AT ONE of their rare encounters, Sir Joshua Reynolds is reported to have warned William Blake against extravagance.1 Apparently the younger artist was to strive for simplicity, the summum bonum of the Academic scheme of things, the "exact medium between too much and too little."
When one discovers that, at the time, Blake was probably engaged upon the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, the advice seems rather presumptuous, even though the Academician was doubtless unaware of the poetry in which the artist was achieving a lyric simplicity beyond all but a few poets. Besides, Blake was then working in a manner of art more "simple" than Reynolds's own. Such pictures as "The Ordeal of Queen Emma" and "The Penance of Jane Shore" (c. 1778) leave no doubt that the artist had learned the Neo-Classical and Academic lingoes of simplicity. In those paintings English men and women, garbed in classical costume, pose in simple and linear designs suggested by ancient sculptures and bas-reliefs and by Renaissance imitations of the Antique. They were examples of the historical or heroic art admired by connoisseurs and patriots in the late eighteenth century.
While still a child Blake formed what was to be a lifelong attachment to the "historic" in art, to the same sculptural or Michelangelesque or grand style which received its most persuasive apologia in the Discourses of Reynolds. Very early he began the serious study of art, working first from casts of ancient statues both at the school of Mr. Pars (who had been in Greece in connection with Stuart and Revett's Antiquities of Athens) and at home with the "plaster casts____________________