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The printed page

The work of William Blake

A giant anaconda being hoisted into a tree with a rope. It is about to be skinnedThe skinning of the Aboma snake, shot by Cap. Stedman A facsimile of the title page of a coloured and gilded copy of the first edition, with Adam and Eve cowering beneath the titleA facsimile of the title page of a coloured and gilded copy of the first editionThe work featured here is by William Blake (1757–1827), renowned poet, artist and printmaker. Blake was born in Soho, London, and attended school until he was 10 years old, after which he was home-schooled by his mother.

The Bible had a profound influence over Blake throughout his childhood, as did engravings of the ‘Old Masters’.

At 15 he was apprenticed to an engraver for seven years and during this time he was sent to study Gothic art in churches around London, where he is said to have had religious visions which would greatly come to influence him in his own practice.

In 1779 Blake became a student at the Royal Academy near the Strand, but rebelled against the modern styles of painting.

Even though he was surrounded by tradition and structure, Blake would go on to become one of the most ingenious and unconventional artists in British history; and he was considered mad, radical and revolutionary by his contemporaries, both for his work and views.

Production processes

Blake’s creativity and originality is evident in his books and prints; and the content of his work is often revolutionary and insightful, commenting on social injustice and elegantly criticising the government and the church for their involvement.

A facsimile of the poem ‘London’ from a coloured and gilded copy of the first edition, with a boy leading an old man through the streets of LondonA facsimile of the poem ‘London’ from a coloured and gilded copy of the first editionIn works like Songs of innocence and experience, of which images are displayed here, Blake wanted to circumvent the production processes of the day and avoid possible censorship of his work.

He invented a process called ‘relief etching’ where he could have control of both the words and illustrations of his work.

Etching

An etching is created by putting a thin layer of beeswax on to a copper plate, and then scratching away the wax with a needle-like tool while drawing.

The back of the plate is varnished to protect it and it is placed in a bath of weak acid. The wax and varnish repel the acid but the metal exposed through the scratched lines is ‘bitten’ (dissolved).

Bubbles that form in these lines through the gases released are removed by very lightly brushing the surface with a peacock feather to ensure an even etch. Once etched, the wax and varnish is cleaned off and viscous ink rubbed into the surface.

Slowly the ink is wiped away with a hessian rag until only the ink in the etched lines remains. The plate is put through a press with dampened paper under high pressure and the image is transferred in reverse to the surface.

Opening showing two of Blake’s etchings: What is man and I found him beneath a tree. The first shows a baby in a cocoon like state and the second shows a woman gathering a child’s head from beneath a tree with overarching branchesOpening showing two of Blake’s etchings: What is man and I found him beneath a treeRelief etching

Blake’s process of ‘relief etching’, however, painted directly with varnish on to a copper plate. He wrote backwards script (so the printed result would appear correctly) and intertwined his images with the text.

He etched the spaces around the varnish, which was a delicate process as when too much surface is exposed the acid can dissolve the metal under the varnish and destroy the work.

Once it was etched, ink could not be rubbed into the surface as it would settle in the background.

To counter this, Blake created a leather dabber – a wad of padding wrapped in soft leather with a handle. He would put a small amount of ink on this tool and lightly dab the raised metal of his plate (the text and images) which were less than a quarter of a millimetre higher than the rest of the metal.

Repeating this method over and over he slowly built up a layer of ink on the plate until deemed enough to take a good print. Working vigilantly and precisely, using a small table-top press in his home, he printed one copy at a time.

The invention of this process meant that Blake was in complete control of his creations and output. He had created a method to challenge the limitations of his medium and the automation of the Industrial Revolution.

He also avoided censorship of his criticisms of the state and authorities, and invented a method that reflected the unique beauty of his radical and progressive ideals and personal visions. He was an artist in love with his own mind despite the objections of others, and found a way to give a voice to that.

A facsimile of the poem ‘Tyger’ from a coloured and gilded copy of the first edition, with a tiger beneath a treeA facsimile of the poem ‘Tyger’ from a coloured and gilded copy of the first editionBlake as a journeyman printer

Blake shared similar political and social attitudes with John Stedman (1744-97), the author of the 18th century work, of which the plate showing a serpent is reproduced here, and Stedman’s work appears to have influenced several of Blake’s poems, including Visions of the daughters of Albion.

Sixteen of the engravings in this book are by Blake, and these were based on Stedman’s original drawings.

These employ the more conventional intaglio method of etching and often depict the barbarities perpetrated on slaves by colonial masters, as well as other scenes of life in colonial South America.

According to Geoffrey Keynes, Blake’s plates for this book ‘have long been recognised as among the best executed and most generally interesting of all his journeyman work.’ The plate shown here employs biblical imagery often evident in Blake’s work.

The images from Songs of innocence and experience shown here are from a copy held in the British Library which is fully reproduced here. They are used here under a Creative Commons, Public Domain Mark 1.0 licence.

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