In 1795 William Blake received a commission from a London bookseller to provide illustrations for an engraved edition of Edward Young’s The Complaint: or Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality. It was by far the most notable undertaking of Blake’s artistic career to this point, a perfect marriage of illustrator and subject.
The prodigious number of watercolours Blake produced – 537 in all – meant there was one illustration for approximately every 20 lines of verse, an extraordinary achievement in itself. Yet the beauty of the work is what truly astonishes. Page after page, you cannot help but be moved by the passion and sweep of Blake’s imagination. For Night Thoughts, this most singular of artists produced a breathtaking procession of individual portraits: the divine and the damned, arresting in their conception, captivating in their execution. Blake’s watercolours do not just ornament the panels of Young’s text, they dominate and envelop them. From the ringer serpent of Nature to the Soul staggering ‘at Futurity’ at the edge of a mountain–top; from the bearded figure of Death tearing the pillow from behind the sleeper’s head, to depictions of Christ the Redeemer and Creator, these are images of astonishing inventiveness and emotional power.
Steeped in mortal fears and religious doubt, Night Thoughts abounds in memorable phrases – ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’, ‘All men think all men mortal, but themselves’ – that have entered the English language. In France Night Thoughts was regarded as a classic Romantic work, and some German critics preferred Young’s poetry to that of Milton. Among Young’s contemporaries, Samuel Johnson recognised in it, ‘a magnificence like that ascribed to Chinese Plantation, the magnificence of vast extent and endless diversity’; Diderot, Robespierre – and later Coleridge – were seduced by its association of moonlight and melancholy, and its mythological and Biblical allusions.
To create the original pages, the text was cut out from a first edition of Young’s poem and mounted in a panel on the centre of each painting. The effect was stunning, but the project had to be abandoned because of financial constrains. Only 43 of Blake’s designs were ever engraved, printed in a single volume in 1797. Nearly 500 paintings, which included some of Blake’s most dramatic and vibrant work, remained unpublished in the hands of private collectors. In 1929 these were donated to the British Museum and are now one of the precious treasures held in the Prints and Drawings Room.
This is the only time all 537 of Blake’s watercolours have ever been published together in colour. Of the 1,000 numbered copies produced by The Folio Society, less than 100 remain available to order.
Delivery of limited editions may take longer than standard editions. Please contact us for more information.
‘It’s always fascinating to see one mind meeting another, particularly so when one is a quiet and thoughtful man of sensibility, and the other a blazing visionary familiar with the fires of hell.
There is a peculiar and complex pleasure in reading Night Thoughts. A calm and subtle melancholy suffuses Edward Young’s meditations on eternity and mortality. I find it delightful to wander with him among the shades.
William Blake’s illustrations for the poem are dazzling. Blake is one of those artists whose every line is unmistakably theirs alone, whose compressed, foreshortened space is like no other space. The forms of these great figures, whether human or divine, are simultaneously massive and weightless; they occupy the printed page with the solidity and certainty of relief carvings, and yet they are disposed around the text with such freedom and inventiveness, such swift and almost improvisatory delight in the thin line, the light wash of colour, that they might have been thought directly on to the paper without the intervention of hand and brush. This is one of the great marriages between words and pictures; certainly, no poem in English has ever been illustrated with such splendour.’
Review by MKenny on 8th Oct 2012
"If you are a fan of Edward Young or of William Blake you really should have this edition. If the poem is your interest then the setting for it in these volumes is beautiful and adds to it. If Blake'..." [read more]
Review by davidjbrown10 on 17th Jul 2012
"Incomparable and essential – provided that you are not allergic to Blake. With the vividness of these images, scanned at high res from the original watercolors and printed immaculately at full size..." [read more]