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“Happy Copulation”: Blake, visual enthusiasm and gallery culture

  • Susan Matthews

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  • Susan Matthews
    Roehampton University

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In 1798 the print-seller and proprietor of the Shakespeare Gallery, John Boydell, published a supplement to the 1791 two-volume Hogarth Illustrated by his associate, John Ireland. Boydell was exploiting the popularity of Hogarth’s prints: high prices were paid for rare states and at the height of the craze, which lasted into the 1830s, some collectors spent a fortune in a compulsive search for every variant (O’Connell 58). Boydell demonstrated his commercial acumen when he purchased the copper plates at the death of Hogarth’s widow in 1790 and Ireland’s third volume combines a biography of Hogarth with a number of rare prints from the Boydell collection. One of these is Enthusiasm Delineated, the unpublished 1760 version of Hogarth’s 1762 anti-Methodist satire, Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism. Enthusiasm Delineated is the first print that Ireland discusses in his 1798 volume and he makes great claims for its significance: it reveals “more mind” and is “marked with deeper satire, than all [Hogarth’s] other works” (xvii). In this essay I want to examine what Ireland’s fascination with the two versions of the print might have meant in 1798, using Ireland’s commentary to examine a wider debate over visual enthusiasm. Whereas we have recently become sensitised to the meanings of the word “enthusiasm” in verbal culture of the period through the work of Shaun Irlam and, particularly, of Jon Mee, the word has received less attention within the context of visual culture and spectacle. In the second part of my essay I attempt to trace an account both of visual enthusiasm and of enthusiastic viewing through responses to Boydell and the literary galleries, ending up with William Blake, whose work has, for some, become almost synonymous with the term “enthusiasm.”

One narrative of the growth of exhibition culture traces a line from the display of paintings at the Foundling Hospital in London in the 1740s, when Hogarth persuaded artists to donate works for the first public exhibition of art.[1] Whereas the Foundling Hospital display associates painting with sympathy, Hogarth’s image of the enthusiastic crowd reminds Ireland’s reader of an alternative genealogy for a public visual culture in the sexualised looking of the enthusiastic crowd. The high profile that Ireland gives to the satires suggests the vulnerability of the model of viewing on which gallery culture rests: the issue of visual enthusiasm and the behaviour of spectators at public exhibitions is not only still live, but has taken on new meanings in the political ferment of the 1790s.

Already in 1768, Dr John Trusler (the recipient of one of Blake’s most famous letters) claims that the excesses satirized by Hogarth belong to the past: “we need look but a few years back,” he says in his Hogarth Moralized, “and, we shall see…what strange impostures have been carried on” (112). But Ireland’s commentary insists on raking over some very old controversies, quoting extensively from George Lavington’s 1749 The Enthusiasm of Methodists and Papists Compared, an attack by the then Bishop of Exeter which paints Methodists and Moravians as sexual fetishists who reproduce pagan and Catholic religious practices. Colin Podmore explains Lavington’s work as a response to the campaign which led to the legal recognition of the Moravians in 1749 (248). Writing less than two months before the Moravian Act was passed, Lavington claims that Methodist conversion practices are really just a version of the Eleusinian mysteries, which are imagined in terms quite as lurid as anything that Payne Knight would later describe. Recalling the earlier hostility towards Moravians, and setting Hogarth’s satire implicitly in contrast to Boydell’s Shakespeare gallery, Ireland perhaps suggests a passing swipe at the Moravian Gillray who had mocked Boydell’s project in his Shakespeare Sacrificed; or the Offering to Avarice of 20th June 1789. Boydell claimed to create a national visual culture, embodied in the paintings of Shakespearian subjects, and in doing so set itself above caricature, echoing Hogarth’s insistence that his work was not caricature but satire.

Figure 1

Hogarth, Enthusiasm Delineated, c.1760 from John Ireland’s Hogarth Illustrated (1798)

Reproduced by permission of the British Library

-> See the list of figures

If Ireland’s commentary uses Hogarth to announce the distance that visual spectacle has travelled in forty-odd years, it also reveals a persistent anxiety about the nature of visual culture. In part this derives from the continuing debate about the role of enthusiasm in the visual arts. Clearly Enthusiasm Delineated satirizes religious error: according to Ireland, “To burlesque the idolatrous symbols with which they have peopled their canvas, - place the popish doctrine of transubstantiation in its true point of view, - unmask hypocrisy, and check the progress of those enthusiastic delusions, which Bishop Lavington properly terms, Religion run mad, are the author’s leading objects” (III: 234). Yet Ireland’s volume prefaces the analysis of the satire with a lengthy discussion of Hogarth’s account of the nation’s visual culture in which enthusiasm appears in a directly contrary role. It follows therefore that as an image about visual culture the satire has to be read in two opposite ways: whereas enthusiasm was usually understood as the religious error of believing in the authority of one’s own inspiration, visual enthusiasm in this print is a manifestation of the power to self-generate images.

As Ireland makes clear, Hogarth believes that the poverty of Britain’s visual culture derives from the Protestant fear of enthusiasm: it is “our religion, which …doth not require, nay absolutely forbids, images for worship, or pictures to excite enthusiasm” (III: 77). As Ireland explains, “Such was the opinion of Dr. South, and such the opinion of Hogarth, when he designed this very extraordinary print, the intention of which is to give a lineal representation of the strange effects resulting from literal and low conceptions of sacred beings, as also of the idolatrous tendency of pictures in churches, and prints in religious books” (III: 233). Yet Ireland’s attempt to align the Restoration Anglican Robert South with Hogarth here is directly contradicted by his account of Hogarth’s views earlier in his volume. Hogarth claims that: “The arts are much indebted to Popery, and that religion owes much of its universality to the arts” (qtd. in Ireland III: 75). In support of this position, Ireland quotes James Barry, professor of painting at the Royal Academy. As an Irish Catholic, Barry is clear that religion is the key to the nation’s visual culture: “Where religion is affirmative, and extended,” he writes, “it gives a loose and enthusiasm to the fancy, which throws a spirit into the air and manners, and stamps a diversity, life, quickness, sensibility, and expressive significance over every thing they do” (qtd. in Ireland III: 33). If Hogarth’s prints demonstrate the diversity, life, and quickness of the visual imagination, perhaps they too should be read as a manifestation of enthusiasm.

In the 1790s, it becomes hard to keep the politics of religion and of art separate from the more pressing politics of the nation. Ireland presents the publication of the revised version of the anti-Methodist satire in 1762 as Hogarth’s triumphant response to the claim of Wilkes in the North Briton that he was a “setting sun” (III: xvi-xvii). In doing so, Ireland situates his own commentary (and by association, that of his publisher and seller, Boydell) alongside Hogarth and against Wilkes. In the public mind in 1798, Wilkes was still regarded as a radical and libertine despite his many other roles, not least as the man who in 1777 demanded funds for the British Museum and the creation of a national gallery of paintings (Butler 40). Hogarth, in contrast, was increasingly gaining the status of national treasure, somewhat akin to Shakespeare. Siding with Hogarth against Wilkes, Ireland implicitly reaffirms Boydell’s patriotism, a move which was necessary because of the damage done to Boydell’s reputation by his anti-war stance. In 1792 Boydell (along with Blake’s former master James Basire) had asserted his counter-revolutionary loyalism by signing the Stationer’s Company declaration of support for John Reeves’s Association for the Preservation of Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers (Phillips 270-272). But in 1795 Boydell and Wilkes had separated themselves from Reeves by petitioning for an end to the war. Reeves attacked the 1795 peace petition, using Boydell’s commercial interest in peace (which would reinstate the European market for prints from the Shakespeare Gallery paintings) to cast doubt on his motives. According to Reeves, “Mr Boydell, being a man in great trade, may argue as a tradesman only!” (4). Reeves suggests that the interests of commerce conflict with those of the nation: “Like other extensive manufacturers and dealers…he may take it into his head to think only of himself, of his own fortune and family forsooth!” (4). Reeves uses the association with Wilkes against Boydell, conveniently forgetting that Wilkes has become a supporter of both the King and Pitt by this date, and recalling his libertine past with heavy irony: “The humanity, the piety, of a nature, if possible, too refined, really righteous over-much!” (6). Rosemarie Dias has established just how centrally Boydell’s project depended on the claim to enshrine a national visual culture. For Ireland therefore, invoking Hogarth becomes a way of reasserting the national mission of Boydell’s gallery. Ireland’s volume was published in March 1798, but the power of art to assert the identity of the nation was particularly obvious in July that year when the art seized by Napoleon from Italy entered Paris in a procession as the Fete de la Liberté (Mainardi 155). Long before Napoleon transferred Rome to Paris, Hogarth argued that London could foster a living visual culture; foreign painters are not needed for, according to one of Hogarth’s images, they are exotic trees that wither once transplanted.

As Ireland makes abundantly clear, Hogarth remained sceptical about the value of the Royal Academy. Ireland reports Hogarth’s determination that his Society should be run on democratic lines and quotes his dislike of the French Academy: “As a proof of the little benefit the arts derived from this Royal Academy, Voltaire asserts that after its establishment, no one work of genius appeared in the country; the whole band adds the same lively and sensible writer, became mannerists and imitators” (III: 67-68). Hogarth cannot see the point of Academy plans to send artists abroad and claims that casts and copies allow British art culture to develop independently: “The fact is, that every thing necessary for the student, in sculpture or painting, may at this time be procured in London” (qtd. in Ireland III: 80-81). Hogarth’s artistic nationalism is displayed in his satire, for the images which hang like puppets under the preacher’s pulpit in Hogarth’s print are not native growths, but derive from Catholic visual culture. By providing a key, Ireland makes it clear that the satire is to be read as an attack on the model of European internationalism projected by Reynolds’ Discourses: the key identifies the puppets as Raphael’s God, Rubens’s Devil, and Rembrandt’s St. Peter. As Paulson explains, they are the figures that Reynolds listed in The Idler No. 79 as the highest examples of “the majesty of heroic Poetry” (258).

Figure 2

Key to the figures in Enthusiasm Delineated, from John Ireland, A Supplement to Hogarth Illustrated.

By permission of the British Library

-> See the list of figures

Hogarth’s image suggests that the images of Catholic art contaminate popular culture: the Methodist chapel is a place where foreign culture is recycled as if the vulgar are somehow not entirely English. As Ireland explains, the preacher, this “Proteus of the pulpit” is “either a Methodistical Papist, or a Popish Methodist” (III: 234). Boydell’s gallery provides the remedy, for whereas Reynolds, at the Academy, had promoted an internationalist or European visual language, Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery offered an English spectacle, an expression and celebration of the “liberty” of the nation.[2]

The Hogarth prints are as much about the way in which viewers behave as about the images of the artist; debating visual enthusiasm, they also represent enthusiastic viewing. The preacher’s audience is heterogeneous, containing men and women; bawd and lover; Christian, Turk and Jew. Hogarth is probably commenting on the chaotic circumstances of the first public art exhibition held in the galleries of the Society of Arts in 1760. The exhibition was free and despite the presence of attendants instructed to eject disorderly persons, window glass was broken and riotous behaviour ensued.[3] The following year, the majority of the artists moved to a new location and controlled access by setting an entry charge of 1s, although a breakaway group, the Free Society of Artists (which included Richard Cosway) continued to insist on free exhibitions. Hogarth’s images of 1760 and 1762 must have suggested to early viewers the chaotic scenes that spoilt the first free exhibition: failing to understand the habitus of the art gallery (church, or chapel) the audience react to and are visibly changed by what they see and hear. Extempore preaching works as a metaphor for a kind of viewing which responds too freely: the element of improvisation allows the emotional intensity of the preacher to arouse the audience, and the arousal of the audience to further excite the preacher. Whereas the Foundling Hospital exhibition provided a model of sympathetic viewing, Methodism was described as corrupting “sympathy”; George Lavington quotes Wesley’s own account: “If one Member suffered, all the Members suffered with it. So strange a Sympathy did I never observe before” (II.174). For Lavington it is a form of infection: “the Words suit well with his Accounts of their common Roarings and Yellings, falling to the Ground Heaps upon Heaps, in wonderful Agreement; and the Infection catching others with surprising Quickness and Rapidity” (II.174). Enthusiasm, it is claimed, corrupts the power of sympathy to create a viewing public.

In these prints, the preacher triggers the power of the imagination which quickly becomes embodied. Although only the Jew and the Turk look around them; most of the audience look downwards and hold small figures conjured by their over active imaginations. The audience respond by themselves becoming producers, of small human forms in Enthusiasm Delineated or rabbits in the case of the woman to the left of the published print. Their problem (or their power) is not unlike that which Fuseli represents in The Nightmare, where the sleeping woman calls up the figure of the incubus: these images show hybrid or monstrous forms generated by the imagination.

Figure 3

Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism: A Medley, 1762, from John Ireland, A Supplement to Hogarth Illustrated, 1798.

-> See the list of figures

In the figure to the left of Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism, Hogarth represents Mary Toft, an illiterate woman from Godalming who had in 1726 tricked a number of apparently respectable medical men into believing that she had given birth to seventeen rabbits.[4] Toft claimed that she had been surprised by rabbits when working in the fields early in her pregnancy. The hoax worked because she drew on the willingness of her audience, both lay and medical, to believe that the fears, desires and experiences of a pregnant woman influenced the form of her growing foetus.[5] Believing in the prenatal influence of the imagination was relatively standard in 1726, but the Mary Toft hoax marks the beginning of the end for this theory, either provoking or being closely followed by attempts to replace this model with the newer idea that a tiny complete individual exists either in the egg or sperm. As Dennis Todd explains, James Blondel’s The Strength of Imagination in Pregnant Women Examin’d, appeared a few months after Mary Toft’s hoax was exposed and attacked the idea of prenatal imagination (107). In the new model, post-Toft, looking cannot change a ready formed existence. If the illegitimate behaviour of the audience still represents a threat at the end of the 1790s, it may be because it evokes the power of the reader to become a writer, or the viewer to become a producer of cultural images. Enthusiasm is thus associated with transformative looking, producing a constantly changeable self which cannot function as a token in the system of exchange necessary to the creation of sociability: people have to be alike enough for the processes of Adam Smith’s sympathetic imagination to work properly. We don’t feel sympathy for monsters because they are too far from central forms: to put it another way, we can’t recognize our own identity in a rabbit.

Boydell’s Catalogue to the Shakespeare Gallery acknowledges the “Love and Enthusiasm for the fine Arts” displayed by his nephew Josiah (xiv). But a less legitimate form of visual enthusiasm was detected by some in Fuseli, one of Boydell’s artists. Humphry Repton’s The Bee; or, a companion to the Shakespeare Gallery thought that Fuseli’s enthusiasm was appropriate to the witches in Macbeth but not to the “real characters”: “this Artist has indulged the wildness of his fancy, with his usual enthusiastic energy: but he has carried it too far, in the real characters of Macbeth and Banquo” (34).[6] Fuseli’s painting of Lear and Cordelia reveals “an enthusiastic ardour…which, while it delights, will sometimes ‘erstep the modest bounds of nature’” (Repton 48). Perhaps the enthusiastic Fuseli reveals the tolerance of the English model of culture, able to accommodate even such wildness. But by the end of the 1790s, Fuseli’s allegiance had shifted from Boydell to the Unitarian culture of the Johnson circle which is defined by the cooler account of the imagination provided by Priestley. As Luisa Calè points out, The Oracle in January 1792 lines up Johnson and Fuseli against Boydell and “All England” (qtd. in Calè 49). The Oracle detects a comparable split in the “Literary Department” where Cowper is set against Hayley (49). A lot is at stake: for The Oracle, Boydell comes to stand for “All England.” Shifting perceptions of Boydell’s political position are at the heart of the matter: Rosemarie Dias describes the Shakespeare Gallery as the haunt of moderate Whigs and as offering “a space, independent from the perceived autocracy of the Academy, where political concerns might be discussed, debated and played out” (I.82). But in the 1790s, allegiances change and much depends on where you are coming from. Even though Hayley was at the dinner where the idea for the Shakespeare gallery was born, Boydell’s demand that he cut references to Milton’s republicanism from his Life of Milton in 1794 propelled him into the Johnson camp: Hayley allowed “the royal bookseller,” as he describes Boydell’s associate Nicol, to publish a version with cuts and issued his own uncut version two years later (Memoirs I.450). Although Johnson’s circle repudiates vulgar enthusiasm, from the point of view of Boydell and Ireland, Fuseli and his friends might seem to belong with a non-English culture of visual enthusiasm which Hogarth satirises (or celebrates, or both, depending on your point of view). Fuseli might have made his name with his Shakespeare paintings, but his art announces clearly its derivation from European models.

Passed over by Boydell and even, in the end, by Fuseli, Blake may seem to have little to do with the complex rivalries and factions of 1790s visual culture. Indeed our enduring fascination with this unsuccessful artist might seem irrelevant to the recent meticulous reconstruction of the politics of exhibition culture in the period.[7] Blake’s special position on the margin of the acceptable in the period, however, allows him to voice some of the tensions produced in the definition of a national visual culture. It may be significant that Blake’s friend George Cumberland was explicitly hostile to Boydell, rejecting in his 1796 Thoughts on Outline the claim that Britain’s visual culture had “arrived at the pinnacle of perfection.” (6) Boydell in his Catalogue looked forward to a time when England would rival Europe in the fine Arts: “I still hope to see them attain (advanced in years as I am) such a state of perfection in England, that no man in Europe will be entitled to the name of a Connoisseur, who has not personally witnessed their rapid progress” (vi). Reviewing the Shakespeare Gallery in the Analytical, Fuseli quotes just these lines from the Catalogue (Analytical 108). Repton in The Bee goes a step further with his claim that this age has already arrived: in Boydell’s gallery “England is arrived at a very high degree of perfection in the Art of Painting” (3). For Cumberland this claim is merely the sales talk of print sellers:

It promotes their profits….but it does hurt indeed both to art, to poetry, and the country’s ideas, when such authors, as Shakspeare, are undertaken to be finally illustrated, by exhibitions of pictures, painted according to the orders, and the ideas, of men; who so far from being able to guide this triumphal chariot of the British Apollo, are scarcely worthy to hold the horses heads: pictures painted on the gallop of rivalship, the spur of necessity, and under the lash of power.


Thoughts on Outline is dedicated to Charles James Fox, and Cumberland’s hostility to the commercial galleries is shared by another Foxite, Payne Knight, who thought the Shakespeare Gallery a disgrace to the nation, an institution that “every man, conversant with art, and alive to the reputation of his country, rejoiced in seeing dispersed” (qtd. in Brewer 274). Cumberland clearly dislikes the idea that Boydell’s gallery will define Shakespeare, implicitly aligning him with the loyalism of the counter-revolutionaries with whom Boydell had briefly sided in 1792.

Blake seems to have similar proprietorial feelings about Hogarth, claiming him as an artist whose force transcends the assumptions of his commercial popularizers. In the Descriptive Catalogue to his own unsuccessful exhibition in 1809 Blake recalls “the Works of our own Hogarth” to prove his claim “that no other Artist can reach the original Spirit so well as the Painter himself” (567). To Blake, Hogarth represents an impolite visual culture which is obscured in the fever of Hogarthomania: “Tom Cooke cut Hogarth down with his clean graving/ Thousands of Connoisseurs with joy ran raving” (505). Tom Cook (1744-1818) had produced his own rival engraving of Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism on 1st October 1798 as part of his Hogarth Restored.

How, then, might Blake have responded to the publication in 1798 of Enthusiasm Delineated? Insofar as Boydell used Hogarth’s own copper plates, we might expect Blake to prefer Boydell’s Hogarth to Cook’s, though he is unlikely to have sympathised with a reading of the anti-Methodist satires as an attack on the visual fertility of Moravian culture.[8] Not only was Blake’s mother a member, for a time, of a Moravian band, but Blake increasingly, as he grows older, invokes for himself the label of “enthusiast.” Annotating his 1798 edition of The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds, Blake writes: “Enthusiastic Admiration is the first Principle of Knowledge & its last” (647).[9] What, then, might enthusiasm have meant to Blake as a visual category, and how might Blake’s account of looking have translated into a critique of London’s exhibition culture?

Just those kinds of transformative looking which Hogarth represents in the 1760s satires reappear in the strange worlds of Blake’s epic poems, but once we enter the illuminated poetry it becomes hard to define the status of events. Transformative looking is surely what is described in the phrase “He became what he beheld,” used repeatedly in the Four Zoas, Milton and Jerusalem in the story of Los’s creation of a body for Urizen, a story that first appeared (without the phrase) in The Book of Urizen.[10] As in the case of Mary Toft, the imagination creates corporeal form and looking changes the beholder. In The Four Zoas Night the Fourth it is Los who changes:

Pale terror siezd the Eyes of Los as he beat round
The hurtling Demon. terrifid at the shapes
Enslavd humanity put on he became what he beheld
He became what he was doing he was himself transformd

Blake 338, 55: 20-23

The old idea of the transformative power of the imagination had been particularly associated with women, and in this passage, as in Blake’s earlier version of the story, transformative looking results in the appearance of the first female:

The globe of life blood trembled Branching out into roots;
Fibrous, writhing upon the winds; Fibres of blood, milk and tears;
In pangs, eternity on eternity. At length in tears & cries imbodied
A female form trembling and pale Waves before his deathy face

Blake 338, 55: 24-27

This kind of looking, in which the spectator turns into what they see (or the foetus turns into what the mother sees) assumes a malleable self, and gives to imagination, or to enthusiastic looking, the power to cross what Montaigne called “the narrow Suture of the spirit and the body” (qtd. in Todd 52). Writhing in tears and cries, the “female form” behaves like (the satirist’s view of) Wesley’s enthusiastic crowd.

If producing rabbits in church is bad behaviour, Blake’s Oothoon is even worse. I am not suggesting that Blake’s 1793 Visions of the Daughters of Albion describes the debate over the conduct of viewing in literary galleries: to do so would be to misunderstand how Blake’s poetry denies the fixing of local contexts. But the poem nevertheless presents an ecstatic account of the pleasure of looking, a “free born joy” that Oothoon celebrates:

If in the morning sun I find it: there my eyes are fix’d
In happy copulation: if in evening mild. wearied with work;
Sit on a bank and draw the pleasures of this free born joy.

Blake 50 ll. 23-25

The strangeness of the process is evident in Oothoon’s ability to look directly at the sun without going blind. This unnatural ability might tell us that she is moving into a utopian world freed from the laws of nature, a visionary world either seen or imagined. Yet the words “my eyes are fix’d” suggest the physical process of seeing. Blake’s strange phrase “happy copulation” links looking and pleasure. In Oothoon’s words, the freedom to sit and look transforms the scene into a version of the evening in Eden in Paradise Lost IV which had long been a celebrated passage, cited by Edward Bysshe in the Art of English Poetry (that Blake owned) under the headings of “Evening” and “Moon” as examples of “the most natural and sublime thoughts of the best English poets” (Griffin 75-76). “Copulation” regains its obsolete non-sexual meaning: “The action of coupling or linking two things together, or condition of being coupled” that the OED thinks died out in 1752, the year that Johnson defines Wit as “the unexpected copulation of ideas.” Oothoon is changed by what she sees, gathering strength or energy from the sun. Perhaps she sees the sun, like the Sophians of George Cumberland’s 1798 utopia, The Captive of the Castle of Sennaar, as the source of “Holy Energy,” an image of divinity that is visible to all.

But then Oothoon’s mind turns from looking to sex: in lines which many readers have found problematic, she imagines finding girls for her tormented lover, Theotormon, and watching their lovemaking. Whereas “happy copulation” could draw on the obsolete non-sexual meaning, “lovely copulation” a few lines later clearly doesn’t. Perhaps Oothoon has stopped being Eve and turned into Satan spying on the lovers. Writing to Cumberland in 1798, the Platonist Thomas Taylor opposes looking to copulation: “I consider the delight which lovers experience, when in poetic language they drink large draughts of love thro' the eyes, as far superior to that arising from copulation, because the union is more incorporeal” (qtd. in Bentley xliv). But Blake’s use, I suggest, works differently, preventing the separation of the two meanings on which Taylor insists: the blurring of the shift from the older non-sexual to the newer sexual sense of “copulation” is typical of Blake’s characteristic refusal to desynonymise. It also reproduces just the illegitimate association of looking with sexual arousal that Hogarth represented in the anti-Methodist satires. Blake seems to create a positive account of enthusiastic viewing from the hostile material of the satires, reversing the valuation to endorse looking as an inherently sexual process which does not just reproduce but modifies what it sees, joining the viewer and the thing seen.

Oothoon’s troubled utopianism has most often been located as an account of the contamination of sexuality by power, in particular by the monstrous mechanisms of plantation slavery. Yet the imagined place of “lovely copulation” conjured by Oothoon in the closing lines of Visions can also be seen as a version of Beulah, the moony, feminine space described in the epic poems. In Beulah, Blake creates an account of femininity which is associated both with pleasure and containment. In Blake’s Milton, Beulah is described in terms which recall the famous definition of the imagination from A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Some Sons of Los surround the Passions with porches of iron & silver
Creating form & beauty around the dark regions of sorrow,
Giving to airy nothing a name and a habitation

Blake 125. 28[30]: 1-4

With “bounds to the Infinite putting off the Indefinite,” Beulah, like Burke’s beautiful, controls the power of the Sublime. The echo returns a few lines later in the voice of the emanations: “Give us a habitation & a place/ In which we may be hidden under the shadow of wings” (129.30[33]: 24-25).[11] Beulah is a place of safety, utopian only insofar as utopia leaves behind the complexities of history and politics, the conflict of the “great Wars of Eternity” (129.30[33]: 19). As Luisa Calè has pointed out, the lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream were regularly invoked in the period to define the work of the imagination, quoted inevitably by Boydell in the Catalogue to the Shakespeare Gallery.[12] Boydell conventionally doubts the ability of the painter to match the imagination of the poet, “For what pencil can give to his airy beings “a local habitation and a name,” whilst Erasmus Darwin assumes Fuseli’s equality to Shakespeare in The Botanic Garden, where Fuseli’s “poetic eye…with SHAKSPEAR’S happiest grace/ Gave to the airy phantom form and place” (Boydell x; Darwin 93). In Thoughts on Outline, Cumberland uses the phrase to describe an escape from nature and a freedom to explore hybrid and miscegenated forms: it explains how the ancients were able to create strange and monstrous creatures:

to form their Chimeras, to invent the Griffin, the Sagitary, and the sublime monsters of the deep; so as to give literally, in the language of our British Poet “------ to airy nothings, “A local habitation and a name.”


Within each use of the Shakespearian allusion lies an attempt to redefine its meaning.

Blake’s positive use of the allusion in Milton belies the reservations which are indicated by his earlier annotations to Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell.[13] Someone had already written on his copy: “And as Imagination bodies forth y[e] forms of things unseen – turns them to shape & gives to airy Nothing a local habitation & a Name”. Blake replies: “Thus Fools quote Shakespeare The Above is Theseus’s opinion Not Shakespeares You might as well quote Satan’s blasphemies from Milton & give them as Miltons opinions” (601). Theseus, as ruler, presents imagination (in George Cumberland’s words) “under the lash of power” (Throughts on Outline 6). Blake was well aware that the London art world that claimed these lines as its own offered no utopian escape from politics or the conflicts of history. At this date, not so long after the attempt to fund his trip to Rome, Blake (like Reynolds) rejects an attempt to fix the imagination to a local habitation, wanting to own for himself the cultural power of the European heritage of art. It may be that Fuseli represents just such a shrinking of cultural context in his painting of Titania and Bottom for the Boydell gallery.

The night time world that Fuseli portrays, like Beulah, is a world in which masculinity is under the sway of the feminine. As Nicola Bown points out, Fuseli’s 1790 Titania and Bottom is an image of female power - rather than the successful culmination of Oberon’s scheme to humiliate Titania (21-24).[14] The painting reverses the gender dynamic of the plot; indeed it would not seem inappropriate to gloss Fuseli’s painting with the lines from Blake’s 1794 poem Europe: “Enitharmon laugh’d in her sleep to see (O womans triumph)/ Every house a den, every man bound; the shadows are filld/ With spectres” (64 12:25-27). Titania, with arm upraised, dominates the scene; the modernity of the subject is revealed in the fashionable dresses and hairdos of the women. Their power is seen in the tiny figures of men, diminished forms like the fetishized objects of Hogarth’s Enthusiasm Delineated. In his hand, Bottom holds a miniature male figure, a displaced phallus standing in for the empty darkness between the legs of Bottom’s massive form. With his hands upraised and his back to the viewer, the tiny figure resembles an image that Fuseli and Blake were working on around this time: the Fertilization of the Nile for Darwin’s Botanic Garden published in 1791. Anubis, the dog god of the Nile, becomes one of the toys of a feminized culture: the dog head displaced onto the demeaning ass's head that marks Bottom’s subjugation to female power or the power of the market place. In Titania and Bottom, the results of female power are those which Fuseli has described: “In an age of luxury women have taste, decide and dictate; for in an age of luxury woman aspires to the functions of man, and man slides into the offices of woman. The epoch of eunuchs was ever the epoch of viragoes” (Knowles III: 144). Instead of a virile pagan culture which worships fertilization, the culture which was being rediscovered by the researches of men like Darwin and Payne Knight, Fuseli sees his own time as one which turns women into viragoes and men into eunuchs.

Figure 4

The Fertilization of Egypt from The Botanic Garden, A Poem in Two Parts, London: J.Johnson, 1791

Reproduced with permission from the British Library

-> See the list of figures

Figure 5

Mustardseed, perched on Bottom’s hand, a detail from Henry Fuseli, Titania and Bottom, 1790 (© Tate, London 2007)

Reproduced with permission from Tate Britain.

-> See the list of figures

Masculinity is displaced in class terms onto the “rustic” - onto men who evade the rules of the polite. Blake extends the criticism in Europe, the 1794 poem dictated by a mischievous fairy. This is the poem in which the “Eighteen hundred years, a female dream!” (63 9:5) halts the progress of revolutionary change. Enitharmon binds Orc much as Titania controlled Bottom:

Arise O Orc from thy deep den,
First born of Enitharmon rise!
And we will crown thy head with garlands of the ruddy vine;
For now thou art bound;
And I may see thee in the hour of bliss, my eldest born.

Blake 62 4: 10-14

Feminine power is here elided with stasis. Boydell’s Catalogue contextualizes Fuseli’s painting by quoting the passage from A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which Titania lulls her captive to sleep:

Queen. Come, sit thee down upon this flowery bed,
 While I thy amiable cheeks do coy,
And stick musk-roses in thy sleek smooth head,
 And kiss thy fair large ears, my gentle joy.


In Blake’s poem, the massive sleeping figure of the rustic Bottom is recreated as Orc, a figure of revolutionary energy bound by another queen, Enitharmon. Fuseli’s painting is read as a representation of “the night of Enitharmons joy” and joins with Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication to link female power with the power of monarchy.

Blake does not just reread Fuseli’s image as an image of the binding of revolutionary energy. He also, I suspect, sees it as an image of the way in which Boydell's gallery contains and limits the meanings of which visual and verbal texts are capable.[15] In doing so, he develops a critique implied by Fuseli in his anonymous review of the Shakespeare Gallery in the Analytical; Fuseli goes out of his way to praise his own paintings but implies that they are confined by the gallery context which surrounds them by lesser works, including those by Reynolds. In this negative account, rather than providing a contrast with the annual Royal Academy shows, the commercial galleries become themselves part of the fashion system. In printing the passages from the Shakespeare plays which the paintings illustrate, Boydell’s Catalogue attempts to tie the visual to the verbal, providing a local habitation and a name in the form of a defined meaning. But if Titania and Bottom represents the limitation of possibility, it is also an image of pleasure. In Fuseli’s review for the Analytical, the pleasurable elements of the scene are stressed: “The moment chosen by the painter, when the queen, with soft languor, caresses Bottom… gave him licence to create the fanciful, yet not grotesque group, which he has so judiciously contrasted, as not to disturb the pleasurable emotions the whole must ever convey to a mind alive to the wild, but enchanting graces of poetry” (110). The sexualised scene of pleasure is also the place in which the mind becomes ‘alive’. If, the “female dream” that Fuseli represents is also the form within which he works, one which limits meanings within a depoliticized sphere of fashion, viewed enthusiastically it can also provide an escape into another mode of looking: one which escapes existing myths and narratives, as well as the limitation of images to illustration.

One form of limitation which worried artists was the reduction in scale required by the production of engraved versions of paintings. In 1793, James Barry worried that reducing the scale for engravings of his cycle of paintings for the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce will in some ways also change the meaning of the images. Engravings are necessary because of “[t]he immediate relation which the subject of these pictures had with national education, and the noblest interests of society” (Barry 2). To disseminate the images as widely as possible it was “desireable that the prints should come within such a compass as by being covered with glass to make a part of furniture” (Barry 2). An unwanted side-effect is the loss of “the natural heroic size”:

The size of glass and of the largest double elephant paper, not admitting those two longest prints to exceed three feet in length, their proportionate height, according to the pictures, could not be more than ten inches, which would reduce the figures to a contemptible size…and afford but a poor idea of pictures forty-two feet in length each, and where every thing was of the natural heroic size.

Barry 2

Barry’s concern with the limits of “the largest double elephant paper” matches that of Blake’s characters in An Island in the Moon, worrying over how an epic imagination can express its visions in a world of feminine consumerism. Jerome, immersed in competitive fantasies, dreams both of overtaking Double Elephant (perhaps the painter Richard Cosway), and of seeing the apocalypse:

If I had only myself to care for I’d soon make Double Elephant look foolish,
& Filligree work I hope shall live to see—
The wreck of matter & the crush of worlds
as Younge says

Blake 456

“Filigree work” suggests the scale and delicacy of miniature, of Austen’s little pieces of ivory. How do you talk about “The wreck of matter & the crush of worlds” or indeed the sufferings of slavery, around the tea table? Yet the world of feminine sociability in An Island in the Moon is also one which allows a cacophony of unregulated voices.

In 1803, Blake describes the private collection of his friend and patron, Thomas Butts, as a “Green House”: “whatever becomes of my labours I would rather that they should be preservd in your Green House (not as you mistakenly call it dung hill). than in the cold gallery of fashion.—The Sun may yet shine & then they will be brought into open air” (Blake 724). Blake’s metaphor demonstrates just how closely he is immersed in the discourse of national arts even whilst he sets himself aside from the competition. Martin Myrone quotes John Gwynn’s complaint in 1766 that the Society of Arts “may be very justly compared to a green house, in which every plant thrives and flourishes, but upon being transplanted into the open air becomes instantly chilled, and is destroyed by the severity of the climate” (qtd. in Myrone 45-46). Whereas Hogarth imagined foreign “exotics” as trees that would wither in the English climate, Butts’ “Green House” will allow Blake’s art not only to survive but to grow. Blake sees a different Hogarth from Ireland and another destination for Britain’s public spectacle, one which allows transformative viewing and evades the rules which govern “the cold gallery of fashion.” Boydell hoped his gallery would provide “Public patronage” for artists: “for here the Painter’s labours will be perpetually under the public eye, and compared with those of his cotemporaries – while his other works, either locked up in the cabinets of the curious, or dispersed over the country, in the houses of the different possessors, can comparatively contribute but little to his present fortune or future fame” (xii). But Blake comes to see Boydell's gallery as a form of confinement. The culture that Ireland uses Hogarth to delegitimize is the visual counterpart to the compulsive verbal production that Hannah More identifies the following year as “those ever multiplying authors, that with unparalleled fecundity are overstocking the world with their quick-succeeding progeny” (I.184). Whereas the model of looking as a form of sympathy confirms the identities of the viewer and renders them passive spectators, the implicitly sexual model of visual enthusiasm is all too likely to produce spectators who breed like rabbits. The image of the excessively fertile woman is used by both Ireland and More for the uncontrolled multiplication of cultural forms. Feminised politeness, which controls sexual desire, by contrast, miniaturizes and depoliticizes meanings: the coquettes of Fuseli’s Titania and Bottom turn sexuality into power.

As Jon Saklofske argues in this issue, it is significant that the 1809 exhibition, held above his brother’s shop, was not free. Since the catalogue cost 2s 6d, it would have been a considerably more expensive outing than the annual Royal Academy exhibition at Somerset House. Blake’s alternative gallery insists on its claim to talk to the public visual culture of the nation (it is not self-marginalising) but it does so in dialogue with other forms of visual spectacle. In doing so, it produces a kind of interactive spectacle, one in which viewers become producers. In Saree Makdisi’s suggestive reworking of W.J.T. Mitchell’s account, “reading the illuminated books is less like viewing sequentially the items in a string of galleries than it is ‘synaestetic, tactile, and phantasmagoric’ and ‘more like watching a furious debate, in which the contestants are capable of projecting vast multimedia displays to demonstrate their arguments’” (175, quoting Mitchell 22). Perhaps the scene with which Blake’s America opens is a version of the scene of Satan arraying his Troops on the Bank of the fiery Lake, with the Palace of Pandemonium exhibited so spectacularly at De Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon in 1782:

Belzebub and Moloch, rise from the horrid lake, and Pandemonium appears gradually to rise, illuminated with all the grandeur bestowed by Milton, and even with additional properties, for serpents twine around the Doric pillars, and the intense red changes to a transparent white, expressing thereby the effect of fire upon metal.

European Magazine, qtd. in Calè 117

If it is, Blake’s imagination fuses with the scene to make a new myth, demonstrating just the ability to dodge the “lash of power” characteristic of visual enthusiasm. After all, Blake’s own epiphany as an enthusiastic viewer came on a visit to the Truchsessian Gallery in London in 1804.[16] Viewing a collection of old master paintings (of dubious authenticity and provenance), Blake not only becomes what he beholds, but moves from viewing to producing through a process of ecstatic identification: “excuse my enthusiasm or rather madness” he writes to Hayley, “for I am really drunk with intellectual vision whenever I take a pencil or graver into my hand, even as I used to be in my youth, and as I have not been for twenty dark, but very profitable years” (Blake 757). Happy copulation occurs “[s]uddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery of pictures,” as spectacle becomes interactive (Blake 756).