"In the second volume there are engravings of the portrait of Cowper done in 1793, and an original design by Blake of the " Weather House " mentioned in The Task : Peace to the Artist whose ingenious thought Devised the Weather-house, that useful toy ! Fearless of humid air and gathering rains Forth steps the man — an emblem of myself ! More delicate his timorous mate retires. Below this delicately drawn and quaint picture is another showing, " A cottage .... perched upon the green hill top," and "close environed with a ring of branching elms " called by Cowper the " Peasant's Nest "; while in the foreground are seen the poet's tame hares. Puss, Tiney and Bess."
"The most likely explanation could be that the subject of the weather-house simply appealed to Blake, and it does reflect his dualistic view of the world - good and evil, darkness and light. His Songs of Innocence and Experience were published in 1794, and the Weather-house drawing could almost serve as an illustration of their subtitle: ‘Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul’. So he drew it as one of the six designs commissioned for the biography, perhaps adding the roundel of the hares as an afterthought, and then engraved it, adding the line ‘Publish’d Novr 5 1802 by J Johnson St Pauls Church Yard’. Since there was no logical position for the engraving in the main text of the biography, Hayley must have decided to drop it in as an appendix. In the absence of other evidence,this may have been the sequence of events.The plates having been drawn and engraved, the next step was to print them. Giving a fascinating insight into his working methods and the key part played by Mrs Blake, Blake writes to his brother at this time,
My Wife has undertaken to Print the whole number of the Plates for Cowper’s work, which she
does to admiration, & being under my own eye the prints are as fine as the French prints and please everyone.
The loose sheets of the plates would then have been delivered to the printer in Chichester, Joseph Seagrave, for binding up with the text, and the whole published in London a few weeks later under the imprint of Joseph Johnson.
If any reader can throw further light on the origins of this drawing do get in touch. I shall explore the subject of Blake’s relationship to Cowper further in a later issue of The Bulletin.
Letters, To Mr Butts, (E 716) "September 11. 1801 ... but my Principal labour at this time is Engraving Plates for Cowpers Life a Work of Magnitude which Mr Hayley is now Labouring with all his matchless industry & which will be a most valuable acquisition to Literature not only on account of Mr Hayleys composition but also as it will contain Letters of Cowper to his friends Perhaps or rather Certainly the very best letters that ever were published My wife joins with me in Love to You & Mrs Butts hoping that her joy is now increased & yours also in an increase of family & of health & happiness I remain Dear Sir Ever Yours Sincerely WILLIAM BLAKE" Letters, To James Blake, (E 726) "Felpham Jany 30--1803. Dear Brother ... However this I know will set you at Ease. I am now so full of work that I have had no time to go on with the Ballads, & my prospects of more & more work continually are certain. My Heads of Cowper for Mr H's life of Cowper have pleasd his Relations exceedingly & in Particular Lady Hesketh & Lord Cowper
Lady H was a doubtful chance who almost adord her Cousin the poet & thought him all perfection & she writes that she is quite satisfied with the portraits & charmd by the great Head in particular tho she never could bear the original Picture But I ought to mention to you that our present idea is. To take a house in some village further from the Sea Perhaps Lavant. & in or near the road to London for the sake of convenience--I also ought to inform you that I read your letter to Mr H & that he is very afraid of losing me & also very afraid that my Friends in London should have a bad opinion of the reception he has given to me But My Wife has undertaken to Print the whole number of the Plates for Cowpers work which she does to admiration & being under my own eye the prints are as fine as the French prints & please every one. in short I have Got every thing so under my thumb that it is more profitable that things should be as they are than any other way, tho not so agreeable because we wish naturally for friendship in preference to interest.--The Publishers are already indebted to My Wife Twenty Guineas for work deliverd this is a small specimen of how we go on. then fear nothing & let my Sister fear nothing because it appears to me that I am now too old & have had too much experience to be any longer imposed upon only illness makes all uncomfortable & this we must prevent by every means in our power"