Joseph Viscomi, “William Blake’s 1818 Letter to Dawson Turner and Later Career as Graphic Artist”


Blake printed approximately 157 copies of sixteen illuminated books between 1789 and June 1818. All but fourteen were printed by the end of 1795, by which time Blake had copies of all saleable books in stock and began taking on new “designing and painting” projects. In the twenty-three years between 1795 and 1818, Blake printed illuminated books only four times, for fourteen copies of four titles. In 1818, Blake received an enquiry from Dawson Turner for a “selection” of illuminated designs printed in colors like those Blake had produced for Ozias Humphry in 1796 and which are now known as the Large Book of Designs and Small Book of Designs. Blake refused and redirected Turner to illuminated books and large monoprints, none of which he purchased. Nevertheless, Blake’s letter to Turner marks the moment when Blake was willing to return to a body of work that, with very few exceptions, he had not touched in more than two decades and which he had explicitly declined to reprint in 1808. That decision in 1818, along with a commission from another collector shortly after he wrote Turner, made possible his resurgence in his last decade, as poet, publisher, illustrator, painter, and, equally significant, as original graphic artist. This essay examines Blake’s letter in detail to reveal why he refused Turner’s request, had stopped printing most of his illuminated books, and stopped color printing and monoprinting altogether. It reads the letter closely in light of Blake’s labor history to reveal the idea he had of himself as an artist, the attitude he had toward the hierarchy in the arts, and the works he believed made his “great reputation as an Artist.”

“‘The money is going, Mr. Blake.’ ‘Oh, d—the money!’ he would shout; ‘it’s always the money!’”

(Samuel Palmer to Alexander Gilchrist, Life of Blake I 313)

“Money in these times is not to be trifled with.”

(Blake to William Hayley, 2 April 1804, E 746)


William Blake’s letter to Dawson Turner (1775–1858) is fascinating for what it says, implies, and excludes. Turner requested a miscellany of small color prints like those Blake had produced in 1796 for the renowned miniaturist Ozias Humphry (1742–1810). On 9 June 1818, Blake writes, “Those I Printed for Mr Humphry are a selection from the different Books of such as could be Printed without the Writing.” The “selection” comprised independent etchings and illuminated plates printed in thick water-miscible colors and masked of texts. They are known today as the Large Book of Designs and Small Book of Designs. All the designs, though, are small—between 2 x 4 and 8 x 10 inches—and all are monoprints, unique impressions from printable matrices. Blake is not interested in reproducing any of them and redirects Turner to consider ordering complete copies of illuminated books or large monoprints. He refers to the latter works, which he designed and printed in 1795, as “12 Large Prints . . . in Colours” and gives their size as “about 2 feet by 1 &1/2.” Blake tells Turner that he can reprint illuminated books and large monoprints “at least as well as any I have yet Produced.”

Blake was setting the bar very high. The large monoprints are pictures executed in the same paint as the small monoprints but from larger flat surfaces.[1] The pictures were transferred by an engraver’s rolling press to dampened paper and finished in more colors and pen and ink. Blake’s method for printing colors from the smaller etchings and relief etchings was a variation of the à la poupée method in which colors were dabbed into lines and areas of intaglio plates with stump brushes or rolled pieces of felt (BIB 120–1). For the large monoprints, however, Blake applied colors to the support using brushes, performing as a painter, not printer, producing painterly images with spongy and reticulated surfaces that were radical and new. This latter mode of producing colored images was not mentioned in contemporary printmaking or painting treatises. Blake referred to the end products as “prints” in his 1806 receipt account (BR2 764) with his patron Thomas Butts (1757–1845) and again in his letter to Turner. These are the only documents extant in which he mentions the large monoprints. He appears to have reconceived them as paintings, though, around 1808 or 1809, signing five of them “Fresco W Blake inv” (“Signing” 389–93). Today, the monoprints are referred to as “color printed drawings” and “large color prints,” descriptions that are not quite accurate. They are designs painted in colors and printed on paper, the conventional support of drawings and watercolors, but because the colors have body, the impressions look and feel like paintings. They are paintings made of opaque colors applied indirectly and directly and are quite literally printed paintings.[2] “From a purely artistic point of view,” the monoprints have long been recognized as Blake’s “most successful compositions” (Blunt 62). Indeed, they are “probably the most accomplished, forceful, and effective of Blake’s works in the visual arts” (Butlin “Physicality” 2).

Blake printed twenty-seven impressions of the twelve monoprint designs in 1795, three impressions of three designs in c. 1796, and three impressions of two designs in 1805 (PP 53). He sold three monoprints to Butts c. 1796 and another eight in 1805, which he recorded in their 1806 receipt account. Among the eight were the magnificent Newton 306 and Nebuchadnezzar 301 (both newly printed) and six impressions from 1795 (newly refinished), including the sublime Elohim Creating Adam 289 and Good and Evil Angels 323 (Figure 7). Blake had also refinished nine or ten other impressions from the 1795 and 1796 printings between 1805 and 1810 (PP 69). Blake had not reprinted a matrix in thirteen years or refinished an impression in about eight years. Nevertheless, he was apparently up for the challenge and had on hand eleven or twelve impressions from the first printings that he could freshen up.

Printing illuminated books as fine as any “yet Produced” would also be a challenge, and the amount of time most of the books went unprinted is equally surprising. Blake hadn’t printed The Book of Thel, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Europe a Prophecy, or The Book of Urizen—four of the eight illuminated books he listed for Turner—since 1795. Nor had he printed All Religions are One, There is No Natural Religion, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, For Children: The Gates of Paradise, The Book of Los, The Book of Ahania, or Song of Los during this twenty-three-year hiatus.

The idea of Blake returning to illuminated printing will sound strange to those who think of Blake primarily as a poet and think of illuminated poetry and printing as constants in his creative life. The centrality of the medium, however, is an illusion created by interpreting each and every difference among copies as proof that Blake produced copies “one by one” (Grant 281) “as he got commissions” (Davids and Petrillo 154), or “with a particular customer in mind” (E 786). There are about 175 known copies of illuminated books, and these interpretations assume that Blake produced a few books a year between 1788, when he invented relief etching, and 1827, when he died.[3] Yet, in the twenty-three years between 1795 and 1818, Blake printed illuminated books only four times, in c. 1802, c. 1804, c. 1807, and c. 1811, for fourteen copies of four titles. Among the fourteen were three copies of Milton, printed c. 1811, which was the only new illuminated book since 1795 (BIB 320–25). Blake produced the first copies of illuminated books together in small print runs in 1789 and 1790, and between 1793 and 1795; he began printing illuminated books in colors in 1794 and stopped doing so in 1795; and he stopped color printing etchings and relief etchings as independent designs in 1796.[4]

The differences among copies printed together resulted from Catherine Blake (1762–1831) and Blake printing numerous impressions per plate, coloring them by hand, and compiling the leaves to form copies. These early copies of illuminated books (1789–1795) were produced for stock and without subscription, with their costs underwritten by Blake’s income from engraving for book and print publishers. By 1795, Blake had illuminated books, independent designs, and monoprints in stock and turned to other projects, effectively ending the first period of illuminated printing. There was no point in replenishing what he had multiple copies of until demand caught up with supply. Blake returned to printing his early illuminated books in 1818—though not for Turner. Copies printed then and afterwards are referred to as “late copies” and differ from “early copies” in the styles, in which the plates were printed and impressions were colored (BIB 153–57). Late copies were printed per copy and were usually commissioned or printed in the same session as a commissioned copy. As we will see, with press and studio prepared for printing illuminated books, printing a second or even third copy made economic sense.

Blake’s letter to Turner is one of only six letters by Blake extant between 1806 and 1818. It is one of only three documents listing illuminated books and their prices, and, as noted, the only document extant other than Blake’s 1806 account with Butts that mentions the large monoprints. Given this paucity of documentation, Blake’s letter to Turner stands out and thus may appear more significant than it is. But I think not. It marks the moment when Blake was willing to return to a body of work that, with very few exceptions, he had not touched in more than two decades and, as we will also see, had explicitly declined to reprint in 1808. That decision in 1818 made possible his resurgence, in his last decade, as a poet, publisher, illustrator, painter, and as an original graphic artist. Examining Blake’s letter in detail reveals why he refused Turner’s request, had taken a hiatus from most of his early illuminated books, and stopped color printing and monoprinting altogether. Read closely in light of his labor history, Blake’s letter also reveals the idea he had of himself as an artist, the attitude he had toward the hierarchy in the arts, and the works he believed made his “great reputation as an Artist.”

I. The letter to Dawson Turner

On 9 June 1818, William Blake writes Dawson Turner of Greater map iconYarmouth, map iconNorfolk:

     I send you a List of the different Works
  you have done me the honour to enquire after —
  unprofitable enough to me tho Expensive to the Buyer
  Those I Printed for Mr Humphry are a selection
  from the different Books of such as could be Printed
  without the Writing tho to the Loss of some of the best
  things For they when Printed perfect accompany Poetical
  Personifications & Acts without which Poems they never
  could have been Executed          £ / d

America 18 Prints folio 5.5.0
Europe 17 do folio 5.5.0
Visions 8 do folio 3.3.0
Thel 6 do Quatro 2.2.0
Songs of Innocence 28 do Octavo 3.3.0
Songs of Experience 26 do Octavo 3.3.0
Urizen 28 Prints Quatro 5.5.0
Milton 50 do Quatro 10.10.0

12 Large Prints Size of Each
  about 2 feet by 1 & ½ Historical
  & Poetical Printed in Colours
                      Each 5.5.0
These last 12 Prints are unaccompanied by any
   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 on the above terms
I will take care that they shall be done at
least as well as any I have yet Produced
 I am Sir with many thanks for your very
Polite approbation of my works
         Your most obedient Servant
9 June 1818      William Blake
  17 South Molton Street

(E 771; Figure 1a., b., c., d.)[5]

Turner presumably saw examples of Blake’s work in the collection of his close friend William Upcott (1779–1845), son of Ozias Humphry and fellow autograph collector.[6] According to Bentley, Upcott may have “talked about his father’s friendship with Blake and his collection of Blake’s works, urging Turner to write to Blake himself” (BR2 330). In a letter from 21 December 1817, Turner asked Upcott for a favor: “You took, I think, from Yarmouth a list of 2 or 3 books to be got for me. Lackingtons, I see have a copy of the 1st edition of Blake’s Blair’s Grave at a price that seems to me cheap,” by which he meant £2.12.6 for the bound volume (BR2 330).[7] Turner, however, could also have learned about Blake from his dear friend Thomas Phillips (1770–1845), who painted Blake’s portrait in 1805 for the frontispiece to The Grave (1808) and whose portrait of Earl Spencer Blake had engraved c. 1813 (BR2 822). Phillips, who was impressed by Blake’s Grave designs (BR2 265), traveled through map iconFrance with Turner, including a visit to the Louvre in 1815. In 1816, he drew Turner’s portrait, which Mrs. Turner etched (Moore 26). The bibliographer T. F. Dibdin (1776–1847), another friend, met Turner c. 1815 (McKitterick 73) and Blake in 1816 (if not earlier), by which time he owned an early copy of Songs of Innocence and possibly The Book of Thel copy J and Visions of the Daughters of Albion copy G (BB 410, 128, 474). So, Turner probably knew of this fascinating multi-talented artist-poet before writing Upcott about the Grave, and he may have seen one or more illuminated books, possibly in Dibdin’s collection, before seeing those in Upcott’s collection. However, he almost certainly had not seen any of Blake’s “different Works” printed in colors until he examined those owned by Upcott.

Whenever and however he first heard of Blake, Turner probably did not receive Blake’s letter until months after it was sent. He was traveling in northern France in June, July, and August of 1818, simultaneously composing the thirty letters that would make up his two-volume Account of a Tour in Normandy (1820). The Account was illustrated with drawings of tombs, sepulchers, bas reliefs, and statuary that were executed by John Sell Cotman, the great architectural draughtsman, landscape watercolorist, and Turner’s friend and protégé.[8] Turner abruptly ended the tour to return home to take over a branch of the family bank mismanaged by his brother (Account vi). He is not known to have acquired any illuminated books or color prints by Blake, perhaps because he was otherwise occupied when the opportunity presented itself.[9] In any event, by 1818, he was a very successful banker, botanist, and the author of numerous illustrated botanical treatises in English and Latin. He was a Fellow of the Linnean Society since 1797, of the Royal Society since 1802, and “was elected to Academies in Edinburgh, Dublin, Stockholm, Rouen, Caen, Leipzig and Berlin” (Goodman 11). He had also become a major collector of books, prints, paintings, manuscripts, and autographs.

At the time, Blake was sorely in need of work, either from collectors, publishers, or an acquisitive new patron. John Linnell (1792–1882), Blake’s last patron, summed up Blake’s previous four years as having had “scarcely enough employment to live by at the prices he could obtain[;] everything in Art was at a low ebb then. Even [J. M. W.] Turner could not sell his pictures for as many hundreds as they have since fetched thousands” (BR2 341). Between 1814 and 1816, Blake had engraved Flaxman’s designs for Hesiod—all thirty-seven plates—in light stipple outline, for which he was paid £5.5 apiece, totaling just under £200 for about three years of work (Essick, Commercial Engravings 100–01). In 1816, he supplemented his income with a commission from Wedgewood—presumably arranged by Flaxman, who designed for them—to execute drawings of earthenware and porcelain bowls and to engrave eighteen plates after them, for which he was paid £30 (96). These sums average out to around £75 a year for the period. Blake appears to have suffered a complete absence of engraving commissions in 1817. In 1818, he had finished two very uncharacteristic engravings in stipple, dated 2 March 1818 and now exceedingly rare, for Christian Borckhardt after his Child of Nature and Child of Art. By the end of 1818, Blake would, as a journeyman engraver, complete two engravings for Rees’s Cyclopaedia (BR2 822), which may have been commissioned after the letter to Turner.[10]

Linnell was a landscape and portrait painter as well as a self-taught engraver. He met Blake in June of 1818 through his painting student, George Cumberland, Jr., the son of Blake’s dear friend George Cumberland (1754–1848). Linnell “promised to get [Blake] some work” (BR2 340) and promptly did so by hiring him to assist in engraving a portrait of Mr. Upton, a Baptist minister. The Upton engraving is dated 1 July 1819 but was finished and delivered to Linnell on 12 September 1818, for which Blake was paid £15 (BR2 343). Linnell brought “the Picture of Mr Upton & the Copper Plate—to begin the engraving” on 24 June 1818 (BR2 340–41), indicating that he and Blake had already met, completed their negotiations, and prepared the materials for the project. He appears to have met Blake around the time Blake answered Turner, but whether it was before or after cannot be ascertained.

Thomas Butts, Blake’s first major patron and the person most responsible for Blake’s career as a painter, commissioning over 200 temperas and watercolors between 1799 and c. 1816, was buying infrequently now—if at all. Butts’s first acquisition appears to have been Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy F, c. 1794 (“Signing” 385). His last commission appears to have been the twelve designs of L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, executed on M & J Lay 1816 paper, the date of which corresponds with Blake’s visit to Dibdin in the summer of 1816 to discuss “the minor poems of Milton” (BR2 327). The twelve designs of Paradise Regained, executed in the same manner and on the same paper—apparently in 1816 on speculation—were acquired by Linnell in 1825 (BR2 811).[11]

Any commission from Turner would surely have been welcomed—even etching drawings of tombs, sepulchers, bas reliefs, and statuary, the kind of menial work that Blake did as a mere apprentice for his master James Basire (1730–1802). Turner, however, had his wife and daughters etch Cotman’s designs (Moore 21–24). From Blake, he wanted original works printed in colors resembling the eight designs of the Large Book of Designs and the twenty-three designs of the Small Book of Designs.[12] Presumably, among Upcott’s “different Works” were also Humphry’s illuminated books, two of which were printed in colors: Experience copy H, one of four copies color printed in 1794 while Experience was in progress, and Europe copy D, printed in colors in 1794 (BIB 276–9). Humphry also owned uncolored America copy H, printed in 1793. This was probably the year he met Blake through their mutual friend Cumberland, who was collecting illuminated books during the same period as Humphry. Cumberland owned copies of America, Europe, and Experience from the same printing sessions as Humphry’s copies, along with copies of Innocence, Thel, Visions, For Children, and Song of Los.[13]

Figure 2. Large Book of Designs, Albion rose (Butlin 262.1).

The “selection” that Turner wanted was visually stunning and exceedingly rare, one of Blake’s great artistic achievements. The librarian and antiquarian Richard Thomson (1794–1865), another friend of Upcott’s, described the Large Book of Designs as “having a degree of splendour and force, as almost to resemble sketches in oil-colours,” and the Small Book of Designs as “a small quarto volume . . . of various shapes and sizes, coloured as before, some of which are of extraordinary effect and beauty” (BR2 621). Thomson described Upcott’s books of designs and illuminated books for J. T. Smith’s Nollekens and his Times (1828), which had a biographical sketch of Blake. Smith concurred, admitting, “[U]ntil I was favoured by Mr. Upcott with a sight of some of Blake’s works several of which I had never seen, I was not so fully aware of his depth of knowledge in colouring” (BR2 618). Blake’s “system of colouring,” he says, “was in many instances most beautifully prismatic” (BR2 618). Albion rose (Figure 2) and Joseph of Arimathea Preaching to the Inhabitants of Britain (Figure 3), both from the Large Book, fit this description. Smith knew Blake’s painting techniques and recipes for grounds and colors, but he had not seen small monoprints before, which he referred to as “Blake’s coloured plates.” He asserted as “fact” that these prints “have more effect than others where gum has been used” (BR2 622). This is to say, impressions finished in colors mixed with glue and whiting, which gave colors body and opacity, were visually more forceful than those finished in colors mixed with gum arabic, which made them transparent. As we will see, the former recipes were discarded in favor of the latter in all of Blake’s late illuminated books.

Figure 3. Large Book of Designs, Joseph of Arimathea Preaching to the Inhabitants of Britain

The leaves of the Large Book (13.5 x 9.6 inches) are the size of those in Humphry’s copy of Europe, to which they were bound. The vignettes comprising the Small Book were mostly the size of the plates in Humphry’s copy of Experience but were printed on slightly larger leaves (10.2 x 7.5 inches), which, like those of an illuminated book, were stabbed to form a separate volume. The books of designs project seem simple enough: a selection of images printed in colors and in the style and general leaf sizes of Humphry’s copies of Europe and Experience. However, if what “could be Printed without the Writing” was the criterion, then Blake would have selected images from America, Europe, and Experience, whose vignettes and full-page illustrations fit within the folio and octavo parameters of the two books of designs. Instead, his selection appears to have been determined by Humphry’s own Blake collection, as the vignettes and full-page illustrations came only from Urizen, Thel, Marriage, and Visions, illuminated books that Humphry did not own, supplemented by a few independent etchings and relief etchings. Prints collected from various sources and bound together formed “Books of Prints,” a common genre and bibliographical term used in book sale and auction catalogues. As a print and book publisher himself and in the book trade as an engraver and illustrator, Blake seems more likely to have conceived of the project than Humphry, and to have done so with this specific collector of his illuminated books—not coincidentally a miniaturist—in mind.

Upcott’s “different Works” by Blake were those acquired by his father: two books of designs, two color printed illuminated books, and one monochrome illuminated book. These works elicited Turner’s “very Polite approbation” and enquiry to see if more of their kind were to be had. Turner is unlikely to have seen any of Blake’s large monoprints since Upcott did not own any, and Butts, who owned eleven, appears not to have known Turner. One or more other collectors acquired monoprints from Blake between 1806 and 1810 (“Signing” 395ff), but, like those in Butts’s collection, none of these monoprints showed signs of being a print, and five of them were signed “Fresco W Blake inv.” Had Turner seen a monoprint, he would have experienced it as a drawing in body colors or a painting, as John Ruskin, Dante Rossetti, and Alexander and Anne Gilchrist would do later on.[14] He would not have recognized it as a print or grouped it with Upcott’s smaller books and book illustrations. Blake appears to have identified the large monoprints as “prints” and not “frescos” to associate them with the graphic works that interested Turner and to have offered them as replacements for the smaller ones that Turner specifically sought because they too were “unaccompanied by any writing” but not at “the Loss of some of the best things.”

II. “the Loss of some of the best things”

The monoprints making up the Large Book and Small Book of Designs were a selection of designs printed in opaque colors with neither group forming a narrative.[15] The books of designs were printed after the large monoprints, probably in early 1796 (PP 80–6) and are, essentially, the large monoprints writ small.[16] In 1818, Blake was willing to sell the large monoprints but showed no interest in reproducing the smaller ones. Instead of explicitly refusing Turner’s request, however, Blake implied that extracting plates from books and vignettes from plates—which replicating Humphry’s “selection” of color prints would have required—was unacceptable to him because it would violate the integrity of the designs. Had Blake’s conception of illuminated books changed by 1818? Or had he compromised the integrity of his illuminated books in 1796? The books of designs comprise fewer than half as many plates as their source books, but they were probably priced as high or higher than the four books because of the more complicated manner in which they were printed and finished. Was it not possible for Blake to be as practical and creative with Turner? Certainly, Blake’s letter raises many questions, the most important of which are: Is Blake telling the truth about wanting to retain the integrity of illuminated books? Was he merely redirecting Turner to more expensive products? Or, did he simply not want to work in the medium of color printing?

Blake claims that the whole is greater than its parts, that his illustrations exist with and because of the poetry, and implies that separating an image from its text compromises both. Conversely, the illustrations are “Printed perfect” when they “accompany [their] Poetical Personifications & Acts.” In other words, buy books, not parts. Blake produced the books with very little division of labor, performing as author, illustrator, designer, etcher, and, with Catherine, printer and colorist. They are mixed-media sites where poetry, calligraphy, drawing, design, and coloring all come together, invented and executed with the same set of tools: the same hands, eyes, and mind. When Blake refused Turner’s request, he appears to address the indivisibility of his labor, treating the illuminated books holistically. He appears to consider texts and images “perfect” when they are together and fragmented when they are not.

Figure 4. Marriage of Heaven and Hell copy D, plate 4. Library of Congress, Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection.

Questioning Blake’s verity in this matter seems obtuse. Indeed, his rationale has not been questioned because he appears to imply what we now think is self-evident: that separating Blake’s texts and images distorts their meaning and the aesthetic experience of reading them. Consequently, Blake’s rationale for refusing Turner has not appeared strange to modern readers. From the perspective of an artist (or “Artist”), however, it is strange. Full-page illustrations and vignettes from illuminated books can function autonomously as independent designs, as is evinced by the recreations of the vignette on Marriage plate 4 (Figure 4) as a watercolor drawing, c. 1793 (Figure 5), and then in 1795 as the monoprint Good & Evil Angels (Figure 6), the second pull of which was refinished and reinterpreted for Butts in 1805 (Figure 7). The vignette’s meaning depends on Marriage’s rich network of images and ideas, yet, as a watercolor drawing or printed painting, the image functions autonomously and remains meaningful. So, too, do the other illuminated images when repurposed as independent designs. Truly, “the unity” of Blake’s “composite art depends upon the vigorous independence of its component parts” (Mitchell 34). This recognition resolves “the apparently contradictory facts” of illuminated books being “integrated forms of visual-verbal art” whose “constituent elements” of “poems and their illustrations” have a “vigorous aesthetic independence which makes them satisfactory, if fragmentary, works of art in and of themselves” (34).

As noted, Thomson, Smith, Upcott, and no doubt Humphry enjoyed the color-printed designs as beautiful, autonomous artifacts. Turner, when given the opportunity to view the “selection,” did the same, as do viewers today. These small monoprints do not suffer aesthetically by being decontextualized, nor do Blake’s “Detached Specimens” from Jerusalem—which Blake presumably expected to function autonomously when displayed at the Associated Painters in Watercolors exhibition of 1812, alongside the frescos of Canterbury Pilgrims, Spiritual Form of Nelson, and Spiritual Form of Pitt (Essick, “1812 Exhibition”). The argument that book illustrations without their texts are aesthetically compromised is an odd one for any artist to make about images, and I question how serious Blake was in making it. Blake could believe in the integrity of his illuminated designs while also recognizing the autonomy of the illustrations. The two positions are not mutually exclusive. Illustrations can and do—and, I would argue, must—stand on their own, at least formally. Blake selected images for Humphry apparently thinking that their aesthetic integrity was not compromised. His thinking so in 1796 does not necessarily contradict his reason for not thinking so in 1818, and vice versa, but it should give pause—particularly in light of the 1812 “Detached Specimens” and, especially, in the presence of a set of color prints then in the studio that made up the Small Book of Designs copy B.

As he had with the large monoprints, Blake pulled at least two impressions per matrix, one after the other without replenishing colors, as can be seen in the first and second pulls of Urizen plate 7 (Figure 8 and Figure 9). This mode of printing produced enough impressions to compile two copies of the Small Book. Blake compiled the first pulls to form copy A for Humphry, but he had not assembled the second pulls to form copy B until after 1818. Their availability in 1818 is confirmed by their having been inherited by Catherine Blake and passed on to Frederick Tatham (1805–78) after she died.[17] Blake assembled copy B around 1819, when he touched up and numbered the impressions, added inscriptions and four frame lines around each design (Figure 9), and stabbed the impressions like an illuminated book. The compilation of copy B parallels that of Songs copy R, which comprised first pulls printed in 1795 that Blake refinished in 1819 for Linnell, framing each design with four lines (BB 420).[18] Blake never compiled the second pulls of the Large Book; two of them were sold with Song of Los copies B and E (Butlin 285, 284), but at least three must have been still on hand in 1818 because they were later acquired by Linnell (Butlin 264, 265, 281).

Blake could have replicated Humphry’s “selection” by refreshing what was on hand and reprinting a few missing plates. Proceeding so would have required much less time, money, and effort than printing and finishing an illuminated book and, perhaps most significantly, would have substantially shortened the turnaround time for the project and had him paid sooner. Does hiding Small Book copy B from Turner prove that Blake wanted to retain the aesthetic integrity of his composite designs? No, because he eventually did assemble copy B and, moreover, he added texts not originally connected to the images.

Blake hid copy B from Turner as well as his real reasons for not wanting to replicate Humphry’s selection. He could have made a quick few pounds but chose not to. Three possible reasons present themselves. First, Blake did not want to fill the order too quickly or with too few works, preferring instead to direct Turner to more works and, potentially, a bigger payday. It was all about the money.[19] Second, Blake no longer wanted to work in the medium of color printing. Assembling the “selection” required printing in colors the missing plates of the Large Book. Third, rather than intending to inflate an order or avoid a medium, Blake wanted specifically to return to illuminated printing, preferring it to color printing and monoprinting.

III. Blake’s stock of illuminated books and monoprints in 1818

Blake had small color prints on hand but appears willing to sell only illuminated books and large monoprints. He states, “any Person wishing to have any or all of them should send me their Order to Print them,” implying that both books and monoprints needed to be reprinted. Or, he wanted Turner to think so. With the possible exception of untraced Elohim (Butlin 290), none of the “12 Large Prints” needed to be reprinted, because the following impressions were in stock: Newton 307B (untraced), Satan Exulting over Eve 292B (untraced),[20] Christ Appearing 327, Pity 312, Hecate 318, Good & Evil Angels 324, Nebuchadnezzar 302, Naomi Entreating Ruth 300, Lamech 298, Elijah and the Fiery Chariot / God Judging Adam 296, and House of Death 322. All of these impressions were inherited by Catherine Blake and then most of them—if not all—by Tatham (“Signing” 401). The last two listed were from the c. 1795–96 printing; the others were from the 1795 printing. Any one or all could have been refinished to look as good as any “yet Produced.”

Blake’s stock of illuminated books also comprised unsold works from early printings. These included individually numbered copies of Innocence and Experience from c. 1795 that were to form Songs copy R; Marriage copy H from 1790; America copy D from 1793, sold to Henry Crabb Robinson in 1825; and Milton copy B from c. 1811, which appears to have been the copy sold to Thomas Wainwright, c. 1826 (BB 420, 300, 101, 319). Because the provenances of most copies of Thel, Visions, and Urizen are unknown, unsold copies of these books may also have been on hand. What was true of refinishing monoprints was equally true of illuminated impressions. In 1806, instead of printing new impressions, Blake refinished poorly printed impressions from 1789, 1794, and 1795 printings (BIB 143) to create the splendid and multi-colored Songs copy E, which he sold to Butts for £6.6, the price he gave Turner—and ten times its price in the Prospectus, printed in 1793 (E 692). For Linnell, he refinished Songs copy R and Marriage copy H in 1819 and 1821 respectively. Blake could have refinished/transformed old copies (at least four titles he lists for Turner were on hand in 1818) to look as good as his best works. Had he done so, he would have cut his production costs, time, and labor, increased his profit margin, and received much needed funds sooner.

By the middle of 1818, Blake was without an active patron and had, since 1814, been earning his living by working as a reproductive engraver. Cumberland, Jr., after visiting the Blakes in Spring of 1815, noted that they were “durtyer than ever,” that Blake had overworked a watercolor drawing of the Last Judgment “till it is nearly as black as your hat,” and “his time is now intirely taken up with Etching & Engraving” (BR2 320). One would think that such menial employment combined with a long hiatus in illuminated printing would have Blake eager to print any of his own works for money. This was business, not personal. Yet, he took off the list the color prints Turner explicitly asked for and which were the easiest of his works to sell him. Instead, he offered works hoping to affect a compromise in which he would print illuminated books, but not in colors. That Blake favored illuminated books over the large monoprints is suggested by his providing more information about them than the latter. For example, he identified each book by title, size, price, and number of illustrations—the same elements he used in the Prospectus. He described their texts, when “Printed perfect,” as accompanying “Poetical Personifications & Acts.” He describes the monoprints by category—large prints in colors—and as “Historical & Poetical,” but he does not identify them by subjects or titles, as he did in his 1806 Butts account: Christ appearing, God Judging Adam, God Creating Adam, Good & Evil Angels, House of Death, Newton, and Nebuchadnezzar (BR2 764). These titles were specific or descriptive enough to pique interest, whereas the categories and adjectives given Turner were not. He does not promote monoprints; he acknowledges their existence, general dimensions, and price per design. But by not identifying the designs making up the group, he made a well-informed selection from a non-differentiated group of individual objects impossible.

Had making sure (and/or quick) money been Blake’s intention, which is not an unreasonable expectation for an artist, he would have pushed the monoprints at £5.5s. each, valued at £63 for the group. Three monoprints at £15.15 equaled the profit of thirty-one or so color prints comprising the books of designs, assuming they were, as before, priced relative to their source books. Blake could have made £15.15 selling three or four new copies of illuminated books, but that would have cost him much more in time, materials, and, especially, labor, than refinishing large monoprints or refinishing and supplementing small monoprints.

How odd of Blake to offer to sell individual designs in colors for £5.5s each—a price none appears to have realized until 1865 (Butlin 307) and the same price as America with its eighteen folio-size colored prints—but not to identify titles or subjects of the designs. Blake was not shy about describing, even puffing up, his works and their value. To be sure, given his ability to promote himself and works—amply demonstrated in his letters, advertisements to his exhibition and its Descriptive Catalogue, Public Address, descriptions of the Vision of the Last Judgment, and prospectuses for illuminated books and the Chaucer engraving—the minimal information that Blake provides about these “Large Prints” seems a lapse in salesmanship or intentional misdirection. And how peculiar, after emphasizing himself as an “Artist,” not to have pushed the approximately 18 x 24 inch printed paintings, his largest and physically most substantial works. In effect, by excluding pertinent information about the monoprints, Blake not only undercut the efficacy of his advertisement, but he also made the illuminated books appear like better value for the money.

The idea that Blake preferred illuminated books is also suggested by the number of illuminated plates he was willing to print relative to monoprint matrices. The eight books he listed comprised 181 plates. If Blake intended to print second copies for stock, then he was prepared to print upward of 360 impressions. He likely intended to do so because that is what he did when he printed ten new copies of six titles later that year—a project resulting from one or two commissions (neither from Turner). If Blake sold an entire set of eight books, he would have grossed at least £37.16, minus expenses for paper, gums, oil, and pigments. Hence, Blake’s intention not to refinish and sell books from stock, but to print more plates rather than fewer for the same amount of money, is significant. To do more work than less for the same money implies the primary objective was not money. It suggests that returning to illuminated printing was personal, not just business.

What Turner wanted to buy should not have mattered to Blake as long as he bought some things. But apparently it did, as Blake was trying to influence the decision. Turner no doubt picked up on being directed to select whole books rather than a “selection” from them. But what did he make of Blake’s offer of “12 Large Prints”? Are these “prints” engravings? Etchings, like Mrs. Turner’s? Aquatints? Mezzotints? Stipples? Chalk engravings? Lithographs? Polygraphs?[21] These kinds of prints also reproduced historical and poetical subjects at relatively large sizes and in colors. Blake did not specify his medium presumably because he could not; the term “monoprint” had not yet been invented. And, as noted, he appears to have referred to them as “prints” and not “frescos” to associate them with Upcott’s “different [printed] Works.” Titles, however, would have identified subjects, and the subject—as William Wordsworth says about poetry in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads (1798)—was undeniably important! In the commercial reproductive print market, the medium was subsumed to the subject, whether it was an historical event, like James Heath’s Death of Nelson; a famous person or painting; an ancient monument; or a specific place, like “Tintern Abbey.” For Blake to have omitted the specifics of medium is understandable, but to have discarded titles and subjects when addressing a print collector and connoisseur makes him seem indifferent to the sale of these specific items.

Blake really was redirecting Turner to illuminated books not because they were potentially more lucrative than Humphry’s “selection,” or because he believed in their indivisibility, but because he preferred illuminated printing to color printing. The former produces a very different kind of artifact than the latter, with different textures and visual effects—as Smith noted about illuminated books finished in colors mixed with gum arabic versus those printed in colors mixed with glue and whiting. Perhaps it was just such a matter of touch, of Blake preferring to apply watercolors over flat white grounds than painting over printed and reticulated colored grounds, or of preferring watercolors because, unlike body colors, they did not obscure printed outlines. The hand-colored illuminated impression conformed with Blake’s aesthetic theories regarding line and color as they evolved after 1800, whereas the color-printed painterly impression had come to appear like “unorganized Blots and Blurs” (E 576) by comparison. As noted, to produce a monoprint, Blake painted colors directly on a flat matrix, transferred them indirectly to paper by printing, and added more colors directly to the printed design when finishing it. To produce a painting (fresco, tempera, or watercolor), Blake only applied colors directly to the support (panel, canvas, copper, or paper). The latter method gave him a nonreticulated surface and more control over forms and details than finishing and outlining printed blocks of colors, albeit at the expense of such visual effects as the seabed in Newton 306, made possible only by applying paint indirectly.

Supporting the idea that monoprinting fell into disfavor with Blake is the curious fact that no large monoprints—despite their being reconceived as “frescos”—were in his 1809 exhibition, one purpose of which was to showcase his new invention of “portable Fresco” (E 527). His late frescos, those executed after 1818, were painted in thinner layers of paint than those executed for the exhibition (Townsend 132), supporting the idea that Blake had come to favor a flatter, less spongy or reticulated surface. In his last decade, Blake printed over forty copies of thirteen illuminated book titles (BIB 379–80), but he did not print any relief etching, etching, or gessoed millboard in colors, the absence of which supports the idea that by 1818 he had come to prefer hand coloring illuminated books in watercolors to all manner of color printing. He eventually refinished the second pulls of the Small Book on speculation, but did not color print new plates for the group, nor does he appear to have refinished the large monoprints he had in stock, with the possible exception of Hecate 318.

IV. Numbers, sales, publishers

In his letter to Turner, Blake acknowledges that the “different Works” in Humphry’s collection were not commercially successful and that he was never able to “produce” them in “Sufficient number” or disseminate them in a “general Sale” by “a regular Publisher.” Emphasizing their rarity and customized nature was more than Blake justifying their prices: “unprofitable enough to me tho Expensive to the Buyer.” He claims that his “reputation as an Artist” was based on printed works, a statement of fact to modern readers but a radical assertion in an age that dismissed printmakers as copyists. Moreover, the value of these early printed works was not defined by “numbers,” “sales,” or their “publisher.” These signs of commercial success, however, accompanied The Grave, the work Blake was best known for in 1818 and a copy of which Turner had ordered six months earlier. Examining the history and reception of The Grave reveals why Blake’s claim of being an Artist as printmaker was radical.

Turner probably received his copy of The Grave from Upcott on 25 May 1818 (BR2 865 n86), possibly just before writing Blake. He presumably mentioned it in his “Polite approbation” of Blake’s “different Works,” praise that forced Blake to recall Humphry’s “selection” and other works that he had produced as a publisher, engraver, and original printmaker. Any mention of The Grave, even one complementary, would have had Blake recalling a very large number—the over £500 fee for engraving the designs—that he believed he was cheated out of by its publisher, R. H. Cromek (1770–1812). Cromek hired Blake in October 1805 to design forty illustrations for Robert Blair’s The Grave for a paltry fee of £21. Blake accepted because it came with the assurance that he would engrave twenty of the designs (later reduced to fifteen and then to twelve), where the good money lay (BR2 219). Flaxman, happy for his friend’s good fortune, wrote William Hayley to tell him that “Blake has his hands full of work for a considerable time to come and if he will only condescend to give that attention to his worldly concerns which every one does that prefers living to Starving, he is now in a way to do well” (BR2 208, italics added). However, by the end of November 1805, Cromek had revoked the engraving commission, worth £549 (Damrosch 267), and gave it to Louis Schiavonetti (1765–1810), fearing that the white-line etching technique that Blake wanted to use to reproduce the designs—as exemplified by Deaths Door, c. 1805—would have damaged sales (Essick, Printmaker 159).

Blake came to hate Cromek for yet another reason. He accused him of stealing his ideas for the painting and engraving of Canterbury Pilgrims and giving them to Stothard and Schiavonetti, who were in the news in October 1817, when Schiavonetti’s engraving, started in 1807 and finished by Heath, was finally published.[22] According to a review in June 1818, “The public curiosity has at length been gratified by the appearance of this beautiful, and long expected engraving, the publication of which has been delayed, by unavoidable circumstances” (Edinburgh Magazine 531).[23] A review from 22 November 1817 addressed Blake’s complaint with Cromek obliquely, stating that “it is curious to notice, that Mr. Stothard had made several sketches of the different characters previous to the communication from Mr. Cromek. With this co-incidence it cannot be doubted the subject was entered upon con amore” (The Literary Gazette 325). Edinburgh Magazine repeats the idea that Stothard did it for love, not money, and had come up with the idea himself (532). Such statements, along with the praise showered on the engraving, Heath, and Stothard, could not have sat well with Blake, nor could have the reviewer’s hope that Cromek’s family would “derive that recompense which so spirited an undertaking deserves” (532). The engraving was printed in an edition of 500 impressions along with 200 proofs (Farington 5159–60), and sold for “3 guineas,” with “proofs on India paper” priced at “6 guineas” and on “French” paper at “5 guineas” (Morning Post, 15 December 1817). I believe these numbers and expected sales were on Blake’s mind when he wrote Turner.[24]

Blake stopped engraving for the publishers between late 1805, when he finished Hayley’s Ballads, and fall of 1814, when he started Flaxman’s Hesiod.[25] Some reviewers of The Grave took note. According to the Antijacobin Review, “Mr. Blake was formerly an engraver, but his talents in that line scarcely advancing to mediocrity, he was induced as we have been informed, to direct his attention to the art of design” (November 1808, BR2 265). This review was quite vicious throughout and, in effect, faulted Blake for not knowing his station. A dialogue by Juninus (the pseudonym of an unknown critic) describes Blake as having “relinquished engraving, and to have cultivated the higher departments of designing and painting with great success. His works shew that he must have studied the antique with considerable attention” (The Repository of Arts, September 1810, BR2 305). Blake would have welcomed Juninus’s complement, but he would have disagreed with the idea that painting was “higher” than printmaking. He was offended to be told constantly that “Drawing spoils an Engraver” (E 572), presumably by encouraging an unrealistic ambition to become a painter. He names Heath, Stothard, Flaxman, and Romney as having “repeatedly asserted this Absurdity” to him. Indeed, Flaxman told Hayley that “if [Blake] places any dependence on painting large pictures, for which he is not qualified, either by habit or study, he will be miserably deceived” (BR2 95).

The idea that drawing spoiled engravers was deeply condescending and reflected the secondary status of engravers, who were denied full membership in the Royal Academy of Arts because “Engraving is wholly devoid” of “those intellectual qualities of Invention and Composition, which Painting, Sculpture and Architecture so eminently possess” (Hutchison 90).[26] According to Joseph Farington (1747–1821), even Fuseli called engraving “a mechanical & very inferior branch of Art” (23 December 1812, vol. 12, p. 4269–70).[27] From the Royal Academy’s perspective, engraving was more about physical execution than invention, more about hands than mind, and too imitative and labor intensive to consider its practitioners anything but craftsmen—a cultural stereotype that Blake vehemently rejected. Other printmakers sought to elevate their status by stressing the moral and educational value of prints to society (Strutt 1) or by arguing that engravings are “not copies, but translations from one language of Art, into another language of Art” (Landseer 178). Blake’s reasoning was more fundamental. He embraced the idea of execution overtly, claiming execution is “the Chariot of Genius” (E 643), that “Mechanical Excellence is the Only Vehicle of Genius,” and that “Invention depends Altogether upon Execution or Organization” (E 637). He dismissed the very premise that painting as a medium was inherently superior to engraving by proclaiming that “Painting is Drawing on Canvas & Engraving is Drawing on Copper & Nothing Else & he who pretends to be either Painter or Engraver without being a Master of Drawing is an Impostor” (E 574).

In his letter to Turner, Blake countered the idea of hierarchy in the arts—and evolution of artists—by asserting that he was an artist as a printmaker, not an artist and a printmaker. He had expressed these ideas earlier. In the Prospectus, he equated his graphic works with the great art works of the world: “Mr. Blake’s powers of invention very early engaged the attention of many persons of eminence and fortune; by whose means he has been regularly enabled to bring before the Public works (he is not afraid to say) of equal magnitude and consequence with the productions of any age or country” (E 692). Blake expresses a similar idea of being an artist regardless of medium in a 1799 letter to the Rev. Trusler (who presumably believed in art’s hierarchy):

I have no objection to Engraving after another Artist. Engraving is the profession I was apprenticed to, & should never have attempted to live by any thing else If orders had not come in for my Designs & Paintings, which I have the pleasure to tell you are Increasing Every Day. Thus If I am a Painter it is not to be attributed to Seeking after. But I am contented whether I live by Painting or Engraving. (E 704)[28]

Blake claims to be a “painter,” by which he means genuine artist, without “Seeking” to be one, because he was born an artist and did not become one out of vanity, training, or social ambition. He claims explicitly to be indifferent to medium, that he was “contented” whether he lived “by Painting or Engraving” (E 704). When executing his own inventions, medium and size were of secondary importance.

Claiming to be an “Artist” as printmaker was radical and reflects Blake’s core identity, which was not affected by the menial tasks of copy engraving and lack of validation. As Blake told Trusler, he learned the art of engraving to make a living. As a boy he agreed to be apprenticed to an engraver instead of a painter because it was less expensive for his family (BR2 12). He was indifferent because he already knew that he was an artist regardless of medium. In the Prospectus, he sees himself as an insider to the print trade; in the letter to Turner, he knows he is an outsider. But in both documents, he expresses the idea that the artist makes the medium, not vice versa, and that he was an Artist as printmaker—and vice versa.

Figure 10. Visions of the Daughters of Albion copy F, plate 1 (frontispiece), 1793; color printed 1794.

Farington found others who agreed. On 19 February 1796, he wrote: “West, Cosway & Humphry 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” (BR2 68–69; Farington Diaries, 1: 141–42). Farington identified Blake as “the Engraver,” perhaps condescendingly, but also because that is what Blake was and how he was known. Farington may also have meant to imply the graphic nature of the designs Humphry and friends praised. Between 1794 and 1796, Romney, Humphry, Cumberland, Flaxman, and presumably other artists and friends within their extended circle were collecting colored and color-printed illuminated books. Cosway and Humphry shared Romney’s very high opinion of Blake (BR2 68, 250, 31), and they and the others may have seen Romney’s collection of seven large-paper illuminated books, which included the stunning Visions frontispiece (Figure 10) among his “One Hundred and Sixty drawings.”[29] Humphry’s collection was also mighty impressive, comprising eighteen “drawings” (uncolored America copy H) and sixty-five color prints. Blake was indeed an Artist among artists.

V. Blake’s later career as graphic artist

A decade before Turner, in December 1808, Cumberland presented Blake with an opportunity to return to illuminated printing. He owned seven relief-etched books and For Children, which made his collection of illuminated books the largest at the time. Knowing why Blake declined the offer helps to explain the hiatus in the production of nearly all of his early canon and why he was ready to return to illuminated printing in 1818. Cumberland had shown Blake’s “incomparable etchings” to an “acquaintance” who was so charmed with them, that

he requested me to get him a compleat Set of all you have published in the way of Books coloured as mine are—at the same time he wishes to know what will be the price of as many as you can spare him, if all are not to be had, being willing to wait your own time in order to have them as those of mine are.
   With respect to the money I will take care that it shall be reced[?] and sent to you through my Son as fast as they are procured. (BR2 278, italics added)

Cumberland’s emphasis that the books were to be colored like his own indicates that they were to be printed in colors, in the manner of his copy of Experience (now part of Songs copy F), Europe copy C, and Song of Los copy D. All three were printed in thick colors on one side of the leaves, like the books of designs, and were far and away the most powerful and impressive of Cumberland’s illuminated books, perfectly fitting Smith’s descriptions of the color prints as having more “effect than others where gum has been used.” The acquaintance’s terms were very favorable to Blake; he was willing to buy color prints from stock or wait for new copies. Cumberland’s set of seven illuminated books (112 plates) printed in colors could have netted at least £30; a “compleat Set” of what Blake had “published in the way of Books” would have added at least £15.15 to that, because it would have included Marriage, Urizen, Book of Ahania, and Book of Los.[30] The commission was potentially worth around a half a year’s income for the Blakes (Bentley, Desolate Market 103) and would have provided second copies of illuminated books for stock and future income.

Blake thanked Cumberland the following day for his “kind ardour in my cause” but told him no, that he was too busy painting to Engage in reviving [his] former pursuits of printing” (E 769). Blake states:

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. (E 770)

Blake defines his “present course” as “Designing & Painting” (E 770), the phrase Junius would use to describe his works in 1810, suggesting that Junius may have been a friend. He had exhibited three works in the Royal Academy in 1808: Jacob’s Dream, Christ in the Sepulchre, and Vision of the Last Judgment (Butlin 438, 500, 642). He was painting “frescos,” including the Canterbury Pilgrims; illustrating Milton’s poems in watercolors—he had executed a set of twelve designs of Paradise Lost for the Rev. Thomas in 1807 and another, larger set for Butts in 1808; and he may have started the six designs of Ode on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity for the Rev. Thomas, dated 1809 (Butlin 538).[31] “New Vanities” presumably alluded sardonically to the review of his Grave designs just a month earlier that criticized him as a mediocre engraver who now directs “his attention to the art of design” (BR2 265). From that perspective, an engraver planning a solo exhibition of paintings in hopes of “New profits” must have seemed guilty of “new vanities” indeed. In addition to preparing works for an exhibition, Blake was busy presumably writing its accompanying Descriptive Catalogue and possibly an “account” of his “various Inventions in Art,” for which he tells Cumberland he had “procured a Publisher” (E 770, BIB 321).

By the end of 1808, with the exception of a few copies of Innocence and Experience and, possibly, a single copy of America, Blake had not printed anything in his “old channel” in thirteen years. He declined to “revive” it and print a set of illuminated books because he did not want to interrupt his present work. He identified as a designer and painter and defined printing illuminated books as his past, not his present or future, which may explain why he did not effect a compromise, that is, agree to print illuminated books after the exhibition. Blake appears to have rejected the project for practical reasons—to stay his own new course—and was not holding out for higher prices, refusing to print plates in colors, or dismissing graphic arts as socially beneath him. He had not abandoned or rejected the medium of illuminated printing, just the printing and preparing of illuminated books for sale. Milton and Jerusalem, after all, both dated 1804, were in progress until c. 1811 and c. 1820 respectively. Their very long gestation periods, though, indicate that writing texts on plates, etching them into printable relief, and pulling proofs—the stages of his “old channel”—were intermittent and overlapped with work in other media. Blake was not rushing these books into print. Moreover, much of their texts were themselves borrowed from The Four Zoas manuscript, which unfolded between 1796–1807. At least a third of the manuscript was written in a fine copperplate hand expected of fair copy, suggesting that Blake initially intended to publish it in letterpress as he did the French Revolution (1791), not in illuminated printing.[32]

Blake’s eventual return to printing his early poetry appears serendipitous—and the world’s great good fortune. Two unrelated events occurred in June of 1818: a collector’s enquiry that did not result in a sale but let Blake know that he was not forgotten and his early works were collectable; and Linnell’s hiring Blake as a reproductive engraver and securing customers for his original works. Maybe Blake was already thinking about reprinting his early poetry, but with some stock left and minimal employment, he was not in position to do so without a commission. While somewhat disingenuous with Turner about stock, he was honest about being willing—for the right price—to produce new copies of illuminated books as fine as any “yet Produced.” Though Turner appears not to have placed an order, someone did, because Blake printed ten copies of six titles around this time. He had not printed various titles in the same printing session since 1795, when he produced a set of large-paper copies commissioned by George Romney.[33] Now, on the same Ruse & Turners paper, using orange and orangish-red inks on leaves cut to 11 x 9 inches and, for Songs, cut to 9 x 5.5 inches, Blake printed Thel copies N and O, Marriage copy G, Visions copies N, O, and P, Urizen copy G, Milton copy D, and Songs copies T2 and U for a total of 262 impressions. This is not the same list of books offered to Turner, which included America and Europe but not Marriage. One or more of these six titles were commissioned and provided the advanced monies needed to buy the materials to produce such a large set of illuminated books.

The commission may have come from James Boswell, who acquired Songs copy U; or, more likely, from James Vine, who acquired Thel copy O and Milton copy D, which were stabbed together by Blake (BIB 334). Linnell, who would have certainly supported and encouraged Blake resuming illuminated printing to produce saleable goods, visited Vine on 10 July 1818 (BR2 342)—just one month after Blake offered illuminated books to Turner—presumably to secure a commission.[34] Blake revised the plate orders of all ten new copies but not their texts. He positioned Thel’s motto as the last plate in Thel copies O and N, and he positioned plates 1 and 2 in Visions copies N, O, and P sequentially, instead of facing one another. He also printed Urizen with all twenty-eight plates (though he removed plate 4 after it was printed and finished); he reordered the plates in Marriage copy G (plates 1–10, 11, 15, 14, 12–13, 16–27), and he printed Milton without plate 2 (”Preface”) but with new plates a–f.  He numbered the sections in Songs copies T2 and U consecutively 1–54, which established Songs’ standard plate order (BIB 334–35).

Referring to these late copies as “elaborately colored,” as I and others have, fails to do them justice.[35] All of them went far beyond what he had “yet Produced.” The pages do not resemble lightly-washed manuscripts or drawings, like the first copies (1789–93), or “oil sketches,” like color printed copies or books of designs (1794–96); nor do they resemble the hand-colored large-paper copies of 1795. These new impressions were smaller, brighter, and more highly finished in transparent and translucent washes and stippling brushwork with texts and figures carefully outlined in pen and ink. The attention to detail was sustained throughout, and the designs often contained shell gold and were framed by a single red line or floral border to emphasize their autonomy as paintings in watercolors.

The resulting ornate, beautifully colored impressions reveal a renewed vigor and commitment to the illuminated books, as evinced by “Spring” from Songs copy U, part of the 1818 project of reprinted illuminated books (Figure 11). In comparison, “Spring” from Innocence copy S, printed c. 1811 (Figure 12), is lackluster—a print that Blake took through the motions—and this impression was actually given a higher finish than works printed in 1789, such as copy G (Figure 13) or Thel copy E (Figure 14). Together they suggest that J. T. Smith, when he dismissed Blake’s coloring “where gum was used,” had not seen late copies of illuminated books or any of Blake’s illustrations to Milton’s poetry. “The Sun at His Eastern Gate,” plate 3 of L’Allegro c. 1816 (Figure 15, Butlin 543.3), is a good example of Blake’s watercolor technique at the time. The compromise that he was brokering with Turner—printing illuminated books but not in colors—was the same one he practiced in his last decade. Late copies were reconceived as books of paintings rather than books of poems and probably with well-heeled collectors in mind. As a consequence, they cost more in time, labor, and materials and were priced ten or more times than early copies.

Figure 14. The Book of Thel copy E, plate 7, 1789/90.

Figure 15. “The Sun at His Eastern Gate,” plate 3 of L’Allegro, c. 1816 (Butlin 543.3).

In 1818, with some inventory, income, and security, Blake returned to For Children: The Gates of Paradise of 1793. He revised each of its eighteen plates, added three new plates (“The Keys of the Gates”), and retitled it For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. He would continue revising the plates over the next seven or eight years. He resumed work on Jerusalem, first printed in 1820 in three uncolored copies, A, C, and D, with copy C going to Linnell in installments. With Linnell’s patronage, Blake could afford to produce Jerusalem copy B, which consisted of the first twenty-five plates, all finely colored, and copy E, his masterpiece in illuminated printing, purely on speculation. He told Cumberland in 1827 that copy E had cost him in “Time the amount of Twenty Guineas” and feared that he was unlikely to “get a Customer for it” (E 784). Also out of pocket, he produced in 1822 the three relief-etched plates that make up On Homers Poetry [and] On Virgil and The Ghost of Abel, and, around this time, the woodcut-on-pewter of The Man Sweeping the Interpreter’s Parlour. The year before he executed four designs for The Pastorals of Virgil in relief etching, but, like Deaths Door, they were rejected by the publisher (Essick, “Relief Etching” 125). He finished seventeen of the Virgil designs in white-line wood engraving, a new medium for him, though executed in a style similar to Man Sweeping and the white-line etchings in Milton and Jerusalem.

In addition to finding clients for Blake, Linnell became one himself, acquiring works from stock. As noted, Blake reformatted and refinished his own copies of Innocence and Experience into Songs copy R for Linnell in 1819, suggesting that he had sold copies T2 and U from the 1818 printing. He refinished Marriage copy H for Linnell in 1821, which suggests that Marriage copy G from 1818 had been sold. Blake had America copy D, printed in 1793, still on hand, but it was printed in black ink and uncolored, so he printed matching-colored copies of America (O) and Europe (K) for Linnell in 1822. For Linnell, he executed twenty-one watercolor illustrations to the Book of Job, based on the Butts’s set of c. 1805, a set of reduced preparatory pencil sketches for the Job engravings, and the twenty-two Job engravings executed as pure engravings (no preliminary etching as in conventional engraving of the day), which Linnell published in 1826. Between 1825 and 1827, Blake reprinted Songs six more times and Marriage once. In April 1827, referring to Songs copy X, his last copy, Blake told Cumberland that he was “Printing a Set of the Songs of Innocence & Experience for a Friend at Ten Guineas which I cannot do under Six Months consistent with my other Work” (E 784, italics added). With his health failing and other projects then in progress, Blake recognized that he had “little hope of doing any more of such things.” His “other Work” included seven large pure engravings after Inferno designs from the 101 Dante watercolor illustrations that he had recently executed for Linnell, the maxims about art, religion, and commerce that he inscribed on the wall behind the engraving of the Laocoön, the Genesis manuscript (eleven leaves), the twenty-nine drawings of Pilgrim’s Progress (inherited by Catherine, then Tatham), and the very large fresco of the Vision of the Last Judgment that was in progress when he died and which contained “upwards of one thousand figures, many of them wonderfully conceived and grandly drawn” (BR2 617). He also finished printing the 100 plates of Jerusalem in 1827 to form copy F.

Between 1796 and 1818, Blake printed very few illuminated books, one new book, three impressions of two monoprint designs, and no etching or relief etching in colors. He resumed illuminated printing mid-1818 but continued the hiatus in color printing and monoprinting, which explains why The Book of Los, The Book of Ahania, and Song of Los were not among the illuminated books reprinted after their initial printings in 1795. The plates of the first two books were etchings, with designs painted on the surface of the frontispieces and tailpieces over lightly etched lines and printed in colors, meaning that the designs can exist only as small monoprints. Song of Los, Blake’s most unorthodox illuminated book, has four full-page illustrations printed from gessoed millboards, exactly like their larger monoprint cousins (Viscomi, “Annus Mirabilus” 79–82). The illustrations of the 1795 books exist—and can only exist—as monoprints. They were designed to be printed in colors and, unlike relief etchings, could not be printed without colors. No color printing, no reprinting of Ahania, Los, or Song of Los.

“In the Summer of 1818” Blake had definitely turned a “corner of his life. Thereafter he was loved, admired, and often supported by the enthusiastic group of young artists who called themselves the Ancients” (BR2 340). The last nine years of Blake’s life resembled the first period of illuminated printing (1788 to 1795), with Blake once again working as a poet, engraver, original printmaker, printer, illustrator, and painter, working primarily on his own inventions, executing only three reproductive engravings. He reengaged with old poems in new ways, embracing his past and, with the support of Linnell, embarking on a future filled once again with “Designing & Painting” and original graphic art. He could once again balance his creative life around a poetic canon and bring well-honed and developed skills as a watercolorist and painter to his earlier graphic designs. He could, by printing new versions of early illuminated books, as well as creating new illuminated works and finishing Jerusalem, revive his life as poet and “great reputation as an Artist.”

Conclusion: “great reputation as an Artist”

Blake printed approximately 157 copies of sixteen illuminated books between 1789 and June 1818.[36] All but fourteen were printed by the end of 1795, when the hiatus in printing most illuminated books began. Blake had copies of all saleable books in stock and began taking on new projects. He did not need to sell large numbers of illuminated books and color prints to reach an influential audience or to make his name. The base line was unique works on paper, like manuscripts and watercolor drawings, and not commercial prints and books. Illuminated prints retained the aesthetic quality of the one-off design while, as multiples, ensuring a larger audience than actual drawings. As such, they helped to establish and spread Blake’s “great reputation as an Artist which was the chief thing Intended.” Blake tells Turner that he can reprint illuminated books and large monoprints but that it was necessary “that any Person wishing to have any or all of them should send me their Order to Print them on the above terms & I will take care that they shall be done at least as well as any I have yet Produced.” This is an Artist speaking as an artisan. He does so proudly, knowingly, and in doing so emphasizes the role material execution plays in invention. He is not offering to make Turner new compositions; he is offering to remake things that other people have, to produce artifacts whose originality lay in their being newly invented, not in being new inventions.

Today, Blake’s reputation as a great artist is well established. It is not, however, very nuanced. While Blake’s letters to Trusler, Cumberland, and Turner reveal much about his idea of himself as an artist, they also raise fundamental questions: Did Blake become an artist to earn a living? Or, was he an artist who, unfortunately, had to earn a living? For most of his life, he appears to have thought of himself as an artist who also had to make a living—and was certainly talented and industrious enough to do so. In 1793 he informs the public about illuminated books; in 1802 he tells his brother James his plans “to commence publication with many very formidable works” because the “Profits arising from Publications are immense” (E 726); in 1808 he writes Cumberland about his exhibition and hopes for “new profits.” The idea that making a living was incompatible with being an Artist appears to have taken hold only in his last years.  His posthumous reputation greatly assisted in defining this latter category: the Romantic artist as rebel or outsider living and creating by their own rules, indifferent to audiences and society’s modes for securing them. This Blake inhabits a visionary world of his own making and makes original works for himself, the public be damned. This is the Blake of popular culture, the artist whom Robinson described as having “preferred . . . to be a martyr for his religion, i.e. Art, to debasing his talents by a weak submission to the prevailing fashion of art in an age of artistic degradation” (BR2 595). Robinson’s idea of Blake was promoted by Alexander Gilchrist in Life of Blake: “Pictor Ignotus,” and Gilchrist, the good disciple of Thomas Carlyle (his friend and next-door neighbor in Chelsea), presented Blake’s isolation and commercial failures as evidence of heroic struggles against a repressive culture. This “Pictor Ignotus” is unwilling to engage in commerce or participate in public forums to promote himself; his works are unknowable, autotelic, and impenetrable; he is indifferent or even hostile to numbers and sales.

This Blake, as William Vaughan recognizes, “is the paradigm” for “those who see art as being primarily about inspiration and individualism” (73). He “exemplifies the stereotypical image of the untamable, genius artist of modern times. Significantly, Gulley Jimson, the fictional painter who embodies this assumption absolutely in Joyce Carey’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944), declares that Blake was ‘the greatest artist who ever lived’” (74). But Vaughan also points to the historic Blake, noting, very perspicaciously, that Blake “was a genuine outsider in his time” and “from that point of view he has more in common with the myriad semi-professionals of our times who try to keep going by hook or by crook, than he has with those who succeed in their careers through a calculated exploitation of sensation” (74).[37] Focusing on timelines and minute particulars of Blake’s labor does not deny his genius or role in defining the modern idea of art and artist. Rather, illuminating the visionary’s practical concerns sharpens our portrait of the historic artist, his day-to-day life, struggles, and accomplishments, his significant decisions, failures, and triumphs.

Blake declined Cumberland’s offer in 1808 to color print a set of illuminated books and in doing so extended for another ten years the hiatus in both illuminated and color printing. He declined not from thinking “designing & painting” had elevated him above printmaking. He declined not out of pride but because he wanted to do new things in new media and to concentrate on the mission at hand: to “exhibit to the Public, in an Exhibition of my own, my Designs, Painted in Watercolours.” This he considered “as the greatest of Duties to my Country” (E 528). Blake hoped to attract customers for his engraving of Canterbury Pilgrims, show the nation examples of “portable frescos” suitable for public buildings, and argue for public patronage. He was reaching out to, not withdrawing from, the public and was hoping, as he said, for “new profits.”

He was, of course, hoping to profit from a commission from Dawson Turner. Such concerns appear to contradict his firm belief, as expressed in the Laocoön, c. 1826–27, that “Where any view of Money exists Art cannot be carried on, but War only” (E 275). Enticed to return to illuminated printing by money seems at odds with his declaration in the Prospectus that No Subscriptions for the numerous great works now in hand are asked, for none are wanted; but the Author will produce his works, and offer them to sale at a fair price” (E 692). Pointing proudly to his stock of prints (real, inflated, and envisioned), Blake asserts that he executes his own inventions—which defines the prints as original—and that he does so entirely on his own terms without advanced monies, not unlike an artist painting designs on speculation. The idea that the production of illuminated books was motivated and conditioned by external and practical forces, not his own agency, surprises and seems to contradict his modus operandi. Printing illuminated books for the money—or, more specifically, waiting for advanced monies to print—seems somehow unBlakean. But Blake’s business model for producing and selling illuminated books changed in 1795, when he produced a costly set of large-paper copies underwritten by a commission from Romney and had reimagined the illuminated impressions as watercolor drawings, not pages in a book of poems. He could no longer underwrite their costs with his earnings as an engraver.

Blake’s statements about the antipathy of art and commerce were made at the end of his life, long after he had made many valiant attempts, some successful, to engage in the fine and commercial art markets of his day. His inventions of relief etching, monoprinting, and “fresco” were responses to aesthetic as well as market forces. The first catered to the market for printed facsimiles of sketches and drawings. The second and third inventions responded to the taste for pictures in water-miscible paints that were affordable and could compete visually with oil paintings (PP 93–103). He was well aware of popular tastes and changes in print technologies designed to meet them. Applying Blake’s absolutes regarding art and commerce to his practice as an artist does not catch him contradicting himself. It distorts the historic Blake, who sought an audience for—and money from—his illuminated books and other works of art, albeit on his own terms as much as possible. Ironically, applying the image of the artist modeled on Blake to Blake also distorts the historic Blake. Clearly, for Blake originality was about more than not repeating oneself and popular tastes and markets were not things to ignore.

Blake’s dedication to Art no matter the cost to himself (or Catherine), and his conviction in himself without external validation in the form of “numbers” and “sales,” are among the traits that make Blake an icon among artists today. His refusing to compromise with Cumberland’s friend is easy to spin positively: In the face of financial need, Blake chose Art over Money. Other points of view exist, though, then, and now. From Blake’s point of view, the commission was disruptive, not insulting. From the point of view of Blake’s friends who wanted him to “condescend to give that attention to his worldly concerns which every one does that prefers living to Starving,” he behaved irresponsibly—especially as a husband. A commission from Cumberland’s friend would have earned a half a year’s worth of income and provided copies of illuminated books for stock and future income. To turn away needed income was brave, principled, and heroic—or impractical, arrogant, and reckless. His friends believed that his need to realize himself as an Artist was not in his best financial or professional interests, but they must have also known that it really was his only option.

By the time Blake inscribed his maxims about art and commerce as antithetical, he had spent a lifetime working to prove them wrong. He was done fighting the market. He had fought a good fight and lost. He could reflect on a life of honest efforts to combine commerce and art and conclude that combining them and staying true to oneself was impossible, or no longer possible. But this was not his attitude as an engraver entering his profession in 1780, or as a publisher in 1793, or painter in 1808, or a printer in 1818. He resigned himself to this extreme position only in the last years of his life, under Linnell’s patronage, which gave him the security to do so. In his Notebook, Blake identified “Patronage” as the “first part of painting”—and its second and third (E 515). Never mind inspiration, invention, execution. Location, location, location indeed. Who you know or who knows you triumphs talent and imagination. It’s complicated; artists want the attention of people whose attention they resent needing. Blake’s individualism and independence were genuine and heroic but made possible in part by patronage. Butts and Linnell provided unpatronizing support, but they could not protect him completely from the vicissitudes of the art and commercial markets. Butts “would commission the works Blake wanted to do,” whereas Trusler and “Hayley tried to dictate. Linnell placed orders for copies of books and pictures that Blake had already made, [. . .]. But he also guided him towards new ventures. His two major commissions—the engravings of Job and the illustrations to Dante—were both master-strokes.” These commissions “led to the production of works that simultaneously showed Blake’s qualities as a visual artist at their height and had a genuinely broad appeal” (Vaughn 61). Relying on patrons of modest means necessarily required sacrificing material comforts, which he and Catherine willingly did, as is evinced by their using their small two-room apartments (1804–1821 and 1821–1827) as living and work space—and sharing them with a large rolling press.[38]

According to Samuel Palmer, one of the Ancients, Blake “used [money] with careful frugality, but never loved it; and believed that he should be always supplied with it as it was wanted: in which he was not disappointed. And he worked on with serenity when there was only a shilling in the house.” Blake’s letter to Turner confirms Palmer’s assessment, presenting an artist neither indifferent to money nor defined by it, willing “to go to his engraving for a while,” and “when fully embarked again, he was not unhappy; work being his natural element” (BR2 384). Work, in whatever medium, original inventions, unwavering belief in them, and the ability to persevere in the face of peer and cultural pressures make Blake the hero-artist to many artists and writers today, as he predicted it would: “Mr. B. . . . has the courage to suffer poverty and disgrace, till he ultimately conquers” (E 547).

published March 2022

Joseph Viscomi is the James G. Kenan Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a co-editor/creator with Morris Eaves and Robert N. Essick of The William Blake Archive, which has published over 160 fully searchable and scalable digital editions of Blake’s works in all genres and four digital exhibitions since 1996. With Eaves and Essick, he has co-edited vols. 3 and 5 of William Blake’s Illuminated Books (Tate/Princeton, 1993). He is the author of Prints by Blake and his Followers (Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 1983), Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton, 1993), William Blake’s Printed Paintings: Methods, Origins, Meanings (Paul Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art, 2021), and numerous articles on Blake’s illuminated printing, color printing, and reception in the nineteenth century.


Viscomi, Joseph. “William Blake’s 1818 Letter to Dawson Turner and Later Career as Graphic Artist.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


BB Bentley, G. E., Jr. Blake Books: Annotated Catalogues of William Blake’s Writings in Illuminated Printing. Clarendon P, 1977.
BR2 Bentley, G. E., Jr. Blake Records. 2nd ed, Yale UP, 2004.
Butlin Butlin, Martin. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. Yale UP, 1981. 2 vols.
E Erdman, David V. Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Revised edition, Doubleday, 1988.
BIB Viscomi, Joseph. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton UP, 1993.
“Signing” Viscomi, Joseph. “Signing Large Color Prints: The Significance of Blake’s Signatures.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 3, 2017, pp. 365–402.
PP Viscomi, Joseph. William Blake’s Printed Paintings: Methods, Origins, Meanings. Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art / Yale UP, 2021.


Bentley, G. E., Jr. Blake Books: Annotated Catalogues of William Blake’s Writings in Illuminated Printing. Clarendon P, 1977.

———. Blake Records. 2nd ed, Yale UP, 2004.

———. “‘They take great liberty’s’: Blake Reconfigured by Cromek and Modern Critics: The Arguments from Silence.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 30, no. 4, 1991, pp. 657–684.

———. William Blake in the Desolate Market. McGill-Queen’s UP, 2014.

Blunt, Anthony. The Art of William Blake. Columbia UP, 1959.

Butlin, Martin. The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake. Yale UP, 1981. 2 vols.

———. “The Physicality of William Blake: The Large Color Prints of ‘1795’.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 52, no. 1, 1989, pp. 1–17.

Damrosch, Leo. Eternity’s Sunrise: The Imaginative World of William Blake. Yale UP, 2015.

Davids, Betsy, and Jim Petrillo. “The Artist as Book Printer: Four Short Courses.” Artists’ Books: A Critical Anthology and Sourcebook, edited by Joan Lyons, Gibbs M. Smith in association with Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1985, pp. 149–165.

Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, June 1818, pp. 531–532.

Erdman, David V. Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Revised edition, Doubleday, 1988.

Erle, Sybille. “Blake, Colour and the Truchsessian Gallery: Modelling the Mind and Liberating the Observer.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, no. 52, Nov. 2008. Project Erudit, doi: 10.7202/019802ar.

Essick, Robert N. “Blake’s 1812 Exhibition.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 2, 1993, pp. 36–42.

———. “A Relief Etching of Blake’s Virgil Illustrations.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 3, 1991, pp. 117–127

———. William Blake, Printmaker. Princeton UP, 1980.

———. William Blake’s Commercial Book Illustrations: A Catalogue of the Plates Engraved by Blake after Designs by Other Artists. Clarendon P, 1991.

Essick, Robert N., editor. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Huntington Library, 2008.

Essick, Robert N., and Morton Paley, editors. Robert Blair’s The Grave, Illustrated by William Blake: A Study with Facsimiles. Scolar P, 1982.

Farington, Joseph. The Diary of Joseph Farington, edited by Kenneth Garlick, Angus Macintyre, and Kathryn Cave, Yale UP, 1978.

Goodman, Nigel, editor. Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and his Remarkable Family. Phillimore & Co, 2007.

Grant, John E. “Review Article: Who Shall Bind the Infinite and Arrange It in Libraries? William Blake’s Writings and Blake Books.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 61, 1982, pp. 277–304.

Heath, John. The Heath Family Engravers, 1779 to 1878. Scolar P, 1993. 2 vols.

Hutchison, Sidney C. The History of the Royal Academy 17681986. 2nd ed., Royce, 1986.

Keynes, Geoffrey, and Edwin Wolf. William Blake’s Illuminated Books: A Census, 2nd ed., Grolier Club, 1953.

Landseer, John. Lectures on the Art of Engraving, Delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, and Orme, 1807.

The Literary Gazette, and Journal of the Belles Lettres, Arts, Science, etc., no. 44, 22 Nov. 1817.

McKitterick, David. “Dawson Turner and Book Collecting.” Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and His Remarkable Family, edited by Nigel Goodman, Phillimore & Co., 2007, pp. 67–110.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Princeton UP, 1978.

Moore, Andrew. “Dawson Turner: Art Patron, Connoisseur and Collector.” Dawson Turner: A Norfolk Antiquary and His Remarkable Family, edited by Nigel Goodman, Phillimore & Co., 2007, pp. 17–42.

Morning Post. 15 Dec. 1817, London.

Munby, A. N. L. The Cult of the Autograph Letter in England. Athlone P, 1962.

Myrone, Martin. The Blake Book. Tate Publishing, 2007, paragraphs 1–49.

Paley, Morton. “George Romney and Ozias Humphry as Collectors of William Blake’s Illuminated Printing.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 3, 2016–2017.

Read, Dennis. “The Context of Blake’s ‘Public Address’: Cromek and the Chalcographic Society.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 4, 1981, pp. 69–86.

———. “The Rival Canterbury Pilgrims of Blake and Cromek: Herculean Figures in the Carpet.” Modern Philology, vol. 86, 1988, pp. 171–90.

Ruskin, John. The Complete Works of John Ruskin, edited by E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, George Allen, 1909.

Smith, J. T. “Nollekens and his Times.” Blake Records, edited by G. E. Bentley, 2nd ed., Yale UP, 2004, pp. 604–26.

Turner, Dawson. Account of a Tour in Normandy. London, John and Arthur Arch, 1820.

———. Architectural Antiquities of Normandy. London, John and Arthur Arch, 1822.

Strutt, Joseph. Biographical Dictionary of Engravers; Containing an Historical Account of All the Engravers. Vol. 1, London, 1785–1786.

Vaughan, William. William Blake. Princeton UP, 1999.

Viscomi, Joseph. Blake and the Idea of the Book. Princeton UP, 1993.

———. “Blake’s ‘Annus Mirabilis’: the Productions of 1795.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 2, 2007, pp. 52–83.

———. “The Evolution of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 58, no. 3–4, 1997, pp. 281–344.

———. “Illuminated Printing.” The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, edited by Morris Eaves, Cambridge UP, 2003, pp. 37–62.

———. “The Myth of Commissioned Illuminated Books: George Romney, Isaac D’Israeli, and ‘ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY designs . . . of Blake’s’.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 23, no. 2, 1989, pp. 48–74.

———. “Posthumous Blake: The Roles of Catherine Blake, C. H. Tatham, and Frederick Tatham in Blake’s Afterlife.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 53. no. 3, 2019, paragraphs 1–141.

———. “Signing Large Color Prints: The Significance of Blake’s Signatures.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 80, no. 3, 2017, pp. 365–402.

———. William Blake’s Printed Paintings: Methods, Origins, Meanings. Mellon Centre for the Study of British Art / Yale UP, 2021.

Ward, Aileen. “‘Canterbury Revisited’: The Blake-Cromek Controversy.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 3, 1989, pp. 80–92.

Whitehead, Angus. “‘an excellent saleswoman’: The Last Years of Catherine Blake.” Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 45, no. 3, 2011–2012, pp. 76–189.


[1] The first of the twelve large monoprints executed was printed from a plate with a low relief outline; the next two were printed from unetched metal plates. The rest were printed from millboards given gesso grounds, like canvases prepared for oil painting (see PP 15–18).

[2] For an in-depth analysis of Blake’s monoprints, see Viscomi, William Blake’s Printed Paintings: Methods, Origins, Meanings.

[3] BIB 372 gives the number of known illuminated books as 168. Since 1993, Innocence copy W has been rediscovered, For the Sexes copy E has been moved from posthumous to life time, and references in sales catalogues to copies of Visions, Thel, America, Europe, and Urizen once belonging to Flaxman have been discovered, raising the total number of illuminated books probably printed by Blake to approximately 175.

[4] There are traces of a second printed color in a few plates in America copy M, a proof of Milton plate 13, and in a few proofs of Jerusalem, but there was no systematic color printing of relief etchings or etchings after 1796.

[5] Blake’s letter sold with six volumes of manuscripts in an auction of Turner’s library at Puttick and Simpson’s, 6–10 June 1859, lot 676. Turner had copied Blake’s letter and bound the copy in a volume of letters that was given to map iconTrinity College at Cambridge in 1890 (BIB 421 n11). By the time of his death in 1858, Turner had amassed over 40,000 autographs.

[6] According to A. N. L. Munby, the development of Turner’s interest in manuscripts and autographs owed much to Upcott, whose earliest letter to Turner is dated 21 May 1816 (Munby 36). Upcott is widely believed to have compiled A Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland (London, 1816), which listed Blake as the author of For Children, America, Experience, Europe, and a Descriptive Catalogue (BIB 333).

[7] A General Catalogue of Books, Now on Sale, by Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, Finsbury Square. Part II. (London, 1817). Lot 9,916: “Blair, The Grave, royal 4to, russia, g.e., £2.12.6 (1808).” The copy that sold with Turner’s collection at Sotheby’s 7–23 March 1853 (lot 449) was the 1813 edition, which has the “Memoir” and an engraved title plate dated “1808” (BIB 421 n11). When sold in 1853, it contained “an autograph letter by W. Blake,” which could not have been the 9 June 1818 letter because that sold in 1859 (see note 5). This second letter is untraced; it appears to have been inserted into the volume as an autograph and not as a letter to Turner. There were 180 examples of inserted autographs in this auction, including Flaxman’s Compositions for the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, with “an autograph letter from Flaxman inserted” (lot 1,284).

[8] Turner hired Cotman in 1812 at £200 annum to teach his wife and eldest four daughters drawing and etching. In 1817, 1818, and 1820, Cotman accompanied Turner and his family on tours in Normandy, which resulted in Turner’s Account as well as Architectural Antiquities of Normandy, published in 1822.

[9] According to Sybille Erle, on evidence unknown to me, there “are records of Blake selling a set [of large color prints] to Thomas Butts in 1805 and another one to Dawson Turner in 1818” (4). This is apparently a misreading of Butlin Cat. I 157. According to Bernard Barton’s “friend Major Moor (an intimate & of Southeys),” Turner “was acquainted with Blake, corresponded with him he believes & has many or several of his drawings or plates” (24 February 1830, BR2 508). The amount of correspondence is not known, but Turner did own works by Blake and with Blake engravings in addition to The GraveIllustrations of the Book of Job (1826), Flaxman’s Compositions from the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer (1805), Flaxman’s Compositions from the Works of Hesiod (1817), and Benjamin Heath Malkin’s Memoirs of his Child (1806), sold in lots 481, 1284, 1286, and 1892 of Turner’s 1853 auction.

[10] For a record of Blake’s known incomes from engraving, painting, and illuminated printing during his life, see “Blake Accounts” (BR2 757–812) and Bentley’s Desolate Market (104).

[11] Butts reappears in Blake’s life in 1823, when he lent Blake his copy of Illustrations to The Book of Job for Linnell to trace in preparation for Blake making a duplicate set of watercolors for Linnell. Around this time, Butts acquired copies of On Homers Poetry, Ghost of Abel, and The Man Sweeping the Interpreter’s Parlour (BB 209), all dated c. 1822. He was given a set of India proofs of the Job engravings in 1826 and acquired a proof copy of the Dante engravings for £3.3s, possibly in spring of that year (E 777).

[12] The Small Book comprises Thel plates 2, 6, 7, and 4; Marriage plates 11, 16, 14, and 20; Visions plates 10 and 3; and Urizen plates 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 12, 19, 23, 24, and 27. The Large Book comprises Urizen plates 14 and 21; Visions plates 1 and 7; America (cancelled) plate d; Joseph Preaching to the Inhabitants of Britain; Albion rose; and the Accusers.

[13] For a discussion of Humphry as a collector of Blake’s illuminated books, see PP 82–85 and Morton Paley’s “George Romney and Ozias Humphry.”

[14] In the terminology of the day, “drawing” referred to watercolors and “picture” referred to oil paintings—which is how Blake used these terms. Ruskin referred to them as “large drawings” (Works, vol. 36, 32–33). Gilchrist, Dante Rossetti, and others thought they were paintings, either in oil or tempera, despite their knowing that some designs existed in more than one version.

[15] The consensus in Blake studies is that the large monoprints “were planned by Blake as a single series,” and that “all the subjects . . . bear on themes connected with Blake’s interpretations of the early history of the world as it is set forth in the Lambeth Books” (Blunt 58). For a counterargument proposing that they are selection of autonomous designs without an ideal reading order, see PP Chapter 6 and Essick, Printmaker 149.

[16] In 1795, Blake selected subjects among “earlier material” to reinvent as large monoprints (Butlin, “Physicality” 5). In 1796, he selected subjects among illuminated books and etchings to reprint as independent designs in colors.

[17] The impressions sold at Sotheby’s on 29 April 1862 as part of a large collection of Blake’s work that once belonged to Tatham (PP Appendix 2). Lots 191 through 194 were comprised of eighteen “Subjects from his published works, highly finished in colours” (lot 191, italics in original).

[18] The second pulls made up Songs copy A, which, along with copy R, was part of the deluxe set of illuminated books printed in 1795.

[19] Examples of Blake aggressively negotiating prices higher than expected include exchanges with Hayley and Charles Henry Bellenden Ker (BR2 157, 302–4).

[20] Only twenty-nine of the thirty-three impressions printed are extant; Elohim 290 and Nebuchadnezzar 304 are untraced, as are impressions of Satan and Newton, recorded here as 292B and 307B (“Signing” 376).

[21] Polygraphs were painted prints in imitation of oil paintings and were popular in London between 1784 and 1795. Technically, they were much like the “mechanical paintings” Matthew Boulton produced at his Soho Manufactory between 1777 and 1781 (see PP 93-103).

[22] For a good overview of Blake’s fight with Cromek and Stothard, see Essick and Paley’s Robert Blair’s The Grave; for conflicting accounts of Blake’s dealings with Cromek, see essays by Dennis Read, G. E. Bentley, Jr., and Aileen Ward.

[23] All together five engravers worked on the plate: Schiavonetti, Cromek, Niccolo Schiavonetti, William Bromley, and Heath, who exemplified the successful engraver, for whom engraving was business, not personal. He benefitted greatly from collaborations with famous artists and large sales of separate prints, including his engraving of West’s Death of Nelson (1811), published in an edition of 3000 impressions and yielding over £6,000, divided between himself and the artist. Heath and Blake were apprenticed in the same period and began their careers engraving designs after Stothard for the book and magazine publishers. In the Public Address, c. 1810, Blake claims that Stothard owed his reputation to Blake’s engraved plates (E 572); in the public eye, however, Heath had made Stothard’s reputation (Heath, I 8, 15–16, 22–33ff).

[24] Blake expressed his anger at Cromek in his Notebook: “Cr­­–– loves artists as he loves his Meat / He loves the Art but tis the Art to Cheat” (E 509). His thoughts on Heath’s engraving of Stothard’s Canterbury Pilgrims are not extant, but they are not difficult to imagine. In the Public Address, c. 1810, addressed to the “Chalcographical Society”—whose secretary at the time was Cromek (Read 77)—Blake contrasts the style of his Canterbury Pilgrims to that used by reproductive line engravers, as exemplified by Heath: “In this Plate Mr B has resumed the style with which he set out in life of which Heath & Stothard were the awkward imitators at that time it is the style of Alb Durers Histories & the old Engravers which cannot be imitated by any one who does not understand Drawing” (E 572).

[25] Bentley suspects that the hiatus was in response to Cromek’s betrayal and to Hayley and B. H. Malkin withdrawing engraving commissions in the Winter of 1805-06 (BR2 221). During this period (c. 1806 – 1814) he executed five original prints: Enoch (a lithograph), Canterbury Pilgrims, the Chaucer Prologue, The Chaining of Orc (an experimental plate), and Earl Spencer (a portrait) (BR2 821-22).

[26] This was the Academy’s response in December 1812 to a proposal by John Landseer (1769–1852), joined by thirteen other engravers, to admit four engravers (three historical and one landscape) as full members.

[27] Blake was aware of Flaxman’s and Fuseli’s concern for his well being and doubts of his abilities. From Felpham, 22 November 1802, he writes Butts: “I find on all hands great objections to my doing any thing but the meer drudgery of business & intimations that if I do not confine myself to this I shall not live. this has always pursud me. You will understand by this the source of all my uneasiness This from Johnson & Fuseli brought me down here & this from Mr H will bring me back again for that I cannot live without doing my duty to lay up treasures in heaven” (E 724).

[28] In 1804, he tells Hayley: “I curse & bless Engraving alternately because it takes so much time & is so untractable. tho capable of such beauty & perfection” (E 743).

[29] This phrase comes from Isaac D’Israeli, who acquired Romney’s illuminated book collection and described it to Dibdin as comprising “One Hundred and Sixty drawings” (Viscomi, “Myth” 54).

[30] The evaluations are based on the prices given in the letter to Turner, whose price for Songs was the same as copy E sold to Butts in 1806. Urizen was priced £5.5 in the letter to Turner, and one could expect that Marriage, printed on the recto of the Urizen plates, would have been priced the same. Ahania and Los would be similar in price to Thel, approximately £2.2 each. Printing colors required more time and attention to print and finish, which merited a higher price than books not color printed.

[31] Blake executed ninety illustrations of Milton’s poems between 1801 and 1816.

[32] According to Anthony Blunt, after the failure of his exhibition in 1809, Blake’s “whole energies seem to have been absorbed in the completion of his long poem Jerusalem” (79). The labor history between 1809 and 1818, however, and the numerous borrowings from the Four Zoas manuscript suggests that this could not have been the case. Historically speaking, the twenty-three-year hiatus in the production of nearly all illuminated books between 1795 and 1818 reveals that most of the books Blake sold during this period were commissioned or came from stock and, in general, that he spent more time with visual art projects than illuminated poetry. Linnell’s patronage and support appears to have played a crucial role in Blake’s resurrecting the Jerusalem project. For a more detailed description of the production and evolution of Jerusalem, see BIB Chapter 34.

[33] The large-paper copies required advanced monies from the project’s primary beneficiary, George Romney (1734-1802), whose six of seven illuminated books came from this set (PP 79). Romney’s commission necessarily changed Blake’s business model, from paying production costs himself and selling copies from stock, to using advanced monies to pay the costs of producing the specific titles commissioned plus second copies and copies of other titles for stock.

[34] Unlike the other copies in this set of ten illuminated books, Vine’s copies of Thel and Milton are numbered in black ink instead of red and do not have frame lines. These differences suggest that they were the first copies of the set to be sold (BIB 334).

[35] Viscomi, “Illuminated Printing” 39, Essick, Songs 6, Bentley, Blake Books 385, Keynes and Wolf, 55.

[36] See BIB Chapters 23–29. This number excludes copies of For the Sexes, Jerusalem, Homer, Ghost, and Laocoön, all produced after he met Linnell in 1818, but includes recently rediscovered copies (see note 3).

[37] For a very perceptive examination of how “Blake’s reputation” was transformed “from neglected outsider to consummate artist” and the “contradictions and paradoxes” this transformation might reveal about how “the artist was beginning to function in the modern world,” see Myrone 9–12.

[38] For a detailed description of William and Catherine Blake’s living quarters in their last years, see Whitehead, “‘an excellent saleswoman.’” For tracing the rolling press after Blake’s death and its use to print posthumous copies of Blake’s works, see Viscomi, “Posthumous Blake.”