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Two Radical Engravers: Blake’s Prophetic Mask and Gillray’s Witty Caricature

Two Radical Engravers: Blake’s Prophetic Mask and Gillray’s Witty Caricature

18세기영문학 v.5 no.2 , 2008년, pp.69 - 100  

Chiefly through the comparison between the two distinctive artistic styles of James Gillray and William Blake, who shared the radical history of the British Romantic period but represented the experience in drastically different ways, this essay attempts to explore the artistic revolution in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Particularly focusing on some questions like why Blake made his prophetic poems, especially the ones he published in the 1790s, so hard to understand with common sense, and what the most conspicuous differences between the two artists are, this essay also aims to read the features of Gillray’s and Blake’s visual strategy in their works. As is known, one enjoyed the greatest popularity even by publicly displaying his works and being liked by George III, and the other failed even getting enough number of customers for sustenance during his life time, which obviously resulted, to a large extent, from the artists’ attitude toward the radical mood of the period. To deal with this issue, the essay examines revolutionary aspects of the artistic practices of the two engravers and the issue of audience of their art works as well. Additionally, building upon the previous scholarship on this topic, the essay goes over the artistic influence among some famous engravers and painters to re-evaluate Blake’s stylistic debt to Gillray and others: especially as to Satan, Sin, and Death that many artists, including Blake and Gillray, imitated each other. In a sense, this essay argues, Gillray’s popularity came from his quick and acute reading of the political events that he made available for the wide mass public including in the middle and lower class people in cheap price. In other words, his engravings are designed, from the outset, to reach as many audiences as possible through the use of familiar iconographic characteristics of caricature and by regularly updating the subject of them in accordance with different socio-political happenings taking place around the actual customers. Furthermore, Gillray’s engravings might have had the pathological function of relieving the socio-political anxiety that widely pervaded the mass public. On the contrary, the obscurity or the prophetic mask in Blake’s engravings originates from his witnessing the indictment of not a few of his close acquaintances such as Thomas Paine in 1792, William Sharp in 1794, and Joseph Johnson in 1798―and in effect, he was put into trial for seditious utterances in 1804. Such dangerous political surroundings and fear of being indicted for the Royal Proclamation against Seditious Writings and Publications promulgated and reinforced in 1792 undoubtedly affected Blake’s artistic style of cloaking his radicalism in obscurity opposed to the more explicitly readable iconographies Gillray adopted. Even though both Gillray and Blake were members of the Royal Academy respectively in 1778 and in 1779, their revolutionary artistic styles are so much different from the conventional manner of the time that highlighted realistic description of the world, i.e., Classicism, bolstered by London Society of Antiquaries and the new Royal Academy. This essay also tries to show that the importance of artistic revolution through the examination of the two engravers in order to claim that it was not only by books and pamphlets that the radical spirit of the age was represented, and among different types of artists, engravers were one of the different groups of artisans who participated in the revolution through their works fulfilling important roles in mirroring and constructing socio-political circumstance during the early 1790s. Here at the center of the engravers were James Gillray and William Blake, one with conspicuous witty caricature and the other with obscure prophetic mask.

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