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William Blake's Techniques of Engraving and Printing by G. E. Bentley, Jr.
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William Blake's Techniques of Engraving and Printing
G. E. Bentley, Jr. [*]

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.

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.



I am grateful to my friend Professor Robert Essick for invaluable advice about several technical features of Blake's printing. The essay on "The Printing of Blake's Illuminated Works", pp. xlvii-lii in William Blake's Writings (1979), Vol. I, is much narrower in scope and extent than the present essay.


Blake's Notebook p. 55; cf. p. 47. (William Blake's Writings [1979] is the source of all the Blake quotations here.)


Descriptive Catalogue (1809), last paragraph.


Very detailed instructions about how "To engrave [on copper] with aquafortis, so that the work may appear like a basso relievo" are given in the first chapter of Anon., Valuable Secrets concerning Arts and Trades [1758], 1775, 1778, 1795, 1798, 1809, 1810. The book does not deal with printing from such plates.


"Hints on various Modes of Printing from Autographs", Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry, and the Arts, 28 (Jan 1811), 56-59.


Blake Records (1969) 460 n. 1.


Probable exceptions are his plates for George Cumberland's Thoughts on Outline (1796), Edward Young, Night Thoughts (1797), William Hayley, An Essay on Sculpture (1800), Hayley, Little Tom the Sailor (1800), Hayley, Designs to A Series of Ballads (1802), Hayley, Life . . . of William Cowper (1803, 1804), Chaucer, Prologue (1812), Job (1826), and Dante (?1827). We must, therefore, be cautious about assuming that Blake lettered his commercial plates for books—see D. V. Erdman, "Dating Blake's Script: The 'g' hypothesis" and G. E. Bentley, Jr., "Blake Sinister 'g', from 1789-93 to ?1803", Blake Newsletter, III (1969), 8-13, 42-45.


It has been generally assumed that the "visionary imagination" occurred after Robert Blake's death in 1787, but this is not a necessary conclusion from Smith's language, and an earlier date, such as 1784, is at least possible.


Linnell wrote that this liquid "was nothing more I believe than the usual stopping as it is called used by engravers made chiefly of pitch and diluted with Terps" (Blake Records [1969], 460 n. 1).


Blake Records (1969), 472-473, quoted by Cunningham in his influential biography of 1830 (p. 504).


Virgin Wax is purified wax. (Cumberland called it "common white-wax"—see note 4 above.) The need for a perfect surface on the wax is indicated by Blake's directions "To Engrave on Pewter" quoted below.


British Museum Add. MSS 36, 497, f. 348v, quoted in a footnote to p. 4 of Blake's Notebook, ed. D. V. Erdman (1973). The rest of the quotation is irrelevant to Blake. I am grateful to D. V. Erdman, Allan Pritchard, and J. R. de J. Jackson for information about this memorandum.


Quoted from a photograph (generously sent me by its owner, Mr. Edward Croft-Murray) of the inscription in Cumberland's hand.


Perhaps Pierre Ducros (1745-1810), painter and engraver.


Blake Records (1969), 214, where it is misdated 1809. The date-stamp is obscure.


According to Miss Marion Linton of the National Library of Scotland.


Lizar's account did not appear in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal for June—October 1819, as Sir Geoffrey Keynes (Blake Studies [1971], 246) says it did. According to David Bindman, "There is no contemporary account of Blake's method of printing" (The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake, ed. D. Bindman [1978], 15), but, as may be seen below, this is not quite so.


In his letter of 13 Dec 1803 Blake apologises for not having sent Hayley a proof yet, "my Press not yet being put up". His apology to Cumberland in his letter of 4 Dec 1795 for not sending a proof, "my paper not being in order", seems to imply that he intended to pull the proof himself.


Frederick Tatham's MS "Life of Blake" (?1832) in Blake Records (1969), 522.


J. T. Smith, Nollekens and his Times (1828) in Blake Records (1969), 459.


George Cumberland, MS Commonplace Book, f. 75r (GEB Collection).


Songs of Innocence and of Experience is the Blake work which survives in the largest number of copies; we can trace today some 25 copies printed by the Blakes between about 1794 and 1827, about one per year. Some of his works survive in only one copy (e.g., The Book of Los), and at least one work, his Prospectus "To the Public" (1793), does not survive in a contemporary copy at all.


No copy in colour, i.e., printed in brown, say, or blue, rather than black, is known to have survived. The ballad was intended to be sold to village folk for the benefit of the family of the brave sailor boy it celebrates, and the roughness of its printing was therefore not inappropriate to its audience. The printing was tricky, however, for there were four plates to be printed on one broadside leaf. There is no evidence that it was sold to London connoisseurs.


Blake Records (1969), 116-117. When the Designs to A Series of Ballads (1802) was reissued commercially in a new format in 1805, Blake was evidently involved not at all in the printing and only partially in the profits.


It was believed that Hayley had made £11,000 from editions of his Life . . . of William Cowper in 1803-4, 1806, 1809, 1812 (Alexander Stephens, Memoirs of John Horne Tooke [1813], II, 489 fn), and even allowing for gross exaggeration in the sum, and much larger printing-runs for later editions, it is fair to assume that the first printing was a large one.


G. E. Bentley, Jr. The Early Engravings of Flaxman's Classical Designs (1964).


Blake Records (1969), 151; Blake's letter to Hayley with this information is not known. In his 31 March 1804 letter Blake merely says "we directly go to Printing. . . . Johnson [the Publisher] . . . wants them [the Plates] to set the Printer to work upon".


Quoted from a reproduction of the MS in the possession of Mr Philip Hofer.


Allan Cunningham, quoted in Blake Records, 480.