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’
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’
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.