The Art of Illustration – Blake

IT has been said of Blake that he attempted the impossible and nearly succeeded. It is when he comes nearest to attempting the realization of living character that he breaks down most severely. His written defence of his plate for Chaucer’s ” Canterbury Pilgrims ” is a document of far greater interest and value as a clue to the mind of Blake than is the plate itself, the presentation of living types of character not in fact being within his scope, though he had all a literary man’s reasoned sense of it. Here are not the ” physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life beyond which Nature never stept,” nor are ” the horses varied according to their Riders,” and the porch of the Tabard Inn is of curiously feeble design, considering that Blake had spent some years making drawings of the monuments and buildings of Westminster Abbey and various old churches in and near London for Basire, when he was an apprentice, ” a circumstance he always mentioned with gratitude to Basire.” He had not only no interest in the solid external things among which he lived and moved, but he repudiated such interest, and it would be hard to find an object in the whole bulk of his work represented as it appeared to him. With the exception of the series of wood cuts to Virgil in 182o towards the end of his life, the nearest approach to such representation is probably the ” Stonehenge ” in the ” Jerusalem,” but here the forms are so simple that it hardly counts. In one of the ” Songs of Experience ” (No. 11 in Gilchrist) there is something approaching a suggestion of the rough bark of a tree, and a delightfully comic lion at its foot. More in fact than Fuseli did Nature (external Nature, that is) ” put him out.” He saw the Dryad and not the oak. The spirit within and not the husk which hid it was what he really saw if he looked outwards at all, as he seldom did. He loved form, not for its own sake, but for its significance—for the idea it embodied. Colour, too, with him was in a like sense illustrative. ” That is not either colouring, graving or verse, which is inappropriate to the subject. He who makes a design must know the effect and colouring proper to put to that design, and will never take that of Rubens, Rembrandt or Titian to turn that which is soul and life into a mill or machine ” (Gilchrist, 169,2). ” Men think that they can copy nature as correctly as I copy imagination. This they will find impossible, and all the copies or pretended copies of nature from Remfbrandt to Reynolds prove that nature becomes to its victim nothing but blots and blurs. Why are copies of nature incorrect, while copies of imagination are correct ? This is manifest to all. The English artist may be as assured that he is doing an injury and injustice to his country while he studies and imitates the effects of nature. England will never rival Italy while we servilely copy what the wise Italians, Raphael and Michael Angelo, scorned, nay, abhorred, as Vasari tells us. What kind of intellect must he have who sees only the colours of things, and not the forms of things ? No man of sense can think that an imitation of the objects of nature is the art of painting, or that such imitation (which anyone may easily perform) is worthy of notice, much less that such an art should be the glory and pride of a nation. A jockey that is anything of a jockey will never buy a horse by the colour ; and a man who has got any brains will never buy a picture by the colour ” (Gilchrist II, 172-3).