Current Issue Article Abstracts
Fall 2017, Vol. 80.3
Among William Blake's greatest achievements as both painter and printmaker are his large monoprints of 1795. Blake produced thirty-three mono prints of twelve designs, twenty-nine of which are extant. He signed at least twenty, using five different formats, but is thought to have sold only eleven, all to Thomas Butts. The present essay sequences the signatures and argues that Blake also sold nine monoprints to three collectors between 1806 and 1810, that he sold his first monoprints to Butts by mid-1796, that he printed designs in a heretofore unknown printing session in ca. 1795–96, and that, around 1807, he changed his idea about the monoprint, from large color print to a new kind of painting. The monoprints reveal that Blake's general practice was to sign artworks not upon execution or completion, but upon sale.
Early in his career as an engraver, William Blake developed a means of lettering on copper printing plates, using a sharply pointed tool to incise letters and numbers backward so that they would appear in the proper orientation when printed. Blake's drypoint retrography was similar to techniques employed by other engravers, but his lettering is sufficiently distinctive to use in identifying his graphic work. He subsequently adapted the letterforms used in this technique to other graphic processes such as relief and intaglio etching of texts, most notably the words in many of his illuminated books.
This essay focuses on the most recently unearthed letter by William Blake—one that is known but has hitherto been inadequately discussed. Blake's letter illustrates how aspects of the correspondence, previously considered mundane, in fact can play a crucial role in unearthing key minute particulars and ultimately bringing into fuller focus Blake's life and work. At the same time, the ever-increasing corpus of Blake letters little addressed by researchers underlines the need for a revised and fully annotated, historically and biographically attuned scholarly edition of the correspondence of the artist, poet, and printmaker.
It has been generally agreed that William Blake compiled the materials for his early satire An Island in the Moon in 1784 or 1785. While David V. Erdman stood firm for 1784, R. J. Shroyer contended that it was more likely to have been produced in the latter year. This essay argues that Blake might have worked on the manuscript as late as March 1786, after the publication of Hester Lynch Piozzi's Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson. Allusions in Blake's holograph could refer to Piozzi's famous "Blinking Sam" anecdote in that work and to two satiric prints depicting Johnson and Boswell during their tour to the Hebrides, published only three weeks later on April 19, 1786. The many autobiographical and, at times, abstruse references in An Island further raise the possibility that Blake wrote it to comfort his fading brother Robert, who died of tuberculosis in February 1787."This and the rest Maisters we all may mende": Reconstructing the Practices and Anxieties of a Manuscript Miscellany's Reader-Compiler
This essay analyzes William Blake's "composite art," a practice that staged the separation of text and illustration, tracing his successive experiments with Edward Young's Night Thoughts, from the extraillustrated volumes of 537 watercolors to the illustrated edition published by Richard Edwards in 1797 and the recycling of proofs in Vala or The Four Zoas. The shifting relationship between letterpress and illustration in the extraillustrated volume and the 1797 edition, and the function of proofs as units of composition, shed light on the archaeology of bookmaking and its impact on the composition of the manuscript.
Building on Keri Davies's and Marsha Keith Schuchard's tracing of the phrase "four zoas" back to John Gambold's Moravian hymnal, A Collection of Hymns of the Children of God (London, 1754), Wayne C. Ripley argues that the hymnal was a major source for William Blake's later mythology. The influence of the hymnal can help to date Blake's heavy layers of revisions to the manuscript of Vala or The Four Zoas, both internally and relative to Milton and Jerusalem, clarifying in new ways the development of his complex mythological system. Blake's demonstrable engagement with the hymnal also opens a new chapter in his relationship to Moravianism and, by extension of at least his mother's known membership in the church, to his family.
The William Blake Archive started publishing digital editions of Blake's manuscripts in 2010, inaugurating new practices for encoding revisions and displaying color-coded transcriptions. However, Blake's notoriously complex manuscript, Vala or The Four Zoas, presents key challenges to some of the Blake Archive's guiding editorial principles and practices. This essay narrates some of the early editorial experiments for encoding and transcribing The Four Zoas—a process of experimentation, failure, and hope shaped by the Archive's own editorial history, the unique challenges of working with a complex manuscript, and the pressing problem of creating digital editions that can survive through time and across platforms.
Editing is too often considered narrowly as a rule-bound craft in the service of literature. But that overfamiliar, undervalued branch of scholarly activity is a small segment of a vast array of interconnected human perceptions and actions. William Blake's largest painting, The Ancient Britons—which no longer exists—and other extreme instances of objects remembered and forgotten, lost and preserved, help to reveal the broader outlines of perception, control, desire, and memory that make editing a paradigm of human effort, even the human condition.