William Blake (1757-1827)
From 18th Century Literary Anecdotes

AT the end of the little garden in Hercules Buildings there was a summer-house. Mr. Butts calling one day found Mr. and Mrs. Blake sitting in this summer-house, freed from `those troublesome disguises' which have prevailed since the Fall. `Come in!' cried Blake; `it's only Adam and Eve, you know!' Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character, and the garden of Hercules Buildings had to represent the Garden of Eden: a little to the scandal of wondering neighbours, on more than one occasion.

—Alexander Gilchrist, The Life of William Blake, ed. Ruthven Todd (1942), pp. 96-7 (Blake Records, ed. G. E. Bentley, Jr. (1969), p. 54).

His wife was an excellent cook—a talent which helped to fill out Blake's waistcoat a little, as he grew old. She could even prepare a made dish, when need be. As there was no servant, he fetched the porter for dinner himself, from the house at the corner of the Strand. Once, pot of porter in hand, he espied coming along a dignitary of art—that highly respectable man, William Collins, R.A., whom he had met in society a few evenings before. The Academician was about to shake hands, but seeing the porter, drew up, and did not know him. Blake would tell the story very quietly, and without sarcasm.... His habits were very temperate. It was only in later years that he took porter regularly. He then fancied it soothed him, and would sit and muse over his pint after a one o'clock dinner. When he drank wine, which, at home, of course, was seldom, he professed a liking to drink off good draughts from a tumbler, and thought the wine glass system absurd: a very heretical opinion in the eyes of your true wine drinkers. Frugal and abstemious on principle, he was sometimes rather imprudent, and would take anything that came in his way. A nobleman once sent him some oil of walnuts he had had pressed purposely for an artistic experiment. Blake tasted it, and went on tasting, till he had drunk the whole. When his lordship called to ask how the experiment prospered, the artist had to confess what had become of the ingredients. It was ever after a standing joke against him.

— Gilchrist, Blake, pp. 312-13 (Blake Records, ed. cit., pp. 307-8).

BLAKE, who always saw in fancy every form he drew, believed that angels descended to painters of old, and sat for their portraits. When he himself sat to Phillips for that fine portrait so beautifully engraved by Schiavonetti, the painter, in order to obtain the most unaffected attitude, and the most poetic expression, engaged his sitter in a conversation concerning the sublime in art. 'We hear much', said Phillips, `of the grandeur of Michael Angelo; from the engravings, I should say he has been over-rated; he could not paint an angel so well as Raphael.' `He has not been over-rated, Sir,' said Blake, `and he could paint an angel better than Raphael.' 'Well, but', said the other, `you never saw any of the paintings of Michael Angelo, and perhaps speak from the opinions of others; your friends may have deceived you.' `I never saw any of the paintings of Michael Angelo,' replied Blake, `but I speak from the opinion of a friend who could not be mistaken.' `A valuable friend truly,' said Phillips, `and who may he be I pray?' `The arch-angel Gabriel, Sir,' answered Blake. —'A good authority surely, but you know evil spirits love to assume the looks of good ones; and this may have been done to mislead you.' `Well now, Sir,' said Blake, `this is really singular: such were my own suspicions; but they were soon removed—I will tell you how. I was one day reading Young's Night Thoughts, and when I came to that passage which asks "who can paint an angel?", I closed the book and cried, "Aye! who can paint an angel?" A voice in the room answered, `Michael Angelo could." "And how do you know?" I said, looking around me, but I saw nothing save a greater light than usual. "I know," said the voice, "for I sat to him: I am the arch-angel Gabriel." "Oho!" I answered, "you are, are you? I must have better assurance than that of a wandering voice; you may be an evil spirit—there are such in the land." "You shall have good assurance," said the voice; "can an evil spirit do this?" I looked whence the voice came, and was then aware of a shining shape, with bright wings, who diffused much light. As I looked, the shape dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe. An angel of evil could not have done that—it was the arch-angel Gabriel.' The painter marvelled much at this wild story; but he caught from Blake's looks, as he related it, that rapt poetic expression which has rendered his portrait one of the finest of the English school.

— Allan Cunningham, The Cabinet Gallery of Pictures (1833), i. 11-13 (Blake Records, pp. 182-183).

Tim friend who obliged me with these anecdotes on observing the interest which I took in the subject, said, `I know much about Blake—I was his companion for nine years. I have sat beside him from ten at night till three in the morning, sometimes slumbering and sometimes waking, but Blake never slept; he sat with a pencil and paper drawing portraits of those whom I most desired to see. I will show you, Sir, some of these works.' He took out a large book filled with drawings, opened it, and continued: `Observe the poetic fervour of that face—it is Pindar as he stood a conqueror in the Olympic games. And this lovely creature is Corinna, who conquered in poetry in the same place. That lady is Lais, the courtesan—with the impudence which is part of her profession, she stept in between Blake and Corinna, and he was obliged to paint her to get her away. . . '

He closed the book, and taking out a small panel from a private drawer, said, `This is the last which I shall show you; but it is the greatest curiosity of all. Only look at the splendour of the colouring and the original character of the thing!' `I see,' said I, `a naked figure with a strong body and a short neck—with burning eyes which long for moisture, and a face worthy of a murderer, holding a bloody cup in his clawed hands, out of which it seems eager to drink. I never saw any shape so strange, nor did I ever see any colouring so curiously splendid—a kind of glistening green and dusky gold, beautifully varnished. But what in the world is it?' `It is a ghost, Sir—the ghost of a flea—a spiritualization of the thing!' `He saw this in a vision then,' I said. `I'll tell you all about it, Sir. I called on him one evening, and found Blake more than usually excited. He told me he had seen a wonderful thing—the ghost of a flea! "And did you make a drawing of him?" I inquired. "No, indeed," said he, "I wish I had, but I shall, if he appears again!" He looked earnestly into a corner of the room, and then said, "Here he is—reach me my things —I shall keep my eye on him. There he comes! his eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hand to hold blood, and covered with a scaly skin of gold and green."—As he described him so he drew him.'

— Allan Cunningham, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters . . . (2nd edn., 1830), ii (Blake Records, pp. 497-498).

ABOUT a year before he died he was seized with a species of ague (as it was then termed), of which he was alternately better and worse. He was at times very ill, but rallied, and all had hopes of him; indeed, such was his energy that even then, though sometimes confined to bed, he sat up drawing his most stupendous works. In August he gradually grew worse, and required much more of his wife's attention; indeed, he was decaying fast; his patience during his agonies of pain is described to have been exemplary.

Life, however, like a dying flame flashed once more, gave one more burst of animation, during which he was cheerful, and free from the tortures of his approaching end. He thought he was better, and as he was sure to do, asked to look at the work over which he was occupied when seized with his last attack: it was a coloured print of the Ancient of Days, striking the first circle of the Earth, done expressly by commission for the writer of this. After he had worked upon it he exclaimed: 'There, I have done all I can; it is the best I have ever finished. I hope Mr. Tatham will like it.' He threw it suddenly down, and said, `Kate, you have been a good wife, I will draw your portrait.' She sat near his bed and he made a drawing, which, though not a likeness, is finely touched and expressed. He then threw that down, after having drawn for an hour, and began to sing Hallelujahs and songs of joy and triumph, which Mrs. Blake described as being truly sublime in music and in verse. He sang loudly and with true ecstatic energy, and seemed too happy that he had finished his course, that he had run his race, and that he was shortly to arrive at the goal, to receive the prize of his high and eternal calling. After having answered a few questions concerning his wife's means of living after his decease, and after having spoken of the writer of this as a likely person to become the manager of her affairs, his spirit departed like the sighing of a gentle breeze, and he slept in company with the mighty ancestors he had formerly depicted. He passed from death to an immortal life on the 12th of August 1827. . . . Such was the entertainment of the last hour of his life. His bursts of gladness made the room peal again. The walls rang and resounded with the beatific symphony. It was a prelude to the hymns of saints. It was an overture to the choir of Heaven. It was a chant for the response of angels.

— Frederick Tatham, MS. Life of Blake, Blake Records, pp. 527-528.