Tuesday, September 24, 2013


When Blake lived at Felpham he worked closely with William Hayley who was engaged in writing a biography of the poet William Cowper. An engraving by Blake which appears in the appendix of Volume 2 of Hayley's The Life, and Posthumous Writings, of William Cowper requires some explanation. The Internet Archive provides the full text of "Cowper and Blake : a paper read at the 13th Annual Meeting of the Cowper Society, held at the Mansion House, London, 23rd April 1913". We read:

"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." 
British Museum
Further explanation of the images in the engraving is found at the website of the Cowper and Newton Museum:

"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. 

Tony Seward"

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

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"

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