William Blake and His Circle: Papers delivered at a Huntington Symposium. San Marino: Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, 1989. vi + 144 pp. illus. $12.95 paper. (Reprinted from HLQ 52 ); G. E. Bentley, Jr. Blake Records Supplement: Being New Materials Relating to the Life of William Blake Discovered Since the Publication of Blake Records (1969). Clarendon Press: Oxford, 1988. xlvii + 152 pp. $59.00; David Wells, A Study of William Blake’s Letters. Tübingen, Stauffenburg Verlag, 1987. 132 pp.
A valuable and elegantly illustrated collection of six essays (the first five from a symposium on 29 and 30 January, 1988 at the Huntington): Martin Butlin on “The Physicality of William Blake: The Large Color Prints of ‘1795’”; David W. Lindsay on “The Order of Blake’s Large Color Prints”; D. W. Dörrbecker on “The Song of Los: The Munich Copy and a New Attempt to Understand Blake’s Images”; Aileen Ward on “‘Sr Joshua and His Gang’: William Blake and the Royal Academy”; Morton D. Paley on “The Art of “The Ancients’”; Morris Eaves with an “Inquiry into the Real and Imaginary Obstructions to the Acquisition of the Arts in England: The Comedy of the English School of Painting”; and a book review by Robert N. Essick of the 1987 facsimile of An Island in the Moon, published by Cambridge University Press in association with the Institute of Traditional Science, 1987.
Butlin examines the growth of Blake’s books, first in size, “to accommodate the ever increasing weight of his content,” and in the end, with the dramatic change in the proportion of illustration to text, a literal breaking free, in the “Small and Large Books of Designs” described by Blake as “a selection from the different Books of such as could be Printed without the writing, tho’ to the loss of some of the best things.”
Butlin scrutinizes such physical matters as the evolution of “the idea of multiple color printing,” the second of two pulls from a single application of color to the plate, for example, having received a much lighter application of coloring. At the other extreme are certain pulls that were disfigured by later varnish. “David Bindman’s somewhat wicked suggestion that any print bearing the date 1795 must have been executed ten years later” is found attractive.
Butlin sees this “reassessment” as only just beginning, the solution being found “in front of the object, not in the study.”
Lindsay’s essay on “The Order of Blake’s Large Color Prints” (19-41) is of considerable interest but cannot be easily be summarized.
Dörrbecker’s extensive discussion of a little known copy of “The Song of Los” is particularly valuable in its details but difficult to summarize. (He also reports, in a note, that his M.A. thesis, “Blakes Illuminationen zu Europe: a Prophecy,” will soon be available [he hopes] from the Insel Verlag, Frankfort.
Aileen Ward’s discussion of “Sr Joshua and His Gang” is—as her custom—studded with significant particulars and corrective interpretations. Alas, she notes, “most scholars follow Blake’s lead in decrying the Academy’s influence while at the same time minimizing its importance in shaping his begin page 82 | career.” She demonstrates, with a survey of his relationship to the Royal Academy, that “Blake’s achievement would [hardly] have been greater if the Academy had recognized him sooner, and perhaps . . . would have been less.”
Morton Paley’s discussion of “The Art of ‘The Ancients’” is a valuably detailed and critical survey. “Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, and George Richmond were, to be sure, followers of William Blake. But how far did they follow?”
Morris Eaves winds up the symposium with a commentary on the historians of English art as having shown “little inclination to come to a broad and sophisticated understanding of that discourse”—hence leaving “a lot of groundwork [that] still needs to be done,” including the demonstration of how “profoundly indebted to this discourse” are Blake’s ideas about art and about literature as well.
G E. Bentley’s Blake Records Supplement includes: Fuseli on Blake’s engraving of Anubis; Richter on his delight on receiving a copy of Blake’s edition of Young’s Night Thoughts; Marsh writing to Hayley about Blake as a musician [a tantalizing reference]; Charlotte Smith to Samuel Rose—and some new details of Blake’s trial at Felpham (24-28); several documents with information about Cromek (42-71, 125); evidence that Blake “regularly dined with the Linnells on Sundays” and of their attending a performance at the West London Theatre of Dryden’s Oedipus (76-81); an appendix of “Linnell Manuscripts Rediscovered” (101-23); and a list of 51 books which “we may be confident” were in Blake’s library (124-29); a bit of further evidence that Cunningham applied to friends of Blake for information for his biography (130-31); and two pages of “Addenda” (132-33). And much more.
In Well’s Study of William Blake’s Letters, we find that “overall, Blake’s letters attest to his remarkable consistency of thought. They also show that Blake was his own first critic.” “More than half of Blake’s surviving letters, and most of the ones important to art and literary critics, were written between 1799 and 1808 . . . . Despite unfortunate gaps . . . students pursuing any one of the following subjects will inevitably encounter in Blake’s letters: allegory, empiricism, execution, the Greeks, imagination, imitation, invention, levels of vision, mental states . . . . and spiritual sensation” (122).
David Wells will not be the first reader of Blake’s letters to notice these topics; this small booklet will have almost nothing to tell old-timers—but it can be a useful introduction of biographical information about Blake to students newly entering these precincts. Bentley’s Blake Records, however, supplies very much more.