Rowlandson And Blake - English Water Colour Painters
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Water colour as suitable for figure work as for landscape—Thomas Rowlandson—His landscapes—The contrast between Rowlandson and Blake—Blake's work and character—" The House of Death "—Blake the first English artist to dedicate himself to the unseen—The Pioneer of the romantic movement in art.
THERE is often supposed to be some peculiar fitness between water colour painting and landscape, and certainly our great landscape painters have shown more readiness to work in water colour than our great figure painters. But that water colour is quite as suitable for figure subjects as for landscapes is proved by the works of Jordeans, van Ostade and Dusart in the Print Room. And no doubt an artist like Hogarth would have produced drawings which might have ranked with these had circumstances urged their production. But beyond using bistre to wash in the shadows of his pen and ink designs Hogarth seems not to have worked in water colour.
However, artists without a tithe of Hogarth's talent worked in it far too much. G. B. CIPRIANI (1727-1785), whom we imported in 1755, soon found imitators and rivals in ANGELICA KAUFMANN (1741-1807) and LADY DIANA BEAUCLERK (1734-1808). FRANCIS WHEATLEY (1747-1801) produced landscapes with rustic figures, and the theatrical art of WILLIAM HAMILTON (1750-1801) was in great demand by the engravers.
Above the heads of these effeminate folk towers the figure of one who had something of Hogarth's genius. THOMAS ROWLANDSON (1756-1827) is best known as a caricaturist and book illustrator, but the force and pungency of his satire must not blind us to his more distinctively artistic merits. He had a great love of landscape and rural life, and drew the quaint old houses dumped down capriciously in quiet country places, with perfect comprehension and tender sympathy. The drawings in the Ashbee bequest at South Kensington show this side of his art very well. Near Helston, Cornwall (1819-1900) shows a couple of foreground figures on horse back with panniers at their sides riding up to a small wooden bridge which leads to a group of cottages clustered round the village church. On the other side of the stream stands a cottage with group at the door. It is a quiet, every-day village scene, perfectly easy, natural, and unaffected ; the foliage, it is true, is rather mannered and empty, but the figures, buildings, and all the local accidents of the scene are treated with easy mastery. The drawing is dated 1806.
A Coast Scene is just such another placid and inforced drawing. The York Priory is drawn boldly with fine intelligence. The artist seems to have enjoyed the quaint outhouses and wooden excrescences which seem as it were to have been stuck on to the original building. The Kew Palace (in the Dyce Collection) and The White Hart Inn, Windsor, bring us nearer to the metropolis and to the sophisticated life Rowlandson knew only too well. In the Windsor drawing several groups are lounging on the galleries outside the inn, chatting and watching the latest arrivals. Beyond one sees the thatched roofs of the stables with the grooms attending to the horses, and in the foreground, luggage is being weighed, two horsemen are chatting with the bystanders, and a fat old gentleman toddles across the yard, followed by a postilion carrying his luggage.
The Old Council House, Salisbury must be one of Rowlandson's earliest topographical drawings. The curious building is drawn scrupulously and timidly. Its careful and constrained air contrasts markedly with the boisterous ease and jollity of the Brook Green Fair, the largest of the artist's drawings exhibited at South Kensington.
Worked generally with bistre outline and transparent washes of colour his rural scenes display his talent better than the rude horse-play and ultra-violent fun with which his name is chiefly associated. In these simple scenes from the life around him he is always natural and convincing. His workmanship is succinct, brief, rapid, and rich in essentials. He sees life in big comprehensive masses, showing him-self genial, tolerant, and all-comprehending. He does not give us a tiresome analysis of life, pulling it asunder to show us its anatomy, but he is ever concrete and synthetic, painting life for us with all its bloom on.
Blake and Rowlandson were contemporaries, Rowlandson having been born in 1756, Blake one year later, and they both died in 1827. Both were strong, obstinate men, and prolific producers. But the contrast between the artistic tendencies they represent is extreme. Rowlandson found things as they are were good enough for him. He loved the surface qualities of life and thoroughly enjoyed the ups and downs, the mingled bitter and sweet of the rough and tumble of events. His world was the world of everyday perception, the world in which the average sensual man lives and moves and has his being. Blake dwelt ever apart in the regions of the suprasensuous.
The difference in their character came out clearly even in the life class of the Academy which they both attended. Rowlandson made such rapid progress there that, before he was sixteen, his powers of rapid execution, grace, and fancy had attracted general attention. Blake drew there for a short time, but quickly relinquished such studies. The world of perception threw him out. " Natural objects always did and do now weaken, deaden, and obliterate imagination in me," he said in after-life. He was content to leave the visible world to others; he had the teeming world of the unseen ready to sit to him.
Blake's father was a hosier in sufficiently comfortable circumstances to further his studies by buying casts for him, and to enable him to get together a collection of prints after Michael Angelo, Darer, and Giulio Romano. The boy began to write verses when he was twelve, and at fourteen he was apprenticed to James Basire, the engraver to the Society of Antiquaries.
During the summer months Basire set Blake upon the congenial task of drawing the monuments in the old churches of London, and above all in Westminster Abbey, "where, rapt and happy, he worked for some years, acquiring a knowledge and a fervent love of Gothic art which profoundly influenced him through life." 1 During the winter months he engraved the drawings thus made. In his evenings he began to make original drawings, and in 1773 designed and engraved his first important work, Joseph of Arimathea among the rocks of Albion.
At the end of his seven years' apprenticeship he became a student at the Academy; bid soon gave this up, and began engraving for the booksellers. He married in 1782, opened a printseller's shop in 1784, and the same year exhibited two pictures at the Academy— War unchained by an Angel, Fire, Pestilence, and Famine following, and Breach in a City, the Morning after the Battle. In 1787 the shop was given up and, unable to find a publisher for his " Songs of Innocence," he set to work to re-produce them himself. The text mingled with the designs was drawn on copper ; this was then printed off in any coloured ink he chose to use, and these impressions were then worked up in water colour with a great variety of detail and colour. His wife learned to print from the copper plate, and helped him in the work of tinting and binding the pages.
Most of Blake's work was produced in this fashion. The " Songs of Experience " followed the "Songs of Innocence" five years later, then came the "Prophetic Books," and his last completed work, the "Inventions to the Book of Job," which is generally considered to contain his grandest designs.
Many of Blake's paintings were described by himself as "frescoes," but they are merely water colours done on a plaster ground of glue and whiting laid on board or canvas. A fine collection of these works from various private sources was shown, in January, 1904, at the Carfax Gallery, and those who were fortunate enough to see it will not easily forget the strangely beautiful Christ in the Garden, sustained by an Angel, and the magnificent Nativity.
Blake is not well represented at South Kensington, but at the Print Room there is an almost complete set of his published books, together with several fine water colours and a number of precious pencil designs.
Among the more important of the water colours are The Whore of Babylon, The Resurrection of the Dead, and the large Lazar House of Milton, called by the artist The House of Death. This terrific design seems to have been suggested by some lines of Milton in the tenth book of " Paradise Lost."
On a mat lie three victims of disease, two in rigid misery, the third writhing in agony ; a fourth raises himself on his elbows to gaze fearfully at the figure of Death, which with closed eyes and streaming beard broods over them. Despair, a massive figure with dull green flesh, stands with an iron barb in his hand, gazing down on the tortured men with cruel lips and impassive face. This drawing displays an almost unhuman power of giving form and shape to that dull, formless ache of despair which few of us are unacquainted with. The same extraordinary power makes designs like that of the passing away of a new-born babe indelible images in the mind of those who have seen them.
Blake was the first of English artists to dedicate himself to the unseen. His revolt against the idols of the eighteenth century was complete. He was as convinced as Kant that the separation of thought and feeling is a posteriori and a priori, and that all certainty rests upon inner knowledge, experience, and faith. But under the lurid influence of Swedenborg he pushed his opposition to the Enlightenment to extremes from which the prim sage of Konigsberg shrank back in horror.
Blake's influence has been wide and deep. Not only were contemporaries like Edward Calvert, Fuseli, and Flaxman glad to draw inspiration from his magnetic personality, but men of a later generation, like Rossetti and Burne - Jones, fell under the spell of his splendid genius. It is no exaggeration to call Blake the first harbinger of the renascence of wonder, the pioneer of the romantic movement in art.