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This item is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.INSIDE COVER: Stella Halkyard Pictures from a Library 5: Blake
'Ambitious to be Silent' :
Blake's Illustrations for Young's Night Thoughts
'Truth', Night the Fourth, Young's Night Thoughts, engraving and watercolour drawing by William Blake. Reproduced by courtesy of the Director and Librarian, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester.
In 1794, the publisher Richard Edwards commissioned William Blake to produce a set of 537 watercolour drawings to 'elucidate' Edward Young's poem Night Thoughts. This meditation on life, death and immortality, written in the 1730s and 40s and prompted by the deaths of Young's wife and step-daughter, intoxicated the 'therapeutically melancholic' sensibilities of late-eighteenth-century readers. Edwards came from a family of booksellers from Halifax in Yorkshire who were admired for their lavishly illustrated and decorated books. His elder brother James was celebrated as 'perhaps the most distinguished antiquarian bookseller in Europe of his time'. So this production of Night Thoughts was an opportunity for the youngest of the Edwards family to establish his own distinct reputation in the field. Blake set to work with great zeal, creating around five designs a week. Unsurprisingly, as the project progressed Edwards' ambitions rose. He decided to produce a 'splendid edition of this favourite work' by subscription, and employed Blake to make the 'spirited engravings' for it from his original drawings. This book, which represents Blake's most ambitious commercial project, was published in 1797.
The Rylands' copy of Night Thoughts shown here is one of only 26 copies that were hand-coloured by William and Catherine Blake. Known as 'O', this 'beautifully prismatic' copy was given by Edwards to George John, 2nd Earl Spencer, for his great library at Althorp, probably because he was the patron who was instrumental in securing Edwards' post as Head Registrar in the Vice Admiralty in Minorca. As a consequence of achieving that position, Edwards never seriously attempted to promote or to sell Night Thoughts, being instead preoccupied with his new career as a diplomat.
Spencer's great library, containing copy 'O', later became the foundation collection of the John Rylands in Manchester. And so one of the greatest bibliophiles of any age inadvertently conspired, through his preferment of Edwards, to ensure that 'one of the most ambitious and sensational illustrated books of that or any other time in England was ignored as if it had never been published' (G.E. Bentley).
This item is taken from PN Review 208, Volume 39 Number 2, November - December 2012.