Reproducing William Blake

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William Blake’s Water-Colour Designs for the Poems of Thomas Gray, introduction and commentary by Geoffrey Keynes (Boissia, Clairvaux, Jura: Trianon Press for the William Blake Trust, London; London: Distributed by B. Quaritch, 1972). Graphic Arts Collection (GAX) Oversize ND1942.B55 A4 1972f

In 1795, William Blake (1757-1827) was given a commission to illustrate the poems of Edward Young (1681-1765). He produced 537 watercolors from which 43 were selected for engraving. One volume of the proposed four volume set was completed and released but failed to find an audience. The project was discontinued.

To help the disappointed and struggling artist, his friend John Flaxman (1755-1826) commissioned a new set of watercolors to illustrate the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-1771). Blake painted 116 watercolors, each framing a page of text, completing the project in 1798. Sadly, it wasn’t until 1922 that the general public was able to see Blake’s work, when it was reproduced and published under the title William Blake’s Designs for Gray’s poems … from the unique copy belonging to His Grace the Duke of Hamilton (Ex Oversize ND497.B5 A32e).

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Collotype trimmed to prepare one stencil

In 1971, a much more ambitious recreation of the illustrations was begun [seen here]. Not only was the process more elaborate but the multi-volume set included actual plates and stencils for one of the designs, allowing the public to follow the sequence of steps necessary to recreate Blake’s work.

“The water-colour designs were reproduced by the collotype and hand-stencil process in the workshops of the Trianon Press in Paris. The texts of Gray’s poems were printed on pure rag laid paper from copper plates, using three additional printings to reproduce Blake’s pencil crosses and to obtain the tone of the paper”

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blake ode to4.jpgZinc stencils
Quoting from their prospectus: “Through a combination of circumstances this astonishing series of water-colours, executed some 175 years ago, has remained virtually unknown until very recently. They were in fact completely lost to view for over seventy years and were only shown to the public for the first time at the Tate Gallery in December 1971.”

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“They were widely acclaimed and at once recognized to be among Blake’s most important works. The marriage of Blake’s visual imagination to Gray’s poetry is perhaps unexpected and it is surprising that the classic Gray was able to bring out the best in the romantic Blake, arousing a fertility of imagination remarkable even for him.”

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The Graphic Arts Collection holds the stencils, collotypes, and negatives for plate 5 of Gray’s “Ode to Adversity,” in which Blake illustrates the Gorgon terrors.

In thy Gorgon terrors clad
Screaming horrors funeral cry
Despair & Fell Disease & Ghastly Poverty

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