A subtle lesson in taking responsibility while protecting the integrity of the creative process and the freedom of the artistic imagination.
Neil Gaiman has semi-facetiously located the two primary sources of good ideas in desperation and deadlines. Still, deadlines come and go and, devoid of ideas or dry of their actualization, we despair. We make excuses. Sometimes — like when the dog actually ate Steinbeck’s manuscript — they happen to be true. But the best excuse is always the truth itself — creative work is slower and more sacred in its unwillable transmissions from the muse than we ever like to admit.
That is what William Blake (November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827) addressed in a short, subtly transcendent letter found in Michael Bird’s Artists’ Letters (public library) — a collection of correspondence drawn from half a millennium of creative titans, spanning friendships and loves, family and patronage, skill-sharing and life-advice, including glimpses of such famous relationships as those between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, and Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.
Blake, celebrated today for his fathomless poetic and artistic imagination, was trained as an engraver. Bookending his career were his early engravings for the children’s moral tales by the political philosopher and trailblazing feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, whom he revered, and his drawings for Dante’s Divine Comedy, on which he worked until his dying day. Upon seeing his engravings for Book of Job, which Blake completed a month before his death, the great photographer Edward Weston exclaimed in his daybook:
An hour with his engraving means more to me than a month of reading, — more spirituality, — for my eyes to receive — and give — more directly, surely, than any other of my senses.
In 1800, shortly after the death of the popular poet William Cowper, his wealthy friend and fellow poet William Hayley set about commemorating him in what would become a handsome three-volume biography. He commissioned Blake to illustrate it and asked him to move from London to a cottage in Sussex near his own newly built “hermitage” to work on the project. Blake, who so admired Cowper’s writing that he thought his letters “ought to be printed in letters of Gold & ornamented with Jewels of Heaven,” agreed.
Over the three years Blake spent in Sussex, he considered these engravings the “principal labor” of his time. But Hayley’s controlling proximity began to wear on the free-spirited artist, who just a year earlier had composed one of the most beautiful letters of all time, defending the integrity of the creative spirit and the freedom of the artistic imagination. The work slowed and the relationship soured, but Blake maintained absolute fidelity to his art and his creative process.
On March 12, 1804, after his return to London and after the first two volumes of the biography were published, Blake wrote to Hayley to explain, in a stunning tapestry of the practical and the poetic, why he had missed the deadline for the remaining two engravings.
I begin with the latter end of your letter & grieve more for Miss Poole’s ill-health than for my failure in sending proofs, tho’ I am very sorry that I cannot send before Saturday’s Coach. Engraving is Eternal work; the two plates are almost finish’d. You will receive proofs of them for Lady Hesketh, whose copy of Cowper’s letters ought to be printed in letters of Gold & ornamented with Jewels of Heaven, Havilah, Eden & all the countries where Jewels abound. I curse & bless Engraving alternately, because it takes so much time & is so untractable, tho’ capable of such beauty & perfection.
My wife desires me to Express her Love to you, Praying for Miss Poole’s perfect recovery, & we both remain,
Hayley’s Life of Cowper, featuring six engravings by Blake, earned the author £11,000 — more than $600,000 today. Blake died destitute, isolated, and half-mad, but the embers of his genius, celebrated on a par with Beethoven’s, went on to inspire generations of artists as diverse as Maurice Sendak, whose early illustrations for Blake’s Songs of Innocence became his lifelong creative compass, and Patti Smith, who so lyrically reverences Blake’s legacy as a guiding sun in the cosmos of creativity.
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