The Trials of William Blake in Three Books

Some good news for William Blake fans: the William Blake Archive is online, and our Recent Acquisitions from the Bequest of Maurice Sendak exhibition has been extended through May 28, so you have another month to feast your eyes on some of Blake’s most beautiful engravings.

The three works by Blake on display in our second floor gallery tell a story of the poet/artist/printer’s importance to Maurice Sendak, who deeply admired Blake’s wild imagination and fiercely original expression. But with the help of the William Blake Archive‘s dedicated research, we can also tell a story about the troubled artist’s life and career.

William Hayley, Esq., Ballads. . . Founded on Anecdotes Relating to Animals, with Prints, Designed and Engraved by William Blake. Chichester: Printed by J. Seagraves. For Richard Phillips, Bridge-Street, Blackfriars, London. 1805. Collection of the Rosenbach.

William Hayley was a poet and biographer whose wealth and property allowed him to support other artists of his day, including William Blake and his wife, who resided in a cottage in Hayley’s native Sussex while designing plates for Hayley’s publications. The work above is a volume by William Hayley entitled Ballads Founded On Anecdotes Relating To Animals, With Prints, Designed And Engraved By William Blake. (The frightening image pictured illustrates a ballad honoring the loyalty of a dog who leapt into a crocodile’s mouth to save his human from the same fate.) In the edition bequeathed to the Rosenbach by Maurice Sendak, the prints were also hand-colored by Blake.

Working with Hayley offered financial stability, but left little time for Blake to pursue his own creative visions. Ultimately he left Sussex and Hayley’s employ.

Robert Blair, The Grave. Illustrated by twelve etchings executed from original designs. London: printed by T. Bensley, for the proprietor, R.H. Cromek. Edinburgh, 1808. Collection of the Rosenbach. Photo by Harrison Judd.

When William Blake returned to London from Sussex, his first major project was a set of illustrations for Robert Blair’s popular religious poem entitled The Grave. Blake was commissioned by a publisher to design the illustrations, but the job of engraving Blake’s designs was given to an Italian engraver named Luigi Schiavonetti. In the frontispiece of this book, you can see elements of both artists: the extraordinary imagination of Blake’s “inventions” is present, but Schiavonetti’s delicate linework looks very different from the bold strokes of “The Dog” pictured above.

Blake had expected to do the engraving as well as the design for this volume, and viewed the employment of another engraver as a breach of trust–one of many professional disappointments that marked his midlife career. At the same time, the popularity of The Grave and its elegiac illustrations–including one of Blake himself–gave him a taste of the publicity and commercial success that had thus far eluded him.

Plate from William Blake, Illustrations of the Book of Job. London: Published by William Blake, 1826. Collection of the Rosenbach. Photo by Harrison Judd.

Late in his life, William Blake encountered a young landscape painter named John Linnell who not only admired William Blake’s art but was willing to commission work on Blake’s terms, allowing the aging artist to spend his remaining years on projects of his own choosing. One of these was Illustrations of the Book of Job.

Blake’s life was one of corporeal hardship as well as artistic fervor and quasi-mysticism, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he felt a kinship to the biblical Job whose faith is rooted in struggle. In this book, twenty-two prints recount the trials of Job with illustrations designed and engraved by Blake, using an intaglio method of printmaking that departed from his iconic style of relief etching. Yet Illustrations of the Book of Job is considered one of William Blake’s major accomplishments as an engraver, and while only a fraction of the book’s short run were sold in Blake’s lifetime, this publication brought Blake a measure of fame and introduction to other leading creators of his time.

Hidden histories like this can enrich and enhance our understanding of complex artists like William Blake. But even the uninitiated visitor can easily stand in the exhibition gallery and marvel at the intricate, imaginative engravings on these pages, or any of the other important artists in the room where Blake resides alongside the whimsical movable books of Lothar Meggendorfer and autographed first editions by Henry James and Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. These books inspired a beloved children’s author and celebrated artist; be sure to see Recent Acquisitions from the Bequest of Maurice Sendak next month and let them inspire you.