Tim Linnell [email@example.com], a descendant of the artist, has kindly shared with readers of the Victorian Web his scanned text of this biography. George P. Landow has adapted it for html, adding links to the original text.
Blake's Last Days — The 'Inventions' to the Book of Job — Illustrations to Dante — Letters from Blake — Visits to Hampstead — Death of Blake — Tatham — Allan Cunningham — Linnell's Opinion of Blake.
HILE Blake was still engaged on the engravings to 'Job,' Linnell directed his friend's attention to Dante's 'Divina Commedia,' which was a favourite book of his, and one which he considered Blake's genius peculiarly suited to illustrate. He therefore suggested a series of designs, or 'Inventions,' as Blake would call them, for the work of the great Florentine. Blake was pleased with the idea, and at once accepted his generous friend's commission.
The way it came about was this. although the 'Job' had been paid for, Linnell continued to give him money weekly. Blake said: 'I do not know how I shall ever repay you.' Linnell replied: 'I do not want you to repay me. I am only too glad to be able to serve you. What I would like, however, if you do anything for me, is that you should make some designs for Dante's Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso.'
Blake entered upon the work with alacrity, starting, at the age of sixty-seven, to study Italian, in order to be able to understand the 'Divina Commedia' in the original text. In a few weeks' time he knew enough of the language to be able to go to work. The agreement between the two was to the effect that Blake was to proceed with the designs, doing as much or as little as he liked, and that Linnell was to go on paying him, as heretofore, two or three pounds a week, according to his needs, until they were finished. The work went on at first concurrently with the engraving of the 'Job' designs, and the two together occupied the old man for the remainder of his life.
For the purpose of the designs Linnell gave Blake a folio volume of fine Dutch paper, containing a hundred leaves, and the designs he made number just a hundred. They are in water-colours, and cover the entire page. While many of them are finished, others are the reverse, some few presenting little more than the merest outline. The first draft of the whole, or nearly the whole, was made while Blake was in bed with a bad foot. Propped up with pillows, and holding the book before him, he was able to sketch the designs in outline; whereas he could not work on his plates of 'Job.'
Linnell gave his friend the commission in 1825, and through that year and 1826 Blake was more or less busy upon the designs. On November 10 in the former year, Blake wrote to Linnell (at Cirencester Place, Fitzroy Square) from Fountain Court, Strand, whither he had in the meantime gone to live, the following letter, which has reference to the plates of the 'Job,' to which he was putting the final touches:
I have, I believe, done nearly all that we agreed on. And if you should put on your considering-cap, just as you did last time we met, I have no doubt the plates would be all the better for it. I cannot get well, and am now in bed, but seem as if I should be better to-morrow Rest does me good. Pray take care of your health this wet weather; and, though I write, do not venture out on such days as to-day has been. I hope a few days more will bring us to a conclusion
I am, dear sir,
Another very characteristic letter of Blake's to Linnell is dated 'February 1, 1826':
I am forced to write, because I cannot come to you. And this on two accounts. First, I omitted to desire you would come to take a mutton chop with us the day you go to Cheltenham and I will go with you to the coach. Also, I will go to Hampstead to see Mrs. Linnell on Sunday, but will return before dinner (I mean, if you set off before that). And second, I wish to have a copy of " Job" to show to Mr. Chantrey.
For I am again laid up by a cold in my stomach. The Hampstead air, as it always did, so I fear it will this time, except it be the morning air; and that, in my cousins time, I found I could bear with safety and perhaps benefit. I believe my constitution to be a good one, but it has many peculiarities that no one but myself can know. When I was young, Hampstead, Highgate, Hornsey, Muswell Hill, and even Islington, and all places north of London, always laid me up the day after, and sometimes two or three days, with precisely the same complaint, and the same torment of the stomach; easily removed, but excruciating while it lasts, and enfeebling for some time after. Sir Francis Bacon would say it is want of discipline in mountainous places. Sir Francis Bacon is a liar; no discipline will turn one man into another, even in the least particle; and such discipline I call presumption and folly. I have tried it too much not to know this, and am very sorry for all those who may be led to such ostentatious exertions against their eternal existence itself; because it is a mental rebellion against the Holy Spirit, and fit only for a soldier of Satan to perform.
Though I hope in a morning or two to call on you in Cirencester Place, I feared you might be gone, or I might be too ill to let you know how I am and what I wish.
I am, dear sir,
The following letter is undated but it probably belongs to the end of the year 1825 or to the beginning of 1826:
I return you thanks for the two pounds you now send me. As to Sir Thomas Lawrence, I have not heard from him as yet, and hope that he has a good opinion of my willingness to appear grateful, though not able, on account of this abominable ague, or whatever it is. I am in bed, and at work. My health I cannot speak of, for if it was not for the cold weather I think I should soon get about again. Great men die equally with the little. I am sorry for Ld. Ls. — he is a man of very singular abilities. as also for the D. of C. ; but, perhaps and I verily believe it — every death is an improvement of the state of the departed. I can draw as well in bed as up, and perhaps better; but I cannot engrave. I am going on with Dante, and please myself.
I am, dear sir,
Blake's health continued disquieting during the Spring of 1826, and Linnell suggested that he should go for a time to Hampstead, believing the change of air would do him good, and proposed to take lodgings for him at Hope Cottage, where he had lodged before he went to Collins' Farm. The following letters refer to this proposal
July 2, 1826.
MY DEAREST FRIEND,
This sudden cold weather has cut up all my hopes by the roots. Everyone who knows of our intended flight into your delightful country concurs in saying, Do not venture till summer appears again. I also feel myself weaker than I was aware, being not able as yet to sit up longer than six hours at a time; and also feel the cold too much to dare venture beyond my present precincts. My heartiest thanks for your care in my accommodation, and the trouble you will yet have with me. But I get better and stronger every day, though weaker in muscle and bone than I supposed. As to pleasantness of prospect, it is all pleasant prospect at North End. Mrs. Hard's I should like as well as any; but think of the expense, and how it may be spared, and never mind appearances.
I intend to bring with me, besides our necessary change of apparel, only my book of drawings from Dante, and one plate shut up in the book. All will go very well in the coach, which at present would be a rumble I fear I could not go through. So that I conclude another week must pass before I dare venture upon what I ardently desire — the seeing you with your happy family once again, and that for a longer period than I had ever hoped in my healthful hours.
I am, dear sir,
Yours most gratefully,
July 5, 1826.
I thank you for receipt of five pounds this morning, and congratulate you on the receipt of another fine boy. Am glad to hear of Mrs. Linnell's health and safety.
I am getting better every hour. My plan is diet only; and, if the machine is capable of it, shall make an old man yet. I go on just as if perfectly well, which indeed I am, except in those paroxysms, which I now believe will never more return. Pray let your own health and convenience put all solicitude concerning me at rest. You have a family, I have none; there is no comparison between our necessary avocations.
Believe me to be, dear sir,
July 16, 1826.
I have been, ever since taking Dr. Young's addition to Mr. Fincham's practice with me (the addition is dandelion), in a species of delirium, and in pain too much for thought. It is now past, as I hope. But the moment I got ease of body began pain of mind, and that not a small one. It is about the name of the child, which certainly ought to be Thomas, after Mrs. Linnell's father. It will be brutal, not to say worse, for it is worse, in my opinion and on my part. Pray reconsider it, if it is not too late. It very much troubles me as a crime in which shall be the principal. Pray excuse this hearty expostulation, and believe me to be,
The boy referred to in the two preceding letters was the artist's third son and fifth child, who, despite Blake's objection, was named William after him, and has a recollection of being once seated upon the old man's knee. After Hannah, born in Rathbone Place in 1818, came Elizabeth, John and James, all of whom first saw the light in Cirencester Place. William (born July 3. 1826) was, according to astrological Varley, destined to be of an ardent and impulsive disposition, because the constellation Taurus was in the ascendant at the time of his birth.
August 1, 1826.
If this notice should be too short for your convenience, please to let me know. But, finding myself well enough to come, I propose to set out from here as soon after ten as we can on Thursday morning. Our carriage will be a cabriolet. For, though getting better and stronger, I am still incapable of riding in the stage, and shall be, I fear, for some time, being only bones and sinews, all strings and bobbins, like a weaver's loom. Walking to and from the stage would be to me impossible. though I seem well, being entirely free from both pain and from that sickness to which there is no name. Thank God, I feel no more of it, and have great hopes that the disease is gone.
I am, dear sir,
Though the sojourn at Hampstead was made, Blake did not receive much benefit from it. He was, indeed, gradually getting weaker and weaker. In all probability his residence in such close proximity to the river was injurious to his health. Linnell, feeling that a removal to more wholesome quarters would do him good, proposed that he should live at his house in Cirencester Place, only part of which he used as his studio. The following letter, of date February, 1827, has reference to this proposition
I thank you for the five pounds received to-day. Am getting better every morning; but slowly, as I am still feeble and tottering, though all the symptoms of my complaint seem almost gone, as the fine weather is very beneficial and comfortable to me. I go on, as I think, improving my engravings of Dante more and more, and shall soon get proofs of these four which I have; and beg the favour of you to send me the two plates of Dante which you have, that I may finish them sufficiently to make some show of colour and strength.
I have thought and thought of the removal, and cannot get my mind out of a state of terrible fear at such a step. The more I think the more I feel terror at what I wished at first, and thought it a thing of benefit and good. Hope you will attribute it to its right cause — intellectual peculiarity that must be myself alone shut up in myself, or reduced to nothing. I could tell you of visions and dreams upon the subject. I have asked and entreated divine help; but fear continues upon me, and I must relinquish the step that I had wished to take, and still wish, but in vain.
Your success in your profession is, above all things to me, most gratifying. May it go on to the perfection you wish, and more! So wishes also,
Another letter, dated March 15, 1827, refers to the circumstance that Mr. Cumberland was going to take a copy of 'Job,' but thought it too over-laboured for his Bristol friends; also, to the fact that Mr. Tatham, senior, had called and looked over the Dante, and was 'very much pleased with the designs, as well as the engravings.' The next letter — of date April 25, 1827 shows Blake, though continually ill, still working at the Dante:
I am going on better every day, as I think, both in health and in work. I thank you for the ten pounds which I received from you this day, which shall be put to the best use; as also for the prospect of Mr. Ottley's advantageous acquaintance. I go on without daring to consider futurity, which I cannot do without doubt and fear that ruin activity, and are the greatest hurt to an artist such as I am. As to " Ugolino," etc., I never supposed that I should sell them. My wife alone is answerable for their having existed in any finished state. I am too much attached to Dante to think much of anything else. I have proved the six plates, and reduced the fighting devils ready for the copper. I count myself sufficiently paid if I live as I now do, and only fear that I may be unlucky to my friends, and especially that I may be so to you.
I am, sincerely yours,
Three months later Linnell received another letter, the last he ever had from his friend:
July 3, 1827.
I thank you for the ten pounds you are so kind as to send me at this time. My journey to Hampstead on Sunday brought on a relapse which has lasted till now. I find I am not so well as I thought; I must not go on in a youthful style. However, I am upon the mending hand to-day, and hope soon to look as I did, for I have been yellow, accompanied by all the old symptoms.
I am, dear sir,
Six weeks later, on August 12, Blake died. Up to the last he worked at the Dante, leaving some of the designs, as has been said, in an imperfect state. After her husband's death Mrs. Blake sent the book containing the designs to Mr. Linnell with a note, saying that, as he had paid for them, they were his.
Subsequently Mr. Frederick Tatharn, already referred to as one of the enthusiastic disciples of Blake, and the one who prevailed upon the widow to give up to him all her late husband's poetic and artistic effects, wrote to Linnell, demanding the return to him of the Dante designs. Fortified by his written agreement with Blake, however, he paid no attention to the demand; and well was it that he did so, for had they fallen into Tatham's hands they would doubtless have gone the way of all the other 'Remains' that fell — apparently improperly — into his possession. For having come under the influence of the Irvingites and been made an 'Angel,' or something of the sort, in that body, he was persuaded that his late friend's designs and poetic effusions were of the devil, and incontinently burned or otherwise destroyed them.
Tatham declared, and Gilchrist affirms in his 'Life of William Blake,' that Mrs. Blake bequeathed 'the remaining stock of his works, still considerable,' to Mr. Tatham. But, against this statement in his copy of the 'Life,' Linnell wrote an emphatic 'No.' Whatever may have been the artist's authority for his belief, it is certain that he would not have contradicted such a statement without good grounds for so doing.
He undoubtedly had very good reason to be indignant with a man who, while pretending to be a devoted admirer and disciple of Blake, had so little appreciation of his works that what he did not destroy he allowed to be scattered. How different to Linnell himself, who never permitted a scrap of anything that bore the impress of Blake's hand to be wasted!
After her husband's death Mrs. Blake went to live in Linnell's house in Cirencester Place, in which it had been his intention to let Blake reside if he had lived. It was a large house, and our artist only used a part of it as his studio. From about a month after Blake's death until Linnell let the house — that is, a period of nine or ten months — his widow continued to reside there. She survived her husband about four years, dying in October, 1831. It is pleasing to know that she did not want for anything. In addition to the assistance she received from later friends, some of their older ones turned up again, and either bought or helped to find purchasers for some of Blake's still-remaining works. Amongst other purchasers of his works was Mr. Haviland Burke, a nephew (or grand-nephew) of Edmund Burke, who, hearing of Blake's death, called upon our artist to ask if any of his works were still procurable. Linnell directed him to go and see Mrs. Blake and was the means of her not only selling works to Mr. Burke himself, but of her disposing of a copy of the 'Songs of Innocence' and Ezekiel, two prints of Job and Ezekiel, and two drawings to Dr. Jebb, Bishop of Limerick. Gilchrist is in error in what he says on this subject, as well as in many others in regard to Blake. He says the Bishop sent her twenty guineas, saying that as he was not a collector of works of art, he did not desire anything in return. The fact is that Mr. Burke was commissioned to examine what works were left, and to select something that he thought he would like. He chose the 'Songs of Innocence and Experience,' and the prints and drawings, and on the works being sent to him he forwarded the twenty guineas.
Amongst the old friends who again sought Mrs. Blake out was Lord Egremont, who purchased for eighty guineas a large water-colour drawing, representing the characters of Spenser's 'Faerie Queen,' designed as a companion picture to the 'Canterbury Pilgrims.' The Earl was in a disposition to aid the widow of his old friend by making further purchases, and Linnell did his best to take advantage of the inclination, as the following letter will show. It is valuable also as indicating his attitude in regard to the works of his dead friend.
Mr. J. Linnell begs leave to enclose to the Earl of Egremont a work by the late Mr. Blake for his lordship's inspection, and will send again to know if his lordship wishes to possess it.
Mr. Linnell was intimately acquainted with the author, and was his employer in the above work when he had nothing else to do. Mr. Linnell's means were not adequate to pay Mr. Blake according to his merit, or such a work should have placed him in moderate independence. The work, however, has not yet paid its expenses, although highly esteemed and in the collections of the best judges.
Mr. Linnell begs permission also to mention that in his possession about one hundred original by Mr. Blake on a larger scale, forming a complete illustration to the whole of Dante.
Many are in an unfinished state, but the greater number are, and are more powerfully coloured and finished than he usually did. They were done for Mr. Linnell in return for moneys advanced to Mr. Blake when he had no other resources. The sum, however, was inconsiderable, compared to the value of the drawings; and Mr. Linnell's object being only to relieve the necessities of his friend as far as he was able, he is now willing to part with the drawings for the benefit of the widow, and if he can obtain a price something more adequate, he will engage to hand over the difference to Mrs. Blake.
Mr. Linnell begs leave, therefore, to be allowed to show the drawings to Lord Egremont, and will wait upon his lordship with them, or be at home, at any time appointed.
Porchester Terrace, Bayswater.
The Dante drawings still remain in the possession of the Linnell family, and form a magnificent monument of Blake's last days.
About two years after Blake's death Allan Cunningham, the first biographer of Blake, wrote to Linnell, asking him for materials for his projected 'Life.' although, as he says, he obtained much information from John Varley, yet both he and the biographers who came later were chiefly indebted to our artist for what they were enabled to tell us of the poet-artist's later life. Cunningham's letter was as follows:
27, Lower Belgrave Place, July 20, 1829.
I have published one volume of the " Lives of the Eminent British Painters," and I have another in progress. The first contains the lives of Hogarth, Wilson, Reynolds, and Gainsborough, and the second will contain amongst others West, Barry, Fuseli, Opie, and Blake, if I can find suitable materials. Mr. Varley, from whom I have received much valuable information, tells me that you can aid me much in the matter. I write, therefore, to request that you will have the goodness to inform me of a few of the leading circumstances of Blake's life, give me a list of his works, and oblige me with the loan of the illustrations of " Job." I know Blake's character, for I knew the man. I shall make a judicious use of my materials, and be merciful where sympathy is needed.
I ought to offer many apologies for this intrusion and trouble. I know enough of you to know that you are an admirer of the artist, and as a matter of love will assist one who honours his genius and esteems his memory as a man.
I remain, dear sir,
Very truly yours,
As all that Linnell had to say about his friend, and in some respects we might almost say his master, has a certain importance, considering the opportunities he had of knowing him, the following final judgement upon the effect of Blake's views, written nearly thirty years after his death, must have a special interest to those who have made a study of Blake and his works. It was found amongst Linnell's literary remains, and was dated 1855: 'A saint amongst the infidels, and a heretic with the orthodox. With all the admiration (possible) for Blake, it must be confessed that he said many things tending to the corruption of Christian morals, even when unprovoked by controversy, and when opposed by the superstitious, the crafty, or the proud, he outraged all commonsense and rationality by the opinions he advanced, occasionally even indulging in the support of the most lax interpretation of the precepts of the Scriptures.'
Last modified 1 December 2001