The Illustrated Books of William Blake
The current exhibition in the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives provides a rare opportunity to view a selection of works by the English poet, engraver and painter William Blake (1757–1827), who was largely overlooked during his lifetime but today is recognized as one of Britain’s most accomplished and influential artists, celebrated most recently in a major exhibition at Tate Britain in London.
Blake’s greatest achievement was his illuminated books, which featured pages that exquisitely combined text and pictures and were hand-printed using a form of relief etching of his own invention. The books often presented controversial subjects and this method of printing gave Blake full control over their production and publishing. He first successfully used the technique for Songs of Innocence, printed in 1789. This work and its companion volume, Songs of Experience (first published in 1794), remain among the best known of his illuminated books.
Several of the works on view in the exhibition are facsimile editions printed by the Trianon Press in Paris for the London-based William Blake Trust, a non-profit educational organization founded in March 1949 by Geoffrey Keynes and George Goyder. One of the Trust's main objectives was to produce faithful facsimiles of Blake’s hand-crafted books in order to encourage a greater understanding and appreciation of his work. The volumes were meticulously printed under the supervision of Arnold Fawcus, owner of the Trianon Press, using a two-colour collotype process, followed by the application of watercolours through stencils. These reproductions are widely acknowledged as among the best facsimiles produced in the 20th century.
Starting in 1951 with the unique coloured copy of Blake's Jerusalem, the Trianon Press produced eighteen facsimile editions until Fawcus’s death in 1979. Copies of all but three of these are included in the Gallery's collection and seven are featured in the exhibition, including, in addition to those already mentioned, The Book of Thel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America, a Prophecy, and The Book of Urizen. Most of the Trianon Press editions in the Library collection were purchased through the efforts of Kathleen Fenwick, Curator of Prints and Drawings from 1929 to 1968, who viewed these books as an important complement to the Gallery’s collection of Blake prints.
Six of these original etchings and engravings are displayed alongside the facsimiles, along with two books featuring illustrations by Blake published during his lifetime – Night Thoughts (1797) by the renowned poet and philosopher Edward Young and The Pastorals of Virgil (1821) by the English physician and botanical writer Robert John Thornton. The prints, which include two each from the Songs of Experience, The Book of Job and Dante’s The Divine Comedy, have been selected from the 42 works by Blake in the Gallery's collection, most of which were purchased in 1921 and 1923. The two engravings from The Book of Job are from a set of 22 prints (title page and 21 illustrations) produced from plates Blake made in early 1825 and published the following year. The work was his last completed prophetic book and the two prints are shown beside the 1987 facsimile version.
The two prints from The Divine Comedy – Agnello and Cianfa Merging into a Single Body and The Circle of the Lustful: Paolo and Francesca – belong to a group of seven that Blake engraved in the last years of his life. They were based on the more than 100 drawings and watercolours that he had produced in anticipation of completing the book on Dante’s masterpiece. Commissioned by Blake's close friend John Linnell, the engravings were printed in 1838.
It is hoped that the small number of works presented in the exhibition will inspire viewers to look more broadly at the achievement of William Blake, a complex and revolutionary artist whose belief in the transformative value of art is as relevant today as it was in his own time.
William Blake (1757–1827): Illustrated Books is on view in the Library and Archives at the National Gallery of Canada until April 26, 2020. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.