Genesis: William Blake’s Last Illuminated Work

Robert Essick’s and Mark Crosby’s Genesis: William Blake’s Last Illuminated Work (with an essay by Robert Wark: Huntington Library, 2012) has just been published by the Huntington Library. This impressive edition of the beginning of Blake’s rendition of the book of Genesis is aptly titled, as it is Blake’s last attempt at a work combining text and image. It’s very large, to accomodate full-size / full-color reproductions of the eleven leaves, most of which are pencil sketches — the more finished drawings are at the beginning, the most sketchy at the end, which may provide some indication of Blake’s work habits near the end of his life. These aren’t the watercolors of the Bible found on blakearchive.org. The book is available in green cloth with no slipcase or cover.

Stood up on its side this book is almost the same height as the books in the Illuminated Books series. But, it’s thin. 11 reproduced leaves printed single-side and 58 pages of text, notes, and commentary, plus a little bit of front matter. Because the pages are so large, of course, the notes and commentaries can be extensive and still not take up a large number of pages. Blake’s handwritten text on the most semi-finished pages are, interestingly, a Gothic script: Blake drew lines using a rule, wrote out his lines in his normal handwriting, then wrote over that handwriting in Gothic script for the final product.

According to a note by Rossetti, this book was commissioned by Linnell and begun in the last year of Blake’s life, so left incomplete at the time of his death. One leaf is watermarked 1821 and two are watermarked 1826.

My first impression after looking at these drawings is that Blake worked in this way:

1. rough sketch with lines drawn for text.
2. words in Blake’s own handwriting
3. More line detail added to the drawing
4. words in finished script (Gothic)
5. initial watercolor — heaviest coloring in the center of the figures with detail to be worked toward the edges later, so that these intermediate or early-stage colorings only have heavy colors in the middle of the figures.

The next step would have been final, detailed watercoloring, but none of the leaves were finished to that stage. Some of the latter sketches are very sketchy indeed: circles and ovals for bodies in some cases, circles and ovals with scribbles for initial detail (hair and robes) in others. Of course steps 1-2 and 4-5 could be in either order or combined.

Blake’s header for Chapter 1 is “The Creation of the Natural Man.”

Full color reproductions are followed by —

Textual transcription
Notes to the textual transcription
Comparison of Blake’s text to the Authorized Version
Forward to Wark’s essay by the Huntington Director of the Art Collections
Editors’ notes to Wark’s essay
Wark’s essay
Editors’ commentary
Index

The paper on which images are reproduced is not too reflective, which makes for a better viewing experience. I haven’t seen the originals so can’t speak to the possibility of any lost detail, but these appear to be very high quality reproductions, so I doubt that any detail was lost.

Overall, this edition of Blake’s last illuminated work has the potential to shed additional light on Blake’s appropriation of creation myths and on his views of Scripture as a printed book. His reproductions and departures from the text of the Authorized Version deserve some attention, as does his use of Gothic script.

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