ENGRAVER'S APPRENTICE, 1771—78. [ÆT. 14—21.]

The preliminary charges of launching Blake in the career of a Painter, were too onerous for the paternal pocket; involving for one thing, a heavy premium to some leading artist for instruction under his own roof, then the only attainable, always the only adequate training. The investment, moreover, would not after all be certain of assuring daily bread for the future. English engravers were then taking that high place they are now doing little to maintain. Apprenticeship to one would secure, with some degree of artistic education, the cunning right hand which can always keep want at arm's length: a thing artist and littérateur have often had cause to envy in the skilled artizan. The consideration was not without weight in the eyes of an honest shopkeeper, to whose understanding the prosaic craft would more practically address itself than the vague abstractions of Art, or those shadowy promises of Fame, on which alone a mere artist had too often to feed. Thus it was decided for the future designer, that he should enter the, to him, enchanted domain of Art by a back door, as it were  He is not to be dandled into a Painter, but painfully to win his way to an outside place. Daily through life, he will have to marry his shining dreams to the humblest, most irksome realities of a virtually artizan life. Already it had been decreed that an inspired Poet should be endowed with barely grammar enough to compose with schoolboy accuracy.

At the age of fourteen, the drawing-school of Mr. Pars in the Strand, was exchanged for the shop of engraver Basire, in Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields. There had been an intention of apprenticing Blake to Ryland, a more famous man than Basire; an artist of genuine talent and even genius, who had been well educated in his craft; had been a pupil of Ravenet, and after that (among others) of Boucher, whose stipple manner he was the first to introduce into England. With the view of securing the teaching and example of so skilled a hand, Blake was taken by his father to Ryland; but the negotiation failed. The boy himself raised an unexpected scruple. The sequel shows it to have been a singular instance—if not of absolute prophetic gift or second sight—at all events of natural intuition into character and power of forecasting the future from it, such as is often the endowment of temperaments like his. In after life this involuntary faculty of reading hidden writing continued to be a characteristic. 'Father,' said the strange boy, after the two had left Ryland's studio, 'I do not like the man's face: it looks as if he will live to be hanged!' Appearances were at that time utterly against the probability of such an event. Ryland was then at the zenith of his reputation. He was engraver to the king, whose portrait (after Ramsay) he had engraved, receiving for his work an annual pension of 200l. An accomplished and agreeable man, he was the friend of poet Churchill and others of distinguished rank in letters and society. His manners and personal appearance were peculiarly prepossessing, winning the spontaneous confidence of those who knew or even casually saw him. But twelve years after this interview, the unfortunate artist will have got into embarrassments, will commit a forgery on the East India Company:—and the prophecy will be fulfilled.

The Basire with whom ultimately Blake was placed, was James Basire, the second chronologically and in merit first of four Basires; all engravers, and the three last in date (all bearing one Christian name) engravers to the Society of Antiquaries. This Basire, born in London, 1730, now therefore forty-one, and son of Isaac Basire, had studied design at Rome. He was the engraver of Stuart and Revett's Athens (1762), of Reynolds's Earl Camden (1766), of West's Pylades and Orestes (1770). He had also executed two or three plates after some of the minor and later designs of Hogarth:—the frontispiece to Garrick's Farmer's Return (1761), the noted political caricature of The Times, and the portrait sketch of Fielding (1762), which Hogarth himself much commended, declaring 'he did not know his own drawing from a proof of the plate.' The subjects of his graver were principally antiquities and portraits of men of note,—especially portraits of antiquaries: hereditary subjects since with the Basire family. He was official engraver to the Royal as well as the Antiquarian Society. Hereafter he will become still more favourably known in his generation as the engraver of the illustrations to the slow-revolving Archæologia and Vetusta Monumenta of the Society of Antiquaries,—then in a comparatively brisk condition,—and to the works of Gough and other antiquarian big-wigs of the old, full-bottomed sort. He was an engraver well grounded in drawing, of dry, hard, monotonous, but painstaking, conscientious style; the lingering representative of a school already getting old-fashioned, but not without staunch admirers, for its 'firm and correct outline,' among antiquaries; whose confidence and esteem,—Gough's in particular,—Basire throughout possessed.

In the days of Strange, Woollett, Vivares, Bartolozzi, better models, if more expensive in their demands, might have been found; though also worse. Basire was a superior, liberal-minded man, ingenuous and upright; and a kind master. The lineaments of his honest countenance (set off by a bob-wig) may be studied in the portrait by his son, engraved as frontispiece to the ninth volume of Nichols's Literary Anecdotes. As a Designer, Blake was, in essentials, influenced by no contemporary; as engraver alone influenced by Basire, and that strongly—little as his Master's style had in common with his own genius. Even as engraver, he was thus influenced, little to his future advantage in winning custom from the public. That public, in Blake's youth fast out-growing the flat and formal manner inherited by Basire, in common with Vertue (engraver to the Society of Antiquaries before him) and the rest, from the Vanderguchts, Vanderbanks and other naturalized Dutchmen and Germans of the bob-wig and clipped-yew era, will now readily learn to enjoy the softer, more agreeable one of M'Ardell, Bartolozzi, Sherwin.

His seven years apprenticeship commenced in 1771, year of the Academy's first partial lodgement in Old Somerset Palace—and thus (eventually) in the National Pocket. As he was constitutionally painstaking and industrious, he soon learned to draw carefully and copy faithfully whatever was set before him, altogether to the Basire taste, and to win, as a good apprentice should, the approval and favour of his master. One day, by the way (as Blake ever remembered), Goldsmith walked into Basire's. It must have been during the very last years of the poet's life: he died in 1774. The boy—as afterwards the artist was fond of telling—mightily admired the great author's finely marked head as he gazed up at it, and thought to himself how much he should like to have such a head when he grew to be a man. Another still more memorable figure, a genius singularly german to Blake's own order of mind, the 'singular boy of fourteen,' may during the commencement of his apprenticeship, 'any day have met unwittingly in London streets, or walked beside,—a placid, venerable, thin man of eighty-four, of erect figure and abstracted air, wearing a full-bottomed wig, a pair of long ruffles, and a curious-hilted sword, and carrying a gold-headed cane,—no Vision, still flesh and blood, but himself the greatest of modern Vision Seers,—Emanuel Swedenborg by name; who came from Amsterdam to London, in August 1771, and died at No. 26, Great Bath Street, Coldbath Fields, on the 29th of March, 1772.' This Mr. Allingham pleasantly suggests, in a note to his delightful collection of lyrical poems, Nightingale Valley (1860), in which (at last) occur a specimen or two of Blake's verse. The coincidence is not a trivial one. Of all modern men the engraver's apprentice was to grow up the likest to Emanuel Swedenborg; already by constitutional temperament and endowment was so, in faculty for theosophic dreaming, for the seeing of visions while broad awake, and in matter of fact hold of spiritual things. To savant and to artist alike, while yet on earth, the Heavens were opened. By Swedenborg's theologic writings, the first English editions of some of which appeared during Blake's manhood, he was considerably influenced; but in no slavish spirit. These writings, in common with those of Jacob Boehmen and of the other select mystics of the world, had natural affinities to Blake's mind and were eagerly assimilated. But he hardly became a proselyte or 'Swedenborgian' proper; though his friend Flaxman did. In another twenty years we shall find him freely and—as true believers may think—heretically criticising the Swedish seer from the spiritualist, not the rationalist point of view: as being a Divine Teacher, whose truths however were 'not new,' and whose falsehoods were 'all old.'

Among the leading engravings turned out by Basire, during the early part of Blake's apprenticeship, may be instanced in 1772, one after B. Wilson {not Richard), Lady Stanhope as the Fair Penitent, (her rôle in certain amateur theatricals by the Quality); and in 1774, The Field of the Cloth of Gold and Interview of the two Kings, after a copy for the Society of Antiquaries by 'little Edwards' of Anecdote fame, from the celebrated picture at Windsor. The latter print was celebrated for one thing, if no other, as the largest ever engraved up to that time on one plate—copper, let us remember,—being some 47 inches by 27; and paper had to be made on purpose for it.

'Two years passed over smoothly enough' writes Malkin, 'till two other apprentices were added to the establishment, who completely destroyed its harmony.' Basire said of Blake, 'he was too simple and they too cunning.' He, lending, I suppose, a too credulous ear to their tales, 'declined to take part with his master against his fellow-apprentices;' and was therefore sent out of harm's way into Westminster Abbey and the various old churches in and near London, to make drawings from the monuments and buildings Basire was employed by Gough the antiquary to engrave: 'a circumstance he always mentioned with gratitude to Basire.' The solitary study of authentic English history in stone was far more to the studious lad's mind than the disorderly wrangling of mutinous comrades. It is significant of his character, even at this early date, for zeal, industry, and moral correctness, that he could be trusted month after month, year after year, unwatched, to do his duty by his master in so independent an employment.

The task was singularly adapted to foster the romantic turn of his imagination, and to strengthen his natural affinities for the spiritual in art. It kindled a fervent love of Gothic,—itself an originality then,—which lasted his life, and exerted enduring influences on his habits of feeling and study; forbidding once for all, if such a thing had ever been possible to Blake, the pursuit of fashionable models, modern excellences, technic and superficial, or of any but the antiquated essentials and symbolic language of imaginative art.

From this time forward, from 1773 that is, the then 'neglected works of art called Gothic monuments,' were for years his daily companions. The warmer months were devoted to zealous sketching, from every point of view, of the Tombs in the Abbey; the enthusiastic artist 'frequently standing on the monument and viewing the figures from the top.' Careful drawings were made of the regal forms which for four or five centuries had lain in mute majesty,—once amid the daily presence of reverent priest and muttered mass, since in awful solitude,—around the lovely Chapel of the Confessor: the austere sweetness of Queen Eleanor, the dignity of Philippa, the noble grandeur of Edward the Third, the gracious stateliness of Richard the Second and his Queen. Then came drawings of the glorious effigy of Aymer de Valence, and of the beautiful though mutilated figures which surround his altar-tomb; drawings, in fact, of all the mediaeval tombs. He pored over all with a reverent good faith, which in the age of Stuart and Revett, taught the simple student things our Pugins and Scotts had to learn near a century later. 'The heads he considered as portraits,'—not unnaturally, their sculptors showing no overt sign of idiocy;—'and all the ornaments appeared as miracles of art to his gothicized imagination,' as they have appeared to other imaginations since. He discovered for himself then or later, the important part once subserved by Colour in the sculptured building, the living help it had rendered to the once radiant Temple of God,—now a bleached dishonoured skeleton.

Shut up alone with these solemn memorials of far off centuries,—for, during service and in the intervals of visits from strangers, the vergers turned the key on him,—the Spirit of the past became his familiar companion. Sometimes his dreaming eye saw more palpable shapes from the phantom past: once a vision of 'Christ and the Apostles,' as he used to tell; and I doubt not others. For, as we have seen, the visionary tendency, or faculty, as Blake more truly called it, had early shown itself. During the progress of Blake's lonely labours in the Abbey, on a bright day in May, 1774, the Society for which, through Basire, he was working, perpetrated by royal permission, on the very scene of those rapt studies, a highly interesting bit of antiquarian sacrilege: on a more reasonable pretext, and with greater decency, than sometimes distinguish such questionable proceedings. A select company formally and in strict privacy opened the tomb of Edward the First, and found the embalmed body 'in perfect preservation and sumptuously attired,' in 'robes of royalty, his crown on his head, and two sceptres in his hands.' The antiquaries saw face to face the 'dead conqueror of Scotland;' had even a fleeting glimpse—for it was straightway re-inclosed in its cere-cloths—of his very visage: a recognisable likeness of what it must have been in life. I cannot help hoping that Blake may (unseen) have assisted at the ceremony.

In winter the youth helped to engrave selections from these Abbey Studies, in some cases executing the engraving single-handed. During the evenings and at over hours, he made drawings from his already teeming Fancy, and from English History. 'A great number,' it is said, were thrown off in such spare hours. There is a scarce engraving of his, dated so early as 1773, the second year of his apprenticeship, remarkable as already to some extent evincing in style—as yet, however, heavy rather than majestic—still more in choice of subject, the characteristics of later years. In one corner at top we have the inscription (which sufficiently describes the design), 'Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion;' and at bottom, 'engraved by W. Blake, 1773, from an old Italian drawing;' 'Michael Angelo, Pinxit.' Between these two lines, according to a custom frequent with Blake, is engraved the following characteristic effusion, which reads like an addition of later years:—'This' (he is venturing a wild theory as to Joseph) 'is One of the Gothic Artists who built the Cathedrals in what we call the Dark Ages, wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins; of whom the World was not worthy. Such were the Christians in all ages.'

The 'prentice work as assistant to Basire of these years (1773-78) may be traced under Basire's name in the Archæologia, in some of the engravings of coins, &c., to the Memoirs of Hollis (1780), and in Gough's Sepulchral Monuments, not published till 1786 and 1796. The Antiquaries were alive and stirring then; and enthusiastic John Carter was laying the foundations in English Archæology on which better-known men have since built. In the Sepulchral Monuments, vol. I, pt. 2 (1796), occurs a capital engraving as to drawing and feeling, 'Portrait of Queen Philippa from her Monument,' with the inscription Basire delineavit et sculpsit; for which, as in many other cases, we may safely read 'W. Blake.' In fact, Stothard often used to mention this drawing as Blake's, and with praise. The engraving is in Blake's forcible manner of decisively contrasted light and shade, but simple and monotonous manipulation. It is to a large scale, and gives the head and shoulders merely. Another plate, with a perspective view of the whole monument and a separate one of the effigy, accompanies it. In Part I. (1786), are similar 'Portraits' of Queen Philippa, of Edward III. &c.

From Basire, Blake could only acquire the mechanical part of Art, even of the engraver's art; for Basire had little more to communicate. But that part he learned thoroughly and well. Basire's acquirements as an engraver were of a solid though not a fascinating kind. The scholar always retained a loyal feeling towards his old master; and would stoutly defend him and his style against that of more attractive and famous hands,—Strange, Woollett, Bartolozzi. Their ascendency, indeed, led to no little public injustice being done throughout, to Blake's own sterling style of engraving: a circumstance which intensified the artist's aversion to the men. In a MS. descriptive Advertisement (1810) printed in Vol. II. with the title Public Address, relating to the engraving of his own Canterbury Pilgrimage, Blake expresses his contempt for them very candidly—and intemperately perhaps. There too, he records the impression made on him personally, when as a boy he used to see some of them in Basire's studio. 'Woollett,' he writes, 'I knew very intimately by his intimacy with Basire, and knew him to be one of the most ignorant fellows I ever met. A machine is not a man, nor a work of art: it is destructive of humanity and of art. Woollett, I know, 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 forms of Basire's other gravers, till Basire was quite dashed and out of conceit with what he himself knew. But his impudence had a contrary effect on me.'—West, for whose reputation Woollett's graver did so much, 'asserted' continues Blake, 'that Woollett's prints were superior to Basire's, because they had more labour and care. Now this is contrary to the truth. Woollett did not know how to put so much labour into a hand or a foot as Basire did; he did not know how to draw the leaf of a tree. All his study was clean strokes and mossy tints. . . . Woollett's best works were etched by Jack Brown; Woollett etched very ill himself. The Cottagers, and Jocund Peasants, the Views in Kew Gardens, Foot's Cray, and Diana and Actæon, and, in short, all that are called Woollett's were etched by Jack Brown. And in Woollett's works the etching is all; though even in these a single leaf of a tree is never correct. Strange's prints were, when I knew him, all done by Aliamet and his French journeymen, whose names I forget. I also knew something of John Cooke, who engraved after Hogarth. Cooke wished to give Hogarth what he could take from Raffaelle; that is, outline, and mass, and colour; but he could not.' Again, in the same one-sided, trenchant strain:—'What is called the English style of engraving, such as proceeded from the toilettes of Woollett and Strange (for theirs were Fribble's toilettes) can never produce character and expression. Drawing—'firm, determinate outline'—is in Blake's eyes, all in all:—'Engraving is drawing on copper and nothing else. But, as Gravelot once said to my master, Basire "De English may be very clever in deir own opinions, but day do not draw!"'

Before taking leave of Basire we will have a look at the house in Great Queen Street, in which Blake passed seven years of his youth; whither Gough, Tyson, and many another enthusiastic dignified antiquary, in knee-breeches and powdered wig, so often bent their steps to have a chat with their favourite engraver. Its door has opened to good company in its time, to engravers, painters, men of letters, celebrated men of all kinds. Just now we saw Goldsmith enter. When Blake was an apprentice, the neighbourhood of Lincoln's Inn Fields, though already antique, was a stately and decorous one, through which the tide of fashionable life still swayed on daily errands of pleasure or business. The house can yet be identified as No. 31, one of two occupied by Messrs. Corben and Son, the coach-builders, which firm, or rather their predecessors, in Basire's time occupied only No. 30. It stands on the northern side of the street, opposite—to the west or Drury Lane-ward of—Freemasons' Tavern; almost exactly opposite New Yard and the noticeable ancient house at one side of that yard, with the stately Corinthian pilasters in well wrought brick. Basire's is itself a seventeenth century house refaced early in the Georgian era, the parapet then put up half hiding the old dormer windows of the third story. Originally, it must either have been part of a larger mansion, or one of a uniformly-built series, having continuous horizontal brick mouldings; as remnants of the same on its neighbours testify. Outside, it remains pretty much as it must have looked in Blake's time; old-fashioned people having (Heaven be praised!) tenanted it ever since the first James Basire and after him his widow ended their days there. With its green paint, old casements quiet old-fashioned shop-window, and freedom from the abomination of desolation (stucco), it retains an old-world genuine aspect, rare in London's oldest neighbourhoods, and not at war with the memories which cling around the place.