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severe, distasteful, or at least disciplinarian to a young mind. To those who take their first and best artistic delights from these, they are as exciting as the story called Treasure Island or as the best orchestral music. Our first admirations are always exciting. The Old Testament was a novel to the Puritans, and even now the grimmest and sternest works of art in all the history of the world—the Pyramids themselves -rouse to quick beating of the heart, and the deep breath of excitement, ardent artistic youth, as they did in the days of the Pharaohs.
From prints of Raphael's and Michael Angelo's works, as from the Gladiator, the Hercules, and the Venus, Blake now began to learn the artistic joys of the mind, the seed-sowing delights of which he afterwards told in one of his proverbs that says,
Joys impregnate : sorrows bring forth. When it was considered time to apprentice the boy to a master that he might learn a trade or craft of some sort, it was undoubtedly his wish to be made a painter. Gilchrist has recorded for us that it was only because indentures to an engraver cost less that he was bound to Basire, after he had refused to be articled to the fashionable and fascinating Ryland, because, as he said after being taken to see him, “the man's face looked as though he would come to be hanged.”
This was a really surprising bit of second-sight, because not only was Ryland prosperous and well liked universally at the time, but he must have had an essentially honourable expression as he had an essentially honourable nature, for about ten years later, when he was in prison before execution for the forgery on a chartered company, made under temptation and to the hurt of no visible and lovable individual, for which he ultimately suffered the death penalty, he was trusted on parole by his jailer, and allowed to walk out with him, after giving his word that he would not use this indulgence to make his escape.
It was not in order to rise in the social scale that young Blake wished to be an artist instead of a draper. Nor did he merely come to the conclusion that he must be one because he liked art. A voice that others could not hear laid this command upon him in plain words; it said, “ Blake, be an artist.” As for the social position of an artist then, he recalled many years later, in writing to Mr. Cumberland, who was trying to found what has become our National Gallery, how they could both “remember when a print-shop was a rare bird in London," and adds in the same letter: “I myself remember when I thought my pursuits of art a kind of criminal dissipation and neglect of the main chance, which I bid my face for not being able to abandon as a passion which is forbidden by law and religion.”
The fact that Blake's father bought casts for him of antique statues (reduced copies, we must conclude), seems to indicate that he was a very superior man, and to suggest that the only source of estrangement between himself and his son-thevexed question of art—had turned into a source of union. Other discord arose, however. One account of Mr. Blake the hosier tells us that he was a dissenter. This is a softening of the truth, and leaves it open to us to imagine that he was a Wesleyan. In actual fact he was one of a much smaller minority than any group of Evangelists or Methodists: he was a Swedenborgian. Swedenborg, of course, was a visionary, a man to whom angels appeared, and to whom they taught a special and, it must be confessed, a profoundly interesting and fascinating as well as an almost credible and not at all improbable interpretation of the Bible. We feel as we read his works that there is nothing like them in all literature, and those of us who believe anything at all do not find it easy to resist his teaching unless we close our ears entirely. Hardly any one ever read him without admitting his fascination, and even a Comtist will turn regretfully rather than contemptuously from accepting all that he puts forth, while marvelling at the mind that invented the system, and admiring the character that moulded this mind.
A father may accept Swedenborgianism, however, without being in the least inclined to admit that, because Swedenborg's angels told him divine truth from vision, a little boy may start up in his own family and claim to do the same thing.
Mr. Blake seems to have considered that too close an acquaintance with Swedenborg's doctrines would not be particularly good for such a boy, and it can hardly have been less than an equal cause of estrangement to put beside the general want of acceptance of William's divine call that his father should have discouraged him (to say the least) in learning about the elder visionary. It had required evidently no more than the meagre outlines of family instruction to show Blake as a boy what he announced later—that it would be part of his duty in life to outdo Swedenborg, correct him,
start up blake seemswedenbory, and
and leave him high and dry as a mere writer of footnotes to elder prophets, though he might have been of their company himself.
We require no friend of the household to tell us, on the authority of personal memory, how irritating it was to Mr. Blake, perpetually conscious of his position as an exile and shopman, when he had made a pedestal for himself out of the courage with which he had embraced the rarest, latest, and at the same time the most deeply-thought religious opinion of his day, to find his little boy growing up in a state of indignant repudiation of the claim to prophetic sufficiency of the teacher of this new and beautiful reading of the Bible. What was good enough for the lad's father, what was a great deal too good for the capacities of most of his father's contemporaries, was not to be treated with contempt and called merely good enough, as far as it went, by the fiery-haired stripling
When the apprenticeship to Basire the engraver was a settled thing Mr. Blake must have gone home with rather a grim smile, reflecting that this rebellious boy would have seven years of bending over copper plates, with a strong glass fixed in his eye and his nose nearly touching the square of metal, while he laboriously cut lines and dots to represent the shading of drawings that some artist, whom he probably thought inferior to himself, had swept in with a free brush at his ease. There would not be much room for preposterous visions in the three inches between that arrogant young face and the pitiless sheet of cold copper. Let the boy learn what work was; it would do him good.
If such thoughts as these did not pass through the mind of Blake's father he would have been more than human, but it is right to record that he did not arrange the apprenticeship with any purpose of inflicting on William a period of discipline. William chose the life of an engraver for himself. Mr. Blake had gone so far on the road of concession as to approve of the scheme that he should be a painter. Art instruction was not to be had for nothing then, and the painter to whom he applied—(Blake never seems to have told Tatham, or any one else, who it was)—asked such a heavy sum that the boy refused to have it spent upon him, because “it would be unfair to his brother and sister.” This must have been final, as showing to the father how unfit William was for the career of a shopman.
From the point of view of professional success Basire was
not the best master to have chosen. His style of engraving soon went out of favour, and the soft manner of Bartolozzi replaced it. Blake was always indignant about this, and always fiercely loyal to Basire, while his favourite aversions were Bartolozzi, Woollett, and Strange. He began his apprenticeship to Basire (at 31 Great Queen Street) in 1771, and as long after as 1810 was still his faithful and enthusiastic upholder against all rivals, as we see by these few lines in his MS. book :
Woollett I knew very intimately by his intimacy with Basire, and I knew him to be one of the most ignorant fellows I ever knew. ... Woollett I knew did not know how to grind his graver: I know this. He has often proved his ignorance before me at Basire's by laughing at Basire's knife tools and ridiculing the form of Basire's graver, till Basire was quite dashed and out of conceit with what he himself knew. But his ignorance had a contrary effect upon me.
A partisan like this would have made a son worth having if his father could have understood him in time.
PEACE AND WAR IN THE ABBEY
BLAKE only worked for two years continuously at Basire's, – the years 1771 and 1772. It was during this time that he saw Goldsmith, who, as will be remembered, did not live beyond 1774. Goldsmith was then over forty,and his large, round Irish forehead was bare to the crown of the head. Blake, looking out from under his thick crop of hair that started its flaring upright life two inches above his eyebrows, immediately said that he wished he could have a head like that when he became a man. The short Irish nose and large Irish eyes of Goldsmith he had already. As time went on, his hair receded till it came no further forward than the exact middle of the top of the head, although he was never bald. The portraits and the cast from life show that his wish was fulfilled. The upper part of Blake's brow attained Goldsmith's full roundness. The lower part grew more protuberant than Goldsmith's, and the back of the head with the chin that balanced it became much longer and stronger. It is noteworthy that both men were very envious and were exceedingly desirous to shine in company, though Blake felt this craving aggressively and confidently, and boldly satisfied it, except during his occasional fits of doubt and depression when he was too gloomy to desire anything. Goldsmith felt the hunger for appreciation with a nervous helplessness, which placed him even further from gaining it than he would have been if he had not felt the desire at all. We still see Goldsmith unable to keep away from Dr. Johnson's set of competitive talkers, though he only talked “like poor Poll,” and we pity him as he stayed for long hours, watching, watching, watching, in the hope of getting in a brilliant remark, and so making his exit with a decent round of applause to comfort his craving ears, but finally creeping off defeated and angry, with the memory of a stammering blunder at which every one had laughed.