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Numéro 41-42, février-mai 2006

Romanticism on the Net 1996-2006: Celebrating Ten Years of Online Publishing

Sous la direction de Dino Franco Felluga

Direction : Michael Eberle-Sinatra (directeur)

Éditeur : Université de Montréal

ISSN : 1467-1255 (numérique)

DOI : 10.7202/013151ar

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Article

Blake’s Virtual Designs and Reconstruction of The Song of Los

Joseph Viscomi

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Abstract

In this essay, I realize digitally the virtual designs that Blake evokes in The Song of Los and other illuminated books. Blake’s virtual designs are designs we create mentally by recombining an illuminated book’s related images. By visualizing mental images concretely, we reify the experiences of memory and imagination, comparison and contrast, that we employ when reading/seeing Blake's works. Moreover, by doing so, we engage in creative processes involving memory and imagination similar to Blake's own when inventing new designs from elements of others. I also realize digitally the original horizontal designs for Blake's “Africa” and “Asia” in The Song of Los before they were altered in printing. As originally executed, each poem functioned autonomously, with text superimposed on a landscape design. Digital recreations demonstrate how radically Blake fused poetry, painting, and printmaking, creating panels, broadsides, or scrolls rather than book pages, and how Song of Los, as printed, was Blake’s attempt to reconstruct an experiment about which he had changed his mind.


1

In my writings on Blake, I use images primarily to generate rather than illustrate text. Until recently, this usually meant arranging, on light boxes and in pairs, many 35mm slides of images whose techniques, sequences, ideas, or dates I wished to examine or interpret. I would order the slides quite literally as a pictured argument or narrative. Now, like many humanists, I use digital images to facilitate my scholarly research, which, as in this essay, includes excavating and recreating the original forms of Blake’s illuminated plates before they were altered in printing. On large, high-end calibrated monitors, I view images shot at 300 dpi or scanned from 4 x 5 inch transparencies at 300 or 600 dpi, which have the great advantage of providing enormous detail and eliminating the need for projection or slide loupes. Most of these images are drawn from the nearly 5000 we now have in the William Blake Archive, though more than half of those are in our works-in-progress site and thus not yet publicly available. These high-resolution digital images have the accuracy and detail to stand in for originals in ways that slides cannot, and they can be enhanced and manipulated to yield more information than do originals to the naked eye. In electronic publications, they can be viewed closer to the way I see and prepare them rather than translated into black and white or greatly reduced in size. This last advantage, however, I must hedge a bit, since images as published are the end product of an examination process in which many images are on the screen simultaneously (illus. 1), layered and side by side, almost always at three to six times their original sizes, and in TIFF rather than JPEG format. Thus my images fill all available real estate (illus. 2) and have file sizes between 50 and 150 megabites each.

 

Illustration 1

Screen shot of 23 inch Apple Macintosh monitor, with digital images opened and sized in Adobe Photoshop.

 

Illustration 2

Screen shot of second 23 inch Apple Macintosh monitor, with digital images opened and sized in Adobe Photoshop.

2

I am currently examining Blake’s productions of 1795, a year with only a few commercial engravings but filled with numerous original works and new printing experiments. Blake produces The Song of Los, The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los, twelve large color print drawings along with a few smaller ones, reprints 8 copies of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, reprints most of his illuminated canon to date in a deluxe, large-paper edition, and begins the 537 watercolor drawings of Night Thoughts. The first period of illuminated book production, 1789-95, culminates, new experiments in combining printmaking and painting are begun and perfected, and work as designer and painter come to dominate Blake’s energies and time for years to come. I am focusing on the last of his illuminated books, Song of Los, Book of Los, and Book of Ahania, trying to sequence them from a purely materialist perspective, by recreating the large copper sheets from which the individual plates were cut, to see how Blake’s creative process unfolded through production and how these particular works and their techniques might relate to one another and to the color print drawings.

3

Song of Los is thought to precede the two other books, which is to say, Blake is thought to have returned to America a Prophecy (1793) and Europe a Prophecy (1794) with “Africa” and “Asia,” the two parts of Song of Los, rather than continuing The First Book of Urizen (1794), because the “Continent” books were begun before the “Urizen” books.[1]Los and Ahania are thought to be last because they are intaglio and short, supposedly representing a decreased focus on illuminated book production. There is an easy symmetry and progression of large format to small, of relief etching to intaglio—and then no more illuminated books until Milton (c. 1804-11). Why this reasoning is suspect is the subject of another essay, the grounds for which I will provide here through my bibliographical analysis of Song of Los. I will present some Blake designs that I am working on, some digital images I am working with, and some digital images I am creating to demonstrate Blake’s original intentions for Song of Los and the virtual designs therein.

4

The Blake designs we call to mind while viewing other Blake designs are, of course, virtual, in that they are mental rather than physical images. Recalling designs make simple comparisons possible; memory with imagination make possible recombining elements from both virtual and real Blake designs to create new designs. Designs of this latter type, when created while reading an illuminated book, I am referring to as Blake’s virtual designs. Blake himself no doubt could vividly recall any image to mind and could mentally alter any image before his eyes into a new composition. Such envisioning, or what we would call visualization, characterizes an artistic mind and, interestingly enough, was becoming widespread through the popularity of the picturesque, since, in effect, picturesque tourists were virtual artists. Their pleasure, William Gilpin tells us in his “Essay on Picturesque Travel” (1st ed. 1792), came from perceiving nature in terms of art, comparing real scenes with those called to mind through their study of landscape paintings (usually in the form of reproductive engravings); pleasure also came from mentally “correcting,” or rearranging the real scene according to principles of landscape composition derived from their studies. [2] To Wordsworth, such tourists were guilty of “presumption,” who “even in pleasure” were “pleased / Unworthily, disliking here, and there / Liking, by rules of mimic art transferred / To things above all art’ (Prelude 1805: XIII: 152-55). Like Wordsworth, though for different reasons, Blake also frowned on the picturesque, but he knew that the full meaning of an image could depend on comparison and, perhaps more important, that comparing and contrasting images could be creative, a means of “rouz[ing] the faculties to act” (Erdman 702). [3]

5

The illuminated book, of course, is a more controlled environment than nature, since the images we recall or create in the presence of others are usually those Blake directs us to recall or imagine. With the Songs of Innocence and of Experience (1794), we are meant to connect Innocence’s frontispiece and title page with those of Experience, to bring them together, virtually by recalling the former while looking at the latter, or literally by flipping through the book or, for the modern—and perhaps more visually challenged— reader, displaying them side by side on a monitor (illus. 3). Among the many minute particulars that we notice through comparison are the vitality of Innocence’s italic mixed lettering and bareness of the latter’s all roman capitals, the open, lively space where children, in the security of a guardian, are brought together by a book, and the barren, enclosed space where grown children are brought together by the death that separates them. That Death is equated with Experience is indicated by the word “Experience” mirroring the shape of the dead bodies, much like innocence is equated with health and energy by the word “Innocence” stemming from a fruit-filled tree. When we arrive at the Experience frontispiece, we cannot but visualize the first frontispiece, because its figures reappear in the same position within a similar design (illus. 4). The Experience figures appear intensely self conscious in their awareness of the reader, at least relative to the Innocence’s piper and child, who appear oblivious of us in their intense enjoyment of one another; what seems at first glance an adult protectively holding onto a child is revealed through comparison to be an adult restricting the movement of a winged child who is in no danger of falling and, ironically, in doing so restricting his own movement. Comparison clarifies Blake’s irony: seemingly innocent gestures are often anything but; acts supposedly done for our benefit can be against our best interests; and those exerting control over others undermine their own power.

 

Illustration 3

Songs of Innocence and of Experience copy C, plates 3 and 29

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 4

Songs of Innocence and of Experience copy C, plates 2 and 28

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

6

As he does with these frontispieces, Blake often connects designs through shared motifs, figures, and/or their placement within the page design. America plate 10, for example, is divided in half, with Urizen, arms outstretched, kneeling within clouds above a block of text; it is matched by plate 12, also divided in half, with Orc within flames mimicking Urizen’s gesture under a block of text (illus. 5). Plates 21 and 24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790) also pair adversaries. Their vignettes, occupying top and bottom halves of plates, introduce and end the same section and picture contrary figures, one risen, one fallen, which together represent the new age triumphing over the old (illus. 6). The risen figure (an idealized portrait of Blake as new man and Jesus) is the prototype of Los, and the vanquished figure (Nebuchadnezzar from the Book of Daniel) is the prototype of Urizen. As virtual image (illus. 7), they form a rough prototype of Blake’s Death’s Door (illus. 8).

 

Illustration 5

America a Prophecy copy E, plates 10 and 12

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 6

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy C, plates 21 and 24

The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, PML 17599.

 

Illustration 7

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, virtual design of plates21 and 24, based on copy C

The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York, PML 17599.

 

Illustration 8

Death’s Door

Used with permission.

Collection of Robert N. Essick. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

7

Realizing Blake’s virtual designs digitally demonstrates how Blake studies—and scholarly research in general—can be served by electronic media. Here, digital imaging enables us to visualize mental images concretely. We realize these comparisons and new creations through digital images executed in the virtual reality of cyberspace, where we can experience them as artifacts complete with convincing paper tone, colors, and paint layers. Through such digital creations, we reify the experiences of memory and imagination, comparison and contrast, that we employ when reading/seeing Blake’s works. Moreover, by doing so, we engage in creative processes involving memory and imagination similar to Blake’s own when inventing new designs from elements of others. We, in our digital medium, and Blake, in his graphic medium, see designs—things already executed—generating new inventions that are in turn realized through execution. In short, our virtual reality is ideally suited for realizing Blake’s virtual designs. And realizing such designs digitally exemplifies Blake’s core belief in the inseparability of invention and execution. [4]

8

Like most artists, Blake reused figures and returned to themes. Marriage’s resurrected figure was reused in 1793 for America plate 8 (illus. 9), in 1795 in the title of “Asia” of Song of Los, and again in 1805 for Death’s Door.[5] The old man with crutch is off all fours, though just barely, as in the subject of America plate 14 (illus. 10), as well as in plate 17—entitled “Death’s Door”—of For the Children: The Gates of Paradise, also executed in 1793 (illus. 11). America plates 8 and 14 share motifs of tomb and death and figures placed in counterpoint positions that encourage our conflating the two designs (illus. 12). Viewers may have missed the visual clues, but Blake made his intentions clear in a drawing, probably mid 1790s, in which figures from America are redrawn and Death’s Door is realized as a coherent design (illus. 13). That he intended the tomb’s exiting and entering figures to be paired is also evinced in another drawing (illus. 14), whose pyramid like frame echoes the pyramids in the Marriage impression (illus. 15) in copy D (c. 1794).[6]

 

Illustration 9

America a Prophecy copy E, plate 8

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 10

America a Prophecy copy E, plate 14

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 11

For Children: The Gates of Paradise copy D plate 17

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 12

America a Prophecy, virtual design of Death’s Door from plates 8 and 14, based on copy E

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 13

Drawing of Death’s Door

Untraced; photographed from Irene Langridge’s William Blake: A Study of His Life and Art Work. London, George Bell and Sons, 1904, p. 184.

 

Illustration 14

Drawing of Death’s Door

Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Bequest of Charles J. Rosenbloom.

 

Illustration 15

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy D, plate 24

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

9

Death’s Door (illus. 8) goes to the core of what Blake is as a printmaker: bold, experimental, physical, visionary, imaginative, disturbing. Its white forms seemingly hacked out of a black ground scared publisher Richard Cromek, who had commissioned Blake in 1805 to illustrate Robert Blair’s The Grave (published in 1808). Blake was hoping to secure the engraving commission by showing an example of his new method of white-line etching, the style he intended to use to recreate his watercolor illustrations. If one can see only what one knows, then one wonders if Cromek could even make out the forms in all that chaos, he himself being a line engraver. He no doubt immediately sensed Blake’s radical graphics would cost him his investment. He did not have to be an engraver, however, to know how the design should look, because the reproductive codes of the day were deeply established. It should look exactly like Luigi Schiavonetti’s translation: tamed black lines laid neatly on a white ground (illus. 16). Indeed, the printness of the reproduction goes unnoticed because the graphic language is thoroughly subordinated to the composition. What we see is Blake’s invention and not the means of its execution. Blake, on the other hand, quite literally shows his hand, calling attention to the print as a work in metal, as something completely other than a drawing of black line on white ground. In so doing, Blake defamiliarizes the print, making the pervasive reproductive medium of etching strange and new, discomforting the viewer in the process. Blake’s bold experiment works best when the ideal or paradigmatic style is expected or held firmly in mind.[7]

 

Illustration 16

Robert Blair, The Grave, plate 11 (Death’s Door)

Used with permission.

Collection of Robert N. Essick. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

10

The Song of Los has at least two virtual designs. Dated 1795, Blake’s most oddly shaped illuminated book consists of four full-page illustrations (including the title page) and four text plates, which are about 4 cm narrower than the illustrations and 1 to 2 cm shorter in height. As I have shown elsewhere, illuminated plates are never perfectly uniform, because Blake cut most from larger sheets by hand.[8] But the variance among plates is greatest in Song of Los—and, as we shall see, is actually much greater than it first appears. The frontispiece (illus. 17), picturing Urizen kneeling at an altar under a globe inscribed with strange markings, is the exact same size as the endpiece (illus. 18), picturing Los kneeling above the sun, hammer in hand. Figures with globes in mirrored position pair the designs visually and thematically and suggest a new, conflated virtual design (illus. 19). When, at the end of the Song, we see Los above his globe, we see also in our mind’s eye Urizen below his and know that Los reigns triumphant.

 

Illustration 17

The Song of Los copy B, plate 1

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 18

The Song of Los copy B, plate 8

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 19

The Song of Los, virtual design of plates 1 and 8, based on copy E

This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

11

Plates 1 and 8 are the same size because they are executed on the front and back of the same copper plate. Revolving the plate side-to-side reveals Urizen praying to Los; creating transparencies of the digital images and laying one reversed over the other transforms the copper to glass and enables us to see the position of the figures relative to one another (illus. 20). Proving these plates are recto/verso is not difficult, but one cannot rely on recorded plate measurements. Bentley records plate 1 as 23.4 x 17.3 cm and plate 8 as 23.5 x 17.5 cm (70); these are indeed the approximate average measurements of known impressions. But given how plates were cut from larger sheets, they are not perfectly squared, and thus one needs at least four measurements. For example, the copy B impression of plate 1 is: 23.6 cm left side, 23.6 cm right, 17.8 cm top, and 17.5 cm bottom. Plate 8 has the same measurements. Shared measurements strongly suggests that plates may be materially connected, either as opposite sides of the same plate or cut from the same larger sheet of copper. Absolute proof that two plates are recto/verso comes from their sharing the same measurements as well as unique shape, which can be demonstrated by laying one of the images in reverse along two sides of the other image (illus. 21).

 

Illustration 20

The Song of Los copy B, plate 1 as transparency laid in reverse over plate 8 to reveal both sides of the plate simultaneously

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 21

The Song of Los copy B, plate 8 reversed and laid over plate 1, along its top and side edges, to reveal their shared shapes

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

12

Etching both sides of relief-etched plates was Blake’s standard practice: Experience plates are on the versos of Innocence, Europe on America, Urizen on Marriage. So, discovering that plates 1 and 8 were etched recto/verso was not surprising. Discovering that plates 2 and 5, the other two full-page illustrations, appeared to be two separate plates, however, was surprising. Plate 2 (illus. 22) is recorded as 24.3 x 17.2 cm and plate 5 is recorded as 23.2 x 17.5 cm (Bentley 70). I suspected these measurements were mistaken and recently re-examined five copies to see if I could determine their correct sizes and shapes. Plate 2 of copy B is: 24.2 cm left; 24.0 cm right; 17.4 cm top; and 17.2 cm bottom. Plate 5 (illus. 23) is 17.4 cm bottom and 17.18 cm top, but is 9 mm shorter in height on both sides. Very interesting: same shape, same widths, but shorter. The discrepancy in length is an illusion, however, caused by the top of plate 5 having been masked 9 mm upon printing.[9] The plates are, indeed, opposite sides of the same copper plate, with the top of plate 5 being the bottom of plate 2. The masking is very difficult to detect, but the plate’s embossment is visible in the verso of the copy C impression, which reveals the plate’s true size. It also reveals a 4-5 mm dent in the plate’s edge, which is visible in the embossment of the plate 2 impression (under the “b” in “Lambeth” in the inscription), but made more readily apparent through computer enhancement (illus. 24). The dent would have been unsightly and distracting had it been printed as part of the heavily color printed plate 5. The surface area of the bottom of plate 2, however, was uninked except for the inscription, and thus could be printed without showing the dent. Together, this recto/verso pair form a virtual design in which Urizen is imprisoned behind the leaves of the lilies holding Titania and Oberon (illus. 25), calling to mind the imprisonment of another eternal, in Urizen plate 4 (illus. 26) and the body behind the tall grasses in the trial proof for Pity (1795; illus. 27).

 

Illustration 22

The Song of Los copy B, plate 2

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 23

The Song of Los copy B, plate 5

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 24

The Song of Los copy B, plate 2, bottom edge of verso. Detail: computer enhancement of platemark to show dent in edge of plate

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 25

The Song of Los, virtual design of plates 2 and 5, based on copy A

Copyright (c) the Trustees of The British Museum.

 

Illustration 26

The Book of Urizen copy G, plate 4

Used with permission.

Collection of Robert N. Essick. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 27

Pity

Copyright (c) the Trustees of The British Museum.

13

Erdman sees a virtual design formed of plates 6 (illus. 28) and 7 (illus. 29). He notes that plate 7 “seems to continue the forest of plate 6; the boughs that crowd the left margin—an unusual effect—can be the ends of those bent down in the right margin of 6” (Illuminated Blake 180). His seeing plate 7 to the right side of plate 6 actually corresponds with Blake’s design as originally executed. These two plates, which form the poem or section entitled “Asia,” are actually the left and right sides of one horizontal design, as are plates 3 (illus. 30) and 4 (illus. 31), which form the poem or section entitled “Africa.” The “Africa“ design is: 21.5 cm left; 21.5 cm right; 27.3 cm top; 27.2 cm bottom; the “Asia“ design is: 22.2 cm left; 22.2 cm right; 27.2 cm top; 27.4 cm bottom. Instead of being recto/verso, as one would expect, the text plates are actually only half their original designs; as conceived and etched, “Africa” and “Asia” are autonomous designs clearly related to one another visually but not materially. I discovered these interesting material facts in 1991 and published them two years later (Blake 287), and Detlef Dörrbecker, in his 1995 edition of the poem, was the first to arrange black and white photographs of the conjunct pages to give an idea of what the original relief-etched plates looked like (320n29, 345-46). The digital recreations here (illus. 32, 33), however, are the first reproductions to join the plates seamlessly and present them color printed in their entirety.

 

Illustration 28

The Song of Los copy B, plate 6

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 29

The Song of Los copy B, plate 7

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 30

The Song of Los copy B, plate 3

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 31

The Song of Los copy B, plate 4

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

 

Illustration 32

The Song of Los, recreated design for plates 3-4, based on copy E

This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

The Huntington Library and Art Gallery.

 

Illustration 33

The Song of Los, recreated design for plates 6-7, based on copy E

This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

14

Blake initially divided his text into two columns within a horizontal—or “landscape”— format, a format used for paintings and prints but not in his time for the text of books. By masking one side of the design, probably with a sheet of paper, he was able to print each text column separately. Hence, he transformed a coherent design 27.2 cm wide into two seemingly independent designs/pages approximately 13.6 cm wide—which is nearly 4 cm narrower than the four illustration pages. As I said, Song of Los is Blake’s most oddly shaped illuminated book. It was executed on just four copper plates, but two were portrait and two were landscape format. Very odd indeed. Why create pages in oblong folio format, with double columns, so visually different from the pages of America and Europe? Why print the columns of text separately after composing and etching them as part of the same design?

15

Given the two distinct sets of plates, Song of Los appears—from a purely material perspective— to have undergone two distinct stages of production, with the text plates coming first. This sequence seems the most likely, because if Blake had the two portrait plates on hand, intending to use them for the designs of his new book, then he would have acquired plates for texts to match portrait format. If, along with the portrait plates, he also had the 27.2 cm plates on hand, then he probably would have cut them approximately 17.5 cm wide and etched both sides to create four text plates to match the width of his illustrations to produce a book of eight pages much nearer in size and shape to America and Europe than what he did produce. It seems reasonable to assume, then, that the two portrait plates were not yet on hand, that the two 27.2 cm wide plates were acquired first, and the text plates preceded the illustrations.[10] Moreover, from this perspective, Blake appears to have set out to fuse poetry, painting, and printmaking in ways even more radical than in the other illuminated books. “Africa” and “Asia,” as originally executed, function autonomously as painted poems or written paintings, with text superimposed on a landscape design. Each design could have been matted, framed, viewed, and read like a separate color print or painting. They did not, however, function so well as book pages.

16

Blake created relief etching as a way to work as a printmaker with the tools of the poet and painter, that is to say, with pens, brushes, liquid ink, and colors, rather the burins and needles required of metal. Blake mostly worked on rather than in the metal surface, as though it were paper, with tools that enable him to work outside the conventions and codes of printmaking and indulge his love of drawing and writing. His new medium encouraged the autographic gesture, the calligraphic hand of the poet with the line and brushwork of the painter. As he says in his prospectus (1793), his is a “method of Printing which combines the Painter and the Poet,” but he also notes that it is a “method of Printing both Letter-press and Engraving” (Erdman 692), by which he means printing text and illustration in the service of book production. Between 1789 and 1794, Blake printed illuminated plates as book pages; in his later style, beginning with the color printed designs of 1794, he printed the plates more like miniature paintings. In the early style, he wiped the plate’s borders of ink to conceal the rectangular shape that signals copper plate, press (or machine), printed on both sides of the leaf so there would be facing pages, and washed the illustration lightly but left the text unwashed. The visual result, as Robert Essick has noted, is a “printed manuscript” (Blake 170). In the later style, Blake printed plate borders, printed on one side of the leaf only, and washed the entire design, often further emphasizing the now overt rectangular shape with frame lines drawn around the plate. Whether printed as poems or more elaborately colored as miniatures, the prints of the illuminated books were designed for the codex form and in portrait format.

17

Blake did not, however, design “Africa” and “Asia” as book pages; he made them into book pages through a trick of printing. Their horizontal format was commonly used for sets of prints, particularly aquatints of picturesque views, but also for works like George Cumberland’s Thoughts on Outline, eight of whose illustrations Blake engraved in late 1795 and 1796. But, as mentioned, horizontal format was not used for texts of books, nor does any book in oblong folio before 1795 with pages in double columns come readily to mind (I have asked a number of librarians of special collections about such a possible model and hope a reader of this essay may know of one that might have influenced Blake). Even printed separately and stitched together to form a long open diptych (illus. 34), the two designs seem less like facing pages in a book than paired panels or broadsides, or a horizontal scroll. Indeed, perhaps Blake used a non-Western book format to evoke Africa and Asia. For example, the Chinese horizontal scroll, usually on silk or paper, fuses calligraphy and painted image. It reads right to left, starting with the title panel, which names the work, and has a colophon panel, at the end of the scroll or juxtaposed over the image that contains the poem or notes pertaining to the work. Blake titles his poems “Africa” and “Asia” and thus does not need a separate title page, which is a book convention. If he meant the poems to be read as parts of one work entitled “The Song of Los,” then that too is effected without a title page. “Africa” begins with “I will sing you a song of Los, the Eternal Prophet,” and “Asia” ends with “The Song of Los is Ended. / Urizen Wept.” Moreover, treating the poems as autonomous designs or parts of the same panel or scroll, Blake could have signed and dated the work in pen and ink on its surface as he did paintings and color print drawings (usually with “WB inv.” in monogram, with a date; illus. 35). Thus, these works did not need a title page for date and author.

 

Illustration 34

The Song of Los, recreated design for plates 3-4 and 6-7 as pages stitched together to form a diptych; based on copy E

This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

 

Illustration 35

Blake’s monogram signature, c. 1795, on The Song of Los recreation of plates 6-7

This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

18

Perhaps the two designs were meant to be joined and printed on one sheet to form a panorama, a format the landscape painters Paul Sandby and Francis Towne were experimenting with in the 1780s and 1790s, or, as noted, to suggest an ancient scroll, the book’s form before printing, and thus a fitting medium for the Eternal Prophet. Printed together on one sheet of paper the designs form a long and narrow composition approximately 22.5 x 54.5 cm, which is half the size of most of the color print drawings; if given a centimeter between and around the images (illus. 36), the resulting two-part panel would be approximately half the size of Newton (46 x 60 cm) or Good and Evil Angels (44.5 x 59.4 cm), among the largest of the color print drawings. As originally designed, however, the two poems continuing Blake’s continental myth do not resemble the previous installments in size, shape, number, or structure. America with 18 plates and Europe with 17 plates are matched in size, shape, and structure: both begin with frontispiece, title page, two-page Preludium (Europe’s plate 3 is a late addition, though one that gave Europe 18 pages), a heading of “A Prophecy,” and “finis” as the last word. The Song of Los section titles clearly connect the poems/panels to the earlier works, but their format marks a break with them as well. The full visual extent of that break was not realized; instead, Blake executed four pages exactly the size of America and Europe and printed each of the four columns separately. The resulting eight pages of Song of Los are: frontispiece, title page, “Africa,” full-page design, “Asia,” end-piece; there are no headings of “a prophecy” or endings of “finis.” As reconstructed, Song of Los is an unevenly shaped illuminated book that is also oddly structured, in that it is two poems in one book to form a quartet of works within a trilogy of artifacts.

 

Illustration 36

The Song of Los, recreated design for plates 3-4 and 6-7, as horizontal scroll or two-part broadside, based on copy B

Used with permission.

Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection, Library of Congress. Copyright (c) 2005 the William Blake Archive.

19

Proofs of the text plates in their original condition, or “first state,” are not extant, which may suggest that Blake abandoned his experiment in rethinking text and image soon after completing the text plates. This, however, cannot be proven, since there are no proofs of the other plates either. But it does seem reasonable to suggest that Blake’s reconstruction was done to salvage an experiment about which he had changed his mind. We can sequence and speculate upon the stages in the production of Song of Los, but can we sequence those stages within the year’s worth of productions? That is the main question I try to answer in the second part of this study, forthcoming in Blake/an Illustrated Quarterly. It examines in detail the materials, techniques, and styles used to produce the other 1795 works: The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los, large color print drawings, and the Small and Large Book of Designs.


 Acknowledgments

I would like to thanks Robert Essick and Morris Eaves for reading an early draft of this essay and Todd Stabley, Multimedia Consultant, Center for Instructional Technology, formerly of my university for his assistance in creating the digital images of virtual designs.

 

Notes

[1]

Urizen and Europe are both dated 1794 by Blake, but the order in which they were produced is not clear. In the Blake Archive, we place Europe before Urizen, assuming a chronological contiguity with America because the works are physically, visually, and thematically alike. Keynes, however, places Urizen between America and Europe (222-248), and thus implies that Song of Los continues Blake’s most recent project rather than leap-frogging it. That kind of logic, though, also applies to the Book of Los and Ahania when Urizen is placed after Europe. In either sequence, Blake would have continued one project while postponing another. Erdman and other editors are less clear about the sequence of the 1794 books; their editions group the related books together, even though that means placing Urizen after Song of Los so it can be read with Ahania and Los and Song of Los can be read with America and Europe.

[2]

See Gilpin’s Three Essays:

After the pursuit we are gratified with the attainment of the object. Our amusement, on this head, arises from the employment of the mind in examining the beautiful scenes we have found. Sometimes we examine them under the idea of a whole: we admire the composition, the colouring, the light, in one comprehensive view. When we are fortunate enough to fall in with scenes of this kind, we are highly delighted. But as we have less frequent opportunities of being thus gratified, we are more commonly employed in analyzing the parts of the scenes: which may be exquisitely beautiful, tho unable to produce a whole. We examine what would amend the composition: how little is wanting to reduce it to the rules of our art; how trifling a circumstance sometimes forms the limit between beauty, and deformity. Or we compare the objects before us with other objects of the same kind: —or perhaps we compare them with the imitations of art. From all these operations of the mind results great amusement.

48-49

[3]

Comparing impressions from the same plate has long been a staple of Blake studies. The Archive actually has a feature that enables one to do this, to trace a design’s visual history. A word of caution is in order, though. An impression printed from the copper plate early in its history will differ from one printed years later, but those differences rarely indicate revision of the work; more often they are differences caused by different materials and printing and coloring styles. Blake could not have intended comparisons of this sort, between works that left his studio years apart. When he wishes us to compare images as a way for us to participate imaginatively in his work, he is usually quite obvious about it, giving us the materials to compare in the same space and moment. For more on why differences among impressions and copies do not necessarily indicate deliberate revision, see Viscomi, “William Blake.”

[4]

This union makes art the contrary to organized religion, whose origin Blake locates in the unembodying of mental images, in a “system” used by “some . . . to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects: thus began Priesthood” (The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, plate 11; Erdman 38).

[5]

Blake also used the resurrected figure in an experimental plate, about 1803, which he printed in relief and intaglio (see Essick, Separate Plates 52).

[6]

Butlin is surely correct that the drawing’s bold pen and ink outline is not by Blake, but the drawing was not Schiavonetti’s model, as he supposes (cat. 632). Schiavonetti appears certainly to have worked from the water colors for the Grave, recently rediscovered. The set includes a water color of Death’s Door, which is in the same direction as Schiavonetti’s print, and resembles it very closely in body forms, general tone, and appearance. The drawing appears to have been a preliminary for the watercolor.

[7]

Blake’s white-line wood-engravings for The Pastorals of Virgil (1821) elicited a response similar to Death’s Door by its “publishers,” who “unused to so daring a style, were taken aback, and declared ‘this man must do no more’.” Even the “very engravers received them with derision, crying out in the words of the critic, ‘This will never do’.” They would have recut Blake’s blocks had not a group of eminent artists “expressed warm admiration of Blake’s art, and of those designs and woodcuts in particular,” opinions which “reassured”—if not also “puzzled”—editor and publishers to print them as cut by Blake (Gilchrist I 273).

It is interesting to note that throughout most of the nineteenth century, especially before Gilchrist’s biography, Life of Blake (1863), Death's Door was to Blake what Ancient of Days is now; it was reproduced six times, and whatever general fame Blake had was associated with it and his Grave designs in general. Of course, Schiavonetti’s translation, not the original, was known. (See Viscomi, “Blake after Blake” 234).

[8]

See Viscomi, Blake, chapter 5, and "Evolution” 306-07.

[9]

This is not the first time Blake masked the text of a design. He had masked the bottom of America plate 4 in its first printings of 1793 so that the last five lines did not print (Bentley 87).

[10]

The shared width of these plates is not coincidence; at least four other plates from 1795 share the exact measurement of 27.2 cm, including the sheets that yielded the plates for Book of Los and Book of Ahania, as I will demonstrate in part 2 of this essay. These widths indicate that the plates are most likely quarters of sheets the size of those used for one of the first color print drawings, God Judging Adam, which is 43.2 x 53.5 cm.

 

Works Cited

 

Bentley, G. E. Jr., Blake Books. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

 

Butlin, Martin. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

 

Dörrbecker, Detlef. The Continental Prophecies. Blake’s Illuminated Books, vol. 4. The William Blake Trust/Princeton University Press, 1995.

 

Erdman, David V., ed. with commentary by Harold Bloom. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. (1965) Rev. edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.

 

———. The Illuminated Blake. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1974.

 

Essick, Robert N. Blake and the Language of Adam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

 

———. The Separate Plates of William Blake, A Catalogue. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1983.

 

Gilchrist, Alexander. Life of Blake, Pictor Ignotus. London: Macmillan, 1863.

 

Gilpin, William. Three Essays: on Picturesque Beauty; on Picturesque Travel; and on Sketching Landscape. Third edition. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1808.

 

Keynes, Geoffrey. Blake, Complete Writings. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966.

 

Viscomi, Joseph. “Blake after Blake: A Nation Discovers Genius.” Blake, Nation, Empire. Eds. Steve Clark and David Worrall. London: Palgrave, 2005

 

———. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

 

———. “The Evolution of William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell." Huntington Library Quarterly 58.3&4 (1997): 281-344.

 

———. "William Blake, Illuminated Books, and the Concept of Difference." Essays on Romanticism. Eds. Karl Kroeber and Gene Ruoff. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1993. 63-87.

 

Wordsworth, William. Prelude 1799, 1805, 1850: Norton Critical Edition. Eds. Abrams. M. H., Jonathan Wordsworth, and Stephen Gill. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Auteur : Joseph Viscomi
Titre : Blake’s Virtual Designs and Reconstruction of The Song of Los
Revue : , Numéro 41-42, février-mai 2006
URI : http://id.erudit.org/iderudit/013151ar
DOI : 10.7202/013151ar

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