William Blake, Richard Phillips and the Monthly Magazine

Article excerpt

ABONG THE SATIRICAL VERSES THAT WILLIAM BLAKE WROTE IN HIS NOTEBOOK in the early 1800s are four lines that read:

   P--loved me, not as he lovd his Friends
   For he lovd them for gain to serve his Ends
   He loved me and for no Gain at all
   But to rejoice & triumph in my fall (1)

P--has been identified as the publisher Richard Phillips, (2) who played a brief but important role in Blake's life, as a partner in the publishing of a book with Blake's illustrations and as publisher of the Monthly Magazine. Exploring Blake's relations with Phillips in these two capacities will give us a better idea of Blake's life and interests in the years immediately following his move back to London in 1803 after three years' absence.

Upon returning from what he called "my three years Slumber on the banks of the Ocean," (3) Blake began to reestablish himself in the professional world of engraving in London. His first project involved the ballads that had initially been issued as quartos in Sussex, featuring William Hayley's poems about animals and Blake's engravings after his own designs. This enterprise had been Hayley's idea from the beginning, his purpose being to get some money for Blake. In 1802 four ballads were issued in quarto, the texts printed by William Seagrave in Chichester and the plates by William and Catherine Blake in their Felpham cottage, and marketed by Hayley among his friends. However, the hoped-for benefit to Blake did not materialize. Hayley reported on 30 April 1803 that Blake had paid 30 [pounds sterling] for paper and had not received even half that sum from sales. (4) In a later letter to Hayley (28 December 1804), Blake mentions "the Twelve Guineas which you Lent Me when I made up 30 Pounds to pay our Worthy Seagrave in part of his Account" (E 760), and says that he would deduct that amount from his price for engraving The Shipwreck by George Romney for Hayley's Life. So at the end of 1804 Blake was still paying the costs of the 1802 Ballads. A year later he had still not been able to repay Seagrave, for on 11 December 1805 he asked Hayley to give his thanks to "the Generous Seagrave. In whose Debt I have been too long," adding optimistically "but percieve that I shall be able to settle with him soon what is between us" (E 761).

Despite the fact that the 1802 Ballads had been a financial failure, (5) Blake hoped that an octavo edition with re-engraved plates would succeed. With Blake's benefit once more in mind, in 1805 Hayley proposed (at Blake's suggestion) an octavo volume of the Ballads to Phillips. Phillips's ready acceptance of this proposal was no doubt influenced by his wish to succeed James Dodsley (d. 1797) as Hayley's principal publisher. Besides, the terms left him with little to lose. On 22 January 1805 Blake informed Hayley "[t]hat one thousand copies should be the first edition, and, if we choose, we might add to the number of plates in a second edition. And he will go equal shares with me in the expense and the profits, and that Seagrave is to be the printer" (E 763). Typically optimistic at the beginning of a project, Blake wrote in the same letter: "Truly proud I am to be in possession of this beautiful little estate; for that it will be highly productive I have no doubt." Blake gave Hayley further details of the arrangement on March 22. There were to be five "highly finished" plates by Blake by May 28, "the Price 20 Guineas Each half to be paid by P-" (E 763). So Blake would earn 50 guineas toward his share of the publishing costs.

Trouble with Phillips had begun by 4 June 1805, when Blake wrote to Hayley: "I have fortunately, I ought to say providentially, discovered that I have engraved one of the plates for that ballad of The Horse which is omitted in the new edition; time enough to save the extreme loss and disappointment which I should have suffered had the work been completed without that ballad's insertion" (E 765). Providence entered into it because Phillips had sent Blake a proof of the last sheet of the Ballads for forwarding to the printer Joseph Seagrave in Chichester, and so Blake learned that the volume was to end with Hayley's fifteenth ballad, "The Baya: Or the Indian Bird," and not with the sixteenth, "The Horse," for which Blake had engraved a plate. …