In 1892 Phoebe Anna Traquair embarked upon an ambitious and intricate project to illustrate Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, eventually completing the work in January 1897. Throughout her long artistic career, Traquair's main creative purpose was to celebrate the potential of the human mind and spirit. It is therefore not surprising that she valued William Blake's poetry and art as inspirational, using his illustrations repeatedly as sources for her illuminations and murals. More striking, however, are the connections that Traquair's illustrations expose between Blake's work and EBB's sonnet sequence: Traquair recognises and elucidates the visionary and ground-breaking poetics of EBB's work, at a time when critics generally assessed Sonnets only as an outpouring of love for a poet-husband.
Using Traquair's illustrations for Sonnets from the Portuguese as a starting point, this paper will explore the ways in which EBB develops and refines Blake's celebration of excessive vision. There are many obvious connections between the two writers: they were shaped by similar Dissenting contexts, not least the ways in which EBB draws on Blake's social critique, in works like “The Cry of the Children”. EBB quotes from Blake widely in her correspondence, and records occasions when she had discussed Blake's work and philosophy with visitors. Both writers are skillful and politically-driven medievalists: like Blake's illustrations of Chaucer and Dante, EBB's adaptations of medieval texts and forms offer rich social commentary and glimpses of her own original artistic vision, which is so vividly illuminated in Traquair's innovative illustrations.
Dr Clare Broome Saunders is the Senior Tutor at Blackfriars Hall, and Lecturer in English at St Cath erine’s College, University of Oxford. Her research interests include women's poetry, uses of history, and European travel writers, as reflected in her recent publications: Louisa Stuart Costello: A 19th Century Writing Life(2015); Women, Travel Writing, and Truth (2014); and Women Writers and Nineteenth-Century Medievalism (2009).