On October 23, 1804, William Blake wrote to William Hayley: “Suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery of pictures, I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by window-shutters” (756). This article explores the significance of Blake’s delayed response to the viewing experience of the Truchsessian Gallery. It revisits the connections between Blake and Newton, optics, Locke and perception, and situates Blake’s understanding of colour and colour vision in its contemporary context; it investigates Blake’s account to Hayley and analyses some of the problematic representations of embodiment in the works done in the 1790s, arguing that the large colour prints demonstrate Blake’s awareness of the physical and optical qualities of colour.
Corps de l’article
Can a visit to a gallery be a life-changing experience? According to William Blake it can. He writes to his patron William Hayley shortly after his visit to the Truchsessian Gallery on October 23, 1804:
For now! O Glory! and O Delight! […] I speak with perfect confidence and certainty of the fact which has passed upon me. Nebuchadnezzar had seven times passed over him; I have had twenty; thank God I was not altogether a beast as he was; but I was a slave bound in a mill among beasts and devils; these beasts and these devils are now, together with myself, become children of light and liberty, […]. Suddenly, on the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery of pictures, I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by window-shutters.756
With the mention of the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar, Blake associates a specific viewing experience with images appearing in earlier works; there are pictures of the king in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790), and in the Notebook, and there is the large colour print Nebuchadnezzar (1795 and c.1805). David W. Lindsay stresses that it is the colour print that “conveys with horrific intensity the bewildered state of a mind dehumanised by its arrogant rejection of divine vision. [...] [T]he eagles’ feathers and birds’ claws of the color print enforce the biblical connection and involve the spectator in an uncontrollable transformation” (26). In his account to Hayley, Blake evokes physical transformation by explaining that he had degenerated into a “beast”. After the visit, he says, his body opened up, light flowed in and restored his ability to see like a human being. According to Morton Paley, the reason this gallery visit had such an effect on Blake is that he “found himself confronted with by far the greatest number of paintings he had ever seen in one place” (168). The exhibition included “many examples of the type of art [Blake] was coming to regard as the only art: painting which subordinated color to form” (Paley 169). Blake’s response was unusual, because, as Paley points out, the Truchsessian Gallery left the London art scene, and especially members of the Royal Academy, indifferent. The organisation of this gallery was a major undertaking. The paintings were exhibited in a purpose-built building, lit by skylight. Count Truchsess shipped his enormous collection of European art to London to display it, in the hope of selling it to the British government. Paley suggests that the gallery would have been very crowded as Count Truchsess arranged more than nine hundred paintings instead of the agreed seven hundred on the walls of eight exhibition rooms (Paley 166). In his account to Hayley, Blake conceives his viewing experience as an analogy to the architecture of the building. To be precise, he says that the shutters of his mind opened “on the day after visiting the Truchsessian Gallery.”  What is the significance of the delay?
Blake’s account alludes to Locke’s idea of the mind as a picture gallery or “storehouse of our ideas” (Locke 147). It is not unusual for Blake to compare his mind to a room. In a letter, written four years previously, he proclaimed that his head was full of treasures: “In my Brain are studies & Chambers filld with books & pictures of old which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity. before my mortal life” (710). This description echoes the preface to Europe (1794), in which he presents the mind as a house-like space:
Europe, plate 3: 1-6; Blake 60
Five windows light the cavern'd Man; thro' one he breathes the air;
Thro' one, hears music of the spheres; thro' one, the eternal vine
Flourishes, that he may recieve [sic] the grapes; thro' one can look.
And see small portions of the eternal world that ever groweth;
Thro' one, himself pass out what time he please, but he will not;
For stolen joys are sweet, & bread eaten in secret pleasant.
Blake, like Locke, personifies the mind: “When the mind turns its view inwards upon itself, and contemplates its own actions, thinking is the first that occurs. In it the mind observes a great variety of modifications, and from thence receives distinct ideas“ (Locke 213). In Europe Blake’s figure chooses to stay in the cave in order to enjoy whatever accumulates inside it. When comparing this passage with Blake’s viewing experience of the Truchsessian Gallery, it is important to note that, whereas the figure inside the mind-cave in Europe is indifferent unless stimulated from the outside, Blake exits the gallery, remembers and thinks about his viewing experience. In his account to Hayley Blake evokes empiricist metaphors to explain his regaining of visionary creativity, and he seems to imply that there is a causal link between the visit and his enlightenment. What interests me is how Blake engaged with the emergence of what Jonathan Crary has termed “a new kind of observer” (3). In Techniques of the Observer (1990), Crary writes: “by the beginning of the nineteenth century the camera obscura is no longer synonymous with the production of truth and with an observer positioned to see truthfully” (32). In Lockean terms, what Blake saw inside the Truchsessian Gallery inspired him by literally filling his mind with new ideas for new but related works of art. Blake, however, thought of himself as an original artist and the Lockean explanation of the imagination runs counter to his ideas about true art. Therefore, if we interpret Blake’s viewing experience in terms of Crary’s ideas about the observer, Blake’s delayed response may be seen as an expression of a personalized form of reaction.
According to Crary, the camera obscura used to be regarded as the perfect model for the human mind. This optical device helped to illustrate how the external world entered the body through the eyes and imprinted itself onto the retina from where it was transmitted to the mind to be analysed, compared, stored and associated. The camera obscura also explained “reflective introspection and self-observation,” because due to this overlap pertaining to the optics of sight and the dynamics of thought, the camera obscura created an ambiguous role for the observer:
Unlike a perspectival construction, which also presumed to represent an objectively ordered representation, the camera obscura did not dictate a restricted site or area from which the image presents its full coherence and consistency. On the one hand the observer is disjunct from the pure operation of the device and is there as a disembodied witness to a mechanical and transcendental re-presentation of the objectivity of the world. On the other hand, however, his or her presence in the camera implies a spatial and temporal simultaneity of human subjectivity and objective apparatus. Thus the spectator is a more free-floating inhabitant of the darkness, a marginal supplementary presence independent of the machinery of representation.Crary 40-41
Crary emphasises that the camera obscura confronts the observer inside it with circumstances that make a secure sense of identity and a universal point of view impossible. The observer is encouraged, metaphorically speaking, to move around, take different points of view and get accustomed to choice and subjective vision. The camera obscura model, as outlined in Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding, is grounded on a strict division between body and mind. In the past it has been argued that Blake, in response to Locke, proposed an all inclusive “total vision,” which implies that this division is overcome. Does Blake re-experience “total vision” on the day after his visit to Truchsessian Gallery? Much can be said about experiences inside art galleries. Luisa Calè’s work on literary galleries has shown that spectators turn into readers as they try to narrate to themselves connections between paintings. Susan Matthews in her piece on visual enthusiasm argues that Blake, while inside the gallery, experienced an “epiphany.” This epiphany enabled him to re-connect to his younger, more productive self (Matthews par. 26). By linking a huge picture collection with the renewal of spiritual vision Blake, no doubt, gives us a key metaphor for his understanding of human consciousness. As argued above, he aligns his rebirth with physical transformation. In optic terms, however, the mind-as-camera metaphor breaks down as, with the shutters opened, there will be too much light, so that the images imprinting themselves onto the retina will be overexposed. In his account Blake not only undermines the separation between inside and outside the mind, he suggests that his response is delayed as well as mediated. It takes time for his body to adjust to the increase in light. That the observer inside the mind-cave needs time to react is in line with Locke, because Blake externalises what should take place inside the mind-gallery. In other words, the delayed response is significant as it suggests that Blake’s response to the viewing of the Truchsessian Gallery is not the result of a spontaneous switch or change of mind, motivated by an ever increasing number of newly imprinted images but the product of a process of reflection.
Soon after writing to Hayley, Blake is said to have resumed work on his twelve large colour prints, of which Nebuchadnezzar is one. Why did Blake return to colour printing? What complicates any discussion of the large colour prints is that they have two dates, "1795" and "1805." There are records of Blake selling a set to Thomas Butts in 1805 and another one to Dawson Turner in 1818 (Butlin Paintings vol. 1 [Text] 157). Joseph Viscomi, when discussing Blake’s printing techniques, explains that it would have been easy for Blake to reproduce a design: “he only needed fixed guidelines for painting and for ensuring that the design, however it was colored in and/or finished, was repeatable”(“‘Annus Mirabilis’” 66). Each of the prints probably existed as sets of three: first, second and third pulls. From an aesthetic point of view, it is remarkable how the designs change as the later impressions are weaker versions of the same image. Martin Butlin points out that the horses in God Judging Adam lose some of their substance through the printing process. In the third pull the "more distant of the horse's back legs [...] had to be freshly outlined in ink" (“Bicentenary” 42). A similar effect can be identified in the different versions of The House of Death: eyes are opened and heads are turned. According to Butlin, the large colour prints are "the most physical objects that Blake created" (“Physicality” 2). This essay posits that Blake’s delayed response and his decision to return to colour printing reflect his continued interest in the wide-ranging contemporary debates about the qualities and characteristics of colour, both as an optical and a physical phenomenon.
Because of the dual nature of colour, seeing and understanding colour cannot be explained with the camera obscura model. Nicolas J. Wade summarises the context Blake would have found himself in as follows:
In eighteenth century Britain, vision research was conducted in the context of either optics or medicine, and both were influenced by philosophy. [...] Newton made many astute comments about vision and his optics were extended further in the visual domain by Jean Théophile Desaguliers (1683-1744), Robert Smith (1689-1768), and Joseph Harris (1702-1764). The medical dimension was represented by William Cheselden (1688-1752), John Hunter (1728-1793), Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) and his son, Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848). William Porterfield (ca 1696-1771), [William Charles] Wells [(1757-1817)] and [Thomas] Young [(1773-1829)] combined optics and medicine with a flavouring of philosophy.Destined 41
As Wade points out, eighteenth-century debates about vision, carried out in the scientific community, began to consider and integrate medical issues more and more. That Blake knew of physiological processes to do with the optics of sight is made clear in a letter written to the Reverend Dr. Trusler, written in 1799. Blake suggests that the reason Trusler did not like his work was owing to personal taste as well as disposition and anatomical difference:
I know that This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike. [...] Some See Nature all Ridicule & Deformity & by these I shall not regulate my proportions, & Some Scarce see Nature at all But to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers.702
In this passage Blake not only describes his powerful eyes, he says he sees the world differently by way of his imagination. He insinuates that he sees differently because he is different: “As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers.” He repeats this idea in his annotations to Joshua Reynolds’ Discourses on Art in about 1808: “The Style that Strikes the Eye is the True Style But A Fools Eye is Not to be. a Criterion” (638) and “Nonsense—Every Eye Sees differently As the Eye—Such the Object” (645). We find something of this emphasis on the physical nature of vision in a letter to Hayley, written to convey his excitement about the invitation to live in Felpham near the Sussex coast. Just before he sets off, he writes: “My wife is like a flame of many colours of precious jewels” and “My fingers Emit sparks of fire with Expectation of my future labours” (709).
Blake’s enthusiasm quickly disappeared. All in all, the time in Felpham was difficult if not disappointing. The Blakes struggled with ill health and Blake felt that he did not have enough time to pursue his own projects. But working for Hayley had its benefits. Blake writes to his friend and patron Thomas Butts in November 1803:
I have now given two years to the intense study of those parts of the art which relate to light & shade & colour & am Convincd that either my understanding is incapable of comprehending the beauties of Colouring or the Pictures which I painted for You Are Equal in Every part of the Art & superior in One to any thing that has been done since the age of Rafael.718
In other words, in Felpham he had time to study and to experiment. Joseph Viscomi has written extensively on Blake and printmaking. More than once has he emphasised that by analysing the processes involved in the production of the illuminated books we can “see Blake’s mind at work” (”Evolution” 283). Most of his works required concentrated attention and several of them went through various stages of production. The kind of connection that Viscomi proposes, existing between invention and execution, gives the letter from 23 October 1804 its narrative thrust:
Consequently, I can, with confidence, promise you ocular demonstration of my altered state on the plates I am now engraving after Romney, whose spiritual aid has not a little conduced to my restoration to the light of Art. O the distress I have undergone, and my poor wife with me. Incessantly labouring and incessantly spoiling what I had done well. Every one of my friends was astonished at my faults, and could not assign a reason; they knew my industry and abstinence from every pleasure for the sake of study, and yet—and yet—and yet there wanted the proofs of industry in my works. I thank God with entire confidence that it shall be so no longer.Blake 756-57
When Blake explains to Hayley how the gallery visit changed him, he not only reflects on his viewing experience, he celebrates his “altered state,” which will allow him to do better. He admits that in the past he has let his friends down. Now, however, he is confident that he will not disappoint them. In another letter, written a few days later, he declares: "I have lost my Confusion of Thought while at work & am as much myself when I take the Pencil or Graver into my hand as I used to be in my Youth I have indeed fought thro a Hell of terrors & horrors" (758). As can be inferred from the letter to Butts from November 1802, Blake felt equally confident about colouring.
The best way to trace his understanding of colour is to explore the production of the large colour prints in terms of invention and execution. In the letters Blake concentrates on the physical side of his art and stresses that he has found it difficult to give expression to his ideas. The letter to Hayley gives us a glimpse into Blake’s private life. He is still working on two plates for Hayley, the treatment of his wife’s rheumatism has been successful and there have been problems in his marriage for some time. Blake is very optimistic. He promises that Hayley will be able to tell from his current work that he has regained his former powers of execution. He is ready to give an “ocular demonstration” of his “altered state.” This announcement of change both in Blake’s creative persona and artistic output brings to mind Crary’s ideas about the “reconfiguration of relations between an observing subject and modes of representation” (1). Such a reconfiguration can be identified in how Blake writes about his re-invigorated creative constitution and the way in which he devises his large colour prints, because the different stages required in their production allow us to re-interpret the relationship between invention and execution. Blake, that is, problematises the acts of observation and reproduction by questioning the possibility of any one definitive image on the page or in the mind. This differentiation, moreover, does justice to the visual effects Blake achieves as colour can be dealt with as both an optical and physical phenomenon. The combination of colour vision and coloured image could signify the transition from ideas perceived through sensation and ideas perceived through memory, because, according to Locke, ideas committed to memory begin to fade (Locke 148-49). The copy’s aspiration to the status of an original, moreover, is enhanced by Blake’s additional use of watercolour. It is difficult if not impossible to tell the copy from the original (or first pull) without displaying them next to each other. Looking at the different impressions (or pulls) creates uncertainty, because the observer, as suggested by Crary, has to position him or herself in front of these images, and decide how each relates to the others.
For Locke, there are no innate ideas. The mind of a newborn baby is like a tabula rasa; and correct perception is when the objects inside the mind resemble those outside it (Locke 109). The mind is like a mirror and remains passive in the process of perception (Locke 121). In his annotations to Reynolds Blake declares that he studied Burke, Locke and Bacon “when very Young” (660) and that Reynolds’ philosophising about art is equally disappointing: “I felt the Same Contempt & Abhorrence then; that I do now. They mock Inspiration & Vision Inspiration & Vision was then & now is & I hope will always Remain my Element my Eternal Dwelling place” (660-61). The opposition between Blake and Locke is straightforward. Whereas in Locke the observer is the sum of his (or her) experiences, the notion “he became what he beheld” (Blake 97) is a negative for Blake. Another and under-explored connection between Blake and Locke is their attitude towards colour. Locke refers to ideas as “objects of thinking” and writes that, during a lifetime, the mind gets “furnished” with ideas (213). Depending on the quality of the sense organs a mind can grow beyond itself. What endangers this growth is that ideas get confused during the intake:
[…] the particulars that make up any idea, are in number enough; yet they are so jumbled together, that it is not easily discernible, whether it more belongs to the name that is given it, than to any other. There is nothing properer to make us conceive this confusion, than a sort of pictures usually shown, as surprising pieces of art, wherein the colours, as they are laid by the pencil on the table itself, mark out very odd and unusual figures, and have no discernible order in their position.Locke 328
Locke links conceptual confusion, which prevents the individual from unambiguously identifying simple ideas, to painting and compares it with the effects of colouring. Colour, by definition, can never be simple, clear or precise; it blurs form on the page and is a challenge to understanding; since colour is an optical as well as a physical phenomenon, it cannot be turned into what Locke termed a “simple idea.” Blake did not share Locke’s problem since there is a sense that he always regarded mental images as superior to sensory experience. In A Vision of the Last Judgment (1810), for example, he opposes mental with corporeal images: “Mental things are alone Real what is Calld Corporeal Nobody Knows of its Dwelling Place <it> is in Fallacy & its Existence an Imposture Where is the Existence Out of Mind or Thought Where is it but in the Mind of a Fool” (Blake 565). When Blake tells Hayley that he is enlightened and able to see clearly, he positions himself inside the mind, the “dwelling place” of “mental things.” However, by specifying that this happens on the day after the gallery visit, Blake implies that processes of understanding are no longer bound to a mind modelled on the camera obscura, that is, there is no causal link between seeing and thinking. What gets advocated is subjective vision, a form of artistic creativity which is a combination of sensory experience and reflective observation. In Crary’s terms, Blake is a transitional figure. With regard to colour, this means that since colour vision is subjective and thus located inside the body, Blake might have envisaged that the large colour prints could give expression to the dual nature of colour. Colour fascinates as a physical phenomenon but obscures intention, which, according to Blake, can only be securely conveyed through line.
Blake was keen to take advantage of the visual effects and multiplicity created through colour printing. Through the application of specific pigments and layering of paint, he could achieve a whole range of visual effects and, as long as the colours were wet, he could adjust the thick layers of paint with a brush. Colour printing, according to Robert Essick, generated multiple versions of sensory experience. He writes: "the patterns of color printing […] have the same multiplicity of reference to geological, biological, and psychological forms found in the myth of the simultaneous evolution” (148). During colour-printing it is difficult to control the way in which drawing and colouring merge or blur: “Blake’s mode of color printing represents printing’s most dramatic contribution to the composing process, allowing him actually to reinvent designs by transforming outline drawings meant to receive light watercolor washes into full-bodied paintings” (Viscomi, Blake 119). It may well be that Blake did not perceive colour-printing as a means for reproduction but as a way to manipulate the viewing experience of an art object. Moving back and forth between similar images creates doubt. If we think of looking at the large colour prints as an analogy to the visit to the Truchsessian Gallery, version corresponds to delay. The observer closely examines each of the twelve colour prints and, given the opportunity, scans the second and third pulls to determine the superior version. Crary explains that more thorough examinations of visual problems went hand in hand with an increasing awareness of the “capacities of the human eye” as well as the “idiosyncrasies of the ‘normal’ eye” (16). None of the large colour prints was exhibited at Blake’s one-man show of 1809. He may never have intended to display the different pulls together. Nevertheless, each set, once peeled into its layers, displays not only the brilliance of material density but also its potential for multiplicity.
Much has been written about how Newton’s discoveries impacted on poetic imagination. Since Newton’s Opticks (1704) colour had become a controllable phenomenon. The most significant change was that the spectrum became “the standard of ‘colour’” (Gage 154). In proving that white light was a mixture of different hues, Newton corrected the belief that white light had to be modified to appear as colour (Kemp 285). Through experiments with prisms, directing sun light into a dark room, Newton demonstrated that objects, once exposed to sunlight, became tinged with colour as they refracted light in object-specific ways. Blake's awareness of contemporary theories of colour vision may have been mediated by the members of the Joseph Johnson circle, possibly through Priestley’s History and Present State Discoveries (1772), which revised Newton’s ideas on light and colour. Newton argued that bodies literally absorb and swallow rays of light. While blackness signifies solid matter, translucent bodies are permeable bodies, consisting mostly of air allowing light particles to travel through them (Priestley 355).
Newton’s approach to colour influenced the way in which artists and artisans rationalised colour effects. One example is Jacob Christian Le Blon’s Coloritto (1725), a book about mezzotint colour printing. Le Blon intends to reveal the secret of colouring:
The ingenious Painters, who shall peruse my Rules, and perform a little in this Way, will soon judge the Knowledge of Titian, Rubens, and Van Dyk, in the Theoretical Part of the Coloritto, whether the Common Report or Tradition of their being possess’d of the Secret, maybe depended upon; and whether any Masters besides these Three, have had any distinct and regular Knowledge of it?iv
Le Blon's technique involved consecutive printing from three plates, each inked in a primary colour, onto a single sheet of paper. Since he did not have the technical equipment, such as the colour filters available today, he had to gauge the correct proportions of red, blue and yellow used before reproducing them (Friedman 9). When he talks about mixing colour by layering them, the Newtonian influence is at its strongest:
Painting can represent all visible Objects with three Colours, Yellow, Red, and Blue; for all other Colours can be compos’d of these Three, which I call Primitive; […] And a Mixture of those Three Original Colours makes a Black, and all other Colours whatsoever; as I have demonstrated by my Invention of Printing Picture and Figures with their natural Colours. I am only speaking of Material Colours, or those used by Painters; for a Mixture of all the primitive impalpable Colours, that cannot be felt, will not produce Black, but the very Contrary, White; as the Great Sir Isaac Newton has demonstrated in his Opticks.6
Le Blon claims that, whereas “impalpable” colours combine to white, palpable colours combine to black. His understanding of colours is inherently optical, though he hints at the physical qualities of colour as well: colour "comprehends within it self a Body, which hides every thing that is cover'd with it" (22). In order to guarantee the natural appearance of flesh colour, Le Blon advises colour printers to add red, blue and yellow to the lights and shades of the figure to sculpt different features in three-dimensions. Palpable colours, if layered correctly, according to Le Blon, can create particular and real-looking features. A similar argument about optical effects of colour can be found in Blake’s Descriptive Catalogue, written for his 1809 exhibition. Blake says he was "molested continually by blotting and blurring demons," to the extent that one of the pictures, "painted at intervals, for experiments, with the colours," was "laboured to a superabundant blackness" (Blake 546). Blake, like Le Blon, maintains that layering colours can result in blackness. In associating layers of colour with blackness, Blake acknowledges that colour pigments interact in a paint-mixture and solidify into an impenetrable surface. This means that the more colour there is, the more material an image appears. Overall, Blake preferred watercolours because he liked to paint pictures with visionary or spiritual themes. This is perhaps why he decided to produce his large colour prints in three versions with the last pull having very little colour and therefore coming close to being immaterial or impalpable. The mixing and layering of colour, however, is of uttermost importance, Blake is proud of his colour effects and dismissive of those achieved by Rubens:
To My Eye Rubens's Colouring is most Contemptible His Shadows are of a Filthy Brown somewhat of the Colour of Excrement these are filld with tints & messes of yellow & red His lights are all the Colours of the Rainbow laid on Indiscriminately & broken one into another. Altogether his Colouring is Contrary to The Colouring. of Real Art & Science.655
In this passage, Blake compares the optical and physical qualities of colour. If Newtonian or prismatic colours, i.e. the colours of the rainbow, are not layered correctly, the result is brown and not black. If we put the emphasis on “To My Eye,” the rejection of Rubens is given a physical, that is, idiosyncratic, reason.
Next to Newtonian theory, the work of David Hartley is a context for Blake’s understanding and use of colour and colour vision. The link is Priestley who published an abridged second edition of Hartley's Observations on Man (1749) with Joseph Johnson in 1790. Hartley delineates a physiological explanation of Locke’s doctrine of association and suggests that vibrations in the nerves are equivalent to associations in the mind. Blake engraved the frontispiece to Priestley’s edition; it is probable that he meditated upon the theory of vibrations as he was engraving Hartley’s portrait. Priestley’s edition was reviewed in Johnson’s Analytical Review. This review reiterates the difference between palpable and impalpable:
Dr. Hartley’s theory goes upon the idea of man consisting of two parts, body and soul, the former being material, and the latter an immaterial substance. But since all impressions upon the mind are produced by the intervention of the organs of sense, he found it necessary to connect the two systems, by supposing some particular affection of the brain to correspond to every affection of the mind; and since it is most probable that the nerves of hearing, and also those of sight, are affected by a vibratory motion, he supposes this kind of motion to be propagated through the substance of the brain, […].The Analytical Review 9  363
In Observations on Man Hartley tries to establish nerves as the connection between the components of human existence, that is, body and soul, the mind and the senses. He writes about internal experience and explains it as unconscious mental activity. From Priestley’s point of view, Hartley’s theory interfered with the notion of free will. For Blake, by contrast, Hartley’s model opened up more creative possibilities: it consolidates the notion that perceived ideas have a physical existence inside the mind, and are independent of external objects. That ideas had such a physical existence might have suggested to Blake that, if he gave deep consideration to a viewing experience, something quite extraordinary could happen inside his mind. That is, the images collected, in Lockean terms, would assume a life of their own. The opportunity for an extraordinary viewing experience of colour came with the visit to the Truchsessian Gallery. Already for Locke, understanding colour is a mixed mode which exists “more in the thoughts of men, than in the reality of things” (262). That is, colour is perceived as the quality of an object but is created inside the mind. Blake might have expected that the colour effects of the images that he encountered had an even greater impact than the images themselves. The delayed response, communicated to Hayley, therefore suggests that Blake thought the physical and mental self was capable of actively processing and reshaping sensory data and could produce an autonomous reaction to it.
Hartley not only gives a physiological account of the mind by equating sensation with vibration; he also effectively explains the optical phenomenon of afterimages. Wade writes: “It was vital for his theory that these vibrations could persist after the external object had been removed, so that they could function as the substrate for our ideas” (“Persisting Vision” 1). Afterimages, in other words, are evidence of the mind’s capability of producing colour without an external stimulus. Many of the contemporary medical discoveries about the relationship between the brain, the mind and the eye were published in Erasmus Darwin’s two-volume Zoonomia (1794 and 1796). Darwin had been interested in afterimages for some time. According to Wade, he may have collaborated with his son Robert Waring Darwin on “New experiments on the ocular spectra of light and colours,” published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1786. This article was reprinted in Zoonomia; parts of it appear in the section “The motions of the retina demonstrated by experiment” (Wade, “Erasmus Darwin” 644). That Blake may have coupled the physical forces of colour with the creative powers of the imagination seems likely. It is not difficult to see why interpretations of afterimage experiments, ranging from acts of will to physical response, translate during the Romantic period as acts of the imagination. Whether or not colour is a primarily mental or optical phenomenon is discussed in another review, published in the Analytical Review, of the Reverend Alison’s Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790). The reviewer is sceptical about Alison’s claim that blind people can associate ideas with colour and therefore experience the same sensation as those who actually see colour: “Surely this is going contrary to the common sense of all mankind. […] The blind poet may, by long habitual association, use the terms with propriety, but it is a kind of working with unknown quantities” (The Analytical Review 7  28). This objection is typical of the Lockean tradition. Like Locke this reviewer stresses the importance of visual stimulation. A blind-born man, according to Locke, has learned to differentiate between geometrical shapes by touch and is not able to distinguish them if he suddenly sees them. If he (or she) touches them, while looking at them, the connection can be made (Locke 144).
In his letter to Hayley, Blake says he had been like Nebuchadnezzar, blinded by madness, for the last twenty years. This, however, cannot be true, because he was extremely prolific. More interesting still is that he included versions of relationship between stimulus, sensation and interpretation through the dynamics of embodiment into a number of works written in the 1790s. In these, he struggled with finding a suitable model for the mind, one that did justice to the way in which he created his visionary art. Embodiment is primarily rendered as biological process. During embodiment the senses are enclosed and the mind is housed inside the skull. This process is witnessed by either the speaker or experienced by a character. In The Vision of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Oothoon, one of the daughters of Albion, laments the consequences of her embodiment:
MHH, plate 2: 30-34; Blake 47
They told me that the night & day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
And they inclos'd my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.
Oothoon has no recollection of her embodiment and has to rely on what she has been told. She queries her condition but has to accept the order of light and darkness, day and night. She relates to this existence through her senses, which have been located inside her skull: “I had five senses to inclose me up.” Blake, in his account to Hayley, hints at the opposition between enclosure and expansion, because when he states that he is as he used to be twenty years ago, he associates his situation with Oothoon’s. Blake, metaphorically speaking, closed himself down and withdrew from the outside world. In The Book of Urizen (1794), another major work existing in different colour-printed versions, Blake emphasises that there are two kinds of bodies, one which is eternal and flexible and one which is human and embodied:
BU, plate: 36-39; Blake 71
Earth was not: nor globes of attraction
The will of the Immortal expanded
Or contracted his all flexible senses.
Death was not, but eternal life sprung
This passage equates “eternal life” with “expansion” and “flexible senses.” The “immortal” in charge is one of Blake’s creator Gods. He is Urizen. Blake’s creation myth is an important work for the present discussion as it explores the relationship between the body and the mind. Once Urizen’s eternal body is exposed to gravity, it shrinks and assumes the form of a human body. Not surprisingly Blake presents this body as a lesser version of the eternal. Embodiment advances in several stages and Urizen’s mind is the last eternal bastion to be taken. It tries to resist: “The eternal mind bounded began to roll / Eddies of wrath ceaseless round & round,” but eventually settles inside a white cave where Los, the observer, is “locked up” and “In chains of the mind”:
BU, plate 10: 19-34; Blake 75
3. The eternal mind bounded began to roll
Eddies of wrath ceaseless round & round,
And the sulphureous foam surgeing thick
Settled, a lake, bright, & shining clear:
White as the snow on the mountains cold.
4. Forgetfulness, dumbness, necessity!
In chains of the mind locked up,
Like fetters of ice shrinking together
Disorganiz'd, rent from Eternity,
Los beat on his fetters of iron;
And heated his furnaces & pour'd
Iron sodor and sodor of brass
5. Restless turnd the immortal inchain’d
Heaving dolorous! anguish’d! unbearable
Till a roof shaggy wild inclos’d
In an orb, his fountain of thought.
The mind is in fetters and is associated with water: “fountain of thought.” It causes its embodiment, because it tears violently at its fetters, churns and produces foam, which then settles and freezes into the shape of a skull. Ice is associated with expansion but Blake has it do the opposite. Lines 27-30 are a little confusing. Have the fetters of ice turned into fetters of iron? Is Los, Blake’s second creator god, beating on Urizen’s or his own fetters? If we interpret the relationship between Los and Urizen in terms of an observer inside an embodied mind, Urizen creates the mind and makes Los its inhabitant. This relationship echoes the situation in the house-like space from Europe. In Europe, the setting of the senses into the anatomy of the skull, moreover, appears to be a necessary requirement. The observer can focus and is able to see: “then turn'd the fluxile eyes / Into two stationary orbs, concentrating all things” (Europe, plate: 10: 11-12; Blake 63). These passages evoke the camera obscura, but not in a positive way. In The Book of Urizen, too, the observer’s situation is hopeless. This observer is no longer inside an optical tool but has become part of a messy, physical organism. Whereas Blake in Europe and in the account to Hayley uses cave-imagery to evoke the Platonic opposition between spiritual and material, in The Book of Urizen he allows this division to collapse. It would be wrong to speak of a shift in Blake’s thinking. Being inside the body makes matters worse; it limits man’s access to eternity. The passage extrapolating the entrapment gets repeated in Vala, or The Four Zoas (c.1794-1808), which was never engraved, though Blake spent several years working on it, and exists only in manuscript. The Four Zoas is a revised expansion of the creation myth. What stays the same is that body-cave encloses the senses and freezes them into their familiar anatomical positions:
FZ, page 54: 1-10; Blake 336
The Eternal Mind bounded began to roll eddies of wrath ceaseless
Round & round & the sulphureous foam surgeing thick
Settled a Lake bright & shining clear. White as the snow
Forgetfulness dumbness necessity in chains of the mind lockd up
In fetters of ice shrinking. disorganizd rent from Eternity
Los beat on his fetters & heated his furnaces
And pourd iron sodor & sodor of brass
Restless the immortal inchaind heaving dolorous
Anguished unbearable till a roof shaggy wild inclosd
In an orb his fountain of thought
While The Book of Urizen depicts mostly Urizen and Los and shows them in acts of creation, the drawings in the margins of The Four Zoas are different and preliminary. It is difficult to estimate what the work would have looked like. The repeated passage has a few, minor changes in punctuation. By moving “round & round” to the beginning of the line, more emphasis is put on the circular movement of the “Eternal mind.” The effect of omitting “on the mountains cold” and replacing “Like fetters” with “In fetters” is that the physical reality of the body gets foregrounded. In both The Book of Urizen and The Four Zoas Blake draws attention to the consequences of the relegation of the senses to the body: “The Senses inward rush’d shrinking […] their eyes / Grew small like the eyes of a man / And in reptile forms shrinking together / Of seven feet stature they remaind” (BU, plate 25: 29-38; Blake 82). The condition of the eye not only affects the individual, it damages social relationships: “For the ears of the inhabitants, / Were wither’d, & deafen’d, & cold: / And their eyes could not discern, / Their brethren of other cities” (BU, plate 25: 15-18; Blake 83). In The Four Zoas the emphasis is, again, on the breakdown of communication:
FZ, page 70: 39-45; Blake 347
His voice to them was but an inarticulate thunder for their Ears
Were heavy & dull, & their eyes & nostrils closed up
Oft he stood by a howling victim Questioning in words
Soothing or Furious no one answerd every one wrapd up
In his own sorrow howld regardless of his words, nor voice
Of sweet response could he obtain tho oft assayd with tears
He knew they were his Children ruind in his ruind world.
Blake develops the theme of embodiment and pays close attention to the fate of those who have been embodied. When he writes to Hayley in 1804, he ponders the consequences of embodiment in terms of a creative block.
The way in which Blake situates the observer inside a closed-up or “embodied mind” suggests that the observer is no longer privy to a universal point of view and Blake regrets this. Crary remarks: “Once vision became located in the empirical immediacy of the observer’s body, it belonged to time, to flux, to death. The guarantees of authority, identity, and universality supplied by the camera obscura are of another epoch” (24). Whereas Crary argues that the body multiplies sensation, Blake in Europe renders the observer as isolated inside his mind-turned-body; in The Book of Urizen and The Four Zoas he has the body close up and interrupt the flow of sensory data. Blake seems sympathetic to the condition of the embodied man and it may be that he identified with Los as well as Nebuchadnezzar. Indeed, the way in which Blake pursues the entrapment theme is contradictory, because when it comes to an interpretation of the visit to the Truchsessian Gallery both Crary’s and the camera obscura model fit. In his letter to Hayley, Blake states that art played a key role in his momentous perceptual change: “I was again enlightened with the light I enjoyed in my youth, and which has for exactly twenty years been closed from me as by a door and by window-shutters” (756). Does he imply that his body responded to what he had seen at the Truchsessian Gallery? The delay suggests that his “embodied mind” managed to overcome the limits imposed by the anatomy of his body. In addition, the act of walking out of the Truchsessian Gallery suggests that the observer’s embodiment is not final. If exposed to the right amount of external stimuli (more than nine hundred paintings), the body can adjust and reverse some of the embodiment.
The large colour prints offer us insights into Blake’s approach to the relationship between invention and execution, mind and body, because the tension between how the mind conceives and the page receives is displayed and externalised through these sets. The images appear weaker and cruder as each image becomes less well defined. Given the unevenness of the images, it seems that Blake is experimenting with both the optical and physical qualities of colour. He may have thought of the large colour prints as interplay between line and colour by imagining black lines refracting the white of the page into colour. Blake could have touched up the plate he was printing from and produced three different but equally intensive pulls. Instead he decided to create the notion of a fading design. Each print makes a different statement about the physical nature of an image. The third pull highlights invariably the transcendent qualities of the situation depicted. It is possible that Blake, in response to contemporary debates about vision, realised that the body was both a blessing and a curse. While the speaker takes a detached point of view, almost pitying the observer in Europe and The Four Zoas, Blake, in his account to Hayley, presents himself as an observer who has a choice and who opts for the better, visionary life, which, as suggested in the passage from Europe, takes place outside the mind-cave. Life beyond embodiment, however, resists form and any kind of artistic expression.
The effect of Blake’s method of colour printing is that it is difficult to tell the intentional from the accidental. We have to look very closely to be sure about what resulted from colour printing and what has been adjusted with a brush. Just as Blake was standing inside the Truchsessian Gallery, looking at different paintings, moving between them and comparing them, we can marvel at Blake’s colour effects and wonder if there is a connection between the themes and motives of the large colour prints. As mentioned earlier, the exhibition was a disappointment. Blake’s letter does not refer to any painting in particular. It is mostly about the outcome of a viewing experience. Therefore, it may be a statement about a specific viewing experience rather than a comment about the quality of the works exhibited. The same kind of viewing experience, one during which the observer moves back and forth between paintings, is evoked through the different impressions of the large colour prints. By comparing different versions of an image the observer continually renews the connection between stimulus and sensation and thus delays interpretation. Moreover, only after seeing the second and third pulls is it possible to fully appreciate the brilliance of the first pull. By producing versions of his large colour prints, Blake perhaps tried to make his observers decide which of the second or third pulls are still worth looking at. In his letter to Hayley, Blake speaks directly of an agent who has brought enlightenment to him. He assigns the art of George Romney a key role in his struggle to be restored: “I am now engraving after Romney, whose spiritual aid has not a little conduced to my restoration to the light of Art” (756). However, none of the large colour prints were exhibited in 1809 and Blake abandoned colour printing soon after 1805. We can only speculate that his optimism about his “altered state” and his belief in his ability to create multiplicity both in the mind of the observer and on the page dispersed soon after his visit to the Truchsessian Gallery.
Sibylle Erle is a Senior Lecturer in English at Bishop Grosseteste University College Lincoln and was a Visiting Junior Research Fellow at the Centre for Anglo-German Cultural Relations at Queen Mary, University of London. She works on William Blake, visual technologies, problems of representation and male/female identity. She has published a number of essays on Blake and Johann Caspar Lavater and is currently turning her PhD on Blake, Lavater and Physiognomy into a book.
Most of the large colour prints have been traced and recorded as sets of three. Blake dated some of them “1795,” but did not bother to give all of them a title. See Butlin Paintings vol. 1 [Text], nos. 289-329. After examining the paper for watermarks, Butlin established that some of the large colour print, Nebuchadnezzar being one of them, could have been done as late as 1804. See Butlin “Physicality” 7. In their study on the large colour prints, Noa Cahaner McManus and Joyce H. Townsend, again emphasise that the two dates of the large colour print, 1795 and 1805, ought to be interpreted as the dates of conception and execution. (83).
Blake’s spiritual renewal may not have coincided with his visit of the Truchsessian Gallery. See Bentley 268.
Crary differentiates between the observer and the spectator. The observer, according to Crary, is an active participant in the viewing experience. Whereas the spectator is a passive consumer of visual stimuli, the observer partakes in a viewing process, regulated by rule: “Unlike spectare, the Latin root for ‘spectator,’ the root for ‘observe’ does not literally mean ‘to look at.’ Spectator also carries specific connotations, especially in the context of nineteenth-century culture, that I prefer to avoid—namely, of one who is a passive onlooker at a spectacle, as at an art gallery or theatre. In a sense more pertinent to my study, observare means ‘to conform one’s action, to comply with,’ as in observing rules, codes, regulations, and practices. Though obviously one who sees, an observer is more importantly one who sees within a prescribed set of possibilities, one who is embedded in a system of conventions and limitations” (Crary 5-6).
If there were more than five senses, the Cartesian dualism could be overcome: “Total vision, or imagination, is thus impossible as long as there are only a limited number of senses to serve as inlets to, or outlets for perception by, soul or mind, or as long as the basic senses remain ‘closed,’ uncleansed, bound or unexpanded” (Gleckner 6).
See Calè’s chapter “The Spectator turned Reader” (58-96).
According to William Rossetti, Butts’s impression of God judging Adam is a “duplicate” or second pull, which is “somewhat more positive and less excellent in colour.” What is perceived as the Butts collection was originally not as homogeneous as it is now commonly assumed. For Rossetti’s 1863 list of Blake’s works see Gilchrist 417.
Viscomi writes: “Large color-printed drawings require finishing in pen and ink and watercolors (particularly in second impressions), often to keep the images from looking like blots and blurs, but it is just that, finishing; printing and coloring are not separate stages, but are instead integrated in the initial execution of the design in paint on the plate. Form is defined through line and colors together on the plate and then clarified, strengthened, and/or adorned further on the paper. The design on the matrix, in other words, already closely resembles the painting it will become rather than the basis for one” (“‘Annus Mirabilis’” 74-75).
For Blake’s awareness of optical technologies see my “Shadows in the Cave.”
I’m grateful to Helen P. Bruder for drawing my attention to this very personal context of Blake’s letter. It seems to me that the viewing of the Truchsessian Gallery caused a change in perception and would have done so in life as well. This letter is interesting because it bundles a number of problems Blake struggled with over a very long period of time, i.e. “twenty years.”
With regard to colour Crary emphasises: “The corporeal subjectivity of the observer, which was a priori excluded from the concept of the camera obscura, suddenly becomes the site on which an observer is possible. The human body, in all its contingency and specificity, generates ‘the spectrum of another colour,’ and thus becomes the active producer of optical experience” (69).
It has never been clear exactly how Blake colour-printed. In recent years the technicalities of Blake's colour-printing process have been closely examined. His method of colour-printing has been discussed as a one- and two-pull technique. According to the latter, Blake would have produced his colour-printed images by two consecutive print runs. Apart from the evidence, both arguments seem ideologically charged. While the Blake printing with a two-pull technique is a highly skilled printmaker, registering his sheets without leaving any traces, the Blake of the one-pull technique is the ideal Romantic artist because he is able to create a wholesome and unified artifact. See Michael Phillips 15-31, 95-108; and Robert N. Essick and Joseph Viscomi. Minne Tanaka addresses these issues and compares the development of colour printing in eighteenth-century England and Japan. The most recent mention of this debate is in Viscomi’s “‘Annus Mirabilis’” 61.
Locke writes: “the fewer senses any man […] hath; and the fewer and duller the impressions are, that are made by them; and the duller the faculties are, that are employed about them, the more remote are they from that knowledge, which is to be found in some men” (147).
By the second half of the eighteenth century, colour-printing had developed into an industry, especially once the very expensive technique of copperplate intaglio printing had been abandoned. The newly refined engraving technique became a successful and lucrative print medium, which allowed, as for example in the case of Blake’s relief-etching, for printing text and image together, and also in different colours (Friedman 7, 8, 16-17).
W.J.T. Mitchell has argued that colour is not an “invariably negative symbol”. In the large colour print Newton, for example, “coloristic chaos” appears as a “positive alternative” to “Newton’s concentration on his abstract, mathematical universe” (50-51).
In his Opticks Newton, for the first time, formulated a comprehensive theory of light and colour. See Wade, Destined 38.
Le Blon’s ambition was to print objects in their natural colours and especially to produce natural flesh colour. See Kivatsy.
We don’t know whether or not Blake read Hartley. It is possible that he was aware of the discussions about Priestley’s edition. George S. Rousseau stresses that Locke’s approach to the workings of the mind ultimately revolves around questions to do with physiology. He struggled when trying to explain “the physiology of the imagination”: “The imagination, he argued, must exist; observation and induction teach that no two men behold and describe a tree similarly; they cannot and indeed are not capable of expressing it alike or suggesting an identical connotation; therefore, while the tree exists, it is not existential in the sense the imagination is; in fact, the tree can exist only in the eye and imaginative faculty of the beholder” (89).
“Priestley, with the Dissenter’s education of his youth and his Calvinist learnings towards a belief in ‘the elect’ and predestination, was greatly taken with Hartley’s suggestions of the possibility of developing a higher type of awareness; his abridgement makes this mysticism the logical and highly desired consequence of man’s psychological growth” (Hatch 549).
Coleridge, for example when thinking back to the Lyrical Ballads, describes good poetry in terms of “the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination” (qtd. in Leitch 677).
Being inside the mind is not that comfortable in Europe, apart from having a roof over one’s head. Blake gives an architectural view of the mind which is not necessarily domestic. Steve Clark comments: “It is the domesticity of Locke’s mages of constriction—the senses as ‘the Windows by which light is let into this dark Room’ and ‘the Understanding’ as ‘not much unlike a Closet wholly shut from light’ (2:11:17)—that makes them peculiarly effective: the cramped and demeaning depiction of the human mind is thus given an unchallengeable familiarity. This self-evidence is what Blake is concerned to refute; his repeated depiction of a grotesque fall into senses that only act as barriers, agonizing impediments, is best read not as a Gnostic repudiation of the body, but as a protest against Locke’s naturalization of limits.” (139).
The camera obscura was very popular with artists because once its aperture was fitted with a convex lens, it did more than just reflect reality; it produced images superior to nature, because it enhanced colours and intensified light and shade (Kemp 193).
The impact of late eighteenth-century science on Romantic literature is examined in Alan Richardson’s British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Richardson points out that most of what is commonly regarded as typically Romantic is, in fact, also discussed in the medical writing of the time. The notion of interests shared between literature and science is important as it suggests, according to Richardson, that Romantic thinking has a materialist basis. Richardson writes: “Any number of motifs, ideals, and ‘discoveries’ routinely attributed to literary Romanticism—including the split or fragmented psyche; the revaluation of feeling, instinct, and intuition; the active mind; developmental models of subject formation; the unconscious; even a new, more humane construction of ‘idiocy’—feature prominently in the era’s emergent biological psychologies as well. […] I argue that these common focal points reveal an important though neglected area of overlap between Romantic-era literary and scientific representations of the mind as situated in and lived through the body” (xiv).
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