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Things That Have Interested Me

Colour Blind

James Fenton
copyright © 2007

Originally published in The Guardian
5 May 2007

I've been reading about Blake, inspired and in part provoked by an essay by David Bindman in the catalogue for the current exhibition Mind-Forg'd Manacles: William Blake and Slavery, which opened at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull and will travel to Glasgow and Manchester. Tate Britain has just opened a similar show, marking the 250th anniversary of Blake's birth and the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. The issues involved are topical and interesting, and of course controversial.

Not much seems to be known about Blake and the movement for abolition. It was not a subject that interested the author of the first full-length biography of Blake, Alexander Gilchrist, and there is practically nothing to be found on the subject in that great book Blake Records. We know from his poems that Blake was opposed to cruelty to animals, as to humans, and given that slavery was abominably cruel, we would not expect him to be in favour of it.

The only relevant story I can find is told by Frederick Tatham in the 1830s. Blake is standing at his window when he sees a boy hobbling along with a log attached to his foot, "such a one as is put on a Horse or Ass to prevent their straying". Blake calls his wife and asks her why this has been done. She suggests that the boy is being punished. Tatham tells us: "Blake's blood boiled & his indignation surpassed his forbearance, he sallied forth, & demanded in no very quiescent terms that the Boy should be loosed & that no Englishman should be subjected to those miseries, which he thought were inexcusable even towards a Slave."

From this you might be rash enough to conclude that Blake considered that Englishmen should be treated in one way, slaves in another. But maybe the formulation "inexcusable even towards a slave" reflects Tatham's views, or his slack expression. Anyway, there is indignation at the humiliation of children, and that seems typical of Blake.

Among his commercial commissions, Blake was involved in engraving John Gabriel Stedman's illustrations for his Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. The resultant images look nothing like Blake: they are renditions of Stedman's own primitive drawings. Three of these plates show the punishments meted out to Negroes, a flagellation of a woman, the hanging of a man and "The Execution of the Breaking on the Rack" - in which the prisoner is killed by having his limbs smashed and lopped, without ever being granted the mercy of a coup de grâce.

Stedman, when in Surinam, had owned slaves, whom he had had tattooed with his own initials. One of Blake's illustrations (not in the Hull catalogue) shows a man bearing the initials JGS on his chest. This placing of an ownership mark was one way of treating slaves like cattle. In Blake's "Visions of the Daughters of Albion", the evil Bromion is made to say: "Thy soft American plains are mine, and mine thy north & south: / Stampt with my signet are the swarthy children of the sun."

This would seem to be an attack on Stedman or on people like him. But the evidence is that Blake became friendly with Stedman, who had retired to Devon, but who visited the Blakes and stayed with them when in London. GE Bentley, the editor of Blake Records, is at pains in his biography to emphasise the uniqueness, and genuineness, of this friendship between two very different men. Stedman had not only owned slaves - he had married one. He had played a full role in the system.

Indeed, although the cruelties of the Dutch in Surinam were attacked in Stedman's book, the expedition that he had been part of was itself a piece of outstanding cruelty. Stedman had fought specifically against the "maroons", the runaway slaves who had taken to the jungle and formed their own communities (which were ultimately successful and exist to this day) in isolation from the plantations. The maroons formed secret villages in the forest, where they made clearances and practised agriculture until the forces such as Stedman's caught up with them, when they would burn their villages and retreat.

There is an extract from Stedman's account of this guerrilla war in Richard Price's fascinating book, Maroon Societies, and it is clear from this that Stedman had a soldier's ability to admire the courage and resourcefulness of the people he was fighting against. What seems to get forgotten, when Stedman is described, is the inexorability of the persecution he was involved in. The slaves were not going to live long anyway, if they remained where they were as slaves: they were disposable people. Their only slender hope lay in escape, in marronage. But slavery would allow no opting out. All the maroons had to be returned to their rightful owners.

Stedman's campaign had taken place during the 1770s. Two decades later, he could of course have had time to reflect. Who knows what his conversations with the Blakes were like? One biographer (James King) thinks that Blake would have felt a venomous hatred towards his supposed friend. But there seems to be no evidence for this hatred. Quite the opposite.

Bindman thinks that the poem "The Little Black Boy" was probably meant ironically, that it was a satire on "the expectation by abolitionists that liberated slaves would willingly continue to serve their liberators out of gratitude". But I think that Songs of Innocence really was addressed to children, and that it would have been impossible for a child to detect this kind of irony.

What does seem present in the poem is a melancholy sense that love between the black and the white boy is not to be expected in the immediate future. It is something that will happen at the end of time, when the cloud that surrounds their bodies (the appearance of whiteness and blackness) vanishes, and the two children can be in joy around the tent of God. Only then will the black boy be like the white boy, and only then will the white love the black. But the black boy, born in the wilds of African nature, has already received this promise of love at his mother's knee. He already loves the white boy - something that makes this vision so poignant, so singular and so far in advance of the merits of the whites.

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