A Folio Society limited edition

Poems of Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray

Illustrated by William Blake

The watercolours created for Thomas Gray’s poems are among the greatest of William Blake's achievements. This facsimile captures the beauty of this enthralling work.

Limited to 1,000 copies

Published price: US$ 895.00

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Poems of Thomas Gray

The 116 watercolours William Blake created for Thomas Gray’s poems are among the greatest achievements of this most idiosyncratic of English Romantic artists. The new Folio Society facsimile captures the breadth and beauty of this enthralling work and is accompanied by a commentary volume containing the most authoritative analysis of the illustrations.

Production Details

Poems of Thomas Gray book
  • Quarter leather binding with cloth sides
  • Printed and blocked with a design from ‘Ode to Music’, redrawn by David Eccles
  • Endpapers of Curious Metallics gold leaf and Marcate Nettuno Carruba
  • Printed on Modigliani Insize Candido paper
  • 120 pages
  • Book size: 17" x 13"
  • Commentary volume bound in cloth
  • Set in Miller Display
  • 224 pages plus a frontispiece portrait of Blake by John Flaxman
  • Book size: 9½" x 6"
  • Both volumes are presented in a buckram-bound solander box

A remarkable work from a visionary artist

Perhaps the greatest, and certainly the most idiosyncratic, of all English Romantic artists, William Blake engraved around 1,200 illustrations for the work of other writers. He also produced 375 pages of stereotyped engraving – his self-illustrated verse. The 116 watercolours that he created for Thomas Gray’s poems are among his greatest achievements.

Varied in style and boldly imaginative, the illustrations were commissioned around 1797 by Blake’s friend, the neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman, as a gift for his wife, Ann. After Flaxman’s death in 1826, the watercolours were sold at Christie’s and soon came into the possession of the eccentric millionaire William Beckford, who left his library to his daughter, wife of the 10th Duke of Hamilton. But, when the library was sold at Sotheby’s in 1882, the Gray illustrations were missing. It was not until 1919 that the scholar and literary critic Professor Herbert Grierson announced their discovery during the demolition of Hamilton Palace in Scotland. In a letter to The Times, he declared: ‘I have seen no collection which illustrates so fully the range of Blake’s power.’ This new Folio Society facsimile captures the breadth and beauty of this enthralling work, and is accompanied by a commentary volume containing the most authoritative analysis of the illustrations.

‘One of the richest and most fascinating of Blake’s series of illustrations’
MARTIN BUTLIN

While Blake’s watercolours for Gray’s poems share iconographic and stylistic elements with those for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts – both owe much to the imagery he created in his earlier illuminated books – they are remarkable for their diversity of mood and colour, and for their sophisticated interpretation of the poems. This range mirrors the diversity of the poems themselves – epics, satires, odes and, most famously, the ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard’. Some prompted Blake to displays of playful humour; some fuelled dramatic, fearful images; others inspired delicate, tranquil scenes. The illustrations to ‘The Descent of Odin’, which tells of the god’s encounter with a prophetess in the underworld, are almost in monochrome, save for the scant use of a vivid red. Many of them are highly economical; all are arresting in their depiction of the great, armour-clad god. For ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’, Blake begins with a sequence of languid, softly coloured scenes. But when the poet speaks of the ‘doom’ that awaits heedless youth, Blake responds with images at once captivating and ghastly, depicting the harbingers of sorrow and death as they descend from lurid skies or lurk in ‘the vale of years beneath’. In all of them, Blake responds to Gray’s themes with dazzling energy and imagination, distilling them through his own visions – sometimes obliquely, sometimes overtly. One design for ‘The Bard’ is a brilliant example of what Blake described as his ‘double vision’ – his ability to detect visionary truths in the natural world. In this illustration, the ‘giant-oak’, ‘the desert-cave’ and ‘the torrent’ are depicted as formidable human figures intertwined with natural forms.

‘[Blake’s] work is at once imperious and ironic, denunciatory and satirical, lyrical and ambiguous’
PETER ACKROYD

Blake’s artistic method was similar to that employed for Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which he had completed in 1796. He cut windows in large sheets of paper and mounted in these spaces the texts of the poems, taken from a 1790 octavo edition. The off-centre position of the text on each page follows the conventions of book design: this shows us that Blake intended the work to be an illustrated book, rather than a series of unbound designs.On each page, he marked with a pencilled cross the couplet that he had chosen to visualise.

Rather than seeing the pages of text as obstructive or restrictive, Blake worked with them, often using them to support or add a further dimension to his designs. On the title page for ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’, Selima the cat crouches atop the text page and reaches for her prey; in ‘Ode on the Spring’, angelic figures dart around it.

Blake saw illustration not as a direct visual accompaniment, but as a process of interpretation through which ideas could collide, fuse, shift and develop. In his foreword Martin Butlin describes this as ‘the dramatic confrontation of two images of the truth’. It was through his illustrations that Blake contested ideas that he found insubstantial or insidious, celebrated those he endorsed and expressed his own distinct notions of spirituality. The 116 watercolours to Gray’s poems are a rich example of this unusual and highly effective method of interpretation.

A unique facsimile of Blake's masterpiece

Our facsimile reproduces the original watercolours, which were acquired by Paul Mellon in 1966 and are now in the Paul Mellon Collection at the Yale Center for British Art. A number of scholars have written about this work, but Irene Tayler’s 1971 book, Blake’s Illustrations to the Poems of Gray, remains the most comprehensive and compelling reading. Presented here as a separate commentary volume, Tayler’s account tells how the illustrations were produced and relates Blake’s interpretation of the poems to his own ideas. There is also a detailed commentary on each poem and the accompanying series of illustrations.

Martin Butlin is former Keeper of the Historic British Collection at the Tate Gallery and the author of the catalogue raisonné of the paintings and drawings of William Blake. He has supplied updates to Irene Tayler’s book in the form of editorial notes and interpolations. These ensure, in particular, that references to reproductions of Blake’s work use the most recent sources. He has also written a new foreword for this edition. It provides a fascinating overview of how this remarkable work came to be, the story of its disappearance from public view and subsequent discovery, and the qualities that make it exceptional, even amid Blake’s astonishingly rich body of work.

Two extracts from Irene Tayler’s commentary

Ode to a Favourite Cat

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat

Selima now has the head, shoulders and forepaws of a cat – but she is draped from the waist down with clothes that reveal beneath them human feet, ready in Gray’s phrasing to be ‘beguil’d’. Hovering close, and drawn with an elaborate seriousness that echoes Gray’s mock-epic tone, sits Fate, scissors in hand, preparing to slit the thick-spun thread of Selima’s life. In the water below we see the Genii, their forms still much as they were in the preceding illustration but displaying in flight more of their finny wings, which are now a more vivid orange in colour.

The Descent of Odin

The Descent of Odin

This poem tells the story of the descent of the god Odin to ‘Hela’s drear abode’, which Gray identifies in a note as ‘the hell of the Gothic nations’. At the ‘eastern gate’ he stops and pronounces a ‘Runic rhyme’ to summon ‘the prophetic Maid’, whose identity the poem never makes very clear. Odin’s questions and the prophetess’s unwilling responses make up the remainder of the poem: Odin’s son Balder shall die at his brother’s hand, we learn, and another brother, a ‘wondrous boy’ yet unborn, will avenge him. In the last lines the prophetess recognises her questioner, who until now has called himself simply ‘A Traveller to thee unknown’, and refuses to answer further.

William Blake

William Blake

The poet and artist William Blake displayed his highly unusual sensibility from an early age. As a child he spoke of otherworldly visions, including ‘a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’. He was obliged to leave art school at 14 when the fees became prohibitive, and was apprenticed to a printmaker. In 1792, he married Catherine Boucher, whose support throughout his career proved indispensable. His first printed work was Poetical Sketches, a series of polemics that reflected his vehement views on society’s ills and his common cause with figures such as Mary Wollstonecraft. Songs of Innocence and Experience was published in two parts in 1789 and 1794. An insatiable autodidact, Blake taught himself Greek, Hebrew, Latin and Italian. Between 1804 and 1820 he wrote and etched several visionary epics, including Jerusalem. Blake’s idiosyncratic views, with his insistence on the pre-eminence of imagination over reason, were widely received with incomprehension in his own lifetime, yet he remained devoted to his art and his ideals. When he died in 1827, Blake was still exploring the visionary world, in his cycle of illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray

When Thomas Gray published his two Pindaric odes in 1757, he was hailed as the greatest living poet in England. Today, he is considered a forerunner of the Romantic movement. His ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard’ expressed a new sensibility which provided the model for the works of Oliver Goldsmith and William Cowper, and is among the best-loved and most quoted poems in the English language. Gray was born in London in 1716 – the only one of 12 children to survive infancy. Educated at Eton, he was one of the most learned men of his time. He began writing poetry in 1742. Though prodigiously talented, Gray was his own harshest critic . In 1757 he declined the honour of serving as Poet Laureate. He died in 1771 in Cambridge and was buried in the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the setting of his most famous work.

Reviews


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Review by AliceF10 on 15th Jul 2014

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"As an earlier reviewer remarked I too was 'blown away' by the sheer magnificence of this splendid book. Thomas Gray is one of my favourite poets and William Blake was probably a century ahead of his t..." [read more]

Review by anon on 17th Jul 2013

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"To date my favourite Folio Limited Edition: the design and quality of the goatskin and cloth binding and of the full size Blake watercolours are superb, reproduced on wonderfully heavy, quality paper...." [read more]

Review by davidjbrown10 on 11th May 2013

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"Blown away though I was by the scale and brilliance of your great set of the Blake/Young "Night Thoughts" when I first got it, I think on balance the new Blake/Gray volume of poems is even finer. As w..." [read more]

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