COWPER, WILLIAM (1731-1800)
PORTRAIT BY WILLIAM BLAKE. AFTER GEORGE ROMNEY (1734-1802), AND PRINTED ON BLAKE'S OWN PRESS BY HIS WIFE CATHERINE, engraving, head and shoulders, three-quarters turned to the left, wearing the lace cap which Lady Hesketh had given him, captioned 'From a Portrait in Crayons Drawn from the Life by Romney in 1792. Engraved by W. Blake 1802. William Cowper Carmine Nobilem. Publish'd Novembr: 5, 1802, by J. Johnson, St. Pauls Church Yard'; from the first state of William Hayley's, Life of Cowper, 1803, framed and glazed, size of image 9 ½ x 6 ½ inches (19.5 x 16 cm), overall size 17 ½ x 14 inches (45 x 35 cm), [1802-1803]
William Blake made this engraved version of Romney's portrait in 1802 as the frontispiece for William Hayley's The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper, 1803, having been commissioned by Hayley with other illustrations. Blake, who was Hayley's protégé, acted as the latter's amanuensis on the project, happy to do so because, as he had once said, he saw the 'Divine Countenance' in such men as Cowper and Milton more distinctly than in any prince or hero' and he admired both of them greatly. It is clear that 'Blake's earlier evangelical poetry and especially his "green" verse are influenced by Cowper'. Hayley and Cowper had met on finding that they were both engaged on writing the life of Milton; it was later proposed that Blake should engrave the illustrations for Cowper's Life of Milton.
The original of the present portrait, which was painted in 1792, had also been done at the instigation of Hayley and had occasioned Cowper's sonnet 'Romney! expert infallibly to trace...'. Hayley recorded that Romney's portrait was so successful that 'spectators who contemplated the portrait with the original at its side, thought it hardly possible for any similitude to be more striking, or more exact...Romney himself considered his portrait of Cowper as the nearest approach that he had ever made to a perfect representation of life and character.' .
Blake wrote to his brother Butts Blake on 30 January 1803: 'My Heads of Cowper for Mr H's life of Cowper have pleased his Relations exceedingly & in Particular Lady Hesketh and Lord Cowper -- to please Lady H. was a doubtful chance who almost admir'd her Cousin the poet & thought him all perfection, & she writes that she is quite satisfied with the portraits & charmed by the great Head in particular, tho' she could never bear the original Picture.' Blake also based his own tempera painting of Cowper for Hayley's study on Romney's original.
In a letter dated 30 June 1803, to his brother James, Blake stated that his 'Wife has undertaken to print the whole of the Plates [vols. i-ii of] Cowper's work' under his own supervision.
REFERENCES: G.M. Ella, William Cowper, Poet of Paradise, 1993; Mona Wilson, The Life of Blake, 1927; Robert N. Essick, William Blake's Commercial Book Illustrations, 1991, p. 85; Peter Ackroyd, Blake, 1995.