Mei-Ying Sung: William Blake and the Art of Engraving

William Blake and the Art of Engraving. Mei-Ying Sung
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009. pp. 220. £60. ISBN: 9 781851 969586.

This monograph, an extension of Mei-Ying Sung’s PhD thesis, begins with a simple observation that while Blake’s technique of relief etching has attracted considerable academic interest in recent decades, his engraving processes – including, remarkably, the archive of surviving copper plates – have been much neglected. Sung suggests that the main reason for this is that engraving as a technology of reproduction is obsolete and consequently downgraded, but a (slightly) more positive reason may be that Blake’s technique of relief etching was so innovative, particularly with regard to the illuminated books produced using this method, that it has been a much more obvious source of academic inquiry. Related to this is the much more ambivalent and frustrating factor that Blake as an artist is frequently treated as secondary to Blake as poet.

Sung’s opening technical argument provides a deft and scholarly summary of a controversy that dogged Blake studies for several years (and which often appears opaque and esoteric to general appreciators of Blake’s art). In the years following the large exhibition of Blake’s works at Tate Britain and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 2000-2001, disagreement arose between Robert Essick, Joseph Viscomi and Michael Phillips following the latter’s publication of a book, William Blake, The Creation of the Songs, in which he suggested that Blake registered plates to pull copies twice rather than once in order to make colour prints. The argument which followed became bad tempered at times, and most readers (including not a few Blake specialists) would have been overwhelmed by the intensely technical details. Sung, however, provides a usefully concise version of the controversy, with a conclusion that is rather damning towards Phillips while also observing that all experts involved confined themselves to the prints while ignoring – more or less completely – the surviving thirty-eight copper plates that survive.

It is by considering these artefacts in detail that Sung’s work provides her most rigorous innovations in Blake studies, most notably how Blake had to work and re-work his plates using a technique known as repoussage, as well as providing fascinating detours through subsequent experiments to renovate Blake’s techniques by artists such as Ruthven Todd, Joan Miró and William Stanley Hayter. In the chapter on “The History of the Theory of Conception and Execution”, a theory which has its origin in Blake’s remarks in a letter to George Cumberland in 1795 refuting the separation of the powers of invention and execution, Sung shows how the emphasis on relief etching as well as the experiments of the Surrealists has skewed our understanding of Blake’s actual practice. Despite the mistakes this has led to, however, Sung demonstrates immense respect towards the work of Ruthven Todd, a much neglected figure in Blake studies who, as she observes, was probably as important as Geoffrey Keynes in returning attention to Blake’s art.

After this theoretical introduction, the following three chapters of William Blake and the Art of Engraving provide a highly technical examination of Blake’s practice. “The Evidence of Copper Plates” begins from the observation that while proofs of prints may provide most information about the development of an image, “there is information on the metal plates which is not shown on the prints” (p. 46), most notably evidence of repoussage which indicates how the process of production is corrected as the artist works on the plate. Because, as Sung points out, plates were often re-used or rarely collected, the body of plates belonging to Blake is very small and so this chapter also provides more general information on other engravers, such as the 170 copper plates belonging to George Cruikshank and the forty or so copper and steel plates left by Phiz.

Sung notes that differences in etching and engraving techniques could have a significant difference on the amount of correction required to complete a work, and this provides important context for the subsequent chapter, “Blake’s Engraved Copper Plates”, which synthesises current knowledge about extant plates and those for which some information has been recorded even if the plates themselves are lost. This catalogue is a useful source of information for Blake scholars, and the chapter concludes with a more detailed analysis, as well as catalogue raisonné of the remaining plates for Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job (1826). Sung’s careful examination indicates that “the evidence of the plates and Blake’s alterations to them shows not only the development of ideas but also modifications of errors”, and that this leads us “to reconsider the limits of [Joseph] Viscomi’s concept about Blake’s technique being original creation rather than secondary reproduction”, the Job engravings being a “mixture of experiments and trial and error” (pp. 85, 118).

In terms of providing minute particulars on Blake’s life, the following chapter on “Copper Plate Makers in Blake’s Time” is incredibly specialist but also quite fascinating. Rather crudely, I am not sure my own appreciation of Blake is especially influenced by knowing who provided the copper for the artist’s engraving work, but the role of the British copper industry in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the activities of companies such as Pontifex, opens up the world of industry within which Blake worked. There is not quite the cultural engagement here that is found in work such as that of Isobel Armstrong on Victorian glass, but details such as copper theft in the early nineteenth century offer enticing glimpses into the commercial environment of the time.

Wider appeal, however, will probably be found in the final chapter on the earliest re-engravers of Blake’s Virgil woodcuts. Of course, this statement reflects my own interest in the reception of Blake’s works, but those woodcuts began to engage with an audience during Blake’s lifetime and, as Sung observes, indicate how readers actually engaged with the Thornton Virgil has rarely been addressed. Detailing her primary research into a surviving woodblock, an early imitation of Blake’s design, Sung displays excellent detective work when discussing how Blake’s illustrations appeared in later Victorian publications such as the Athenaeum.

William Blake and the Art of Engraving is an incredibly detailed, highly technical and scholarly work, one that contributes greatly to our understanding of Blake’s techniques of production in a tradition that includes figures such as Bentley, Viscomi, Essick and Phillips. Her most important addition is to refocus specifically on Blake’s work as an engraver, and throughout the book Sung demonstrates remarkable and comprehensive attention to the minute particulars of his craft that allows her to challenge easy assumptions about the theory of his creative practice.

The new Blakes at the Tate

On Monday, during a visit to Tate Britain, I had a chance to see the William Blake prints that have recently been acquired by Tate and are currently undergoing restoration.

Tate purchased the eight prints at the beginning of this year, with funds largely raised by members and patrons (you can read the original news story here). A certain romanticism has already started to accrue to the prints – most notably their discovery inside a railway timetable (a small myth that caused at least one of the conservationists to roll his eyes in disdain). In any case, the collection is undoubtedly beautiful, consisting of eight prints from an original series of ten according to the numbers on the pages. Six of these are taken from The Book of Urizen, with the other two being drawn from The Book of Thel and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The works had apparently been loaned for a 2007 exhibition at Tate, but this was my first chance to see them in detail.

One of the most fascinating features of the prints, beyond the immediate, vivid colouring of dark blues and turquoise, bold, fiery orange-golds and reds and, of course, Blake’s powerful designs, was the patina of dirt and mild abuse that had built up in the intervening two centuries, traces of the material history of the prints subsequent to Blake’s composition and execution. The starkest example of this was the print taken from the final plate of The Book of Thel, which has thick fold lines in the paper where someone had probably wrapped its corners to fit it into an oval frame. As David Worrall remarked, the chances were that an owner of these prints identified this single image as the only one really suitable for public display, the others being shuffled away somewhere into a private portfolio. Similarly, the stab holes alongside each image indicate that at some point all were bound together, but the absence of creases indicates that they were not viewed as a book, instead simply being gathered together for safe keeping.

All the images found here were originally produced as part of Blake’s composite art, combining text and image to convey the prophetic messages of Blake’s illuminated books. As with his Small Book of Designs, however, it is quite clear that the original collector, while interested in Blake’s visual art, had little time for the artist’s idiosyncratic poetry. As such, the relief etchings were masked off so that no text was displayed and then worked up as painted copies, with hand drawn borders surrounding the printed area.

The prints are due to go on display at Tate Britain in July 2010 before being included as part of a major exhibition at the Pushkin Gallery in 2011.