Blake’s Books

Lecturer: Dr. Luisa Calè

This special topic focuses on William Blake’s illuminated books, inviting you to explore the poet-painter’s dynamic approach to book making. In 1793, Blake claimed to have invented “a method of Printing both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered … a method of Printing which combines the Painter and the Poet”. Through relief etching, the poet gained control over the process of composition, using the same technique to trace text and design and define the layout of text and image on the page. In this session we will explore processes of composition that redefine the possibilities of the image in relation to different textual arrangements, and also different texts, tracking how Blake repurposed copperplate designs by extracting them from the narrative sequences they articulated within particular illuminated books, and reprinting them without the original surrounding text and open to new possibilities.

Key points:

1. prophetic writing, emblematic thinking, and commonplaces: in my introductory presentation I will use the marginalia to Europe a Prophecy copy D to focus on the relationship between writing, reading, and commonplacing, and The Book of Urizen to think about how Blake engages with the emblem tradition and reflects on book making.

2. text and image: fixed page layout vs a collection of moveable parts;

3. workshop on text and image afterlives: in this workshop I will introduce the critical history of plates repurposed from the illuminated books, which critics have discussed under the heading of Books of Designs.

Workshop Element:

After discussing the illuminated books, we will turn to thinking about different kinds of visual narrative, comparing and contrasting how particular designs work within and outside the illuminated books. I will set the discussion going by discussing “The Book of My Remembrance” (Yale, Beinecke, Tinker 261) in relation to The First Book of Urizen; then turn to you, asking you to comment briefly on another plate that Blake repurposed from one of his illuminated books, choosing from the list below.

Shared reading: 

The First Book of Urizen (1794):  

Student task:

Select one of the plates listed below, examine the caption written underneath the relief etching, and consider how it inflects the image, what genre it evokes, and how it differs from the image’s original textual surround in the illuminated book for which it was originally composed. Be prepared to comment on it briefly in class.

‘Teach these Souls to Fly’

Tate Britain, Butlin #261.5

  • Compare The First Book of Urizen, plate 2

“Is the Female death” / “Become new Life”

Tate Britain, Butlin #261.14

  • Compare The First Book of Urizen plate 19

‘“A Flaming sword” / “ every way”’

Rosenwald Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1943.3.8989

  • Compare The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 14

“Who shall set” / “The Prisoners free”

Tate Britain, Butlin #261.15

  • Compare The Marriage of Heaven and Hell plate 16

“Doth God take Care of these”

Tate Britain, Butlin #261.16

  • Compare The Book of Thel plate 7

“Every thing is an attempt” / “To be Human”

Tate Britain, Butlin #261.17

  • Compare The First Book of Urizen plate 11

“Fearless tho in pain” / “I travel on”

Tate Britain, Butlin#261.18

  • Compare The First Book of Urizen plate 23

“Vegetating in fibres of Blood”

Tate Britain, Butlin #261.19

  • Compare The First Book of Urizen plate 17

“I sought Pleasure & found Pain” / “Unutterable”

Tate Britain, Butlin #261.20

  • Compare The First Book of Urizen plate 7

“The floods overwhelmed me”

Tate Britain, Butlin #261.21

  • Compare with The First Book of Urizen plate 12

“Eternally I labour on”

  • Compare with The First Book of Urizen, listed as plate 9 in Erdman, but in different positions in different copies.

“Death and hell” / “Team with life”

  • Compare with The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 11

Urizen Swimming through Dark Waters [print]

„I labour upwards into / futurity / Blake“ inscribed on verso:

Optional Further Reading

Blake, Europe a Prophecy (1794):

Copy D:

(Click on “supplemental views” to find the annotations)

Butlin, Martin and Hamlyn, Robin, ‘Tate Britain reveals nine new Blakes and thirteen new lines of verse’, Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly 42:2 (2008)

Calè, L., ‘“A Dream of Thiralatha”: Promiscuous Book Gatherings and the Wanderings of Blake’s Separate Plates’, Studies in Romanticism, 59:4 (2020), 431-445.

Goode, M., ‘The Joy of Looking: What Blake’s Pictures Want’, Representations, 119 (2012), 1-36. Now also available as a chapter in Romantic Capabilities (OUP, 2020)

McGann, J., ‘The Idea of an Indeterminate Text: Blake’s Bible of Hell and Dr. Alexander Geddes’, Studies in Romanticism, 25:3 (1986), 303–24.

Phillips, Michael, video demonstration about his reconstruction of Blake’s relief etching method:

Viscomi, J., ‘Illuminated Printing’, Blake Archive Gallery