William Blake (1757–1827) occupies a unique place in the history of Western art. His creativity included both the visual and literary arts. In his lifetime he was best known as an engraver; now he is also recognized for his innovative poetry, printmaking, and painting. Blake's keen perception of the political and social climate found expression throughout his work. His strong sense of independence is evident in the complex mythology that he constructed in response to the age of revolution.
Blake was already recognized as an engraver at age twenty-five, when his first volume of poems appeared. At thirty-three, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he audaciously claimed that his birth had marked the origin of a "new heaven" in which his own art would exemplify the creativity prefigured by Milton and Michelangelo. By that time, Blake, in one of his most productive periods, had already produced Songs of Innocence and was at work on a series of illuminated books. In 1818 he met John Linnell, a young painter and engraver, through whom a group of young artists became Blake's followers. Calling themselves the Ancients, they helped perpetuate Blake's influence for generations.
The Morgan's Blake collection—one of this country's most distinguished—began with purchases as early as 1899 by Pierpont Morgan. During the tenure of Charles Ryskamp, director from 1969 to 1986, major gifts almost doubled the size of its Blake holdings. In recent years Ryskamp's own gifts of engravings, letters, and related materials have significantly enriched its scholarly resources.
This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of Fay and Geoffrey Elliott.
Francis Oliver Finch (1802–1862)
The Dell of Comus, ca. 1835
Watercolor with gum arabic and scratching out
A pupil of the artist John Varley, Finch was also a poet and musician loosely associated with the Ancients. Finch and other group members admired the same poets and were deeply suspicious of modern, industrial development, turning instead to an idealized rural idyll. Finch exhibited two watercolors illustrating the woodland setting of Milton's Comus at the Old Water-colour Society: one, most likely the present work, in 1835, and a later, possibly larger version of the same subject in 1844.
The present watercolor has been built up using dark pigments enhanced with gum arabic creating a somber but rich effect contrasting with the highlighting achieved through scratching out.
Purchased on the Ryskamp Fund; 2003.48
Among Blake's early friends were professors and other students at the Royal Academy, many of whom became leading figures of the age. He frequently engraved works by Thomas Stothard, Henry Fuseli, and John Flaxman, for example, as will be seen in this gallery. In his day Blake was more widely esteemed as a fine engraver than as a painter, his own imaginative work having been produced primarily on speculation or for patrons. Only nine years before Blake's death, the young artist John Linnell (1792–1882) became both a patron and friend. Through him Blake became acquainted with several youthful artists who came to call themselves the Ancients, after Blake's frequent reference to earlier artists as "ancients." They were inspired by Blake's imaginative spirit and his love for the art of Michelangelo as well as for the poetry of Milton. These men––Edward Calvert, Samuel Palmer, George Richmond, Francis Oliver Finch, George Cumberland, Frederick Tatham, and Henry Walter––are represented in the Morgan's collections.