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Blake's Printing Techniques
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Blake's Printing Techniques

Blake's techniques of printing are rather better known, partly because they are more conventional, partly because they are more easily visible in his surviving works.

Blake bought a wooden press for printing engravings, perhaps with money he inherited when his father died in July 1784, and he probably used it in the print-selling business which he and his fellow-apprentice James Parker established beside Blake's birthplace at 27 Broad Street, Golden Square, London, in 1784-85. Certainly Blake had the press by 1800 when he moved to the little seaside village of Felpham in Sussex. He brought it back to London with him in September 1803,[17] and there were unsuccessful negotiations to sell it to J. Lahee in August 1827, just after Blake's death. We last hear of it when it was moved to John Linnell's house in Cirencester Place in 1827, when Catherine Blake moved there to be Linnell's housekeeper (Blake Records, 29, 350-351, 461 n. 1).

Blake was a master printer as well as engraver, and he took great care with his printing usually. Sometimes he masked the plate, so that only part of it would print, as in America pl. 4 and in many of the plates for the Small Book of Designs. Normally he wiped the border of the plate, and the presence or absence of this dark border is one of the ways of distinguishing between prints pulled by Blake and those made after his death by his disciple Frederick Tatham. He regularly printed in colours, brown, blue, green, red, orange, and yellow, as well as in black, and he invented a method, still little understood, of colour-printing in several colours at once. He apparently used this method of colour-printing chiefly or exclusively in 1795-96. Most of his works in Illuminated Printing he later coloured in water-colours, and this of course gave him the opportunity to improve the prints; sometimes he retraced the letters to clarify them, and sometimes he added features in the design, a bird, say, or a tree. Occasionally he added a border or extended the bottom of the design with a stream, particularly with the Songs.

At first, in 1790-1800, Blake apparently printed a stock of his own works which he kept on hand for customers. In his Prospectus "To the Public" of 10 October 1793 he announced:


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No Subscriptions for the numerous great works now in hand are asked for, for none are wanted; but the Author will produce [i.e., print?] his works, and offer them to sale at a fair price.
During these years he "had a whole House to range in", as he told Cumberland on 12 April 1827, but later he was cramped for space in a few rooms, and he had little room for his press, for hanging up prints to dry, or for storing them. Consequently he seems later to have printed chiefly to order, and he printed comparatively few copies. On 9 June 1818, he told the collector Dawson Turner that his works were

unprofitable enough to me tho Expensive to the Buyer. . . .

The few I have Printed & Sold are sufficient to have gained me great reputation as an Artist which was the chief thing Intended But I have never been able to produce a Sufficient number for a general Sale by means of a regular Publisher[.] It is therefore necessary to me that any Person wishing to have any or all of them should send me their Order to Print them . . . & I will take care that they shall be done at least as well as any I have yet Produced[.]

The watermarks in his works in Illuminated Printing suggest that they were chiefly produced about 1790-1800, 1805, 1815, 1818-20, 1825-27.

However, many copies of his works were apparently not printed by Blake himself. His wife Catherine

did all the [domestic] Work herself, kept the House clean, & herself tidy, besides printing all Blake's numerous Engravings, which was a Task alone sufficient for any industrious Woman . . . .[18]

[Blake] allowed her, till the last moment of his practice, to take off his proof impressions and print his works, which she did most carefully, and ever delighted in the task . . . .[19]

Blake's methods of printing seem to have been meticulous but not unconventional. He told Cumberland his methods, probably about the time he was helping with the etchings for Cumberland's Thoughts on Outline (1796) and writing to him with directions for "laying on the Wax" on the copperplate (6 December 1795). Cumberland recorded in his Commonplace Book

Blakes Instructions to Print Copper Plates

Warm the Plate a little and then fill it with Ink by dabbing it all over two or three times.—Then wipe off the superfluous Ink, till the surface is clean—then with the palm of the hand beneath the little finger rubbed over with a little of the Ink & smoothed with whiting by rubbing it on a Ball of it. Wipe the surface of the Plate till it shines all over—then roll it through the Press with 3 blankets above the Plate, and pastboards beneath it next the Plank—Paper may be used instead of Pastboard.[20]

There are a number of clear indications that Blake and his wife not only pulled proofs of his works on their own press and printed the small numbers of his works in Illuminated Printings,[21] but that they did a certain amount


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of commercial printing as well. Hayley's broadside ballad of Little Tom the Sailor (October 1800) was apparently printed entirely by Catherine Blake. On 26 November 1800 Blake wrote to Hayley: "my wife . . . has not printed any more since you went to London. But we can muster a few in colours[22] and some in black which I hope will be no less favourd tho they are rough like rough sailors. We mean to begin printing again tomorrow." Only a few copies of Little Tom have survived, and perhaps no more than a few score were printed. Since the work was printed for charitable purposes, it is possible that for their printing work (and Blake's designing and etching work), the Blakes acquired credit only in heaven, not in the bank.

A more extensive labour was for Hayley's Designs to A Series of Ballads issued in parts in June, July, August, and September 1802 with three plates each designed and engraved by Blake, plus two others in the prefatory matter issued with the first part. William Hayley explained in a letter to Lady Hesketh of 10 June 1802 the progress of the first part:

He [Blake] & his excellent wife (a true Helpmate) pass the plates thro' a rolling press in their own cottage together, & of course it is a work of some Time to collect a Number of Impressions.—But if you find, that you are likely to have many Customers in your new Trade of Ballad Monger, He will take care that you shall not want a stock in Hand . . . (Blake Records, 97).
The work was printed for Blake's benefit and sold chiefly through a network of middle-class and aristocratic ballad-mongers like Lady Hesketh; perhaps not surprisingly, it was a commercial failure. Probably no more than a hundred copies of the first part were sold, and there were evidently progressively smaller sales for the succeeding parts until the work dwindled away entirely, with only four out of the projected fifteen parts in print. Not only the proceeds but the expenses of the work were Blake's, and, taking into account his fair wages as designer, engraver, and printer, it is likely that he lost money on the 1802 Ballads.[23]

The most profitable printing undertaking of the Blakes, so far as we know, was that of the plates of Hayley's Life . . . of William Cowper, Volumes I and II (1803). Blake told his brother James on 30 January 1803: "My Wife has undertaken to Print the whole number of the Plates for Cowpers work which she has done to admiration & being under my own eye the prints are as fine as the French prints & please every one." And he confirmed this


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statement many years later to his young friend John Linnell: "The copper plates which Blake engraved to illustrate Hayley's life of Cowper were as he told me printed entirely by himself and his wife in his own press—a very good one which cost him forty pounds" (Blake Records, 461 n. 1). There were four plates for the first two volumes, and the printing-run was probably large,[24] perhaps 1,750 copies. This comes to 7,000 prints, an enormous number, and it is no wonder that Hayley wrote to the publisher R. H. Evans on 3 April 1803 that the "plates for the Life of Cowper . . . have engrossed much of his [Blake's] time even to this Hour, as He and his good industrious Wife together take all the Impressions from the various Engravings in their own domestic Press . . ." (Blake Records, 114). The standard are for commerical printing seems to have been about 6s. per hundred pulls:[25] at this rate, the Blakes might have expected something like £21 for printing 1,750 copies each of the four Cowper plates. On 30 January 1803, when the printing of the plates for the first two volumes may have just begun, Blake told his brother James, "The Publishers are already indebted to My Wife Twenty Guineas for work delivered[;] this is a small specimen of how we go on." This statement may imply that there were yet more copies of the Cowper plates to be printed.

Blake's own relations with his patron Hayley were, however, deteriorating at this time, he and his wife were intermittently ill, and the London publisher, Joseph Johnson, must have found considerable difficulty in coordinating his London operations with a Chichester text-printer and his Felpham plate-printers. At any rate, the Blakes do not seem to have been employed to print the plates for Volume III of Cowper (1804), though Blake continued to pull his own proofs. He apologised to Hayley on 21 March 1804 for the delay in sending proof of the Cowper, because "I had not enough paper in proper order for printing; beg pardon . . .". The published version was clearly printed by a commercial copperplate printer, for on 1 April 1804 Hayley wrote: "Blake told me He had found an excellent Copperplate Printer not far from him . . . [to whom] He had confided his Work [of printing the Cowper plates.]"[26]

We have information as to who printed Blake's commercial engravings only when they were for books sponsored by his friends such as William Hayley, John Flaxman, and John Linnell. Probably he normally printed his own working-proofs of his commercial engravings, as he almost certainly did those for Flaxman's Hesiod. The earliest proofs, such as those in The British Museum Print Room, were, as he told Maria Denman on 18 March


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1827, "Printed on both sides of the Paper . . . many of the backs of the paper have on them impressions from other Plates for Booksellers which he was employd about at the same time" such as Rees's Cyclopaedia. The finished proofs which he took to the publisher in 1814-17 are in Bodley. Perhaps the proofs to be shown to the publisher who commissioned the work were ordinarily printed by a commercial printer; certainly the firm of Cox & Barnett printed the final proofs for Hesoid at 6d. each in June 1816 and January-February 1817 (Blake Records, 579-580) as they did the finished plates. We know that Blake pulled his own proofs for his wonderful woodcuts for Thornton's school-text Virgil (1821), for his young disciple Samuel Palmer wrote on one set of Virgil proofs: "Mr Blake gave This page to me in Fountain Court [where Blake lived 1821-27]: impressions taken there, at his own press, by his own hands, and signed by him [W Blake fecit] under my eyes . . .".[27] The early working-proofs for Job were probably pulled by Blake at his own press, but later proofs were ordered by John Linnell (who had commissioned the set) first at Dixon's on 3-4 March 1825 and immediately thereafter at J. Lahee's on 5 March and in September, October 1825 and February 1826, and Lahee apparently printed the 315 sets of the first edition in March 1826 for £49.19.11; Linnell tipped the pressman Freeman £1 (Blake Records, 300, 321, 582, 590, 602-603).

In his last years, Blake probably printed little besides proofs of the plates he was then working on such as Job and Dante. On 19 February 1826 he told his new friend Crabb Robinson, evidently in a rather captious spirit:

I shall print no more—he said[.]—When I am commanded by the Spirits then I write, And the moment I have written, I see the Words fly about the room in all directions[.] It is then published[.]—The Spirits can read and my MS: is of no further use[.]—I have been tempted to burn my MS, but my wife wont let me.—(Blake Records, 547).
In earlier years, he had clearly printed a stock of his own works in Illuminated Printing, but in his two cramped rooms in Fountain Court he could not afford to be so forehanded. Four months before his death, he wrote on 12 April 1827 to his old friend George Cumberland:
You are desirous I know to dispose of some of my Works & to make them Pleasin[g.] I am obliged to you & to all who do so But having none remaining of all that I had Printed I cannot Print more Except at a great loss for at the time I printed those things I had a whole House to range in [1790-1800 at Hercules Buildings, Lambeth; ?1800-1803 at Felpham;] now I am shut up in a Corner therefore am forced to ask a Price for them that I scarce expect to get from a Stranger. I am now Printing a Set of the Songs of Innocence & Experience for a Friend [?T. G. Wainewright] at Ten Guineas which I cannot do under Six Months consistent with my other Work, so that I have little hope of doing any more of such things.

At Blake's death in August 1827, his wife Catherine inherited all his small property, including his printing press and his hundreds of copperplates. These she moved to John Linnell's house in Cirencester Place, where


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she was to be housekeeper, but, as Cumberland reported to his son in January 1828, "her late husbands works she intends to print[t] with her own hands and trust to their sal[e] for a livelihood—" (Blake Records, 365.) It would not be surprising if she had printed some of Blake's works after his death, but no surviving copy can be so identified. At her death in October 1831, all her property passed to Blake's disciple Frederick Tatham, with whom Catherine had lived for a time. We know that Tatham printed copies, for they are on paper watermarked 1831 and 1832. The quality of the printing is distinctly inferior to the Blakes'; he seems to have used only shades of brown and black, and he regularly omitted to wipe the ink from the borders of the plates as the Blakes had done. And not only did he somewhat debase the works in printing them, but he managed to lose all the hundreds of plates of Blake which had come to him (he said they were stolen from him) (Blake Records, 417 n. 3).

William Blake was thus an enterprising and energetic innovator in engraving and in copper-plate printing. Here as elsewhere, however, his interest was in eternal beauty rather than in temporal profit: "My business is not to gather gold, but to make glorious shapes expressing god-like sentiments".[28] He has gained from posterity what his contemporaries denied him. He deserves to be remembered for his technical inventiveness and expertise as well as for his grander creations in design, engraving, and poetry.