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Young's Night Thoughts (1797)
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Young's Night Thoughts (1797)

Richard Edwards was in 1794 a publisher of very modest ambition and accomplishment. He had published only one work costing more than 3s (Clarke's Tour at 10s 6d) and only two works with more than two plates or 250 pages (Magazin des Savans and Clarke's Tour, each with eleven plates). Most of his works were conservative political and religious pamphlets of little note except to their authors and publisher.

However, great changes were in the air in 1794. The standards of British typography, book design, and binding had made enormous strides in the previous three decades and now rivalled those of France and Holland and Italy. In particular, book illustration had been radically transformed by Alderman Boydell's great Shakespeare Gallery (1786-1805) and by his chief rivals, Macklin's Poets' Gallery (1788 ff) and Bible (1791-1800), and Bowyer's Historic Gallery (1792-1806) of illustrations to Hume's History of England. These great undertakings, costing tens of thousands of pounds apiece, involved most of the great English painters of the day, with commissions of up to £1,000 for a single painting, all the great line engravers in England, who were paid up to £800 for a single folio plate, and the best printers such as


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Bensley and Bulmer. Type, ink, and printing houses were created for the purpose. Each publisher had a fashionable Gallery to which the public flocked to see the annual exhibitions of specially commissioned huge paintings, and each sustained public interest by issuing their works in parts over more than a decade, at a cost to the subscriber of up to £105 (for Boydell's Shakspeare).

There were a number of illustrious illustrated folio publications which grew up in the shadows of these giants, such as Boydell's Milton (3 vols., 1794-97), his edition of Farington's History of the River Thames (1794, 1796), and Thornton's Flora (1797-1807), but they were only seriously rivalled by one other British illustrated literary work, and that was the edition of Young's Night Thoughts undertaken by the twenty-six-year-old publisher of cautious commonplaces, Richard Edwards. There was a striking incongruity both between Richard Edwards's previous publications and his public obscurity as compared to those of the titans whom he was challenging, and between the craftsman of genius whom he commissioned to make all his designs and all his engravings, William Blake, as compared to the scores of famous Royal Academy painters and engravers employed to illustrate Bowyer's Hume, Boydell's Shakspeare, and Macklin's Bible.

William Blake was an extraordinary choice for such a Church-and-King publisher as Richard Edwards. For one thing, Blake made his living as an obscure engraver of other men's designs—he was not and could not be a Royal Academician. Before the Night Thoughts was published in 1797, he had signed his name to only twelve designs for four commercially published books,[15] and of the most ambitious and recent of these, a translation of Burger's Leonora (1796) rivalling that published by James Edwards, a caustic reviewer remarked that the figures represented "distorted, absurd, and impossible monsters", exemplifying "the depraved fancy of one man of genius, which substitutes deformity and extravagance for force and expression, and draws . . . imaginary beings, which neither can nor ought to exist."[16]

For another thing, Blake was a political and religious radical who wore the white cap of liberty openly in the streets of London, who deplored the unimaginative singularity of "One King, one God, one Law",[17] and who was in fact tried for sedition in 1804. It is difficult to believe that William Blake and Richard Edwards had much in common politically, religiously, morally, or socially.

Finally, even as an engraver Blake was not widely admired or even known in 1794, though he was then thirty-seven and near the height of his power as a line-engraver. Before 1794, he had made engravings for about thirty commercial books issued by six different booksellers (eleven of them published by Joseph Johnson), but very few were in folio size, he had received no commission for an engraving, much less for a design, for the great Galleries of Boydell,[18] Macklin, and Bowyer, and he had never been named with honour as an engraver in a review. Indeed, though he had illustrated his own works profusely, he had never made a substantial series of designs for a


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major literary work.[19] It is, therefore, not easy to see what drew William Blake and Richard Edwards together.

They did, however, have a number of interests in common. Both were artists and craftsmen who specialized in copying work by other men to decorate books. Blake's chief commercial patron before 1795 was Joseph Johnson, who was a good friend and commercial colleague of James Edwards, and in 1792 and 1793 Blake was engraving sixteen or more plates for J. G. Stedman's Expedition to Surinam which was published by Joseph Johnson and James Edwards. Further, Blake was particularly intimate during these years with Henry Fuseli,[20] who was a close friend of both Joseph Johnson and James Edwards, and whose ambitious edition of Milton, with plates by (inter alia) William Blake, was announced by Johnson and Edwards in 1791. It would not be at all surprising if Blake were known to Richard Edwards through Henry Fuseli, with whom Richard Edwards must have been acquainted because of his brother, or through Joseph Johnson, with whom he published books in 1794 and later, or through James Edwards—or through all three. Whatever the origin of the connection of the two men, it resulted in the most ambitious commercial work either ever undertook, one which rivalled the very greatest illustrated literary works of that time, or almost any other, in England, those published by Boydell, Macklin, and Bowyer.

We may be able to guess a little more confidently at the reasons why Young's Night Thoughts was chosen as the vehicle of their collaboration. Beyond the motives given by Edwards in his integral advertisement, we may remark that Charles Edward De Coetlogon, for whom Edwards had published eight books in 1792-93, had also published an illustrated edition of Young's Night Thoughts (London: Chapman, 1793). It seems extremely likely that Edwards was aware of this edition and was influenced by it and by De Coetlogon to commission illustrations to Young's Night Thoughts himself.

Another incentive for the project was probably Richard Edwards's acquisition of a set of first and early editions of the nine parts of Night Thoughts (1742-45), "the Author's own copy"[21] with "The Author's signature" on "the blank leaf".[22] The first intention may have been merely to make an elaborately extra-illustrated copy.[23] If an engraved edition had originally been in contemplation, it is unlikely that they would have used the uniquely valuable author's copy as their text, with all the necessary hazards from an engraver's inky fingers. Further, there would have been little point in making hundreds of extra designs, far more than could ever be published, or in colouring the ink outlines elaborately. But such colouring and such profusion would be perfectly appropriate for an extra-illustrated work. A little later James Edwards's good customer Richard Bull added thousands of extra-illustrations to the Macklin Bible (1791-1800) for his daughter Elizabeth,[24] and John Gray Bell added some ten thousand designs to another set of the same work.[25] Blake himself made a series of 116 watercolours in 1797 in illustration of Gray's Poems (1790) for his good friend John Flaxman—and the method of mounting


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the text leaves in larger leaves for the designs is just like that used by Edwards for Young's Night Thoughts. It may not have been until the Night Thoughts were well under way that publication of them was thought of.

The beginning of the project was probably in 1794. Thomas Edwards, who later offered the watercolours for sale, wrote that Blake "was employed for more than two years" on the drawings,[26] presumably before the book was published in November 1797 and probably before the first plates were dated in June 1796. Each text leaf—over 260 of them—was laid in a window cut into 1794 / J Whatman paper, c. 12” X 16”, for Blake's watercolours, and, probably after the watercolours were completed, these in turn were set into windows of yet larger Imperial folio leaves with an ornamental ruled border round the design-leaf. The pages were consecutively numbered in brown ink, lines to be illustrated were ticked (sometimes two per page) in the margin in pencil by Edwards (or Blake),[27] and Blake set to work with extraordinary energy, making an average of five designs every week for over two years. When Blake had finished the 537 huge watercolours surrounding the text on each side of the leaf, two splendid separate designs were removed from their places in the sequence to form frontispieces (see Pl. 1 here), and the designs were sumptuously bound by Benedict in red morocco "extra", with the leaves gilt. After Richard Edwards had returned from Minorca in 1802, he wrote in each volume "Richard Edwards High Elms", the name of the house he seems to have shared with his brother James.

Blake asked £105 but was paid £21 for his work, or about 9d for each design. This is indeed a "despicably low" price, as J. T. Smith called it[28] —Blake was paid a guinea a design by his faithful patron Thomas Butts in 1799—but it is at least possible that Blake exceeded his commission in the number of drawings he produced. It seems unlikely that Richard Edwards and Blake would have begun on such an heroic scale, and Blake, as the more impetuous of the two, may well have been carried away by his enthusiasm for Young while Richard Edwards stuck to his original bargain for payment. Blake may also have been looking forward to the commission for the engravings. That Blake did not regard himself as ill-used is indicated by the fact that he went on to make engravings for Richard Edwards—and he did not grumble about Edwards in his letters and Notebook as he did about other patrons of the time such as Joseph Johnson, William Hayley, and R. H. Cromek.

The drawings themselves are astonishing (see Pl. 1). As Thomas Edwards wrote enthusiastically in 1826:

It would be difficult, if not impossible, to convey to those at a distance and who have not seen this magnificent Work, an adequate, or even a faint idea of the singular nature of these most extraordinary and sublime conceptions of our Artist . . . . To embody . . . and give it [Young's poem] a visible form and reality, required the skill of a great Artist, and the poetic feeling of the original author combined. . . . It may truly be averred, that a more extraordinary, original, and sublime production of art has seldom, if ever, been witnessed since the days of the celebrated Mich. Agnolo, whose grandeur and elevation of style it greatly resembles, and this alone, if he had left no


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other work of merit, would be sufficient to immortalise his name, and transmit it to posterity, as that of an Artist of the very highest order. This was the late Mr. Fuseli's opinion.[29]

Young's meditative poem was, of course, one of the most popular in an age fascinated by death, but it had not previously been illustrated in an important series of designs. Indeed, before Blake's were published in 1797, the only significant illustrations of it were those by his friend Thomas Stothard, conceived after Blake had begun his series and was well through his engravings, and published in 1798. Blake's series remains not only the greatest suite of designs for Young's poem but the only important one ever undertaken. It is also one of the great series illustrating any author.

The watercolours were enormously important for Blake in a number of ways. For one thing, they formed the largest commission in terms of number of drawings he had received—or for that matter was ever to receive. For another, he used in them ideas already mooted in his own works in Illuminated Printing and drew on them in many of his later works.[30] For another, his most ambitious Prophecy, Vala or The Four Zoas, over four thousand lines, was written at just this time (?1794-?1807), and its subtitle, "A Dream of Nine Nights", indicates its structural relation to the nine Nights of Young's poem. (Much of Vala was written on proofs for the Night Thoughts engravings.) For another, the Night Thoughts watercolours must have occupied his time to the exclusion of more profitable labour, and it is notable that his own publications in Illuminated Printing cease in 1795, not to be resumed until 1804 or later. His commissions from other booksellers had resulted in an average of seventeen plates a year for books dated 1790-93, but in 1794-96 they averaged just five. And the watercolours were probably the occasion for one of his most extraordinary experiences: As he told Thomas Phillips, who was painting his portrait in 1807:

I was one day reading Young's Night Thoughts, and when I came to that passage which asks "who can paint an angel," I closed the book and cried, "Aye! Who can paint an angel?"

A voice in the room answered, "Michael Angelo could."

"And how do you know?", I said, looking round me, but I saw nothing save a greater light than usual.

"I know," said the voice, "for I sat to him; I am the arch-angel Gabriel."

"Oho!" I answered, "you are, are you: I must have better assurance than that of a wandering voice; you may be an evil spirit—there are such in the land."

"You shall have good assurance," said the voice, "can an evil spirit do this?"

I looked whence the voice came, and was then aware of a shining shape, with bright wings, who diffused much light. As I looked, the shape dilated more and more: he waved his hands; the roof of my study opened; he ascended into the heaven; he stood in the sun, and beckoning to me, moved the universe. An angel of evil could not have done that—it was the arch-angel Gabriel.[31]

We do not know when Edwards commissioned Blake to engrave his designs for the Night Thoughts or what the terms of the agreement were. It seems likely that their agreement was a cooperative one, Blake to provide designs and engraved copperplates, Edwards to pay for setting the text in


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type, for paper, printing text and then designs (on the same leaves), labels, collation, putting the leaves in wrappers, stitching, warehousing, and advertising—though there was precious little advertising. Such agreements were not uncommon then or later. On 18 October 1795 Alderman Boydell "recommended to Northcote to join with some engraver and share profit & loss [of Northcote's ten designs of 'The Progress of Virtue and Vice'] with him as the only way of proceeding now.—Northcote talked of exhibiting them."[32] Joseph Farington, who reports this proposal, had a similar arrangement with Boydell for his History of the River Thames (1794 [i.e., 1796]), paying the mere author of the text (William Combe) on a daily basis—which, as it happens, ate up all the profits. Farington reported on 18 July 1800 that his friend the artist Robert Smirke was going to ask the engraver William Daniell to "execute the Aqua Tinta part of the Plates He proposes to do of subjects from Tom Jones.—I thought it wd. be a good plan & that He might offer William Daniell a fourth of the property for his trouble."[32] James Edwards's collaborators E. & S. Harding were engravers who organized books of views or portraits and then persuaded publishers to share the expenses of publishing with them. William Hodges had such an arrangement for his Select Views in India (1794) and Travels in India (1793) published by James Edwards, which Richard Edwards is very likely to have known about, and Blake's own engravings for Job (1826) and Dante (1824 ff.) were published on a cost-sharing arrangement with John Linnell—though Blake was paid first, and the profits did not materialize until long after his death. Indeed, Richard Edwards's arrangement with the engraver Merigot for his Select Collection of Views and Ruins in Rome and Its Vicinity (1796-98) is very likely to have required Merigot to provide designs and engravings and Richard Edwards to pay the other expenses.

Such an arrangement would explain a number of anomalies in the Night Thoughts (1797). For one thing, there is no reference at all on the titlepage to engravings, which to posterity seem the very raison d'être of the edition, and there seem to have been fewer copies of the "Explanation of the Engravings" printed than of the rest of the work—or at any rate some copies lack it. This is what one would expect if the work were to be issued both with and without the engravings—and at least one copy has survived without engravings.[33] Perhaps the arrangement was that Richard Edwards should sell the unillustrated state, for which he had paid all the expenses, and that either the profits or the copies of the illustrated state should be shared with Blake. As a sharer of the risk, Blake would thus have no more cause to repine at the lack of profit than Edwards. Both had, in any case, expected to be rewarded chiefly in fame—and neither lived to see this expectation realized. Yet another indication that responsibility for the text was peculiarly Richard Edwards's may be seen in the fact that one copy was printed on vellum, as in a number of James Edwards's publications, and that it lacks the illustrations (Sotheby, 27-30 June 1906, lot 685).

For another thing, Edwards says emphatically in his integral Advertisement that "he has shrunk from no expence in the preparing" of "the present


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edition". If, as seems likely to me, this statement applies to the printed text but not to the cost of the engravings, it might not be much of an exaggeration—though in excluding the plates it is somewhat disingenuous. Lack of advertising and faulty register and collation aside, this is in most respects a sumptuously and expensively produced publication on the best folio paper, with generous margins, handsomely printed by Noble. If, on the other hand, the statement applies to engravings as well as to text, it leans on the far side of hyperbole to prevarication. Neither the £21 of which we know nor any other plausible payment to Blake is likely to have provided him with fair engraver's wages for his extraordinarily extensive labour.

Blake eventually made forty-three engravings (see Pl. 2)—and expected to make about 107 more. At a very modest £5.5.0 each for these outline folio plates,[34] he should have expected £225.15.0 for those he engraved (plus the cost of the copper). It is exceedingly unlikely that Richard Edwards's expenses for the rest of the work came to anything like this total. "All expenses" for seventy-seven and a half sheets of Clarke's Tour (1793) cost Richard Edwards and his co-publisher £140, perhaps excluding the expenses of the eleven aquatints, while there were only twelve and a half sheets of text in Night Thoughts plus one of separate engravings. It is true that thirty-nine pages had to be printed twice, once with text and once with engravings, and that printing from engravings costs a good deal more than printing from type—but printing a short run, say 250 copies, was likely to be one of the smallest expenses of a book, much less than for paper, composing the text—or engravings. The speculator whose investment was heaviest in Young's Night Thoughts (1797) was probably William Blake, and his risk and eventual loss in cash and fame were probably a good deal larger than those of Richard Edwards.

When the decision was made to publish some of Blake's Night Thoughts designs, the watercolours in the first four Nights (only) were examined to mark which should be "Engraved".[35] Since the box in which the text appeared in both the watercolour and the 1797 edition was slightly closer to the inner margin than to the outer, Blake had to know, before he began his engravings, whether a design appearing on (say) a recto in the watercolours would be on a recto or a verso in the new printed version; if it were to be on a verso, the design would have to be reversed in the engraving (as happened ten times). The text had to be very carefully estimated (cast off) to determine how many pages there would be and where each page of the text would end, and, probably then, the selected watercolours were inscribed "[To be] Engraved" or "[To be] Engraved reversed".[36] (This casting off was fallible, for the engraved designs on pp. 25, 40, and 63 illustrate text on the previous pages. It may have been such a defect in casting off which caused the omission in 1797 of the last 58 lines of text for Night II, including the text for the engraving on p. 41.) Many but not all the designs published in 1797 are thus marked, and two (No. 63 and 107) so marked among the watercolours were not engraved. There was similar confusion with the text printed in 1797, for


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pp. 20 and 61 there have asterisks identifying a line illustrated, but no engraving appeared for that line.

There are a number of major differences between the folio engravings for Young's Night Thoughts and those for Boydell's Shakspeare, Macklin's Bible, and Bowyer's Hume. For one thing, all the Night Thoughts plates were designed by the same artist, all were copied (and sometimes altered) by the same engraver, and the artist and engraver were the same man. For another, the designs were integral with the text, printed on the same pages, not scattered penuriously on separate leaves. For another, a far higher proportion of text is illustrated in Young's Night Thoughts (1797) than in any of its rivals. For another, Boydell's, Macklin's, and Bowyer's plates were highly finished engravings—or at least they were advertised as such—whereas Blake's were outline engravings only (though they were not advertised as such). A highly finished folio plate took months or even years to engrave—Blake's for Hogarth was two years in progress—and it would have been quite impossible for Blake to give high finish to the forty-three plates published in 1797, not to mention the 150-200 intended for all nine Nights, within the time that a bookseller could afford to wait.

A special advantage of outline rather than highly finished engravings was that they could be more easily and effectively hand-coloured, and such colouring may have been part of the original intention (as E. J. Ellis, The Real Blake [1907], 83, suggests). Certainly Blake did colour a number of copies of the published edition (see below), though he very rarely did so for his other commercial book illustrations[37] —many of which are highly finished engravings. Perhaps the plan was always for Blake to be given copies of the Night Thoughts to colour, as part of his share of the profits of the work. The colouring of these engravings, creating a luminous beauty like that of the watercolours, adds an aesthetic dimension to the Night Thoughts never contemplated by Boydell, Macklin, and Bowyer and makes Blake's coloured Night Thoughts plates rarer, more extraordinary, more valuable, and more beautiful than the works of his more expensive and famous rivals.

Boydell and his great competitors had to coordinate the work of painter, engraver, and proof-printer. Blake worked far more efficiently and expeditiously by doing all this work himself; the artist never had to wait for the engraver to take the plate to a proof-printer, for he pulled the proofs himself. Seventy-one proofs for Night Thoughts have survived, including three or four of some plates, revealing extraordinary and important changes in the engravings, and almost certainly there were more proofs. The savings in time and money achieved by having the artist take his own proofs were probably important. And probably most important of all, they mean that the same hand and imagination were responsible for all the preliminary stages of the engravings. Indeed, it is even possible that Blake printed the finished engravings in commercial quantities himself, as he did the quarto plates for Hayley's Life . . . of William Cowper (1803-04). If so, his earnings thus may have been substantial. At the standard rate of 6s per hundred pulls, the cost of printing two hundred and fifty copies each of forty-three plates would


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have been £32.5.0, a sum equal to perhaps six months income for the Blakes in some years.

The best way to encourage patrons to subscribe to such an edition was to let them see specimens, and Boydell had his Shakspeare Gallery, Macklin his Poets' Gallery, and Bowyer his Historic Gallery[38] to display their designs to be engraved—though they never had so many as 537 unpublished designs to show at once. It was probably for this purpose that a copy was made of one of the Night Thoughts designs on vellum,[39] perhaps to exhibit at the shop of James Edwards in Pall Mall or of Robert Bowyer in Pall Mall, where "Specimens may be seen". Presumably the original watercolours themselves were to be seen in the shop of Richard Edwards in Old Bond Street, and it would not be surprising if some of the watercolours were put on display at the Royal Academy Library, as Blake's designs for Blair's Grave apparently were in 1805.[40] At any rate, they were seen by a surprising number of Royal Academicians.

Evidently it was at first expected that the Night Thoughts would be published in June 1796, and 71% of the plates with imprints bear the date of 27 June 1796. The chief known advertisement for the work is a little flyer which probably appeared early in the year:


EARLY in JUNE will be published, by subscription, part the first of a splendid edition of this favorite work, elegantly printed, and illustrated with forty very spirited engravings from original drawings by blake.

These engravings are in a perfectly new style of decoration, surrounding the text which they are designed to elucidate.

The work is printed in atlas-sized quarto, and the subscription for the whole, making four parts, with one hundred and fifty engravings, is five guineas;—one to be paid at the time of subscribing, and one on the delivery of each part.—The price will be considerably advanced to non-subscribers.

Specimens may be seen at edwards's, No 142, New Bond-Street; at Mr. edwards's, Pall Mall; and at the historic gallery, Pall-Mall; where subscriptions are received.[41]

The Prospectus promised four Parts with 150 engravings in all. While at first it may seem surprising that the first Part should have contained four of the nine Nights, the text for these four Nights forms only a little more (28.7%) than 25% of the whole work anticipated in the Prospectus. In the 1797 text, eighty-eight pages of text have thirty-nine engravings (44% of the text-pages have illustrations), plus eight pages of new preliminaries and four frontispieces. These eighty-eight pages represent 61% of the 144 pages of Nights I-IV in the 1740s editions which they were copying. It seems plausible to expect that these proportions would have been maintained in successive Parts of the Edwards edition of Night Thoughts.

By extrapolating from these proportions, we may calculate that the four Parts of the Edwards edition of Night Thoughts would probably have been formed as follows:


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Part  Nights  Preliminaries  Pages of text  Percentage of pages  Plates  Frontispieces 
One  I-IV  88  28.7%  39 
Two  V-VI  69  19%  30 
Three  VII-VIII  85  28.3%  37 
Four  IX  73  23.5%  32 
14  315  99.5%  138 
(Edwards omitted the two extra pages of Preliminaries in the original Night I and presumably therefore would have omitted the two extra in Night V, the four extra in Night VI, and the six extra in Night VII.)

This would have given a total of 332 pages (including one blank page at the end of Parts Two through Four) and 147 plates, totals which are in reasonable conformity to the Prospectus advertisement for "four parts, with one hundred fifty engravings".

Notice also that the Prospectus says that the engravings are "to elucidate" Young's poem, not merely to embellish it; this is indeed an ambitious claim. Finally, notice the extraordinarily modest cost of the undertaking: £5.5.0 for 150 large engravings and about thirty sheets of text. Boydell's Shakspeare, Macklin's Bible, and Bowyer's edition of Hume's History of England cost far more than this, up to £105 for Shakspeare, with far fewer plates, though they had much more text (eleven volumes for Shakspeare) and highly finished engravings rather than just outlines. The 1797 Night Thoughts was an extraordinary bargain for those with guineas to spare.

However, few book-lovers had guineas to spare just then. Blake's acquaintance the engraver Abraham Raimbach lamented "the abject and almost expiring state to which the fine arts had been reduced" about 1796; "Everything connected with them was, of course, at the lowest ebb".[42] The English war with France had not only cut off the crucial export trade in illustrated books but had caused inflation and a general calling in of credit. The Night Thoughts was advertised and published at a time peculiarly difficult for the arts of luxury.

It may have been the flyer for the Night Thoughts which helped to stimulate the first recorded responses among artists. Joseph Farington may have been thinking of Blake's watercolours when he wrote on Friday 19 February 1796: "West, Cosway & Humphry[43] spoke warmly in favour of the designs of Blake the Engraver, as works of extraordinary genius and imagination.—Smirke differed in opinion, from what He had seen, so do I."[32]

Blake's good friend Nancy Flaxman, the wife of the distinguished sculptor, certainly was well informed about Blake's project, if not about his poet, for she wrote on 16 March 1796:

apropos of Young[,] Edwards has inserted the letter press close cut of Youngs [Night Th del] into the large margins making a folio Size[;] this a friend of ours is ornamenting with most beautiful designs in water colours[.] The man who does it, is himself


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a Native Poet [& an Artist del] & sings his wood notes [unfettered by any rule del] whose genius soars above all rule[;] twill be a very lily of the valley [a mountain daisy del] or the meadow queen, twill be in short the choicest wild flower in Linneas System. Tell in your next the name of it—I never read the Bard in question & have him not in my collection, but [soon I will both read & possess. I have hopes it will be publishd e'er I am much older for del] from what little I have seen in his writings they seem like orient Pearls at random strung.[44]
Her expectation that the Night Thoughts would be "published e'er I am much older" seems to confirm the presumption that it was to be published in June 1796. Another such confirmation comes in the diary of Joseph Farington, who wrote on 24 June 1796:

Fuseli called on me last night & sat till 12 oclock. He mentioned Blake, the Engraver, whose genius & invention have been much spoken of. . . .

Blake has undertaken to make designs to encircle the letter press of each page of 'Youngs night thoughts.['] Edwards the Bookseller, of Bond Str employs him, and has had the letter press of each page laid down on a large half sheet of paper. There are abt 900 pages.[45] —Blake asked 100 Guineas for the whole. Edwards said He could not afford to give more than 20 guineas for which Blake agreed.—Fuseli understands that Edwards proposes to select abt 200 from the whole and to have that number engraved as decorations for a new edition.—[32]

Notice that the £21 seems to be for the drawings only; the proposal to publish the designs is subsequent—and probably separate. It would be pleasant to think that it was Blake's inventions for Night Thoughts which "have been much spoken of".

Whatever Edwards's expectations, only twenty-two of Blake's plates were finished by June 1796, and publication could not take place then. Six months later, Edwards believed the first part was ready, he wrote an Advertisement which was published in the book, and he may even have had the text set in type, with the titlepage date 1797. His Advertisement was a curiously muted affair:


In an age like the present of literature and of taste, in which the arts, fostered by the general patronage, have attained to growth beyond the experience of former times, no apology can be necessary for offering to the publick an embellished edition of an english classick; or for giving to the great work of Young some of those advantages of dress and ornament which have lately distinguished the immortal productions of Shakspeare and of Milton.

But it was not solely to increase the honours of the british press, or to add a splendid volume to the collections of the wealthy, that the editor was induced to adventure on the present undertaking. Not uninfluenced by professional, he acted also under the impulse of higher motives; and when he selected the Night Thoughts for the subject of his projected decoration, he wished to make the arts, in their most honourable agency, subservient to the purposes of religion; and by their allurements to solicit the attention of the great for an enforcement of religious and moral truth, which can be ineffectual only as it may not be read.

From its first appearance in the world, this poem has united the suffrages of the criticks in the acknowledgement of its superior merit. . . .

The principal charges which have been urged against this poem, and which in some degree may have affected its popularity, are the dark tints of its painting; and the obscurities which occasionally occur in it to retard the progress of the reader. . . .


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On the immediate subject of the present edition of this valuable work the editor has only to say that he has shrunk from no expence in the preparing of it; and that to make it as worthy in every respect as possible of the public favour has been the object of his particular and solicitous attention. It has been regarded by him, indeed, not as a speculation of advantage, but as an indulgence of inclination;—as an undertaking in which fondness and partiality would not permit him to be curiously accurate in adjusting the estimate of profit and loss. If this edition, therefore, of the Night Thoughts be found deficient in any essential requisite to its perfection, the circumstance must be imputed to some other cause, than to the oeconomy or negligence of the editor.

Of the merit of Mr. Blake in those designs which form not only the ornament of the page, but, in many instances, the illustration of the poem, the editor conceives it to be unnecessary to speak. To the eye of the discerning it need not be pointed out; and while a taste for the arts of design shall continue to exist, the original conception, and the bold and masterly execution of this artist cannot be unnoticed or unadmired.

Dec. 22d. 1796.

This is an odd piece of puffing, clearly aiming at the lofty judiciousness appropriate to a National Edition. Edwards seems to solicit comparison with the "dress" (?typography) and "ornament" (designs) of the Boydell Shakspeare and Milton, and he appeals, as they did, to national pride, as we might expect from his lex et rex publications. His interest in making the work "subservient to the purposes of religion" is also consonant with his religious pamphlets of 1792-93. He devotes several paragraphs to a discussion of the merits of the poem, oddly stressing its "dark tints" and "obscurities", and he only reaches "the immediate subject of the present edition" in the penultimate paragraph and then chiefly to say that the editor (and publisher) cannot be accused of "oeconomy" or "negligence".[46] Blake's engravings are mentioned only in the last paragraph because "the editor conceives it to be unnecessary to speak" of the designs, whose "original conception, and . . . bold and masterly execution . . . cannot be unnoticed or unadmired." The discrete double negative yet makes a bold challenge to contemporary taste, however. As Blake wrote about 1810, "from all Quarters" he had heard the accusation, "'he can conceive but he cannot Execute'",[47] and it was common to allege that what Lamb called his "wild designs" show "less of art than genius". Edwards's claim that Blake's "execution" was "bold and masterly" echoed Blake's opinion but not the public's. Such an unconventional conclusion by a publisher striving for conventionality suggests that he had been advised in this point by some friend of Blake's, such as Fuseli.

But, believing that Blake's designs "cannot be . . . unadmired", Edwards was surely negligent not to give some indication of what is admirable in the most expensive and important feature of this edition. Their spiritual daring, their artistic originality, their brilliant commentary upon Young's poem, man, and God surely deserve at least passing remark. The explanation for such silence may lie in an English reluctance to speak about art—great art should speak for itself—and the greatest illustrated books of the day rarely devoted much space to praising their engravings. The difference was that Boydell, Macklin, Bowyer, and others had previously focused attention exclusively


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upon the designs of their famous painters through exhibitions and through catalogues and reviews of those exhibitions. The Night Thoughts designs by the obscure William Blake were known to the general public only through two very brief advertisements—and through the engravings themselves.

About the time Edwards wrote his account of the Night Thoughts, he placed an advertisement or notice of it in the first volume of the Monthly Epitome and Catalogue of New Publications, I (Jan 1797), 79:

Young's Night Thoughts, with Etchings and Engravings, in Four Parts, Atlas sized 4to. to Subscribers 51.5s to Non-subscribers 61.6s. (Part I. in a few days.) Edwards, Bond-street.
The reference to "Etchings and Engravings" may mean that Edwards wished to press forward to publication even with plates which had been etched with needle and acid but not yet engraved with the burin (his separate flyer of June speaks only of "engravings"), but if so he was disappointed, for the plates bear dates of January, March, and June 1797, and the work was not published, apparently, until November. The only information in the Monthly Epitome not in the June flyer is that the price to Non-Subscribers was £6.6.0—previously the sum was not specified.

Once again a Night Thoughts advertisement seems to have stimulated gossip about it in the artistic world. On 12 January 1797 Farington, Hoppner, Stothard, Rigaud, and Opie met on Royal Academy business at Wright's Coffee House, and Farington recorded in his Diary: "We supped together and had laughable conversation. Blakes eccentric designs were mentioned. Stothard supported his claims to Genius, but allowed He had been misled to extravagance in his art, & He knew by whom [Fuseli].[48] —Hoppner ridiculed the absurdity of his designs, and said nothing could be more easy than to produce such.—They were like the conceits of a drunken fellow or a madman. 'Represent a man sitting on the moon, and pissing the Sun out—that would be a whim of as much merit.'—Stothard was angry mistaking the laughter caused by Hoppners description.—"[32]

The work was apparently published in the Autumn of 1797, when James Edwards sold a copy to William Roscoe, as he indicated in his bill of 2 January 1798: "Nov 6 . . . Young's N. Thot.s No. 1/1£/1s/. 1 Sub. 1/1. [£]2.2—". Nancy Flaxman may have been referring to the publication of the book when she wrote in early November 1797 to "My Good Friend" "Signora B—" that her previous epistle, which never arrived, probably "contain'd to the best of my Remembrance an Account of Some designs made by a friend of ours for your favorite Bard—Young[.] Blake is the artists name, 'Native Poet he['] &c one who has sung his wood notes wild—of a Strong & Singular Imagination[;]—he has treated his Poet most Poetically—Flaxman has employ'd him to Illuminate the works of Grey for my library—".[49]

There was no review of any kind, and the work may scarcely have been published. Perhaps Richard Edwards was distracted in the Winter and Spring of 1798 in publishing the parts of Merigot's Rome, which had been suspended


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(January 1797-January 1798) while Night Thoughts Part I was published. At any rate, no sale of or immediate reaction to it is known, and thirteen years later Crabb Robinson reported that the Edwards edition of Night Thoughts "is no longer to be bought, so excessively rare has it become".[50] (By this he presumably meant that it was no longer available from the dealers of whom he first enquired.)

Within a few months of the publication of the Night Thoughts, Richard Edwards probably knew that he was going out of business. In 1796 he had been involved in the publication of four very ambitious illustrated works—Strutt's Dress Vol. I ([?July] 1796-[?Feb] 1797), Merigot's Rome Vol. I (Oct 1796-Jan 1797), Young's Night Thoughts (announced for June [?1796]), and Vancouver's Voyage (announced May 1797, published August 1798)—but this was apparently too much for him to manage. He suspended publication of Merigot's Rome (January 1797-January 1798) and abandoned Strutt's Dress (by March[?] 1797) while the Night Thoughts was being completed (Jan-Nov 1797), and Night Thoughts may have been suspended in its turn when Merigot's Rome Vol. I was resumed (Feb-June 1798). He evidently withdrew from Vancouver's Voyage in May 1798. By mid-1798 Richard Edwards withdrew from publishing Merigot's Rome and probably from bookselling entirely.

When he was going out of business, he needed to dispose of his stock. The obvious buyer was his brother James, but already, by 3 November 1797, James had determined "to reduce my Stock to a very complete private Library".[1] Richard may have chosen to sell his stock of Night Thoughts to R. H. Evans, James Edwards's successor in 1799, who became the publisher with Blake of Hayley's Designs to A Series of Ballads (1802) or to Faulder, to whom he evidently sold his share of Merigot's Rome. Certainly the remainder of the Night Thoughts (1797) did not turn up in the sales of his brothers James and Thomas in 1799, 1804, 1815, 1818, 1826, and 1828.

When Richard Edwards was disposing of his stock, he is likely to have given some copies of Night Thoughts to Blake in payment for his engraving work, and Blake in turn coloured and sold several of them. Copies with elaborate and sometimes wonderfully beautiful colouring were sold to Blake's contemporaries Thomas Butts (his chief patron in 1794-1810), Mrs Bliss (sold in 1826 for £4.4.0), Sir John Soane, Thomas Gaisford, Samuel Boddington, George John Spencer (Earl Spencer), "W. E." (?William Ensom), and John S. Harford Jr.[51] Coloured copy Q is inscribed "This Copy was coloured for me by Mr Blake / W. E." and Copy R (Harford's): "This copy colrd by W. Blake". The colouring in some examples may have been repeated from Blake's master copy by Mrs. Blake or others, for Copy C is signed "W. Blake" and identified "as pattern", presumably as the model for colouring other copies, and there are at least two patterns of colouring in copies of Young's Night Thoughts, one of c. 1797 and one of c. 1805.

If a number of copies of Night Thoughts did pass into Blake's possession, he would have had little difficulty accommodating them when he had a whole house to himself in which to range in Lambeth in 1790-1800 but would have had considerable difficulty transporting them to and from Felpham, where he


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lived 1800-1803, and storing them in his small flats in London on his return (1803-27). One reason for the difficulty contemporaries experienced in purchasing Blake's Night Thoughts may have been the fact that Blake had no appropriate London shop or house from which to sell them; if he did receive a number of copies at once, he probably had to keep them in a warehouse.

Probably one of the most important copies he coloured was that for Earl Spencer, the greatest English collector of his day and a special customer and friend of James Edwards, who was responsible for Richard Edwards's appointment in Minorca. James and Richard Edwards both had special reason to be grateful to Earl Spencer, and his copy was made extra special not only in its colouring but in its binding and in having duplicate, uncoloured engraved titlepages to compare with the coloured ones.[52]

Blake had hoped for fame from his Night Thoughts engravings, but, though he must have been paid significant sums for colouring the engraved outlines, he was disappointed in the public response to the book—or rather in the lact of response. On 26 August 1799 he wrote to his friend George Cumberland:

I live by Miracle . . . . For as to Engraving in which art I cannot reproach myself with any neglect yet I am laid by in a corner as if I did not Exist & Since my Youngs Night Thoughts have been publishd Even Johnson & Fuseli have discarded my Graver. . . .

[William Blake's Writings, (1978), 1529]

The work to which he had devoted years of his time and the best of his genius was a failure in the marketplace and with the critics.

There were so few accounts of it during the lifetimes of its publisher and illustrator that they may be recorded in detail.

On Sunday 10 March 1811 Crabb Robinson "shewed W[illiam]. H[azlitt]. Blake's Young. He saw no merit in them as designs" (Blake Records [1969], 229). Crabb Robinson himself found Blake so remarkable that he wrote an article about him for the first issue of the German periodical called Vaterländisches Museum, in which he said that the engravings

are of very unequal merit; sometimes the inventions of the artist rival those of the poet, but often they are only preposterous translations of them, by reason of the unfortunate idea peculiar to Blake, that whatsoever the fancy of the spiritual eye may discern must also be as clearly penetrable to the bodily eye. So Young is literally translated, and his thought turned into a picture. Thus for example the artist represents in a drawing Death treading crowns under foot, the sun reaching down his hand, and the like. Yet these drawings are frequently exquisite. We hear that the publisher has not yet issued a quarter of the drawings delivered to him by the artist and has refused to sell the drawings, although a handsome sum was offered him for them.[53]
The "handsome sum" refused for the drawings may be estimated by the £300 asked for them in the 1821 catalogue of Richard Edwards's brother Thomas, though this was reduced to £52.10.0 in his auctions of 1826 and 1828—and still found no buyer.

One of the few enthusiasts for the book was Thomas Frognal Dibdin, who wrote: "there are few books of which I love to turn over the leaves, more assiduously and carefully, than 'Young's Night Thoughts,' emblazoned by his


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[Blake's] truly original pencil."[54] In a schoolboy text of Virgil, the editor R. J. Thornton said that "The Illustrations of this English Pastoral are by the famous Blake, the illustrator of Young's Night Thoughts, and Blair's Grave" (Blake Records, 271), and Charles Lamb identified Blake in a letter of 15 May 1824 as "a most extraordinary man . . . whose wild designs accompany a splendid folio edition of the Night Thoughts."[55]

Two final comments of 1830, three years after the deaths of the illustrator and publisher, indicate the ambivalence towards the designs still felt by men of taste a third of a century after they were issued. The first is by Allan Cunningham: "Some of those designs were in keeping with the poems, but there were others which alarmed fastidious people; the serious and the pious were not prepared to admire shapes trembling in nudity round the verses of a grave divine. In the exuberance of Young there are many fine figures; but they are figures of speech only, on which art should waste none of its skill."[56] Whatever faults modern eyes may discover among the beauties of Blake's designs for Young, we are not now normally so reluctant to tolerate shapes trembling in nudity in illustration of exuberant figures of speech.

Cunningham's ambivalence is expressed at greater length in Edward Bulwer Lytton's anonymous "Conversation with an Ambitious Student in Ill Health" published in the New Monthly Magazine, XXIX (Dec 1830), 518-519:

L. . . . I saw a few days ago, a copy of the 'Night Thoughts,' which he [Blake] had illustrated in a manner at once so grotesque, so sublime—now by so literal an interpretation, now by so vague and disconnected a train of invention, that the whole makes one of the most astonishing and curious productions which ever balanced between the conception of genius and the ravings of positive insanity. I remember two or three [of his illustrations], but they are not the most remarkable. To these two fine lines—

'Tis greatly wise to talk with our past hours,
And ask them what report they bore to heaven;'

he has given the illustration of one sitting and with an earnest countenance conversing with a small shadowy shape at his knee, while other shapes, of a similar form and aspect, are seen gliding heavenward, each with a scroll in its hands. The effect is very solemn. Again, the line—

'Till death, that mighty hunter, earths them all,'

is bodied forth by a grim savage with a huge spear, cheering on fiendish and ghastly hounds, one of which has just torn down, and is griping by the throat, an unfortunate fugitive: the face of the hound is unutterably death-like.

The verse—

'We censure Nature for a span too short,'
obtains an illustration literal to ridicule.—A bearded man of gigantic statu[r]e is spanning an infant with his finger and thumb. Scarcely less literal, but more impressive, is the engraving of the following:—
'When Sense runs savage, broke from Reason's chain,
And sings false peace till smother'd by the pall!'

You perceive a young female savage, with long locks, wandering alone, and exulting—while above, two bodiless hands extend a mighty pall, that appears about to fall upon the unconscious rejoicer.

A. Young was fortunate. He seems almost the only poet who has had his mere metaphors illustrated and made corporeal.

[Blake Records, 401-402]


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No great number of copies of Young's Night Thoughts (1797) was ever in circulation,[57] and Richard Edwards seems scarcely to have attempted to advertise or sell it vigourously. His lassitude about it may have been connected with his personal situation, leaving off business within the year. Few buyers sought for the work, and some of those who did, like Crabb Robinson, had great difficulty finding it. Commercially, the book must have been a failure.

As the sparse comments quoted above suggest, it was scarcely a critical success either. Hazlitt the art critic "saw no merit in them as designs", though Dibdin the bibliographer loved looking at the engravings. Most who looked at the designs with care probably thought, as Crabb Robinson, Allan Cunningham, and Bulwer Lytton did, that they were both "preposterous" and "exquisite", at once "grotesque" and "sublime". Almost a century passed before there was an extended and appreciative commentary on the designs, by F. J. Shields in Gilchrist's Life of William Blake (1880), and another century passed after that before all the watercolours were published in a book together, many for the first time (1980). It has been left for the present generation to conclude that Blake's designs for Young's Night Thoughts are among the greatest imaginative feats of that or any age—and that the career of the publisher who called them forth is worth recording in detail.

Richard Edwards is a minor member of an important family of booksellers, bookbinders, and publishers. What we know of his shop, his pamphlets, and his career indicates a man not remarkable for ambition, taste, energy, or accomplishment. We do not know when he encountered Blake or why he patronized him—but we do know that his patronage elicited from one of the most astonishing geniuses of the age almost a quarter of his surviving watercolours and by far the most ambitious of his commercial undertakings. The paradox of Richard Edwards's deserved obscurity before 1795 and his apparently unwitting brilliance in commissioning Blake's Night Thoughts designs is as wonderful in its way as the paradox of Blake's grotesque and sublime engravings themselves.