Blake at work

David Bindman

  • William Blake, printmaker by Robert Essick
    Princeton, 304 pp, £27.50, August 1980, ISBN 0 691 03954 2

While engravers in the 18th century were not regarded as quite as mad as hatters, they carried with them the taint of eccentricity and religious enthusiasm. Among the London engravers of his time, Blake was not alone in believing that the last Judgment was nigh, and that the French Revolution was the fulfilment of the prophecy of Revelation. One example is William Sharp, known alike for his skill as an engraver and his extreme credulity. Even Blake was sceptical of his fervent devotion to Richard Brothers, the self-appointed Prince of the Hebrews and Nephew of the Almighty, and to Joanna Southcott, the putative mother of the Messiah. None of this affected Sharp’s career, nor his ability to turn out masterly reproductive engravings of the best masters of his time. Those who remarked on this found a ready explanation: the sheer monotony of the job of engraving, and the need to pore over a small piece of copper all day, meant that the mind could wander freely and would find no check to its uninformed speculations. A contemporary explained: ‘In engraving and its operation the process of thought may be carried on with that of the work, and neither be retarded in its progress, by one who is master of his subject in either way. Hence the wild and fanciful theories that emanate from a well stored and imaginative mind.’ Because Blake made his living throughout his life as a reproductive engraver, his rational contemporaries could easily stereotype him as another Sharp. The almost universal reference to him as ‘Mr Blake the engraver’ carried with it an unmistakable air of condescension.

On the whole, we have tended to ignore Blake’s activity as a commercial engraver, even though he made some thousand copy plates in his long career: alternatively, we have relegated it to a necessary condition of life which enabled him to get on with his imaginative work. There is, however, a sense in which his Prophetic Books are a species of Night Thoughts: meditations on Life, Death and Redemption, the waking thoughts of a restless mind after a day of hard grind. We have grown used to the idea that we cannot talk fruitfully about Blake’s poetry without considering his art, and vice versa: we now have to accept the essential unity of his imaginative life and the drudgery which gave him his living. This, then, is the theme of Robert Essick’s book: the centrality of printmaking to the understanding of Blake’s composite art, and the interdependence of his commercial and imaginative life. It is one of the most penetrating and informative books to have appeared on Blake in recent years. In the first part, we are taken step by step through the process of making a print in a workshop like that of James Basire, to whom Blake served a full apprenticeship, and we are initiated into the interminable business of preparing the plate: the etching and engraving of the design, with all the attendant headaches of stopping-out and foul-biting, the technicalities of inking, and the problems of printing the finished plate. Essick’s method is to work from the technical manuals available at the time, but he has also tried each stage experimentally, so that he has much to say on the varying properties of methods of etching, the etching fluids which can be used, and the points where especial skill is required.

The nub of the book, however, is the discussion of Blake’s new method of relief etching, first used extensively in the private printing of the Songs of Innocence of 1789. It should be explained that this meant in effect reversing the normal method of printing images from a copper plate. In the method which he had been taught as an apprentice, the surface of the copper would be incised with a metal tool and perhaps reinforced with the use of acid, and then printed by using a press to squeeze the ink from the incised lines onto the paper. This is the intaglio method, and Blake proposed to print from the raised surface of the copper which remained after the rest of the surface had been etched away by acid, leaving something like the modern stereotype plate used for printing newspapers. While conventional engraving methods in the 18th century have attracted no modern interest at all, some inquirers have attempted to reconstruct Blake’s relief etching – notably the astonishing team of Ruthven Todd, Joan Miro and William Hayter, who in 1947 produced at least a working method of etching plates in relief in such a way that the writing came out the right way round on the print itself. It should be pointed out that Blake did not produce any account of his methods, nor have any of the plates survived, except for the tantalising fragment of a rejected plate and some electrotypes of Songs of Innocence plates. For the Todd-Miro-Hayter team, experimental success was enough: if they produced something which looked convincing by a relief-etching method, then they were satisfied: but Essick makes the cogent point that this does not prove they got the result by the same method as Blake, and that they left a number of questions unanswered. By using the available manuals, Essick is able to discuss what means were possible, and by a brilliant analysis of the existing plates he is able to prove beyond doubt that Blake etched his plates extremely shallowly. In so doing, Blake could exert a personal control over the inking, and thus achieve a spontaneity quite alien to the mechanical rigidity of the method taught him. In a way, Blake is harking back to the supposed primal unity of text and design before the development of printing led to their separation, and to their codification into separate and mutually exclusive conventions.

Essick questions the 1947 team’s conclusion that Blake made the design for his relief plates on a piece of paper in a viscous fluid resistent to acid, and then transferred it to the blank copper plate so that it would print the right way round. He argues, on the contrary, that Blake wrote backwards on the copper plate, and in this he has behind him, not only the authority of Blake’s friends George Cumberland and John Linnell, but more recently that of Sir Geoffrey Keynes. Nevertheless there is still, to my mind, a case to be made for transferral. In the first place, Blake was extremely secretive, and it is clear that no one except his immediate family actually saw him etching a relief plate despite the interest in his process at the end of his life. He was wholly conscious of the novelty of his invention and he was not going to ruin his hopes of a fortune by letting another artist steal it from him: it was, after all, his ‘secret’. While he may not have positively misled his friends, he was quite suspicious enough not to give anything away, even though he was not above tantalising them with the possibility that he might publish an account of it. Essick, on the other hand, claims that a trained engraver could write as fluently backwards as he could forwards. This I find hard to believe, especially given the precision of Blake’s lettering throughout the many text-packed pages of the Prophecies. In contrast, there is some extremely hesitant lettering in the first experimental series before Songs of Innocence, when he might well have been writing in reverse, and it is highly significant that the writing tends often to be irregular in the ‘Job’ engravings, when he would almost certainly have been doing so.

This might seem a trivial point – who cares whether or not he interposes another stage in the process or not? – but it does show up one of the difficulties of Essick’s approach. By sticking very close to the act of engraving one can bring to light much of vital importance, but there is the inherent danger of losing a sense of the wider implications. In considering the development of Blake’s relief etching from its beginnings in 1788 to its apogee in 1793-4, Essick claims essentially that the transformation from the Songs of Innocence to the triumphs of the Prophetic Books America and Europe can be explained in terms of Blake’s growing ambition for his new method: he had come to realise that it might be capable of more serious application than merely to illustrate tracts and children’s books. Surely one cannot separate this process from Blake’s impassioned response to events in France: the division between the two phases is the outbreak and self-destruction of the French Revolution, as David Erdman demonstrated so many years ago. It is the urgency of Blake’s changing responses to these shattering events that gives meaning to his technical decisions. Of course, like any great printmaker – and one might mention Goya here – he was carried away by his own discoveries: but it is also true that his experimental energy recedes as his hopes for world revolution recede, and that the pursuit of expression for its own sake was one of the temptations which imprisoned Los the eternal artist.

It is also material to the discussion that Blake’s new methods were part of a conscious attempt to free himself from the tyranny of commerce, and put economic power back into the hands of the poets and artists. The fact that Blake was thinking back to a primitive age when Bards had power over the minds of men did not impede a clear-eyed observation of the effects of mass-production. His new method of relief etching was a means of avoiding the division of labour by which an artist’s idea was separated from the execution, and both creative artist and engraver were left with a pittance. For Thomas Bewick, another independent innovator, there was no future for a man of talent in the London print world: ‘In London one man does one branch of business & another another of the same kind of work & it is by this division of labour they thus accomplish so much & so well.’ But for him there was a way out, which was to go back to Newcastle, where there was still room for the old relationships. Blake’s knowingness about the new ways of commerce may also have come from early contacts with Wedgwood, and certainly from the experience of his friend John Flaxman, who achieved enormous fame from works which went out under his name but for which he had done no more than supply a drawing. And Blake had direct experience of these new ways with his own designs. A newly-discovered proof print in the British Museum confirms the story that his publisher Cromek commissioned from him an engraving for a title-page, and then rubbed it off the plate and re-engraved it from the engraving itself in a completely mechanical manner, back on the same plate.

Blake’s response to these issues was, however, not without contradictions, and it is one of the achievements of this book to bring out the subtleties of Blake’s equivocal relation to the tradition in which he had been brought up. Blake adored his master James Basire, and sought at the cost of some distortion of the facts to bring him into the legitimate line of succession from Dürer and Marcantonio and ‘the old English Portraits’ – an historical fiction which justified his return to intaglio engraving after his experiments of the 1790s. It is in the discussion of the ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ and ‘Book of Job’ engravings that Essick’s laborious account of Blake’s training bears fruit, for he is able to show that his technique does not represent a return to a conventional style, but is a new and powerful synthesis of all that he had learned in his technical explorations. The engravings are consciously unmechanical in execution, and draw in a wide range of techniques like burnishing, which make them as remote from Basire’s copy engraving as the relief plates. On the other hand, they would not have been possible without his training as a reproductive engraver, as Blake tells us, seeing its basis in precision and clarity as proof against the ‘insatiable Maw’ of Commerce.

It is not the least of this book’s virtues that it is quite without the muscle-flexing and methodological agonising of many recent works on Blake. It depends at every point on close analysis of the objects in question, yet the author sets his face firmly against reading the plates as if they are a succession of images from which Blakean meanings can be drawn. It ought to change the way we look at the Illuminated Books, for it is yet another disouragement to those who try to discuss them as if they were poems without designs, or aesthetic objects – precious manuscripts by a latterday monk.