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William Blake: Illuminated Books

Collection History

Blake's two "prophetic" books arrived in NYPL's Berg Collection in 1941, as part of the Owen D. Young Collection, one of the two most extensive collections of English and American literary manuscripts and printed books formed during the first half of the twentieth century. (The other great collection belonged to W. T. H. Howe, which Albert Berg had bought some months earlier.)

Additional books related prints by Blake in the Berg Collection are: The Book of Thel (1789 [1790?]); Songs of Innocence (1789 [1790?]); Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793 [1794?]); proof impressions for Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825); seven plates for Illustrations of Dante [n.d.]. Except for the Job, which was part of the original Berg brothers' collection, all of these books had belonged to Young. In addition, the Print Collection of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, and The Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle both hold other copies of some of these works.


Blake's usual categorization as a Romantic poet is not unwarranted. Certainly, he shared with other Romantics the belief that nature embodied truths more profound than the rational mind could apprehend, and that humanity's willful dissociation of itself from nature was the cause of most of the world's ills. But Blake embraced an exaltedly visionary view of the world and a mythic form of expression unique to himself. He also sought a means of rendering his works in a print form that might rival the dynamic, organic interplay of text, decoration, and illustration found in the best medieval illuminated manuscripts.

The technique Blake discovered that enabled him to achieve this end is usually called "relief etching" to distinguish it from intaglio etching, in which the lines to be printed are lightly incised into a copper plate with an etching needle and are deepened and thickened when the plate is dipped in acid. Blake, however, created his plates by first painting his texts and the lineaments of his illustrations and decorations upon copper sheets with a very fine brush dipped in a clear acid-resist liquid. (He said that the technique had come to him in a dream.) After painting the text and decoration, he immersed the plates in acid, which ate away their unpainted (that is, unprotected) areas. To print, he then inked the resulting relief portions of the plate (i.e., the lines of text, illustrative figures, and decorative lines), placed a sheet of paper upon the plate, and pressed it firmly (using the back of a spoon), thereby transferring the ink from the plate's text and decorative elements onto the paper. In most of his books, all of the pages in each of the copies printed would then be water colored, usually in the identical color schemes, but embodying significant tonal differences.

Blake also worked for other printers, and in such cases, he would engrave or etch the plates in the conventional manner (i.e., incising lines into the plate with a burin and etching needle). In this manner, he executed, for example, the illustrations for Job and Dante's Comedy.

Related Resources

"The Blake Archive" (2004) <>

See also Library Catalog for more citations

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