Friday, January 13, 2012


British Museum
Section of Canterbury Pilgrims engraving used a frontispiece for prospectus

In Blake: A Biography, Peter Ackroyd helps us to understand what Blake had learned through enduring the difficulties of earning a living through art in the milieu of early nineteenth century London. Ackroyd shows also what Blake wanted to teach his contemporaries about the trade-offs of adopting industrialised models. Quotes from Ackroyd:

"He understood how 'taste' was created and in his own oblique manner connected 'Advertizments in Newspapers' with 'Gentlemen Critics' and 'English Connoisseurs' as well as with 'Picture traders' and 'Picture dealers; here he is attacking what was essentially a middle-class genteel interest in art, propagated by the newspapers and art dealers, a fashionable taste known for its liberality and correctness but one quite unable to understand or appreciate the work of a visionary such as Blake." p 292

"He realised that, if the division between invention and execution is made, an 'Idea' or 'Design' can simply be produced on an assembly line. Art is then turned into a 'Good for Nothing Commodity' manufactured by 'Ignorant Journeymen' for a society of equally ignorant consumers." p 293

"His public address to English engravers was, in essence, not new. John Lanseer had attacked the commercialisation of engraving (and in particular Boydell) in a series of public lectures, while artists such as William Sharp and Benjamin West had criticised the beginnings of what we would now term 'mass' production. But none of them had taken their analysis as far, or as deep, as Blake. It is another example of his clairvoyant understanding of his age that he is able to draw the connection between art, industrial economics and what would become the 'consumer societies' of modern civilisation in an analysis that was not otherwise formulated until the present century. It is as if his own sense of helplessness and despair had broken him open, and he could speak clearly about the world that had come close to destroying him; it was not madness at all, but a peculiar kind of lucidity which springs from those who have nothing left to lose. But he realized well what this encroaching industrial society was about to forfeit - all imitative techniques and mechanical perceptions 'turn that which is Soul & Life into a Mill or Machine' (E 575)...All this time Blake continued his work on his engraving of Chaucer's pilgrims, redolent of a more spiritual state of England and executed by him in a style that imitated the great 'Gothic' masters of the sixteenth century." p 294

Descriptive Catalogue,PAGE 21, (E 536)
"The Plowman is simplicity itself, with wisdom and strength
for its stamina. Chaucer has divided the ancient character of
Hercules between his Miller and his Plowman. Benevolence is the
plowman's great characteristic, he is thin with excessive labour,
and not with old age, as some have supposed.

'He would thresh and thereto dike and delve
For Christe's sake, for every poore wight,
Withouten hire, if it lay in his might.'

Visions of these eternal principles or characters of human
life appear to poets, in all ages; the Grecian gods were the
ancient Cherubim of Phoenicia; but the Greeks, and since them the
Moderns, have neglected to subdue the gods of Priam. These Gods
are visions of the eternal attributes, or divine names, which,
when erected into gods, become destructive to humanity.
They ought to be the servants, and not the masters of man, or of
society. They ought to be made to sacrifice to Man, and not man
compelled to sacrifice to them; for when separated from man or
humanity, who is Jesus the Saviour, the vine of eternity, they
are thieves and rebels, they are destroyers.

More Resources for studying Blake's Canterbury Pilgrims

The painting itself belongs to the Glasgow Museum Pollock House. Two copies of the print are in the British Museum. Learn more about Chaucer's Canterbury Tales at wikipedia.The ideal way to view the print is at the Morgan Library website. You can zoom into the image for detail including identification of each character at the bottom of print.

An article titled Interpreting Blake's Canterbury Pilgrims by Warren Stevenson is available at

Hazard Adams has written a book named William Blake on his poetry and painting: a study of a descriptive catalogue.

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