Wednesday, 23 August 2023

Another Engraver in South Molton Street

I recently purchased the engraved trade-card of John Claude Nattes, (c 1765-1839), topographical draughtsman, drawing master, print dealer, and occasional print-maker, who lived in South Molton Street from c 1787 to some time after 1795. The card  shows a monument with two hooded figures on top flanking a group of art-related objects including a palette and brushes, a pyramid behind; trees in the foreground to the left. The plinth of the monument is inscribed "Mr Nattes, 49 South Molton Strt.".

The card has been trimmed to the image  (50 x 79 mm.) but other copies now in the British Museum supply an imprint: "C.N. [i.e. Claude Nattes] del.    W. Angus sc.".

Thursday, 17 August 2023

The Whore Next Door: William Blake’s Neighbours in South Molton Street.

I write in South Molton Street, what I both see and hear
In regions of Humanity, in Londons opening streets.
William Blake, Jerusalem (E 180)

In September 1803, after an absence of three years in the coastal village of Felpham in Sussex, William and Catherine Blake returned to London. Initially they lodged with William's brother and sister, James and Catherine Elizabeth Blake, at 28 Broad Street, later Broadwick Street, Carnaby Market. Less than a month later, William and Catherine moved into a two-room flat on the first floor of 17 South Molton Street, off Oxford Street. During their 17 years of residence there, the Blakes printed and coloured their most ambitious illuminated books.

The house was shared with their landlords, successively the tailor William Enoch (c 1803-4) and his family, and the staymaker Mark Martin (c 1805-21), his wife Eleanor and their family. There were presumably other lodgers on the upper floors.

In 1958 the Westminster voters’ list records the following persons as resident at 17 South Molton Street: Ida Golz, Anthony S. Gotlop, Frank Holland, Leah Laden, Minnie Sandground, and Stanley V. Sandground. I believe at this time the residents occupied cold-water flats on the upper floors, with commercial premises on the ground floor and basement.

Sunday, 5 June 2022

William Blake and smallpox : the disease in Blake’s London and in Blake’s art

Smallpox was the single most lethal disease in eighteenth-century Britain, accounting for more deaths than any other infectious disease, even plague and cholera. In London, Europe’s largest city by 1700, smallpox increased from 4-6% of all burials in the mid-seventeenth century to over 10% in the third quarter of the eighteenth century, and the frequency of epidemics increased from roughly four-yearly to a biennial cycle over the same period.

Smallpox was an acute, highly contagious, and frequently fatal disease (killing one-seventh to one-quarter of its victims) but conferring lifelong immunity on survivors. It appeared initially as an infrequent epidemic disease affecting all ages, but as the frequency of epidemics increased, a growing proportion of the adult population acquired immunity to the disease, and smallpox was clearly a childhood disease in the London-born population of the eighteenth century, with children under five the main victims. Among those who survived it, morbidity from smallpox was severe in many cases; victims could be left blind or disfigured for life. Few native Londoners would have survived to adulthood without encountering smallpox.

[Indeed, are there any depictions of smallpox in Blake’s work?]

William Hayley and Smallpox

William Hayley (1745-1820) is remembered today chiefly as the much-derided Felpham Billy, the Bard of Sussex, the friend or enemy of William Blake. But he was a generous and effective patron and friend to Cowper, Romney, Flaxman, and Blake, as well as many others; and it is perhaps unjust that his name should chiefly live in the spiky epigrams which Blake jotted down in his notebook

Thy Friendship oft has made my heart to ake
Do be my Enemy for Friendships sake.

In his lifetime, Hayley was an acclaimed poet, a scholar who achieved both commercial and critical success before, towards the end of his life, his work fell out of fashion. He was the first person to publish a substantial extract of Dante’s Divine Comedy in English translation, declined the offer of the poet laureateship (partly for political reasons), and, in his biographical writings, often explored issues of mental health. His literary efforts extended to drama, biographies of Milton and Cowper, an essay on sculpture, and endless epitaphs (many of them accompanying monuments in Chichester cathedral). He was also an amateur physician, treating himself, his household, and the villagers of Felpham with the then-fashionable electrical cure.

Despite having written a bestselling and highly influential book advising young women on how to attract and keep a husband (The Triumphs of Temper, 1781, and innumerable subsequent editions), Hayley’s own romantic life was a failure, with two disastrous marriages.


Visitors to the Tate Britain William Blake exhibition of 11 September 2019—2 February 2020, were met by a sign reading


The art of William Blake contains
strong and sometimes challenging
imagery, including some depictions
of violence and suffering.

Please ask a member of the staff if
you would like more information.

I thought this a reasonable warning to any parent taking a child to the exhibition. But a handful of journalists reporting on the exhibition tried to make hay out of this sign, claiming that it was tantamount to censoring Blake, seemingly unaware of Blake’s Stedman engravings and the horrors they depict in such careful detail.

Wednesday, 26 January 2022

“Inoculation should be common everywhere”

MacDougall Arts, “Important Russian Art”, auction sale 1 December 2021. Lot 14: “Portrait of the Empress Catherine the Great by Dmitry Levitsky, with Letter from Catherine the Great to Count Piotr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev on vaccination [sic] against smallpox, 20 April 1787”.

Just over a month ago, on 1st December 2021, MacDougall Arts, of St. James's Square, held one of their regular sales of Russian works of art. Included in the auction was a portrait of Catherine II, Empress of all the Russias, otherwise Catherine the Great, by Dmitry Levitsky (1735-1822), together with a letter from Catherine to Count Piotr Aleksandrovich Rumiantsev outlining her inoculation strategy against smallpox. (The two items together sold for £951,000, if that’s of any interest.) This sale was the impetus or trigger for a talk I gave to the Blake Society AGM (19 January 2022). The title I gave it : “Inoculation should be common Everywhere”, derives from this  letter by Catherine the Great.

Sunday, 21 November 2021

Milton: titlepage or frontispiece

The Blake Society Zoom meeting of October 15, 2021, was devoted to MILTON AND THE COTTAGE. The following notes are a response to the first part of the discussion and are concerned with the titlepage (some think of it as a frontispiece; it has elements of both) to Blake’s Milton a Poem in 2 Books (1804).

Milton plate 1; copy A, British Museum.

Plate 1 of Milton presents a nude man, the spiritual form of the poet John Milton, against a background of smoke and flames. In copy A, the vortex of billowing smoke is clearly shown emerging from Milton’s left palm and, to a lesser extent, from his right wrist. (It is not so obvious in some later impressions; and is ignored by many commentators.) At the bottom is Milton’s motto from Paradise Lost: To Justify the Ways of God to Men.