I feel that a man may be happy in this world, and 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 guinea 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. The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way.
William Blake to the Reverend Dr J Trusler, 23 August 1799
The first two letters shown here were written by William Blake to his patron, the Reverend John Trusler, an influential and wealthy priest, writer and publisher. Trusler had commissioned Blake to work on a series of moralistic paintings depicting subjects such as ‘malevolence’, ‘pride’ and ‘benevolence’. Blake was financially dependent on work of this kind.
Following Blake’s submission, Trusler had complained that the work focussed too heavily on the fantastical. Clearly aggravated, Blake responded by explaining that he had tried to follow the instructions for the designs as set out by Dr Trusler, but that he felt bound to follow his own esoteric, imaginative vision: ‘I find more & more that my style of designing is a species by itself, and in this which I send you have been compelled by my Genius or Angel to follow where he led’. Defending this approach, he writes, ‘that which can be made explicit to the idiot is not worth my care’.
Also shown here is the letter Blake wrote to his friend George Cumberland, who had introduced Trusler to Blake’s work and facilitated the commission. Blake explains that Trusler has returned his artwork to him along with a ‘letter full of criticisms’. According to Blake, Trusler wrote: ‘“Your fancy, from what I have seen of it, and I have seen a variety at Mr. Cumberland's, seems to be in the other world, or the world of spirits, which accords not with my intentions”’.
What does the letter dated 23 August tell us about Blake?
In the letter dated 23 August Blake sets out how his mind worked. The statement ‘I see every thing I paint in this world’, probably refers to the fact that Blake experienced his hallucinatory visions as real and concrete. But he describes these visions also as an act of will: people can choose to see beauty either in a coin or in the sun, Nature as ‘all Ridicule and Deformity’. He defends his radically imaginative outlook:
You certainly mistake, when you say that the visions of fancy are not to be found in this world. To me this world is all one continued vision of fancy or imagination, and I feel flattered when I am told so.
On the outside of the letter Dr Trusler has written ‘Blake dimmed by superstition’.