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Geoffrey Keynes, ed. Drawings of William Blake 92 pencil studies. New York: Dover Publications, 1970. Pp. xiv + [185, including 92 plates]. $3.50.
For a long time most Blake facsimiles and reproductions were available only in expensive limited editions, far beyond the means of the average student. Such cheaper reproductions as were published were inadequate. Recently there has been a welcome tendency to issue adequate reproductions in modestly-priced editions, often in paperback: the Oxford Paperbacks edition of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, edited by Sir Geoffrey Keynes, and issued in 1970, is an example.
The two collections of reproductions of Blake’s drawings available up to 1970 were those published by the Nonesuch Press in 1927 and 1956, under the editorship of Geoffrey Keynes. They were expensively produced books and, if printed now, would cost several times as much as they did originally. It is a sobering thought that the 1927 collection was published at £1-75. It is doubtful if it could be published today at less than fifteen times that amount. Now Dover Publications has issued a welcome and cheap paperback edition of Blake’s drawings, also edited by Sir Geoffrey. It says much for the editor’s vitality that forty years separate the first of the Nonesuch collection from this one.
The Nonesuch collections contained a total of one-hundred and thirty-eight drawings; the Dover edition contains ninety-two, so it is far from complete. In any case, Sir Geoffrey informs us that “there are perhaps more than two hundred drawings now extant.” It is therefore to be hoped that the book meets with such success that another collection may be issued to bring the selection nearer completion. But the Dover book is not merely a reprint or rehash of drawings previously published, for a few are here reproduced which did not appear in the earlier selections. Among these are two early drawings, made for Basire, from monuments in Westminster Abbey (plates 1 and 2); and the powerful “Charon, from an Antique” (plate 82).
As in every medium in which he worked, Blake’s range in his drawings is enormous, from the poetic, yet homely qualities of “The Virgin Mary hushing the young Baptist” (plate 34), to the almost abstract “Time’s triple bow” (plate 53), which, in its tight network of curves might almost be mistaken for a schematic study by the Bauhaus artist, Oskar Schlemmer.1↤ 1 Cf. Oskar Schlemmer, Man, ed. Heimo Kuchling (London, 1971). This selection also illustrates how Blake could produce excellent “academic” drawings, like “Laocoön: the Antique Group” (plate 58), as well as being able to indicate with a few rough lines the energy and power that would later be translated into a finished design, as in “The Soul exploring the recesses of the grave” (plate 41). On the other hand, when drawing an uncongenial or uninteresting subject, he could be incredibly weak, begin page 209 | as in the poor “Landscape with trees” on plate 36. Indeed, as Sir Geoffrey says, without Frederick Tatham’s inscription on it, “it could not be identified as his.”
The drawings are adequately reproduced, but the typography has a number of ugly features, especially the plate numbers, which are not only far too heavy for the rest of the type, but tend to distract attention from the drawings themselves. Nevertheless, the book is a bargain and is, moreover, likely to be come a standard work.