William Blake - "Gay's Fables"

William Blake, (England 1757- 1827), Gay’s Fables – The Goat Without a
Beard (1793)
, 3″ x 3-3/4″ (image), Engraving on heavy paper, printed for
John Stockdale, Piccadilly.

This quaint little 18th century engraving by William Blake was a commissioned work to create a new set of designs for a portion of the popular fables of John Gay (1685 – 1732), which had gone through five editions since 1732. Although the subject matter and the designs for the fables had already been roughly set, the publisher of the new edition, John Stockdale, allowed his engravers liberty in their re-engraving of the earlier illustrations. According to Robert Essick, Blake’s cataloger, “[t]hey probably prepared drawings for transfer onto the copperplates, and this procedure gave Blake the opportunity to invest his renditions with something of his own sensibility.” To say that Stockdale’s version of the Fables was popular does not do it justice. The plates were run through four separate editions (1793, 1809, 1810 and 1811), before plate wear prevented further use. This engraving is from the first printing, and the strength of the impression is clear. 

I have to admit from the start that this is not my art. Well, it kinda is and kinda isn’t. You see, when I met my (soon to be) wife she had recently retired from a successful career showing purebred LaMancha dairy goats in the county fair circuit to pursue her education in college. It was a mutually beneficial relationship in the beginning since she was a math major who hated English, and I was an English major who hated math. Mutually exclusive might be more accurate, but it seemed to work out since she finished second in her class (by one lousy “B!”). So, how else would an avid art collector court a prospective bride? Need I ask?

Flowers are always an appropriate and welcome bait, I mean gift, but I was looking for something a bit more enduring. I searched high and low for something relative to her past interests (sure to be a hit, I hoped) at local galleries and antique stores but came up with very little, except for a couple tacky brass goat door stops, that would more likely have gotten a laugh instead of kiss. So I went surfing online for that rare gift which was sure to impress (rarer still were ANY decent online art dealers in those days) until I ran across a dealer I would do business with for years to come. The site was organized by genre, artist and collection, and each listing had an excellent scanned image of the work for sale and a well written snippet of background information. I saw my bank account dwindling before my eyes when I perused the lifetime etching category which included works by Rembrandt, Goya and various Dutch artists that simply amazed me.

Fortunately, for me, the dealer was promoting a recently acquired collection of 18th century engravings executed by William Blake for the Stockdale edition of Gay’s Fables, and since my quarry’s name was, Gay Maree, it seemed a likely series to pursue. Likely turned into Perfection when I saw the listing for “A Goat Without a Beard.”

The fine lines on the floor and walls in this humorous little work compliment the groomed texture of the busy monkeys preparing to service their haughty caprine customer. The complacent look on the goat’s face brings a smile to mine, and I hoped it would be as enduring to my prospective love as it was to me.

Here’s the story listed as FABLE XXII: The Goat without a Beard
‘Tis certain, that the modish passions
Decend among the crowd, like fashions.
Excuse me, then; if pride, conceit, (the manners of the fair and great)
I give to monkeys, asses, dogs,
Fleas, owls, goats, butterflys and hogs.
I say, that these are proud. What then?
I never said, they equal men.
A Goat (as vain as goat can be)
Affected singularity:
Whene’er a thymy bank he found,
He roll’d upon the fragrant ground,
And then with fond attention stood,
Fix’d, o’er his image in the flood.
I hate my frowzy beard, he cries;
My youth is lost in this disguise.
Did not the females know my vigour,
Well might they loath this rev’rend figure.
Resolv’d to smooth his shaggy face,
He sought the barber of the place.
A flippant monkey, spruce and smart,
Hard by, profest the dapper art;
His pole with pewter basons hung,
Black rotten teeth in order strung,
Rang’d cups, that in the window stood,
Lin’d with red rags, to look like blood,
Did well his threefold trade explain,
Who shav’d, drew teeth, and breath’d a vein.
The Goat he welcomes with an air,
And seats him in his wooden chair,
Mouth, nose and cheek the lather hides,
Light, smooth and swift the razor glides.
I hope your custom, Sir, says Pug.
Sure never face was half so smug!
The Goat, impatient for applause,
Swift to the neighb’ring hill withdraws
The shaggy people grinn’d and star’d.
Heighday! what’s here? without a beard!
Say, brother, whence the dire disgrace?
What envious hand hath robb’d your face?
When thus the fop with smiles of scorn.
Are beards by civil nations worn?
Ev’n Muscovites have mow’d their chins.
Shall we, like formal Capucins,
Stubborn in pride, retain the mode,
And bear about the hairy load?
Whene’er we through he village stray,
Are we not mock’d along the way,
Insulted with loud shouts of scorn,
By boys our beards disgrac’d and torn?
Were you no more with goats to dwell,
Brother, I grant you reason well,
Replys a bearded chief. Beside,
If boys can mortify thy pride,
How wilt thou stand the ridicule
Of our whole flock? affected fool!
Coxcombs, distinguish’d from the rest,
To all but coxcombs are a jest.
William Blake (1757 – 1827), was an English poet, painter and printmaker who, like many creative geniuses, was largely unrecognized in his time. Today his eccentric views are highly respected for their expressiveness, as well as the philosophical and spiritual concepts contained within his work. Blake confessed to seeing “visions” early in life, and on his deathbed he briefly regained his composure and sang praises about what he saw in heaven just before he passed away. There’s a very comprehensive biography about William Blake’s interesting life available on Wikipedia.

Another benefit of collecting art from a good dealer is preparation. I’ve often received art that was shipped in such makeshift packaging I wondered how it ever made it to me. This piece was not only packaged appropriately for shipping, but was expertly mounted in archival materials including acid-free mat boards, tape, corner tips and a glassine sheet. Two mat boards were carefully prepared by cutting-out the viewing area on one then taping the two together at the top to form a hinge. The engraving was secured inside four corner tips, and a single glassine sheet was installed over the assemblage to protect it against probing fingers. As delivered, this piece is ready to be placed inside your desired frame (with glass and backing) and hung on the wall without any further consideration of preservation. A very nice touch and an excellent business practice that will assure my continued patronage.

And yes, the gift was whole-heartedly received, and we did eventually marry (although I doubt it was completely responsible for her affirmation to my marriage proposal).

So, since we ARE married, I can say, in the spirit of community property, that this work is indeed mine (or ours). Then again, …that means all the art I’ve collected over the past 35 years is hers, too. HEY!!!

Mike-

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