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This article is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.Pictures from a Library
33: ‘Fearful Symmetry’: William Blake & the Culture of the Copy
IMAGE Facsimile of William Blake’s Jerusalem, from Swinburne’s Blake: A Critical Essay (1868), © the University of Manchester, 2017
AT THE TIME of his death in 1827, William Blake’s work was barely known or recognised beyond the artistic coterie of young men who self-mockingly called themselves ‘the Ancients’. The reasons for his obscurity are various. Prevailing canons of taste rated the artistic practices of painting and sculpture above those of Blake’s métier, engravings and watercolours. Opportunities for the display of engravings were few as prints tended to be secreted into albums where they were preserved within the private collections of connoisseurs.
Blake’s poems also lay beyond the reach of a wide readership because he eschewed the customary commercial conventions of literary publishing. Instead, his was an inspired visionary art that fused words and images in composite productions through the medium he invented known as ‘illuminated printing’ or relief etching. This entailed the printing of an image ‘from a metal plate and an overlay of other media – watercolour, drawing with pen or brush, perhaps pencil in a few cases’ (Robert Essick). Demonstrating Blake’s virtuoso skill as a mirror writer, these images also contained the words of his poems, which he carved into the copperplate (in reverse) as an integral part of the design. Yet, while his creations allowed Blake to bypass the control of publisher and art dealer alike, he lacked the means to make, sell and circulate his illuminated printing in sufficient quantities, so sales and access to his work remained restricted.
Nevertheless, when it could be found, Blake’s work proved to be highly influential on subsequent generations of artists and writers. The Pre-Raphaelites, for example, saw Blake as the embodiment of the archetypal artist whose multi-faceted art challenged the conventions of his day and inspired them in their struggles against their own cultural orthodoxies. Victorian admirers, like Alexander Gilchrist, undertook the labour of compiling Blake’s biography, producing the inventory of his works and capturing the oral testimonies of his surviving friends. But how could commercial publishers take on the task of reproducing Blake’s illuminated, handmade books at a time when photo-chemical reprography was still in its infancy? The image shown here represents one of the earliest examples of a Blakean facsimile, which was published in 1868. ‘Jerusalem’ forms the frontispiece to Swinburne’s book Blake: A Critical Essay, which was published by John Camden Hotten (dubbed the ‘clandestine publisher of erotica’ in other contexts). Printed in London in an edition of 155 copies, at a cost of £6 6s apiece, they contained seven replicas of Blake’s works, five of which were tinted. Hotton commissioned the artist Henry J. Bellars to copy the exact ‘peculiarities’ of Blake’s originals held in the British Museum’s collection, under ‘difficult circumstances’, which forbade direct tracings from the works themselves.
These drawings were then translated into lithographic prints, which Bellars tinted by hand to produce convincing surrogates that shimmer with a vibrancy of their own. Having plumbed the mysteries of Blake’s artistic practice and achieved a high degree of virtuosity in its imitation, Bellars met a sudden death in the year his ‘Jerusalem’ was published, leaving other facsimilists to develop their own techniques to capture Blake’s ‘unique effects’ and exalt his memory.
This article is taken from PN Review 236, Volume 43 Number 6, July - August 2017.