Carolyn Keay. William Blake Selected Engravings. London: Academy Editions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975. 84 pp., 4 colorplates. $16.95 hardbound, $9.95 paper.
The blurb on the back cover of William Blake Selected Engravings suggests we are in for a treat. In addition to a sampling “from almost all the artist’s major projects”—from most of the poems and prophecies and from the illustrations for Stedman, Hayley, Blair, Thornton’s Virgil and the Book of Job—this volume, we are told, contains “a small number of engravings by contemporary craftsmen after original designs by Blake.”
What a letdown when you open the book! Practically every selection from the illuminated canon has been retouched, redrawn, or re-engraved in so crude and careless a manner one needn’t wonder at the anonymity of the “craftsmen.” Furthermore, the renderings, as it turns out, are contemporary neither to Blake nor to us, for the bulk of them to have been photographed from a stash of awkward, nineteenth-century facsimiles now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Robert Essick, our informant on sources, claims the most shockingly altered designs are from an 1876 lithographic adaptation, the authorship of which has never been acknowledged or determined. Occasionally a composition from that collection is a successful cartoon in its own right, as is the case with some of the radical simplifications of plates from Urizen. But to omit proper identification of both the medium and the source, which is Keay’s wont, and to pass such work off as Blake’s, is at best a gross disservice to the newcomer seeking acquaintance with Blake’s authentic vision. Only Schiavonetti’s 1808 engravings for The Grave are duly captioned as “after original designs by Blake”—an admission which might well have the adverse effect of convincing a beginner everything else is unadulterated.
Unconscionable editorial flaws of this kind are matched by others of a technical and scholarly nature. An abridged group of the Job engravings, haphazardly arranged, appear in murky reproductions that convey little of the special characteristics of line for which they are justly famous. And why, in a book called “Selected Engravings,” do renditions of watercolor drawings so frequently show up? Blake’s Gray is here, along with a color illustration—not an engraving—for Young’s Night Thoughts. More puzzling still is the substitution of watercolor studies for three of Blake’s finest engravings in the closing section of the book where a run of Dante drawings is featured. This total neglect of Blake’s last and possibly greatest achievement in the very medium with which Keay is supposedly concerned, epitomizes the problems of the entire collection.
Even with four color plates, the book is outrageously priced at $16.95 in hardcover, $9.95 paper.