Wednesday, November 20, 2013

William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven Is Begun”

William Blake’s World: “A New Heaven Is Begun”—the subtitle a quote from Blake referring to the significance of his date of birth—was on view at the Morgan Library from September 11, 2009, to January 3, 2010. In the Morgan’s first exhibition devoted to Blake in two decades, former director Charles Ryskamp and curators Anna Lou Ashby and Cara Denison assembled many of Blake’s most spectacular watercolors, prints, and illuminated books of poetry to dramatically underscore his genius and enduring influence.

The show included more than 100 works. Among the many highlights were two major series of watercolors, rarely displayed in their entirety. The twenty-one watercolors for Blake’s seminal illustrations for the Book of Job (or illustrations with texts clarified here)—considered one of his greatest works and revealing his personal engagement with biblical texts—were created about 1805–10. Also on view were twelve drawings illustrating John Milton’s poems L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, executed about 1816–20. Both series were undertaken for Blake’s principal patron, Thomas Butts.

Visionary and nonconformist William Blake (1757–1827) is a singular figure in the history of Western art and literature: a poet, painter, and printmaker. Ambitiously creative, Blake had an abiding interest in theology and philosophy, which, during the age of revolution, inspired thoroughly original and personal investigations into the state of man and his soul. In his lifetime Blake was best known as an engraver; he was later recognized for his innovations across many other disciplines.


The son of a London haberdasher and a religious dissenter, Blake studied the Bible privately with his family. He was educated at home and well read as an adult. This intellectual curiosity was coupled with a keen perception of the political and social world, finding expression in his artistic independence as well as the complex mythology he constructed in response to the age of revolution in which he lived. This mythology centered around the figure of “Urizen,” an authoritarian, kinglike figure who represents rulers both sacred and profane, with whom other characters representing independence and artistic creativity must interact.

Blake was trained as an engraver. His skill was often applied to reproducing designs of his fellow students and teachers at the Royal Academy. Blake engraved his own works as well, and painted for Academy shows, wrote poetry, and engraved illustrations for books issued by the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. He was also active within the Soho/Covent Garden artistic community. Although Blake explored many artistic disciplines, he continued to work throughout his life in the medium for which he was trained, engraving.

As a result of a dream conversation with his dead brother Robert in 1787, Blake developed a new method of engraving relief plates. By using a special coating for copper plates, he was able to combine reverse script with illustrative details. With this inventive technique, he created

Songs of Innocence in 1789

and embarked on a major productive period that saw the creation of

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790),

Visions of the Daughter of Albion (1793)

Continental Prophecies:

America (1793),

Europe (1794),

and the Song of Los (1795).

While living in Lambeth in the 1790s––across the river but still within walking distance of the artistic and literary center of London––he created small runs of the illuminated books, which were printed on speculation or for a few patrons.


In addition to the superlative watercolor series—

twenty-one illustrations to the Book of Job:


William Blake (1757–1827)
Behemoth and Leviathan, ca. 1805–10
[Book of Job, no. 15]
Pen and black and gray ink, gray wash, and watercolor, over faint indications in pencil, on paper
10 1/16 x 7 3/4 inches (272 x 197 mm)
Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1903; 2001.77

and twelve designs illustrating Milton’s L’Allegro

and Il Penseroso

—other important drawings were on display, including

Fire (ca. 1805),

which addresses the subject of war. The more fully expressed Continental Prophecies, a series of three illuminated books, further showcase Blake’s talents as a visual artist and his passionate interest in politics.

Blake supported himself with his engravings, and a selection of his prints— many of which are extremely rare impressions—documents this important aspect of his production. A magnificent example of Blake’s largest print, touched with watercolor by the artist, depicts

Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims.

With this work the artist hoped for commercial success, something he was unable to secure in his lifetime.

Among Blake’s crowning achievements as a visual artist and poet are his illuminated books, such as Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul (ca. 1794). These works, which also showcase his exceptional technical skills, reflect medieval manuscript illumination and the interrelationship between word and image. Also on view was the only dated copy of Blake’s dramatic The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Shedding light on the artistic milieu surrounding Blake are a number of works by friends and contemporaries, including drawings by younger artists such as John Linnell (1792–1882) and members of a group that assembled around Blake and called themselves the Ancients. Also represented are works by painters such as Samuel Palmer (1805–1881) and Henry Fuseli (1741–1825).


William Blake (1757–1827), “Behemoth and Leviathan,” from Illustrations, for the Book of Job, (ca. 1805–1810), no. 15 in, the set of 21 drawings for his patron Thomas, Butts, Pen and black ink, gray wash, and watercolor,, over traces of graphite, Purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1903; 2001.77

William Blake (1757–1827), “Mirth,” from John Milton’s L’Allegro, no. 1 in the set, of 6 drawings created for his patron Thomas Butts, Watercolor, over traces of black chalk, Purchased with the assistance of the Fellows with the, special support of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne and Mr., Paul Mellon, 1949; 1949.4:1

William Blake (1757–1827), Fire, ca. 1805, Pen and black and gray ink, gray wash, and, watercolor, over traces of graphite, Gift of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, 1971; 1971.18

William Blake (1757–1827), “Melancholy” from John Milton’s Il Penseroso,, no. 1 in the set of 6 drawings created for his, patron Thomas Butts, Watercolor, over traces of black chalk, Purchased with the assistance of the Fellows, with the special support of Mrs. Landon K., Thorne and Mr. Paul Mellon, 1949; 1949.4:7

William Blake (1757–1827), “The Sun at His Eastern Gate” from John, Milton’s L’Allegro, no. 3 in the set of 6 drawings, created for his patron Thomas Butts, Watercolor, over traces of black chalk, Purchased with the assistance of the Fellows with, the special support of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, and Mr. Paul Mellon, 1949; 1949.4:3,


William Blake (1757–1827), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Lambeth, 1790, Copy F, printed ca. 1794, plate 3, Gift of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, 1973; PML 63935,

Edward Young (1683–1765), The Complaint, and the Consolation; or Night Thoughts, London: Printed by R. Noble for R. Edwards, 1797, Copy K, Designed and engraved by William Blake; hand colored, possibly by Blake and his wife., Gift of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, 1973; PML 63943


William Blake (1757–1827), Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of, Albion, [London]: Engraved by W. Blake …,, 1773, Engraving, second state, c. 1810–, 1820, Purchased as the gift of the Thorne, Family and Fellows Fund in memory, of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, 1976;, PML 77019.9

William Blake (1757–1827), Designs for Robert John Thornton’s, third edition of The Pastorals of Virgil, Four wood engravings printed from, one block, London: J. McGowan for Rivington, [and others], 1821, Purchased by Pierpont Morgan,, 1906; PML 9948.24,

William Blake (1757–1827), Illustrations of the Book of Job: Invented and engraved by, William Blake, 1825, London: Published … by

William Blake … [1826]., Plate 21, “So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job, more than the beginning” State A, Gift of Mrs. Landon K. Thorne, 1973: PML 63939,