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Ruthven Todd. WILLIAM BLAKE THE ARTIST. Studio Vista/Dutton Pictureback. London: Studio Vista; New York: Dutton, 1971. Pp. 160, illus. £1.80 hardbound, 80p paper. $2.25 paper, U.S.
Ruthven Todd has been something of a legend to students of Blake, and this book is his most lengthy contribution to Blake studies for many years. Most people who have been lucky enough to get hold of his long out-of-print Tracks in the Snow treasure it as one of the few classics on the subject of English Romantic painting, particularly on the painters of the Sublime, of whose company Blake was proud to regard himself a member.
The present book is an excellent if unconventional introduction to Blake, for it concentrates not on the interpretation of the Prophetic Books, but on Blake as a craftsman working within the limitations of his situation as a penurious engraver. The book follows the career of Blake year by year, and a picture of the man emerges, not just as a visionary, but as a proud and even defiant craftsman, prepared to take on any engraving work to give himself time to work on his visions. Even in his last illness nothing persuaded him to put down the large folio in which he was making the begin page 211 | Dante watercolors, and in certain years, in particular the year 1795, the amount of constructive and experimental activity was breathtaking. The author is at pains to show what was actually involved in the making of Blake’s Prophetic Books and color prints, and he puts into perspective Blake’s innovations in relief printing.
The most useful parts of the book for Blake scholars will be the regrettably brief accounts of Blake’s stereotype and color-printing processes. Mr. Todd has carried out his own experiments, and has provided a convincing account of Blake’s solution to one of the most obvious difficulties involved in combining text and design on a copper plate: getting the lettering the right way round. What slightly worries me is how Blake stopped the nitric acid, which must have covered the plate for some length of time, from eating away under the lettering—or was some simple method known at this time of preventing it? The problems of Blake’s color-printing processes are harder to fathom, and it is to be hoped that Mr. Todd will devote a much lengthier work to the whole problem of Blake’s printing techniques in the near future.
Some mention should also be made of the excellent choice of illustrations. They are hardly ever the most obvious examples, and English readers can be particularly grateful that he has not reproduced works from the Tate when less familiar ones will do. One is grateful, for example, for reproductions of the Minneapolis Nebuchadnezzar, the Metropolitan Museum Pity and the Edinburgh Hecate. With well over 100 illustrations the book seems to me to be an excellent value, and its modest format makes a refreshing change from the bulkiness of many recent books on Blake.