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I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision. I see every thing I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guineas is more beautiful than the sun, and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes.
William Blake to the Reverend Dr J Trusler, 23 August 1799
This is a pair of letters William Blake wrote to Dr Trusler, who had commissioned him to provide a watercolour illustrating the idea of ‘malevolence’. In the first letter, sent on 16 August 1799, Blake explains that he has tried to follow the instructions for the designs as set out by Dr Trusler, but that his own imagination has taken over. In the second letter, sent on 23 August 1799, he continues the same theme. Dr Trusler has complained that Blake is drawing things which are not there, but Blake’s reaction is that what ‘can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care’.
Also shown here is the letter that, three days later, Blake wrote to his friend George Cumberland who had set up the commission. Blake was dependent for income on this kind of work. Trusler was an influential and wealthy writer and publisher, whose works in the fields of medicine, sermon-writing, self-help books, and general moral texts were widely known.
In this letter Blake sets out how his mind worked. Particularly the statement ‘I see every thing I paint in this world’, refers to Blake’s eidetic vision - seeing as real and concrete the images which appeared to him as visions. But he describes these visions also as an act of will: people can see beauty either in a coin or in the sun, Nature as ‘all Ridicule and Deformity’ (and here he is referring to works by artists such as Gillray and Rowlandson – the ‘caricature prints’ that have ‘perverted’ Trusler’s eye), while Blake says ‘by these I shall not regulate my proportions’. There are echoes in these direct words of the challenging statements in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790).
On the outside of the letter Dr Trusler has written ‘Blake dimmed by superstition’; while Blake clearly had a dim view of Trusler’s view of art, calling it ‘caricature’.
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The French Revolution inspired London radicals and reformers to increase their demands for change. Others called for moderation and stability, while the government tried to suppress radical activity. Professor Andrew Lincoln describes the political environment in which William Blake was writing.
Michael Phillips compares the title page of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence to an earlier children’s book, in order to reveal Blake's progressive views on the importance and power of childhood.