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This item is taken from PN Review 206, Volume 38 Number 6, July - August 2012.INSIDE COVER: Stella Halkyard Pictures from a Library 3: Blake
Regaining a Corner of Paradise: William Blake's Pastorals of Virgil
The tale of the ill-starred history, and afterlife, of William Blake's illustrations for Robert Blair's poem The Grave, which was published in 1808 by Robert Cromek, is a famous one. Having commissioned Blake to produce twenty watercolour designs for a proposed de luxe edition of the poem at a guinea apiece, and leading him to believe that he would receive a further ten guineas for engraving them, Cromek reneged on the deal and rejected Blake's trial print, preferring instead to employ the 'highly skilled' Louis Schiavonnetti to realise Blake's conception. Blake having been thus cheated by Cromek, and castigated by London's critics, his friends were urged to 'restrain his wanderings by the strait waistcoat', while Schiavonetti's conventional renderings of Blake's bold vision were praised for their 'playfulness of line' and 'masterly execution'.
This venture dealt a devastating blow to Blake's income and his contemporary artistic reputation. For us, prizing as we do the Blake whose inspired virtuosity as an engraver could 'defy any Man to Cut Cleaner Strokes than I do or rougher where I please', Cromek's decision represents an irrevocable loss. Cornered by publishers, patrons and critics, Blake's work was habitually subject to unlooked for and unwanted interference.
Another example of this can be found in the works pictured here, taken from a series Blake contributed to Thornton's Pastorals of Virgil with a course in English reading adapted for schools (1821). Gleaming with a lunar luminosity, these miniature numinous night-worlds testify to the power of one corner-dweller's ability to transform his cornered status into 'a symbol of solitude for the imagination'. Using the technique of relief etching which Blake invented, these pictures were made by drawing directly onto a copper plate with acid-resist. In this case, they were then copied onto wood. The results scandalised the fraternity of wood engravers, as Bentley records, eliciting 'shouts of derision'. Disturbed by the strangeness of Blake's innovations and the outcry they prompted, Dr Thornton almost decided not to publish them. Thankfully, in the end 'the contemplated sacrifice of the blocks already cut was averted', but not before three of Blake's designs (also shown here) had been copied and reproduced according to convention by John Byfield, who belonged to a dynasty of wood engravers.
Leached of magic and mystery, their 'gaudy daylight' stands in marked contrast to Blake's tiny 'corners of Paradise', whose 'visions of little dells, and nooks' open up entire worlds which, 'like all worlds, contain the attributes of greatness'.
Above: Blake's wood engravings in Thornton's Pastorals of Virgil. Below: Byfield's wood engravings in Thornton's Pastorals of Virgil. Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, the John Rylands Library, the University of Manchester
This item is taken from PN Review 206, Volume 38 Number 6, July - August 2012.