Catherine Blake’s vision

February 23, 2018 1 Comment

Of all the astonishing visual images William Blake created, between the mid-1770s and his death in 1827, one of the most intriguing is a small sepia wash drawing (244 x 211mm) on a sheet of paper now in the Tate Gallery.  It’s usually known by the title A vision: the inspiration of the poet.  Since I first discovered it, in a big Tate exhibition on Blake in 1978, it’s lodged in a safe place at the back of my mind.  For some reason it’s now jumped to the front.

A vision: the inspiration of the poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall) c1819-20?

We’re standing in some huge room, perfectly plain and perfectly geometrical.  At the far end, against the rear wall, is a much smaller room, a tiny pedimented temple or shrine, open at the front.  It too is entirely plain, except for a lit lamp hanging from the ceiling.   Beneath the lamp a figure sits on a round-backed seat at a desk, pen in hand.  To the left stands a second figure, possibly dressed in a long gown and wearing headgear, who gestures towards the surface of the table.

A vision: the inspiration of the poet (Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall) c1819-20? [Detail]

Written in pen at the foot of the paper are the words, ‘William Blake – I suppose to be a vision.  Indeed I remember a conversation with Mrs. Blake about it.  Frederick Tatham’.  On a label on the back of the paper is another inscription, written by W. Graham Robertson: ‘A vision.  Probably representing the Poet, in the innermost shrine of the Imagination, writing from angelic dictation.’

William Blake, Los as he entered the door of death (Jerusalem) 1804-c1807

Frederick Tatham (1805-78) was an artist and sculptor, and a member of the group of Blake followers known as the ‘Ancients’.  He was a strange man.  He took care of Blake’s widow Katherine.  After her death he claimed ownership of the works by Blake that she had inherited (though another of the Ancients, John Linnell, maintained that they belonged to Katherine’s sister).  He then joined a millenarian sect and was said to have destroyed many of Blake’s manuscripts, saying they were the work of the devil. 

Graham Robertson (1866-88) was also an artist and writer, and a collector, especially of William Blake’s works. (He was born Graham Walford Robertson but preferred W. Graham Robertson ‘because he did not want to share initials with the Great Western Railway’). It was he who gave Blake’s shrine drawing the title it now carries. (There is an alternative title of uncertain origin, ‘Elisha in the Chamber on the Wall’.  Elisha was an Old Testament prophet who predicted to a woman from Shunem that she would have a son, and who revived him at her request when he suddenly died.  She had a ‘granny flat’ or ‘a little chamber on the wall’, in the words of the King James Bible, built for Elisha when he came to stay.)

The only other direct clue about A vision is the paper.  It seems to be watermarked ‘Ruse and Turner’.  Where Blake used this paper elsewhere, the date is ‘1815’, so the drawing was probably made after that year.

William Blake, The ghost of a flea c.1819-20

And that is all we know for certain about this enigmatic work.  What can we make of it?  In 1978 the Tate Gallery grouped it with the so-called visionary heads, drawn by Blake for John Varley around 1819 and 1820.  The ‘visionary heads’ belonged to figures Blake claimed came to him in the night.  They include The man who taught Blake painting in his dreams, The ghost of a flea and The head of a ghost of a flea.  But there seems to me little direct resemblance between the ‘heads’ and our drawing.  Blake could have made it at any time between 1815 and his death.

I’d like to think A vision was made late in Blake’s life.  To my eye it has a dreamlike, melancholy and valedictory air.  The artist pictures himself, but distantly, from the other end of the vast, plain room.  His alter ego sits in a tomb-like space, in the company of a being whose role might be to accompany him to the next, eternal life.  The other work by Blake that comes to mind when you look ‘A vision’ is the frontispiece to Jerusalem (c1815-20), which shows the Traveller, or Los, Blake’s alter ego, pushing through an arched doorway, lamp in hand, to step into the ‘Void outside of Existence’.  Maybe the seated writer or artist in ‘A vision’ is similarly bound for The Void.

Peter Ackroyd, in his biography of Blake, makes another comparison, with a drawing Blake did called Joseph and Mary, and the room they were seen in, where the room, shown in miniature between the two figures, bears a resemblance to the ‘shrine’ in A vision.  The room has three tiny figures about it – the holy family.

Catherine Blake, Agnes c1800

Robertson’s guess that the standing figure in A vision is an inspiring angel is plausible enough.  Angels accompanied William Blake throughout his art and his life.  Famously, when walking through Peckham Rye as a boy of eight or ten, he saw ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’.  Angels are scattered through his poems, and images of them are everywhere in his art.  In an early letter to John Trusler he speaks of being led by his ‘genius or angel’ into a ‘world of imagination and vision’.  Tatham’s note that he remembered a conversation with Mrs Blake about the work adds strength to his interpretation of its meaning.

But I wonder whether something quite different lies behind A vision.  What if the strange ‘distance’ between the artist of the drawing and the artist in the ‘shrine’ could be explained through their being different artists, rather than avatars of the same individual?  It occurred to me a while ago that the artist of A vision: the inspiration of the poet might be Catherine, not William Blake.

Catherine Blake, Portrait of the young William Blake c1827-31

Catherine is a shadowy figure.  She and William were very close.  According to Blake’s biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, when she first met William she was ‘a bright-eyed, dark-haired brunette, with expressive features and a slim graceful form’.   Gilchrist continues, a little patronisingly, that she was ‘endowed with a loving loyal nature, an adaptive open mind, capable of profiting by good teaching, and of enabling her, under constant high influence, to become a meet companion to her imaginative husband in his solitary and wayward course’.  When they married Catherine was illiterate, but William taught her to read, and she became his indispensible artistic assistant.  She learned to use a printing press, engrave, colour William’s prints, and stitch and bind his books.  She was also an artist in her own right.  A single painting by her survives, in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.  Entitled Agnes, it’s a radically Gothic piece painted around 1800, showing a scene from Matthew Lewis’s novel The Monk, where Agnes de Medina is found imprisoned in a dungeon, embracing the body of her dead child, prematurely born (William and Catherine had no children, but was there perhaps a still birth at some stage?).  Another striking painting by Catherine, a watercolour dated c1830 and also in the Fitzwilliam, is entitled Head taken from something she saw in the fireShe was also accomplished at drawing.  After William’s death she sketched a remarkable Portrait of the young William Blake, which has affinities with his ‘visionary heads’.  At this time, according to a contemporary report, her dead husband would ‘come and sit with her two or three hours every day’ and talk to her. 

Catherine Blake, Head taken from something she saw in the fire c.1830

These works raise an interesting question: to what extent are some of the prints, paintings and drawings we attribute unquestioningly to William actually the work of Catherine?  We hear almost nothing of her voice – just a single letter to Anne Flaxman, in William’s handwriting.  In it she thanks Anne for helping in their imminent move to Felpham:  ‘The swallows call us, fleeting past our window at this moment. O! how we delight in talking of the pleasure we shall have in preparing you a summer bower at Felpham. And we not only talk, but behold! the angels of our journey have inspired a song to you …’   So it’s impossible to do more than speculate.  But maybe what we think of as visual work by ‘Blake’ could well be by both ‘Blakes’ or even Catherine alone.

William Blake, Joseph and Mary, and the room they were seen in c1920

So, might Catherine have been responsible for the ‘Vision’ of her husband, as he worked, inspired, on his latest poem or print?  (Perhaps she had her reasons for not revealing her authorship to Frederick Tatham.)  Could it be that the gowned figure who shares the shrine with the poet is Catherine herself, guiding and helping William in his work – a metaphorical angel?  As Blake lay dying in 1827, he said to Catherine: ‘Stay, Kate!  Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me’.  It’s just possible that Catherine sketched the drawing after William’s death, as a reminder of his genius, of their close partnership, and of their future reunion ‘in another room’.

For both the Blakes rooms were always interconnected, allowing movement between the ‘real’ world and the spiritual or eternal world.  In the last year of his life Blake told his friend Crabb Robinson, ‘I cannot consider death as any thing but a removing from one room to another’.  And when she herself was dying in 1831 Catherine called ‘continually to her William, as if he were only in the next room, to say that she was coming to him’.

Frederick Tatham, Catherine Blake 1928

 

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