This letter was sent to William Blake’s friend George Cumberland. It is written by one of his sons, also called George Cumberland, and describes a visit to the Blakes’ house in South Moulton Street.
The older George Cumberland was a lifelong friend and supporter of William Blake. An artist and poet, he inherited a legacy which enabled him to travel to Italy and spend the rest of his life as an artist. He owned copies of several of Blake’s works, including the Songs of Innocence and of Experience. He was one of the early proponents of a national gallery of art.
Who wrote the letter?
Cumberland’s sons visited the Blakes and passed news on to their father. When they arrived the Blakes were drinking tea. Blake is reported as saying that he is ‘fearful that they will make too great a man of Napoleon and enable him to come to this country’. Blake, despite having worn the red cap of revolution as a young man, was clearly afraid of the invasion scares of this period of the Napoleonic wars. He was not a permanent anti-monarchist, having written a 20-line poem of dedication to the Queen in 1807. Mrs Blake is reported as saying that ‘if this country goes to war our K--g ought to lose his head.’
Catherine Blake was William Blake’s constant support and assistant throughout their life together. She signed the marriage register with a cross, so was possibly illiterate at this stage. Blake taught her to read and write, and she worked with him at the printing of Blake’s works. Cumberland responded to the letter that Blake was ‘a little cracked, but very honest – as to his wife she is the maddest of the two.’
What was happening at the time?
In March Napoleon had returned from exile to Paris and re-established himself as emperor. The threat of war hung over the country as Britain and her Russian, Prussian and other allies resolved to decisively remove Napoleon from power. In Britain the Corn Laws imposed duties on imported grain, raising the price of bread and making it more costly in times of poor harvests; in 1815 this led to serious rioting in London.