The William Blake Blog

Review: Fake Blakes
A new digital exhibition at The William Blake Archive shows us just how hard it can be to tell real from fake Blakes.

In April, the William Blake Archive announced a new digital exhibition, Fake Blakes, which put on display a series of images taken from illuminated books that were neither printed nor coloured by Blake, but which entered collections as works completed by him. The majority of these books were printed by either Catherine Blake or Frederick Tatham after his death in 1827, and scholars such as Geoffrey Keynes, as well as other curators and collectors, were sometimes fooled by these and later facsimiles.

The exhibition is organised into six galleries, three of which deal with variants of Songs of Innocence or Songs of Innocence and of Experience, two with America and Europe, and a final gallery that covers photolithographs and kerographs (a printing process involving wax engraving). Keynes ascribed a capital letter to each of the illuminated books printed by Blake, with small letters indicating posthumous versions. As the curator, Joseph Viscomi (working with Mike Fox and Grant Glass) points out, however, these were not always accurately recorded - often because those posthumous productions were particularly fine.

Each of the galleries provides detailed and extremely scholarly descriptors for the images, giving accounts of provenance (where known) as well as evidence as to the likely origins for each copy. For example, the curators note how the Pierpont Morgan bought a complete copy of the Songs, now known as copy e, in 1901. 40 of the 54 plates were printed in sepia, which neither William nor Catherine used, but which Tatham did. As such, it is Tatham who made this copy, although it was later coloured in the nineteenth century by an unknown artist who used copy Y as a a model, this being the one produced by Blake for Edward Calvert in 1826.

Copy Y and Copy e, Songs of Experience, The William Blake Archive.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy Y and Copy e, The William Blake Archive.

The Gallery format is an interesting way to break down the objects on exhibit here - transposing the analogue onto the digital world. Strictly speaking, it's not entirely necessary: while I did jump into the galleries that I considered the most interesting to begin with, upon returning to the exhibition I found myself then simply scrolling backwards and forwards between the assembled objects. What this means in practice for me is that the experience of having an overview of all the fake Blakes on show was a more organic process in the digital world than the experience of walking from one room into another, as at the Tate collection, for example. One virtue of the digital show, then, is that it more easily provides a comprehensive display of all items, with the experience of moving from one item to the next (from Songs of Innocence to America a Prophecy, for example) being easily blurred.

This is by no means a criticism of the show itself, rather a reflection on what it means to be a visitor to this digital curation. For all the objects on display, the accompanying notes are lucid, scholarly and deeply perceptive in terms of sharing information about the items. My favourite gallery is number 6, on the photolithographs and kerographs, which goes into considerable detail about A. G. Dew-Smith's commissions for Copy B of America: as it was missing plates 4 and 9 when Dew-Smith acquired it in 1868, he used his photolithographic company to make reproductions. As the curators note, "Though apparently executed as facsimiles to complete his copy of America, not as forgeries to deceive, the facsimiles were taken as originals after Copy B was sold in 1870 and were not discovered as copies until 1978".

Perhaps the most important feature of the exhibition, however, is that it puts into practice tools readily available on the William Blake Archive which, unfortunately, we do not use enough, most notably enlargements and close ups of the objects in the Archive. It is easy to zoom in on higher resolution images in the Archive, but without a guide indicating what we should be looking at, this is probably a task that is done infrequently. When comparing titles for poems in Copy e and Copy K of the Songs, for example, the curators provide us with clear indications of how a later colourist attempts to emulate Blake's style of painting decorative fills in gold paint. Once seen, this becomes obvious - but it is one of those minute particulars that is all too easy to overlook.

Fake Blakes is the fifth Archive Exhibition. In terms of its scope, it is greatly aided by being tightly focussed and is both an opportunity to learn more about the objects through scholarly annotations, and also to simply look at those objects in a new context. As a means of re-introducing us to those works, it is a fresh and timely reminder that we see most clearly when we look through, not with the eye.

Fake Blakes is freely accessible at The William Blake Archive.