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William à Beckett’s copy of Young’s Night Thoughts


The coloured copy of William Blake’s set of engravings for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts (1797), recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria, is one of the most interesting so far described. Although several censuses have been taken of the twenty-odd coloured copies known to collectors and scholars, the one offered for sale by Sotheby’s and purchased for the Gallery with the help of funds from the Felton Bequest was not among them, and does not fit into any of the accepted colouring schemes. This copy, the twenty-fifth to be listed, appears to be unique in its style of colouring, not following a pattern authorised by Blake, although closely contemporary and revealing intelligence as well as flair, even where wrong decisions have clearly been made by the unknown colourist. It is significant as a guide to the taste of the period and as such its interest transcends that of its valuable local associations; it was apparently the first Blake work to have been brought to Australia (to Sydney and to Melbourne) and was owned by one of the young colony’s leading jurists as well as, at a later date, by the Gallery’s most famous benefactor. 

It seems best provisionally to designate this as William à Beckett’s copy, since nothing is yet known of the earlier owner, Benjamin Stiner (or Stines). At the base of the spine of the binding the date ‘LONDON 1798’ is still discernible, which establishes an early date for the colouring, the more especially as there are no signs of counterproofing to indicate that the copy was coloured after binding (as is often the case with other copies). However a frontispiece pasted in by an early owner is an impression on laid India paper from the 1808 folio edition of The Grave, which was engraved by Louis Schiavonetti after the painting by Thomas Phillips for the first (1808) edition of Blair’s The Grave. This portrait has perhaps been initialled by Schiavonetti, in pencil at lower left. Stiner’s name does not appear among subscribers to The Grave

Assuming that William à Beckett (1806-69) brought his copy of the Night Thoughts out to Australia with him when he came to New South Wales in 1837, ten years after Blake’s death, he was the first individual in the colony known to have owned a Blake work. He was already noted as the author of a substantial work in three large volumes called A Universal Biography (in which Blake appears not to have figured) and had published a volume of youthful verse in 1824, The Siege of Dumbarton Castle; indeed, for some years thereafter he seems to have supported himself principally as a hack writer. As solicitor-general for New South Wales, and later first chief justice for Victoria, à Beckett was known as ‘a man of culture and refinement’. 

Scholars wishing to establish a personal relationship between à Beckett and Blake might be struck by the maiden name of à Beckett’s cousin, Emily Hayley, whom he married on 1 October 1832, and the poet and biographer William Hayley, who was Blake’s patron during the early years of the century. à Beckett had lived for some years with Emily’s mother, his aunt, Mrs Hayley, after quarrelling with his father over his wish to become a barrister. Mrs Hayley and two of Emily’s sisters later came out to Australia with the à Becketts, who then had three children. Emily Hayley died on 1 June 1841, leaving à Beckett with five children, and in 1849 he married Emily’s youngest sister, Matilda.1The close familial tie is of some legal interest, discussed in E. G. Coppel, ‘The first chief justice of Victoria’, Australian Law Journal, vol. 27, 30 July 1953, pp. 209–22, especially pp. 212 ff. At that time the family was resident in Collins Street, Melbourne. However, this branch of the Hayley family does not seem to be closely related to Blake’s Hayley. The Annual Register (vol. XXIV p. 213), marks the death in 1781 of a George Hayley, a London alderman, but does not disclose whether William à Beckett’s aunt was George’s daughter. 

Sir William à Beckett, as he then was, returned to England in 1863, so we must presume that this is the latest date at which the Night Thoughts copy remained in his hands. In 1863 Alfred Felton (1831–1904) was a wholesale druggist in Swanston Street, Melbourne. This seems rather early for him to have been active as a collector and the book may have been in other hands before passing to Felton, perhaps through Angus and Robertson at their shop at 89 Castlereagh Street, Sydney. David Angus and George Robertson became partners in 1886 and established themselves in Castlereagh Street in 1890. Their label with this address is pasted inside the front cover of the book. Where the book may have lodged in the intervening thirty years or so, if Felton did not own it, is unguessable. 

The sale of the Felton Collection of books was held on 5–6 May 1904 at the auction rooms of Gemmell, Tuckett and Company, and presumably was there acquired by Robert Carl and Marion Oak Sticht. Robert Carl Sticht (1856–1922) was, as his name suggests, an American by birth, hailing from Hoboken, New Jersey. He had become chief metallurgist to the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Company in Tasmania in 1894 and by 1897 was general manager of the company. He had married Marion Oak Staige in January 1895. Sticht was one of the big collectors, being noted as ‘a highly cultivated man, interested in music, art and literature’.2P. Serle (ed.), Dictionary of Australian Biography, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1949, vol. 2, p. 364. It seems surprising that the Sticht copy of Night Thoughts failed to find a home in the National Gallery of Victoria, or at least in the public library, in 1922, because the trustees of the Felton Bequest presented Sticht’s ‘large collection of drawings by old masters, engravings, etchings, and a collection of examples of early typography of extraordinary value, to the public library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria, and many of his scarce and valuable books were bought by the library’. Possibly the Young illustrations fell under the same odium which prevented the Felton trustees from making a large Blake purchase from Britain, one which would have superbly complemented the Dante collection.3ibid.; see also Irena Zdanowicz’s introduction in Martin Butlin & Ted Gott, William Blake in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, p. 15.

The local interest in the à Beckett copy is considerable because of the illustrious hands through which it is known to have passed. The interest of international Blake scholars or of art historians at large is of a different order. The Clarendon Press Night Thoughts editors4John E. Grant, Edward J. Rose, Michael J. Tolley & David V. Erdman (eds), William Blake’s Designs for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, 2 vols, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, vol. 1. have taught themselves to look out for particular features in the coloured copies that freshly come to their attention. Their principal concern has been to seek to establish any traces of a Blake-authorised pattern of colouring. What they would most like to find, of course, is a copy that is signed by Blake himself. So far there have been no means of securely attaching any one copy or group of copies to Blake, although such claims are sometimes made for individual copies by their owners. The copies that are known to exist tend to fall into three groups. Martin Butlin first made the observation that ‘copies of Young’s Night Thoughts seem to have been coloured in two distinct styles, the first of about 1797, and the second, similar in effect to the coloured copies of Hayley’s Triumphs of Temper (1803, owned by George Goyder) and Ballads (1805, owned by the late S. Foster Damon) of about 1805’.5ibid., p. 53. These dates are disputable but otherwise Butlin’s comment seems sound enough. As the editors reported in 1980: 

The two chief types can be distinguished quite simply by whether the huge bearded figure of Death in E. 1 (NT 6), the title-page for Night the First, is wearing a robe of white or a robe of green … The two types are designated as Type I, White Death, and Type II, Green Death; there are fifteen located copies of the former and six copies of the latter. There is also one copy, designated as Type III, Grey Death, which differs from all the others sufficiently to suggest that it should be set apart as a separate type. One further copy, which does not seem to correspond to any of the located copies, was reported by Moss and Bentley.6ibid. 

Since these words were written the situation has not changed in essentials, although another Type I copy has been described. However, the à Beckett copy, though it has a White Death in the first engraving (fig. 1), does not belong to Type I; it is either a Type IV copy or should be placed with the Grey Death and the incompletely described copy in a third group holding all the anomalous coloured copies. 

On a White Death copy two features are checked immediately. These are what has come to be known as the grotesque colouring found on Disease in ‘Night the First’, page 10 (E. 6, NT 24), (fig. 2) and, less obviously, elsewhere; and the pencilled monogram, known as the ‘J C monogram’ (though it could be a capital ‘H’), found on some pages in at least five copies and supposed to be the signature of a particular colourist. This monogram may or may not be found in association with a further pencil marking on some pages, ‘As Pattern’, found in three copies (two of which, I–10 and I–13, also have the J C monogram). None of these markings appears in the à Beckett copy. The colouring of Disease will be discussed later. 

 

‘Night the Second’ title-page 

A peculiar feature of the 1797 edition of Night Thoughts is that some copies contain an early state of the title-page for ‘Night the Second’ of Young’s poem (fig. 3). This state has been discussed in the introduction to the Clarendon Press edition of Night Thoughts.7ibid., pp. 21 ff., 56. It is the third of the four states of the engraving and is most notable in retaining from the second state, though in a less egregious form, feminine breasts on the figure of the (otherwise clearly masculine) friend who stands in the lap of Time. In the second and third states this friend also has a pot-belly and a provocative smile. In the final state, the one found most frequently in copies of the 1797 edition, this figure is fully masculine and his smirk is removed. The third state has been observed in two of the coloured copies, now in the Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, both of which are in the Green Death group (following the colouring given to Death’s robe on the title-page to ‘Night the First’); accordingly they are placed together as Type IIA–1 and IIA–2 by the Clarendon editors.8ibid., p. 22. However, the colouring in these two copies is not so striking as to have drawn the attention of the editors particularly to the androgynous quality of the figure. Such is not the case with the à Beckett copy, where the more rounded style of outlining tends to emphasise, rather than mitigate, the feminine breasts, and where no attempt is made to diminish the friend’s effeminate smile. 

One further feature of the colouring of figure 3 is helpful, in that it reveals a detail of the third state of the engraving hitherto undescribed (ignoring various other differences which have been noted previously.) Death’s left arm is usually given a sleeve in the colouring, making it clear that there is a cuff-line at the top, so that Death’s left cheek rests against his inverted fist. In this respect the coloured engravings follow the pattern of the watercolour. However, in the third state, as in earlier ones, this cuff-line is absent, leaving the colourist free to interpret the arm as bare, with the inferred hand hidden behind the back of Time: indeed, the contouring of the engraved lines in what would become the cuff area is compatible only with the modelling there of Death’s shoulder. 

Theoretically, painting of this print could have begun as early as 27 June 1796, the imprint date given to the third state, although other pages in the set would have had to wait until after 1 June 1797, the final imprint date given to plates (not all are so dated). However, if we assume that colouring did not begin until after the whole book was compiled, then the autumn of 1797 seems a more likely date (Gilchrist, Blake’s biographer, states that the book was issued at that time).9ibid. On the other hand, it has been argued by the editors that ‘sheets in the third state, being the earliest printed, would be lowest in the pile of printed sheets and likely to be the latest bound’.10ibid. This argument was probably invented to accommodate Martin Butlin’s conjecture that the Green Death colour scheme dated from about 1805, notably later than that of the White Death scheme. It seems more likely to me now that sheets in the third state, being the earliest printed, would have been found only in the earliest completed copies, since the decision to print from a fourth state must have implied some dissatisfaction with the third, and therefore the replacement of all the third state by new fourth state sheets. 

A reason for such dissatisfaction is not, in this case, far to seek. The publisher, Richard Edwards, may not immediately have noticed the effeminate appearance of the friend in Time’s lap and so have allowed some copies containing the third state to be issued. Thereafter, prudential reasons, particularly a desire to avoid charges of indecency, might have prompted an urgent meeting with the engraver at which the publisher could have pleaded with him to be faithful to the outlines of the watercolour. All the same, it is puzzling that early pulls should have been lying around for a year in advance of such a decision and, without the evidence of the handful of copies that include the third state, we should have expected the decision to have been taken more or less immediately after the publisher inspected it in June or July 1796. Furthermore, the third state is not homogeneous in other, stylistic, respects with most of the final states of the published engravings, whereas the fourth state is fully so. 

In its capricious playing with one of the figures, the ‘Night the Second’ title-page is comparable only with page 23 (fig. 4), where the central angel was first drawn as an owl before being returned to the form he had in the watercolour (fig. 5). However, no early state of page 23 survives with an imprint date (the date given the second, final, state is also 27 June 1796). It seems likely that an editorial decision was made around July 1796 to exclude (additional) authorial whimsicality from the engraved series. Thus it seems doubtful that there were ever many sheets extant with the third state of the title-page. In any case, Blake was probably glad to take the opportunity to correct the cuff outline and refine details of Time’s wings and certain features of Death’s beard and clothing, besides the perhaps over-prominent furrowing of the ground. 

The colourist’s complicity in the over-rounded outlines of the friend in figure 3, when it is taken with the touching-up of nipples and lips and other details, such as the careful revealing of limbs through thin cloth, as in the ‘Night the Third’ title-page, make one wonder whether a certain perceived indecency was not indeed a desirable feature of the illustrations for some owners of the 1797 Night Thoughts. Although Blake’s style of nudity is characteristically chaste and although some deliberate acts of censorship (concealment of genitals by knees or hair, for instance) are apparent in the series, he nevertheless does offer a number of attractive male and female nude or semi-nude forms to his viewers. Purchasers of Blair’s The Grave are known to have complained about this aspect of Blake’s art. 

Peculiarities of colouring 

The à Beckett copy’s colourist made several interesting decisions which are not elsewhere duplicated. Some of these are clearly wrong decisions that spring from misreading Blake’s intentions but only one might fairly be called a stupid error. This occurs in ‘Night the Fourth’ on page 75 (E. 35, NT 125), (fig. 6) where Blake depicts the Sun hiding his face in his hands as his horses rear violently, apparently checked in their course by the dark clouds rising from the scene of the Crucifixion, to illustrate the (unmarked) lines: 

The sun beheld it—no, the shocking scene 

Drove back his chariot; midnight veil’d his face, 

Not such as this [the time at which the poem is written], 

not such as nature makes; 

A midnight nature shudder’d to behold[.] 

 

Blake has given the sun-god’s horses fiery tails, and flames issue from their mouths and nostrils, but because he has presented the heads of the four horses from the underside, so that we do not see their eyes, they are not immediately recognisable, though we have the guidance of a fetlock and hoof below them. The colourist seems to have interpreted the bridles, despite their yellow studs, as the rims of transparent vents and has run the flames up through them from the base of what should be the horses’ throats. Conceivably the colourist assumed that Blake intended the horses’ heads to be all on fire, but the engraving gives no support for that idea and one would have thought that the grey and pale-yellow skin colouring given the foreleg, in harmony with the horse’s lower body and the tails (which might have been treated as reddish flames), would have guided the colourist to paint the heads similarly. 

The colourist seems to have found the engraver’s signals confusing when painting page 23 in ‘Night the Second’ (E. 13, NT 44), (fig. 4). What Blake has designed is a kind of substantial pavilion, which is pitched outside in a cloudy night-time setting in the watercolour but has no background in the engraving. In the watercolour there is evidently some kind of back wall to the pavilion interior, which has been exposed by the drawing back on the left of a heavy curtain, but the low bed in the foreground protrudes rather oddly at the right in front of the white solid wall or doorpost, flanked by or incorporating two slender pillars, apparently in low relief. Because of the diagonal formed in front of the left of these pillars by the protruding bed, there is a half- suggestion that what we see is not so much a single broad support for the roof as an interior angular view of the right-hand wall, which is oddly lit with a confusing (or merely careless) partial shadow thrown upon it (a shadow omitted from the engraving). However, because the portico of the pavilion is clearly made of, or at least faced with, substantial-looking stone, one would expect the doorpost itself to be a substantial broad column, viewed head-on. In the engraving the signals are yet more confused than in the watercolour, in that the facing of the headstone is treated differently in the right margin, where it is given close (slightly wavy) vertical grooving or texturing, from the way it is treated in the left – ordinary flat-faced stones. 

Although other colourists seem to have been understandably puzzled by this arrangement, which we might charitably ascribe to a lack of finishing on the engraver’s part, to the extent of sometimes painting the stone lilac grey (the curtains are usually reddish), none of them decided to make the two pillars the sole support for the roof and to show the sky between them. In giving reddish colouring to the two pillars the à Beckett colourist seems to have decided that they are made of wood, and the whole is not so much a tent as a kind of gigantic four-poster bed set in the open air. Although the upper part of the pavilion (the canopy of the bed) has been given a light-grey stone colouring, so also has the curtain, though it is a little more yellow, with some reddish brown in the shading, and suggests basically a white textile material. 

Another place where it is surprising to find a feature of the design treated as if it were made of wood is in the illustration for page 35 in ‘Night the Second’ (E. 20, NT 64), (fig.7). What is clearly a plant behind and above the old woman’s chair in the watercolour is given the same flesh-red (wood) pigment as the chair itself in the à Beckett copy. This adds what perhaps can be considered an agreeable touch of whimsical fantasy to the puzzling design; even considered as a living vine, the plant’s unsupported upward extension has bothered the commentators, uncertain whether it represents vigorous growth or insufficiently propped and rooted facile – ‘hubristic’ tendencies in the ‘young idea’ as it were. In this picture, as elsewhere, it is also notable that the colourist is uneasy with blank spaces: the whole of the sky is made grey or cloudy, whereas the young woman’s cloud floats in a blue sky and much is left uncoloured in the watercolour. 

 

The colourist’s abhorrence of vacuum is more notable in another instance where he or she has not remained satisfied with Blake’s suggestion, in a design that does not fill the page, of a vortex or whirlwind within which Death flies, hurtling around the text panel and down to strike at his victims, a mother and child. This effect is present in both engraving in ‘Night the First’, page 13 (E. 8), (fig. 8a) and watercolour (NT 31), (fig. 8b). What is set indeterminately as an interior or exterior scene by Blake is made fully exterior by the colourist, who has decided to read the sharp curve of the vortex at lower left as the outline of a tree trunk, and has used stippling and blotching effects to suggest a woodland setting in which vague fungi proliferate. Elsewhere the colourist occasionally blots paint that has been heavily applied, most strikingly on page 72 (E. 33, NT 119), (fig. 9) in the cloudy grey sky at right. 

What may seem a more perverse decision, in that it clearly goes against the engraver’s instructions, is the giving of substantial fleshy form to the upper female spirit in the right margin of the title-page to ‘Night the First’ (fig. 1). In the engraving she is evidently a transparent or ghostly form, one who has passed beyond the veil of Death and so is ready to be greeted by the welcoming angels. In this coloured copy she is given full flesh toning, even red lips and nipple and navel, with grey eye-shadow; there is no suggestion of transparency. 

I mentioned earlier that there is a perceived ‘grotesqueness’ of the colouring of Disease in some of the Type I, White Death copies, (fig. 2). There exists a controversy over whether this is an accidental effect, produced by ageing of the pigment used, or a deliberate one. Although chemical testing bears out the theory that the grotesque quality is at least partly the effect of age, I remain persuaded that the effect, as it appears on the figure of Disease, is a deliberately ugly one, caused by tilting the page to allow wet paint to run messily over the outlines. Such an effect might well have been authorised by Blake in an experimental mood, although the tint he employs for Disease in his own watercolour is a light yellow. By allocating to Disease a white robe (with some light-brown shading), and by neatly following the markings of the engraving to give Disease a naked torso above a high but ungirdled waistline, the à Beckett colourist has shown independence of the two schemes which, in their very different ways, both appear iconographically significant: Blake’s yellow of jaundice or the sickly grey ugliness of the Type I copies. 

One small effect which has not yet been explained is the appearance of a white star in the rather dull sky at right on page 55 (E. 28, NT 96), (fig. 10). First examination suggests that this was not produced during the printing or colouring process, so there may have been an alteration in the plate, whether deliberate or not is hard to say. 

Australia now has its own coloured copy of the 1797 Night Thoughts, as well as several that are uncoloured.11It has only now been discovered that one of these copies, that in the State Library of Victoria, was owned by John Pascoe Fawkner, one of the ’founders of Melbourne’, between 1860 and 1868. Fawkner obtained it from ‘Brockway’, conceivably (as Michael Watson suggests) George G. Brockway, who was employed in the library from December 1858, first as an attendant; he retired as principal assistant on 29 February 1888. The good taste and restraint of the à Beckett colourist, the care with shadows and reflected light, and his or her working within a range of subdued colours would tend to stand out from the relative gaudiness of some others. This latest acquisition thus serves to augment the outstanding value of the Dante drawings which make the National Gallery of Victoria so much envied in the other hemisphere. 

Michael J. Tolley, Associate Professor, Department of English, University of Adelaide (in 1989). 

Notes 

1          The close familial tie is of some legal interest, discussed in E. G. Coppel, ‘The first chief justice of Victoria’, Australian Law Journal, vol. 27, 30 July 1953, pp. 209–22, especially pp. 212 ff. 

2          P. Serle (ed.), Dictionary of Australian Biography, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1949, vol. 2, p. 364. 

3          ibid.; see also Irena Zdanowicz’s introduction in Martin Butlin & Ted Gott, William Blake in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, p. 15. 

4          John E. Grant, Edward J. Rose, Michael J. Tolley & David V. Erdman (eds), William Blake’s Designs for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, 2 vols, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1980, vol. 1. 

5          ibid., p. 53. 

6          ibid. 

7          ibid., pp. 21 ff., 56. 

8          ibid., p. 22. 

9          ibid. 

10        ibid. 

11        It has only now been discovered that one of these copies, that in the State Library of Victoria, was owned by John Pascoe Fawkner, one of the ’founders of Melbourne’, between 1860 and 1868. Fawkner obtained it from ‘Brockway’, conceivably (as Michael Watson suggests) George G. Brockway, who was employed in the library from December 1858, first as an attendant; he retired as principal assistant on 29 February 1888.