William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827)

Image: “Portrait of Master Bunbury” (1780-1781), by Joshua Reynolds. The sitter is his three-year-old godson, whose attention the artist captured during the long sittings by telling fairy tales.

From: Blake (1995), by Peter Ackroyd:

“…Joshua Reynolds himself was, according to Oliver Goldsmith, “gentle, complying and bland”, an artist whose fashionable taste and orthodox aesthetic would have meant little or nothing to Blake. In the first address or “discourse” to the students that Blake heard, Reynolds extolled the idea of “general beauty” and the pursuit of “general truth”, while going on to say that “we perceive by sense, we combine by fancy, and distinguish by reason … the beauty of which we are in quest is general and intellectual”.

The address lasted only ten minutes or so, but it would have been quite long enough for William Blake. His later annotations to Reynolds’ Literary Works are filled with indignation and disgust, but the source of his anger can be located in these student days. He was also scathing about Reynolds’s professions of humility; indeed Blake considered humility to be a form of hypocrisy, an attitude that throws an interesting light on his own temperament.

Reynolds: I felt my ignorance, and stood abashed.

Blake: A Liar he never was Abashed in his Life & never felt his Ignorance.

Reynolds: I consoled myself by remarking that these ready inventors are extremely apt to acquiesce in imperfection.

Blake: Villainy a Lie.

Reynolds: But this disposition to abstractions … is the great glory of the human mind.

Blake: To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit – General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.

Reynolds: The great use in copying, if it be at all useful, should seem to be in learning to colour.

Blake: Contemptible.

Reynolds: But as mere enthusiasm will carry you but a little way . . .

Blake: Damn the Fool, Mere Enthusiasm is the All in All!

Blake remembered one moment in the company of the great and famous President.

Reynolds: Well, Mr Blake, I hear you despise our art of oil painting.

Blake: No, Sir Joshua, I don’t despise it; but I like fresco better…”

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