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William Blake was apprenticed as an engraver on 4 August 1772 and served a seven year term under James Basire, one of the most successful engravers of the time. Basire's speciality was reproducing drawings of architecture and sculpture in works such as Stuart & Revett's Antiquities of Athens Measured and Delineated (1762-1816), [Richard Gough's] Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain (1786, 1796), and Jacob Bryant's Analysis


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of Ancient Mythology (1774, 1776), and Blake worked on these and other learned volumes of the time during his apprenticeship. He was meticulously taught all the conventional skills of his craft while he lived with Basire, and he always defended his master vigorously: "Woolett did not know how to put so much labour into a head or a foot as Basire did".[1] By 1809 he could say truly in his Prospectus for his Chaucer engraving, "Mr. B. is an old well-known and acknowledged Engraver", and he was rightly confident of his ability: "I defy any Man to Cut Cleaner Strokes than I do or rougher where I please" (Notebook, p. 25). "If a man is master of his profession, he cannot be ignorant that he is so . . . ."[2]

Blake had mastered the various standard reproductive techniques of his time, in line-engraving (e.g., Job [1826]), stipple (Flaxman's Hesiod [1817]), etching (the first state of the plate after Hogarth for Gay's Beggar's Opera [1790]), and wood engraving (Virgil [1821]), and, had his character been different, he might well have been President of the Chalcographical Society, as was his sometime fellow apprentice and partner James Parker. He also experimented vigorously with the new techniques such as lithography, which was introduced into England about 1803—his "Enoch" lithograph was probably made about 1807—and he adapted and invented a number of techniques for his own purposes. Blake would have been remembered as a chalcographical innovator, even had he not been a great engraver, designer, colourist—and poet. The purpose of what follows is primarily to lay forth the contemporary verbal evidence about Blake's engraving and copperplate-printing techniques.

Not long after he was out of his apprenticeship indentures in 1779, Blake began experimenting with reproductive techniques. The subject was much in the air at the time: in France and England Franz Ignaz Joseph Hoffman and Alexander Tilloch were making experiments, and Blake's friend George Cumberland wrote excitedly to his brother about his discoveries and published them as his "New Mode of Engraving", New Review, IV (Nov 1784), summarized in the European Magazine (1784). Cumberland's discovery was that the relatively simple technique of etching designs could be adapted by amateurs to etching texts; the chief drawback, a relatively minor one Cumberland thought, was that the text would ordinarily be printed backwards and could be read easily only with a mirror. In Cumberland's technique, it was the dark lines which were etched and printed. Blake's technique of Illuminated Printing was a very considerable extension of Cumberland's and was probably made about the same time, for his Island in the Moon (?1784) evidently once had a passage describing a method of "Illuminating the [Engraved] Manuscript".

Blake's method of Illuminated Printing differed in at least three important respects from Cumberland's: 1) The writing on the copper was put on


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in mirror-writing, so that it would print right-way round on the paper; 2) Designs were added to the text, so that the finished work was not just a different and inexpensive method of printing words but an almost entirely new technique uniting text and design which he called Illuminated Printing; 3) The etching was in relief (the reverse of the ordinary, intaglio, method), so that the ink is transferred from the raised surfaces rather from the recessed hollows. Thus an "O", for example, is made not by drawing or gouging a circle (as in intaglio etching) but by removing the outside and the hole, leaving a kind of volcano, the top of which prints the letter. All three techniques were in a sense commonplaces. Titles were regularly added in mirror-writing to engraved designs, and the ancient craft of woodcutting is essentially relief-engraving on wood.[3] Blake's genius lay largely in combining and perfecting the techniques for his own special purposes. In particular, he seems to have become extraordinarily skillful at mirror-writing, so that the etched words would come out right-way round when printed. His friend George Cumberland wrote in 1810 that "Blake . . . alone excels in that art" of reading, writing [and engraving] backwards,[4] and his disciple John Linnell commented after his death that "The most extraordinary facility seems to have been attained by Blake in writing backwards & that with a brush dipped in a glutinous liquid".[5]

Presumably all engravers were trained in mirror-writing, but few did so well or often. Note that the art of writing backwards on copper was a separate sub-division of the engraver's craft and that there were Writing Engravers such as William Staden Blake (fl. 1770-1817) who specialized in it. Frequently, probably normally, the design-engraver would turn his finished plate over to the publisher, who would then commission a Writing Engraver to add the lettering, including the title and the crucial imprint with the day of publication, e.g., "Published as the Act directs by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1 Jan. 1817". Blake, for instance, brought in his plates after Flaxman's Hesiod designs to Longman beginning in 1814, but it was not until 21 June 1816 that they paid £4.18 to "Jeffreys [for adding] Writing to 14 plate &c.mmat; 7/.—" (Blake Records, 579).

However, Blake not only lettered all his own separate plates and works in Illuminated Printing, but he sometimes lettered his commercial plates for other men's books. For example, he wrote to Hayley on 16 March 1804 about his plate for the third volume of Hayley's Life . . . of William Cowper: "The inscriptions to the Plates I must beg of you to send to me that I may Engrave them immediately". This may, however, have been an exceptional case, because of Blake's friendship with Hayley. It seems likely that the inscriptions


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on most of Blake's commercial plates for books were made by other men.[6]

The invention of Blake's method of Illuminated Printing was thus described by Blake's acquaintance of 1784, J. T. Smith:

Blake, after deeply perplexing himself as to the mode of accomplishing the publication of his illustrated songs, without their being subject to the expense of letter-press, his brother Robert stood before him in one his visionary imaginations,[7] and so decidedly directed him in the way in which he ought to proceed, that he immediately followed his advice, by writing his poetry, and drawing his marginal subjects of embellishments in outline upon the copper-plate with an impervious liquid,[8] and then eating the plain parts or lights away with aquafortis considerably below them, so that the outlines were left as a stereotype. The plates in this state were then printed in any tint that he wished, to enable him or Mrs. Blake to colour the marginal figures up by hand in imitation of drawing (Blake Records, 460).
With this technique of Illuminated Printing, Blake produced almost all his published works, from Songs of Innocence (1789) and The Book of Thel (1789) to Jerusalem (1804-?20) and The Ghost of Abel (1822). So far as I know, the technique had never been used before Blake's time and has not been practised since. The most unusual feature of Blake's method was that he did not cover his plate with wax and cut away "the plain parts or lights"; instead he drew on the copper directly with a fast-drying liquid impervious to acid. The nature of this remarkable liquid is not known with confidence, though recent experiments by Professor Robert Essick indicate that it may have been either the usual stopping out varnish, "pitch . . . diluted with Terps", or some other comparatively common substance. Smith wrote that
His method of eating away the plain copper, and leaving his drawn lines of his subjects and his words as stereotype, is in my mind perfectly original. Mrs. Blake is in possession of the secret, and she ought to receive something considerable for its communication, as I am quite certain it may be used to the greatest advantage, both to artists and literary characters in general.[9]

Blake described his own techniques of engraving and printing a number of times, mostly for his friend the dilletante artist and inventor George Cumberland.


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He helped Cumberland with etching the designs for Cumberland's Thoughts on Outline (1796), and in a letter of 6 December 1795 he told him:

As to laying on the Wax [on the copper for etching] it is as follows

Take a cake of Virgins Wax (I dont know What animal produces it)[10] & stroke it regularly over the surface of a warm Plate (the Plate must be warm enough to melt the Wax as it passes over), then immediately draw a feather over it & you will get an even surface which when cold will receive any impression minutely[.]

Cumberland was profoundly grateful for the assistance, and in the Thoughts on Outline he wrote:

One thing may be asserted of this work, which can be said of few others that have passed the hands of an engraver, which is, that Mr. Blake has condescended to take upon him the laborious office of making them, I may say, fac-similes of my originals; a compliment, from a man of his extraordinary genius and abilities, the highest, I believe, I shall ever receive: — and I am indebted to his generous partiality for the instruction which encouraged me to execute a great part of the plates myself . . . .

Blake made a memorandum in his Notebook (p. 4), perhaps at this time, about etching or engraving on relatively soft and cheap pewter (rather than copper), the technique being a standard one of transferring a pencil drawing, reversed, to the wax-covered plate; about white-line engraving on pewter; and about white-line etching on copper:


To Engrave on Pewter. Let there be first a drawing made correctly with black lead pencil. Let nothing be to seek, then rub it off on the plate covered with white wax [as in the 1795 letter to Cumberland] or perhaps pass it thro press. This will produce certain & determind forms on the plate & time will not be wasted in seeking them afterwards.


To Woodcut on Pewter. Lay a ground on the Plate & smoke it as for Etching. Then trace your outlines [& draw them in with a needle del], and beginning with the spots of light on each object with an oval pointed needle scrape off the ground [& instead of etching the shadowy strokes del] as a direction for your graver then proceed to graving with the ground on the plate being as careful as possible not to hurt the ground because it being black will shew perfectly what is wanted [towards del]


To Woodcut on Copper. Lay a ground as for Etching. Trace &c & instead of Etching the blacks Etch the whites & bite it in[.]

Blake evidently told George Cumberland about this method of woodcutting on metal, for on the back of a letter of James Irvine of 16 December 1794 Cumberland made a memorandum about "Blakes method, biting whites".[11]


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Cumberland continued to be interested in Blake's methods of engraving. He evidently acquired one of the very few copies of Blake's lithograph of "Enoch" (?1807), and on the back of it he wrote down

Blake's directions for making lithographs:
White Lyas—is the Block[;] draw with Ink composed of Asphaltum dissolved in dry Linseed Oil—add fine venetian Tripoli & Rotten Stone Powder. Let it dry. When dry saturate the stone with water and Dab it with the broad Dabber, and cover it very thinly with best Printers Ink—and Print as a block—
of Blake.[12]
Lias is a limestone rock found in the South of England, which C. Hullmandel, The Art of Drawing on Stone (1824), 2, says "is too soft and porous" for printing, compared with the German lithographic stone. "Tripoli" or "Rotten Stone" is a fine earth used as a powder for polishing metals. The ink used here seems very unusual. Cumberland may well have followed these directions in the lithographs for his own Scenes, Chiefly Italian (1824).

Blake seems actually to have recorded in print some of his inventions, though these may have now been lost. In his notebooks for 1804-8, Cumberland repeatedly made notes to himself:

Qy who has Plates of the 12 good Rules by Blake lost[?] (Blake Records, 118 n. 4, 119)
These rules may well have been about engraving. Cumberland was anxious that the invention should be recorded in print, and in his notebook for the summer of 1807 he wrote that "Blake . . . intends to publish his new method through means[?] of stopping lights" (Blake Records, 187). On 18 December 1808 he wrote to Blake:
You talked also of publishing your new method of engraving—send it to me and I will do my best to prepare it for the Press.—Perhaps when done you might with a few specimens of Plates, make a little work for the subscribers of it—as Du Crow[13] did of his Aqua tinta—selling about 6 Pages for a guinea to non Subscribers—but if you do not chuse this method, we might insert it in [William] Nicholsons Journal [of Natural Philosophy] or the Monthly Magazine—with reference to you for explanations . . . (Blake Records, 211-212).
To this Blake replied on the 19th:
I am very much obliged by your kind ardour in my cause & should immediately Engage in reviewing my former pursuits of printing if I had not now so long been turned out of the old channel into a new one that it is impossible for me to return to it without destroying my present course[.] New Vanities or rather new pleasures occupy my thoughts[.] New profits seem to arise before me so tempting that I have already involved myself in engagements that preclude all possibility of promising any thing. I have however the satisfaction to inform you that I have Myself begun to print an account of my various Inventions in Art for which I have procured a Publisher & am determind to pursue the plan of publishing what I may get printed without disarranging my time which in future must alone be devoted to Designing & Painting[;] when I have got my Work printed I will send it you first of any body[.]


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Blake's inventions in engraving and printing are not known to have been published in 1809 or later, and Cumberland consequently noted eagerly other inventions which were like Blake's. On 22 January 1819 he wrote to his son:

—Tell Blake a Mr Sivewright of Edinburgh has just claimed in some[?] Philosophical Journal of Last Month As his own invention Blakes Method—& calls it Copper Blocks I think.[14]
The method is apparently that of relief-etching on copper, about which Cumberland fairly obviously knew, and consequently it would be of very great interest to locate this note by Sivewright in a "Philosophical Journal". The author may be "John Sivewright, Teacher of Music" (c. 1770-1846) who wrote a Collection of Church Tunes & Anthems (Edinburgh, c. 1805); he is probably the John Sievwright, Engraver, who appears in the Edinburgh city directories for 1805-15.[15] However, no article has been identified which corresponds to the one Cumberland described. His information may have come, perhaps through a friend, from
  • 1) Anon., "Art. V—Account of a new Style of Engraving on Copper in Alto Relievo, invented by W[illiam Home] Lizars. Drawn up from information communicated by the Inventor", Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, II (April 1820), 19-23, in which Lizars says he "was much indebted" "during these experiments" to "Mr Sivright of Meggetland" (a suburb of Edinburgh), but he does not mention "Copper Blocks";
  • 2) The reprint of the bulk of Lizar's account in The Gentlemen's Magazine, XCI (1821), 625-6, citing "Edinburgh Philosophical Journal";
  • 3) Anon., "A New Style of Engraving, invented by Mr. Lizars", London Journal of Arts and Science, I (1820), 78-79, which does not refer to "Copper Blocks", Sivewright, or The Edinburgh Philosophical Journal; and
  • 4) Charles Pye, "Mr. Pye on Engraving on Metal and Stone. On a new Process of Engraving on Metal and Stone", London Journal of Arts and Sciences, I (1820), 55-58, which describes Pye's own experiments made "five years" earlier than the "account of the Process of Engraving on Copper Blocks into alto relievo by Mr. Lizars" "in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal", but which does not mention Mr Sivewright.
None of these accounts mentions both "Copper Blocks" and Mr Sivewright, as Cumberland does.

There is a further, chronological, difficulty, for all four of the articles were published in 1820 and 1821.[16] Without yet another date, after January


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1819, for the obscured date-stamp in Cumberland's letter, or another, earlier account of Sivewright's Copper Blocks in some Philosophical Journal, we are left with a mystery as to where Cumberland found his information. Though we know a great deal on Blake's own authority about his methods of engraving, we still do not know with confidence about his method of reliefetching producing "Copper Blocks" as in stereotype for his works in Illuminated Printing.