Lund Humphries, 256 pp., $80.00;British Museum Press/Metropolitan Museum of Art, 256 pp., $45.00 (paper)
In the last decade of his life, as is well known, William Blake began to receive recognition and respect as an artist, not from the general public but from a group of painters and printmakers who looked to him as a figure of deep spiritual and artistic authority: “The Interpreter,” they called him; they called themselves “The Ancients.” The painter John Linnell (1792–1882) was the first of these. He would visit Blake at home, get work for him, keep him company, take him to the theater (Sheridan’s Pizarro, a “New Grand Serious Opera” called Dirce, or the Fatal Urn, and Oedipus in the version by Dryden and Nat Lee), and introduce him to his circle of young artists, some of whom became his disciples. Among them was Samuel Palmer, whose work is currently on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum. Born in 1805, Palmer was the son of a London bookseller, a Baptist who was easy-going enough to support his earliest artistic endeavors.
For the sixteen-year-old painter George Richmond (1809–1896), being allowed to walk home with Blake was “as if he were walking with the Prophet Isaiah”; he had already heard much of him, and had admired what he had seen of his designs. And besides, according to a biographer of Blake:
The prophet talked fully and kindly, freely opening his mind, as was his wont with the young—men of eighteen or twenty say—even more freely and favourably, perhaps, than with their elders. There was more community of sentiment—a bond of sympathy. On this occasion he talked of his own youth, and of his visions. Just as Mr. Palmer speaks of Blake’s tolerant kindness towards young men, Mr. Richmond relates that, in their intercourse, he would himself, as young men are prone to do, boldly argue and disagree, as though they were equals in years and wisdom, and Blake would take it all good-humouredly.
Once when Richmond went to see Blake, finding him at tea, he explained that he felt deserted by the power of invention. Blake turned to his wife and said, “It is just so with us, is it not, for weeks together, when the visions forsake us? What do we do then, Kate?” “We kneel down and pray, Mr. Blake.” Richmond was only eighteen when, on August 12, 1827, the task fell to him to close Blake’s eyes and kiss him farewell in death. His grandson said much later that Richmond had closed Blake’s eyes “to keep the vision in.”
Edward Calvert (1799–1883) was another of the group who used to refer to Blake’s London lodgings in Fountain Court (just off the Strand) as “The House of the Interpreter.” The Ancients were thinking of the passage in Pilgrim’s Progress where Christian “came at the house of the INTERPRETER [and said]…I am a man that am come from the City of DESTRUCTION, and am going to Mount Zion; and I was told…that if I …