For the first time in nearly a decade the Morgan Library has organized an exhibition devoted solely to the perpetually inspired British romantic watercolor painter, poet, and engraver William Blake. William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven Is Begun,” which is on view through January 3, 2010, brings together more than 100 examples of Blake’s own illuminated texts, engravings, and poetry with a handful of works by several of his contemporaries, such as Henri Fuseli and John Linell, the latter one of Blake’s closest followers.
Familiar works on view include a plain text version of Blake’s “Poetical Sketches” as well as two engraved versions of “The Tyger”: one with color added and the other without. However, one of the largest, most detailed, and eye-catching works in the exhibition is America: A Prophecy, an eighteen-page illustrated poem, in which text, image, fiction, and history, share a symbiotic relationship. Pierpont Morgan purchased this copy of America, which originally belonged to Blake’s contemporary the portrait painter George Rodney, from the London bookdealer Quaritch in 1909.
Conceived and printed in 1793—just as the counter revolution in Europe was beginning to intensify—America was the first in Blake’s Continental Prophecies series that also includes Europe: A Prophecy, and The Song of Los (Africa and Asia). In America, made in defiance of an act passed by Parliament against “divers, wicked, and seditious writings,” Blake interprets events from the American Revolution, most importantly the Boston Massacre, into which he weaves his own mythical and moral characters as well as to Biblical references. Specifically, Blake’s malevolent character Orc appears before Thomas Paine as a deceptive messiah claiming to be the serpent in paradise and calling for the destruction of the Ten Commandments. The poem ends with the thirteen colonies renouncing their allegiance to Britain, thus ending on an optimistic note foretelling of the spread of American ideas.
In America, as in his other works on view, it is nearly impossible to ignore either the painstaking physical process that went into producing the engraved plates or the creative capacity required to produce such original and what one might deem “divinely inspired” work (Blake was known to have hallucinations of talking to the ancients and biblical figures.) Blake employed a number of techniques in producing these books—relief etching, white-line engraving, monotype printing, and finishing with pen and watercolor. Each leaf, much like a page from an illuminated manuscript (which can aptly be compared with the neighboring exhibition Pages of Gold: Medieval Illuminations from the Morgan), is elaborately decorated in radiant watercolors with idyllic figures and delicate landscapes all exuding as much force as the words they enclose. Also noteworthy is the sinuous fluidity of the text, which frequently intertwines with tree branches and vines.
In the array of works exhibited in William Blake’s World, from his first engravings done after Jean-Antoine Watteau to his largest engraving illustrating the characters from Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims (1810), Blake’s preference for combining stories that push the limits of moral thought and creativity is clear, whether directly sprouted from his own imagination or those of Dante, Milton, Chaucer, or the Bible. A significant portion of these and other highlights of Blake’s oeuvre can be found online in the Morgan’s digital library collection, as well as in the William Blake Archive. Those interested in learning more about Blake’s printing techniques may want to attend the lecture on that subject at the Morgan Library on October 8 given by Joseph Viscomi (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill). See our online calendar for details.