a genius, had throughout his life a very disturbed mind and one has to wonder whether the visions he constantly talked about were a comfort to him or gave him a nightmarish existence.

Nebuchadnezzar by William Blake

My Daily Art Display today looks at the life and works of one of England’s most controversial artists.  He was not just an artist, illustrator and printer, he was also a renowned poet.  The controversial nature of this person derives from what he drew and wrote about and his beliefs.  My featured artist today is William Blake, the writer of prophetic works which are termed works of mythopoeia.  Mythopoeia is the act of making or creating mythologies.   In the case of Blake, they are stories of artificial mythology, which he himself created, such as Vala and The Four Zoahs where he would introduce us to characters with the strangest names, such as Enitharmon, Albion and Urizen.  I suppose to draw a present day parallel to his type of work we should think of Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas or C S Lewis’s tales of Narnia.   What is probably a little bit more bizarre and daunting about William Blake was that from a very early age he believed in visions and told people about his regular sightings of angels and other heavenly bodies which he was able to communicate with.

  I have put together a short biography of the man and split over this and my next blog.  There have been numerous books written about him and when you read them you will see that he trod a very fine line between sanity and insanity.  He was never vigorously condemned during his lifetime by the Church or by his contemporaries.  The reason being it was probably due to him being looked upon as a harmless eccentric who had few followers and therefore his beliefs would never gain hold and therefore never pose a threat.

Catherine Wright Armitage married her first husband, Thomas Armitage, a hosier, in 1746.  Catherine and her husband had one son, also named Thomas, but he died in 1751, when he was just five years of age.   Ten months after the death of her son, Catherine’s husband died.  The following year, 1752, Catherine married James Blake.  They were to have seven children, the third of whom, William, was born in 1757.  William Blake was to grow up to become one of the great English poets and painters and an influential figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. 

William Blake did not receive any formal education but he received home tuition from his mother.  In 1867 at the age of ten he attended William Shipley’s Academy in the Strand where he received drawing lessons from Henry Pars.  Historians would have us believe that both his mother and father were Dissenters, members of a religious body who have, for one reason or another, separated from the Established Church.  They were members of the Moravian Church and later fervent followers of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg.  Blake had a strong religious upbringing.  Even at the early age of four Blake would tell his parents about the visions of God and angels he had experienced.  His strict religious background would influence Blake for the rest of his life and was to be an inspirational stimulant for his artwork in the future.

Just before his fifteenth birthday William Blake was indentured for seven years as an apprentice to James Basire, engraver to the Royal Society of Antiquaries.  He spent a lot of his time during his apprenticeship copying images from the Gothic churches in London as well as Westminster Abbey and this time in his life was to prove  inspirational to the young artist and would shape his future artistic style. Again, as was the case when he was a young child, he would talk about religious visions he had whilst working amongst the religious icons.

 In 1779 on completion of his apprenticeship he became a professional engraver and he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools at Somerset House as an engraver.  He exhibited his first work, a watercolour entitled The Earl of Goodwin, at the Academy the following year.  Although he exhibited further works during the 80’s and 90’s, he turned against the establishment denouncing it as a fraud.  In 1780 hegoes to  work for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson carrying out commercial engravings.  He was to have a long association with Johnson and through him would meet the likes of the Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli, the writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the American revolutionary Thomas Paine.   It was during that time that Blake became involved in the Gordon Riots, an anti-Catholic protest which lead to wide spread rioting and looting in London.  That year he was also arrested as a French spy when he and some fellow artists were on a sketching trip by boat on the River Medway.   It took the pleas from members of the Royal Academy to get them all released.

In 1782, aged 25, William Blake married Catherine Boucher, who was the daughter of a market gardener.  She was five years his junior and illiterate.  We know this as their wedding certificate still exists and she signed her name with an “X”.    They set up home in Leicester Fields in London close to where sir Joshua Reynolds, the President of the Royal Academy lived and William taught her to read and write as well as the art of engraving.   In this same year, Blake’s father dies and leaves his son a small inheritance which enables him to go into partnership with a fellow Basire apprentice, James Parker, and together they set up a print shop.  However the collaboration does not last long and the partnership breaks up after a year. Blake’s younger brother Robert comes to live with William and helps him in the print shop.  Two years later in 1784, Robert falls ill and despite the loving and constant attention given to him by his older brother,  he dies.

William Blake is very affected by the death of his brother and in his biography of Blake, entitled Life and Works of William Blake, Alexander Gilchrist quotes the artist’s words :

“…I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit & See him in my remembrance in the regions of my Imagination.  I hear his advice & even now write from his Dictate…” 

Songs of Innocence

In 1789 Blake set about producing an illuminated book of his poems entitled Songs of Innocence. The poems and artwork were reproduced by copperplate engraving and coloured with washes by hand.  Five years later in 1794 he bound these poems with a set of twenty-six new poems in a volume entitled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.

I will leave off the biography of William Blake at this point in his life just before he moves away from London and will conclude his life story in my next blog.

Nebuchadnezzar (The Tate Britain version) by William Blake (1795)

For My Daly Art Display today I am featuring the colour monotype print by William Blake entitled Nebuchadnezzar.  This comes from Blake’s Large Colour Prints collection. This collection of Blake’s twelve large colour prints, which he first designed and completed in 1795, are now considered to be his greatest works as a pictorial artist. Their inspirational imagery and the printmaking technique Blake used to create them evolved out of his illuminated books of 1790-95.   It is thought that Blake drew an outline of the design on the printing matrix, painted on it areas of gum- or glue-based pigments, and then printed individual impressions on damp paper in his rolling press.  It is thought that then Blake and his wife Catherine added ink and watercolour to the impressions.   There were no more than three impressions of any one of the twelve designs in existence. The one we see before us today was reprinted around 1805 and there was added more hand outlining and tinting to the original impression.  In all there were four copies of this work.  One can be found in the Tate Britain, one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and one in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.  The fourth copy is missing.

So what is the picture all about?  The bible tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar in book of Daniel (4:33) stating:

“…The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws…”

Blake’s biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, wrote in his book of 1880 entitled The Life and Works of William Blake , describing what we are looking at as:

 “…“the mad king crawling like a hunted beast into a den among the rocks; his tangled golden beard sweeping the ground, his nails like vultures’ talons, and his wild eyes full of sullen terror. The powerful frame is losing semblance of humanity, and is bestial in its rough growth of hair, reptile in the toad-like markings and spottings of the skin, which takes on unnatural hues of green, blue, and russet…”]

Nebuchadnezzar from the Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93)

The original depiction of Nebuchadnezzar by Blake dates back to plate number 24 of his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell which he created between 1790 and 1793 and which was a series of texts and illustrations which expressed Blake’s own intensely personal romantic and revolutionary beliefs. The book was published as printed sheets from etched plates and contained a mixture of prose, poetry, and illustrations.

Welcome to the strange world of William Blake.