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pictures imported from Flanders and Holland, consequently our countrymen are easily browbeat on the subject of painting; and hence it is so common to hear a man say, “I am no judge of pictures.” But, O Englishmen! know that every man ought to be a judge of pictures, and every man is so who has not been connoisseured out of his senses.
A gentleman who visited me the other day said, “I am very much surprised at the dislike which some connoisseurs show on viewing the pictures of Mr. Fuseli, but the truth is he is a hundred years beyond the present generation.” Though I am startled at such an assertion, I hope the contemporary taste will shorten the hundred years into as many hours; for I am sure that any person consulting his own reputation, and the reputation of his country, will refrain from disgracing either by such ill-judged criticisms in future.-Yours,
WM. BLAKE. Who shall describe to us the feelings of Fuseli's critic as he read this ? A headmaster of Eton who should find himself suddenly seized by an unusually strong boy, stripped and birched before the school and visitors, might be able to imagine what he suffered.
It is not to be supposed that he was rash enough to reply at once. He was dealing with an artist-his natural prey
—and his day would come. It did; and by that time the artist had so totally forgotten the provocation that he had given, as to construct a most elaborate theory of hiring and treachery to account for the stab in the back that he presently received.
Of course, when Blake's exhibition was opened it was a failure. A Blake exhibition to-day is a brilliant success, but that is because his name is now sufficiently well known to give people something recognisable to talk about when they have been to look at his things. Of real appreciation no one who has spent an hour or two mingling with the public in a room filled with his work will think that there is much in the general mind, even yet. The truth is, that Blake's art cannot be really enjoyed except by long contemplation in silence. When his obvious and harassing faults gradually sink below the surface of our observation, an influence begins to come forth from his works which hides itself until then. It is, in fact, the emanation called “ Jerusalem,” in his book of that name. It cannot live under the hailstorm of pattering little exclamations and comments of conversation, nor can people in general, who absolutely make the ridiculous attempt of going two or three at a time to see Blake's pictures, ever hope to come away with any real perception of what was in them.
Seymour Kirkup, well known as the discoverer of Dante's portrait among the heads that crowd a fresco by Giotto, going
to see Blake's little collection at Broad Street, was there, however, and so was Mr. Crabb Robinson, who bought four copies of the Descriptive Catalogue. These were sold at halfa-crown apiece, and their possession was the ticket of admission to the exhibition. Crabb Robinson bought them to give to his friends, and he asked James Blake whether he might himself come again to the exhibition and be admitted free. “Oh yes, free as long as you live,” said James.
Among those to whom Crabb Robinson gave a copy was Charles Lamb. In his Reminiscences he says:
When, in 1810, I gave Lamb a copy of the Catalogue of the paintings exhibited in Carnaby Street (Gilchrist says, and Blake's own prospectus to his engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims says, Broad Street), he was delighted, especially with the description of a painting afterwards engraved, and connected with which there was a circumstance which, unexplained, might reflect discredit on a most excellent and amiable man. It was after the friends of Blake had circulated a subscription paper for an engraving of his Canterbury Pilgrims, that Stothard was made a party to an engraving of a painting of the same subject, by himself. But Flaxman considered this as not done wilfully. Stothard's work is well known ; Blake's is known by very few. Lamb preferred the latter greatly, and declared that Blake's description was the finest criticism he had ever read of Chaucer's poem.
It was like Lamb, of course, to base an artistic criticism upon a literary enjoyment. Crabb Robinson says also of this exhibition : “ There were about thirty oil paintings, the colouring excessively dark and high, and the veins black. The hue of the primitive men was very like that of the Red Indians. Many of his designs were unconscious imitations."
The “thirty oil paintings” is an evident error. With regard to the “imitations," it will hardly be believed by those who have never had occasion to discover how untrustworthy is the eye even of clever men, who have not trained it, that in the Blake exhibition at the Carfax Gallery this year (1904), a gentleman of considerable ability standing with the present writer (to whom he was a stranger) before a pencil sketch of Blake's Last Judgment, here reproduced, asked if it was not true that Blake had taken many of his ideas--notably the figures in this design from Michael Angelo; and when, in reply, a commencement was made for him of a sketch, from memory, of Michael Angelo's Last Judgment, he was amazed, and, saying hastily, “Oh, I see you know something about it," withdrew the imputation against Blake. So feeble is pictorial memory in most of us, when put to the test, that the present
writer has found that hardly any one knows the attitude of any of Michael Angelo's figures, yet none are easier to remember; and on one occasion an artist, who professed to know them quite well, on having a pencil put into his hand to sketchhowever roughly—the Expulsion from the series in the roof of the Sistine Chapel, threw it down after a few strokes, in despair and mortification. He did not even remember that the expelling angel has the sword, which has no guard, in his left hand !
Mr. Crabb Robinson records further, speaking of the illustrations to the Night Thoughts," that he had showed them to William Hazlitt, who'saw no merit’in them, but when I read him some of Blake's poems he was much struck, and expressed himself with his usual strength and singularity. • They are beautiful,' he said, 'only too deep for the vulgar. As to God, a worm is as worthy as any other object—all alike being indifferent—so to Blake the chimney-sweeper, etc. He (Blake) is ruined by vain struggles to get rid of what presses upon his brain. He attempts impossibilities.'” I added, “He is like a man who lifts a burden too heavy for him. He bears it an instant, and then it falls and crushes him.”
This is so happy a description, not of Blake under the burden of his imagination, but of Blake-criticism under the burden of Blake, and Crabb Robinson himself was crushed so very flat by it—as many other men of great ability who did not know how to use their own strength-that, however ridiculous his words are in their place, they deserve to be remembered.
Gilchrist mentions as being “ now” (that is, in 1810) in the possession of Mr. Alex. C. Weston, a printed programme (not Descriptive Catalogue) of this exhibition, containing one page of print, preceded by an elaborate title-page. It is from this we learn that the picture of the Ancient Britons had the figures “full as large as life.”
In a sort of prose-verse like that of Jerusalem it has these lines : In the last battle that Arthur fought the most beautiful was one That returned, and the most strong another. With them also returned The most ugly, and no other beside returned from the bloody field. The most beautiful the Roman warriors trembled before and wor
shipped. The most strong they melted before and dissolved in his presence. The most ugly they fled with outcries and contortions of their limbs.
Mr. Kirkup, trained in the examination of Italian frescoes of the best period, thought this the finest of Blake's works,