Engraved by Luigi Schiavonetti
After Thomas Phillips
Frontispiece for Blair's The Grave
Allen Cunningham followed the publication of him book The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, four years later with The Cabinet Gallery of Pictures by the First Masters of the English and Foreign Schools, In Seventy-two Line Engravings : with Biographical and Critical Dissertations. By this time he had collected another anecdote of the life of Blake which he presented in an article describing angels.
Cunningham's anecdote describes the scene in 1807 in which Thomas Phillips was painting Blake's portrait. This was the only occasion when Blake sat for a formal portrait. The portrait was exhibited by Phillips in the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1807.
This portrait figures in the controversy between Blake and the publisher Cromek who proposed that Blake provide illustrations for a new edition of Robert Blair's The Grave. Cromek withdrew the commission for Blake to engrave the designs he had created for the book, but included an engraving by Schiavonetti of Phillips' portrait of Blake as the designer of the illustrations. The project was profitable for Cromek and Schiavonetti and left Blake destitute and embittered.
|Portrait by Thomas Phillips|
This series of incidents reveals how comfortable Blake was in perceiving spiritual realities and discussing them with whoever would listen. On the contrary we get an inkling of the difficulties he had in managing affairs of business. It is no wonder that Blake retreated into the mental world of thought and spirit and left the physical world to those who were more suited for it.
From Cunningham's The Cabinet Gallery, Pages 11-13:
"Blake, who always saw in fancy every form he drew, believed that angels descended to painters of old, and sat for their portraits. When he himself sat to Phillips for that fine portrait so beautifully en graved by Schiavonetti, the painter, in order to obtain the most unaffected attitude, and the most poetic expression, engaged his sitter in a conversa tion concerning the sublime in art. ' We hear much,' said Phillips, ' of the grandeur of Michael Angelo ; from the engravings, I should say he has been over-rated; he could not paint an angel so well as Raphael.' 'He has not been over-rated, Sir,' said Blake, 'and he could paint an angel better than Raphael.' 'Well, but' said the other, 'you never saw any of the paintings of Michael Angelo; and perhaps speak from the opinions of others; your friends may have deceived you.' 'I never saw any of the paintings of Michael Angelo,' replied Blake, 'but I speak from the opinion of a friend who could not be mistaken.' 'A valuable friend truly,' said Phillips, 'and who may he be I pray?' 'The arch-angel Gabriel, Sir,' answered Blake. 'A good authority surely, but you know evil spirits love to assume the looks of good ones; and this may have been done to mislead you.' 'Well now, Sir,' said Blake 'this is really singular; such were my own suspicions; but they were soon removed — I will tell you how. I was one day reading Young's Night Thoughts, and when I came to that passage which asks 'who can paint an angel,' I closed the book and cried, 'Aye! who can paint an angel?' A voice in the room answered, 'Michael Angelo could.' 'And how do you know,' I said, looking round me, but I saw nothing save a greater light than usual. 'I know' said the voice, 'for I sat to him: I am the arch angel Gabriel.' 'Oho !' I answered, 'you are, are you: I must have better assurance than that of a wandering voice; you may be an evil spirit — there are such in the land.' 'You shall have good assurance, 'said the voice, 'can an evil spirit do this?' I looked whence the voice came, and was then aware of a shining shape, with bright wings, who diffused much light. As I looked, the shape dilated more and more : he waved his hands ; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe. An angel of evil could not have done that — it was the arch-angel Gabriel." The painter marvelled much at this wild story ; but he caught from Blake's looks, as he related it, that rapt poetic expression which has rendered his portrait one of the finest of the English school."
Blake could find affirmation in this passage in Hebrews of the spiritual realities which were of consuming interest to him:
 For it was not to angels that God subjected the world to come, of which we are speaking.
 It has been testified somewhere, "What is man that thou art mindful of him,
or the son of man, that thou carest for him?
 Thou didst make him for a little while lower than the angels,
thou hast crowned him with glory and honor,
 putting everything in subjection under his feet."
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.
 But we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one.
 For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering.
 For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren,
 saying, "I will proclaim thy name to my brethren,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee."
 And again, "I will put my trust in him."
And again, "Here am I, and the children God has given me."
Letters, (E 766) "To Mr Hayley 27 Novr 1805 Dear Sir Mr Cromek the Engraver came to me desiring to have some of my Designs. he namd his Price & wishd me to Produce him Illustrations of The Grave A Poem by Robert Blair. in consequence of this I produced about twenty Designs which pleasd so well that he with the same liberality with which he set me about the Drawings. has now set me to Engrave them. He means to Publish them by Subscription. with the Poem as you will see in the Prospectus which he sends you in the same Pacquet with the Letter. You will I know feel as you always do on such occasions. not only warm wishes to promote the Spirited Exertions of my Friend Cromek. You will be pleased to see that the Royal Academy have Sanctioned the Style of work. I now have reason more than ever to lament your Distance from London as that alone has prevented our Consulting you in our Progress."