Part 1: Blake’s Illuminated Printing

Songs of Innocence and of Experience is the best known of William Blake’s works in illuminated printing, the art form with which he is particularly associated. The Songs were not Blake’s first production using the technique of relief etching, the earliest known examples being There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One. These were probably produced in 1788 (according to a reference made by Blake in his late work, The Ghost of Abel), that is a year before he published Songs of Innocence.

Commercial Printmaking & Relief Etching

As Joseph Viscomi points out: “No printmaker before Blake had incorporated the tools and techniques of writing, drawing, and painting in a graphic medium, though the materials and tools were commonplace.” (Viscomi 2003 42) At the time when Blake worked, most commercial engraving on copper plates was via a process known on intaglio engraving, where lines were cut into copper directly or alternatively through a waxy varnish, with acid then eating into the copper plate before the lines were then worked over and enhanced with the engraver’s burin, a fine steel cutting tool.

Young's Night Thoughts
Young’s Night Thoughts. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

This was how Blake produced most of his commercial work, but it was an extremely laborious process and the delicate lines produced with a burin were not suitable for substantial amounts of text. As such, intaglio engravings were typically combined with type set into blocks, Blake himself using this method on his designs for the publisher Francis Edwards’ version of the long poem Night Thoughts.

For Blake, then, relief etching offered possible commercial advantages over traditional methods, allowing him to combine text and image without the expense of hiring additional typesetters. Because Blake controlled the means of his own production, it also enabled him to pursue highly idiosyncratic art forms, although this should not be interpreted as a desire on his part to ignore commercial considerations. During the nineteenth century it became fashionable to see Blake deliberately opposed to profit, but the Songs in particular were printed to take advantage of a growing market for children’s books (Darton 108-13).

Relief etching (which Blake also referred to as “stereotype” in The Ghost of Abel) was intended as a means for producing such books much more quickly. Stereotype, a process invented in 1725, consisted of making a metal cast from a wood engraving, but Blake’s innovation was somewhat different. Drawing his lines with acid-resistant varnish, the plate was steeped in acid so that the exposed areas of copper were etched away, leaving raised lines that could receive ink. John Jones points out that relief etching “would appear crude compared to regularized typesetting and intaglio line engraving”, something that did not appeal to conventional publishers. For Blake, however, the handmade look of his prints could also appear much more artistic than the “perfection attained through mechanization.” (Jones 30)

The Creation of the Songs

Printer's workshop
Printer’s workshop, from Diderot’s Encyclopedia, 1751.

In William Blake: The Creation of the Songs from Manuscript to Illuminated Printing (2000), Michael Phillips provides a comprehensive account of how the Songs came to be composed and printed. Phillips points out that there are two surviving manuscript sources for some of the Songs of Innocence: an early version of “Laughing Song” written in his 1783 book, Poetical Sketches, and the manuscript of An Island in the Moon, written some time between 1782 and 1785 and which contains versions  of “Holy Thursday”, “Nurses Song” and “The Little Boy Lost”. For the later Songs of Experience, Blake worked on versions of poems such as “The Tyger” in his Notebook, revising them again and again until he was satisfied with them enough to prepare them for printing.

When working on the copper plates, Blake’s technique was somewhat different to the usual one employed by engravers. Typically, the artist would cover the entire plate with acid-resistant varnish (also called the “ground”) before using his tools to score or scratch lines through that varnish down to the plate. By covering the plate with nitric acid, or aqua fortis, the exposed lines would be eaten away, creating grooves in the plate that would hold ink while the level surface of the copper was cleaned for printing, a process reversed by Blake:

Instead of covering the entire plate with a varnish or ground and cutting his design into it with engraver’s tools, he used the varnish like ink and the copper plate like a sheet of paper. Dipping his quill pen or fine pencil brush into the acid resistant varnish he wrote his text and drew his design directly on the polished surface of the plate, just as a writer would write out fair copy and as an artist would draw. All of the surfaces that were not protected were then corroded or eaten away by the acid, leaving raised lines which would be inked for printing. (Phillips 15)

Joseph Viscomi, in Blake and the Idea of the Book (1993), emphasises just how important this technique of drawing was to Blake, allowing him to compose freely on the plate rather (than as was previously thought) creating designs first of all on paper before transferring them to the plate. “While Blake often used tools of the printmaker in addition to the tools of the poet and painter, the initial design was executed like a pen and wash drawing.” (Viscomi 1993 64)

While some of the early versions of the Songs in particular were printed in monochrome, several of them also show signs of Blake’s experiments in colour printing. The ability to print colour directly onto a page was an incredibly difficult process that was only gradually improved during the nineteenth century, yet some of Blake’s copies of the Songs show that rather than just hand-colouring the plates afterwards he also sought to use colour during the printing process. Here Phillips and Viscomi (the latter supported by Robert Essick) part ways: Phillips has argued that Blake used a “two-pull” printing process, using registration pinholes in the paper to allow him to pass it through the printing press twice, once with a monochrome print that was then overlaid with colour. Viscomi and Essick, by contrast, argue that Blake printed his pages just once, mixing different colours onto the same plate. Most Blake scholars working in this field agree with Viscomi and Essick that Blake used a “onepull” process to print his plates.

Copies of the Songs

Songs of Innocence
Songs of Innocence title page, 1789. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Songs of Innocence was first printed in 1789 and, when he composed Songs of Experience in 1794, Blake typically issued them in combined form as Songs of Innocence and of Experience, though he also made the Songs of Innocence available on their own until 1818. There are 32 surviving copies of Songs of Innocence and 29 copies of the combined Innocence and Experience.

While Blake scholars had been aware for years of the different versions of individual copies of the Songs (whether Innocence alone or combined with Experience), it was Joseph Viscomi who, in 1993, most clearly emphasised the importance of these variations from copy to copy. In Blake and the Idea of the Book, Viscomi pointed out that Blake most likely worked on print runs, or editions, of his individual illuminated books, making a series of prints over a short period of a few days that could later be coloured, bound and sold to prospective buyers.

Songs of Innocence has thirty-one plates, with twenty-two copies in existence including all the plates (and eight comprising only twenty-seven plates, when Blake moved “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” were moved to Experience). Some of the copies still extant, such as Copy T of Songs of Innocence were printed posthumously, probably by Frederick Tatham who had befriended Blake towards the end of his life and took care of Catherine Blake after his death (Viscomi 1993 248-9). Blake had also taught his wife how to print and colour the copies of books they made together so that she could help him with his work, both of them sharing the task of illuminating the prints.

As Viscomi observes, Blake had a very relaxed attitude towards the Songs (1993 274-5). As well as transferring “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found” poems, he also alternated “The School Boy” between Innocence and Experience, and although “The Voice of the Ancient Bard” was nearly always treated as a song of innocence, Blake did present it as a song of experience in Copy O. In 1793, as Phillips points out, Blake had advertised Innocence and Experience separately (Phillips 109), and it may have been his intention for them to be available as separate books but he decided against this (at least for Songs of Experience) after printing up copies of his new work. By considering individual copies as print runs or editions, it is easy to see that there are distinct phases in the production of the Songs that very often makes them appear to be very different books – for example between the delicate washes of early copies of Songs of Innocence produced in 1789 in contrast to the more vividly colour printed versions of the mid 1790s and heavily hand-painted copies from the second decade of the nineteenth century. Viscomi warns against seeing each individual copy of the illuminated books as a revision: they were not meant as unique versions but rather copy-editions, reflecting Blake’s attitudes to his Songs at different periods in his own life (Viscomi 1993 374).


Page created 8 April, 2018. Page updated 15 April, 2018.