Melton prior Institut


Linton- Life in the Collections

Robert N. Essick:

46) William Blake. Printmaker.

Princeton 1980

Robert N. Essick published this scholarly reference work to “fulfill the need for a study of Blake’s graphic endeavors – his commercial copy prints, his original line engravings, his special methods of color printing, and his invention of relief processes for publishing pictures and words from the same plate.” He examines the development of Blake’s special relief printing method, to which he himself referred to as `woodcut on copper´, in the broader context of early metal cuts like those of Elisha Krikall’s Aesop illustrations. “As is so often the case with innovations in the arts, Blake’s relief plates are a return to, and improvement upon, forgotten processes. At the same time that Blake’s contemporary, Thomas Bewick, was restoring an ancient medium to its former stature through his new means of wood engraving, Blake was returning to the legendary art of metal engraving.”

It would have been useful to expand upon this Bewick parallel, particularly for discussing Blake’s blend of white line engraving and relief etching, which he used in some of his Continental Prophecies and late illuminated poems. To engross and explore this contemporary xylographic context would have also been helpful in respect to an appraisal of Blake’s own experiments with wood engraving. To view his Virgil illustrations of 1821 as a pure opposite to the “careful craftsmanship” of the Bewick School and to transfigure these experiments to a method of “bold exploitation of the properties of wood”, which had its true followers in the expressionist woodcuts of the likes of Gaugin and Munch, means to ignore the paradigm shift, which the medium had undergone from the early woodcut approach to the phase of copper engraving imitation. The early Bewick approach, to which Linton referred as the best example of expressive engraving, had been well aware of those “intrinsic properties of relief and white-line media,” which Essick scrutinizes in Blake’s xylographic illustrations. The roughness of Blake’s manner proceeded from the expressive white line approaches of the early Bewick School instead of being opposed to them.


Original plate - Blake´s white line technique in "America; A Prophecy"


Blake´s wood engravings in Thornton´s "Virgil" - woodcut on copper - white line