Print as Social Media: The William Blake Birthday Book

I was recently sent a copy of this delightful book by Felicity Bowers. Rather than provide a straightforward review I have decided to write about it in a slightly different format – partly because of the date of publication (2007) but also because, while reading it, several other thoughts on a broader theme became apparent to me.

The Birthday Book was published to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Blake’s birth and launched with an exhibition, “All that we See is Vision”, in November of that year at the House of William Blake in South Molton Street, where Blake lived in the early nineteenth century. The book also grew out of a long-established group, the William Blake Congregation, which was set up in 1986 by Simon Miles and which meets every year at Tate Britain to celebrate Blake’s birth. As such, the editors sent out invitations to artists and poets influenced by Blake who in turn spread the word to others, submissions then being brought together to produce the final book.

The result is a collection of 61 poems and illustrations printed in colour and taking Blake, directly or obliquely, as a source of inspiration. By and large images and poems alternate throughout the book, with plenty of pages combining both in a manner befitting Blake’s own method of production (and demonstrating just how much easier his task would have been had he lived and worked in the age of digital reproduction). Contributors include several famous figures, such as Adrian Mitchell, Michael Horovitz and Chris Orr, as well as plenty of others who may or may not be enthusiastic amateurs (or, at least, unknown to me). This is by no means a criticism of the project, as opening up Blake to the widest possible audience is of especial interest to me.

With regard to the images and poems themselves, the quality of such a collection is variable – as one would expect of a medley such as this – and the same is true of style, media and presentation. Some particularly attracted my attention: Jan Martin’s elegant, minimalist linocut, “Heaven in a Wild Flower”, is graceful and delicate, inviting the viewer to consider Blake’s imaginative infinity in the spaces bounded by a firm line; Roger Wagner’s untitled woodcut is reminiscent of Blake’s designs for Thornton’s Virgil and his watercolour “Albion Rose”, as well as alluding to elements of the fourfold vision in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem; Partou Zia’s painting, also untitled, depicting a woman painting in a book beneath a tree, was especially poignant for me, as I had met Partou – an Iranian born artist who had lived in Newlyn since 1993 – several times before her early death in 2008.

The contributions tend to be divided between those that reinterpret a particular text or motif from Blake – such as Brian Catling’s “Blake – The Flea”, Karen Camp’s “from Songs of Innocence – Night”, and Michael Chaitow’s “Energy is Eternal Delight” – and those that use Blake as a starting point for original compositions that echo Blakean themes and styles, or aspects of his biography, rather than specific minute particulars, such as Horovitz’s “Footnotes to Blake” or interFerence’s “To Whom It May Concern.”

The thoughts roused in me when reading through The William Blake Birthday Book were most intriguing in dealing with the social feeling that runs throughout the book. Social media may be a buzzword when dealing with online and digital platforms, but everything about this printed book – from its conception to the delicious jumble decoherent responses – points to how other formats may be social media. In particular, considering the conversations inspired throughout the pages of this little book, the editor’s acknowledgement of thanks to “all the artists and poets who responded with enthusiasm at short notice and accommodated our strange request to use handwriting in the age of email and to work at the same size as the printed image in the age of photography and digital scanning” is a tribute to the aspirations of this (itself delightfully strange) work inspired by one who described himself as “very much delighted with being in good Company.”

The William Blake Birthday Book is available from www.williamblakecongregation.co.uk. For more information on the Blake Congregation, including its next meeting at Tate Britain, visit williamblakecongregation.wordpress.com.

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