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Robert N. Essick. The Works of William Blake in the Huntington Collections: A Complete Catalogue. San Marino: The Huntington Library, Art Collections, Botanical Gardens, 1985. xviii + 256 pp. $20.00.
The Huntington Library and Art Gallery has one of the great Blake collections in the world, including seventeen of his printed books (All Religions Are One, the “Exhibition of Paintings in Fresco,” and The French Revolution in the only copies known),1↤ 1 The most important works in illuminating printing not to be found there are the The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Jerusalem. seventeen of about ninety-six known letters, some of his greatest series of designs including those for Comus (8), Paradise Lost (12), “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity” (6), Visionary Heads (6), the Illuminated Genesis Manuscript (12), colorprints (3), and eighty-two works with his commercial engravings. Only five other collections have anything like such Blake riches—the British Library and Museum, the Library of Congress plus the National Gallery, Harvard, Yale, and Cambridge University—and probably none of these has been so extensively described and exhibited as that in the Huntington. There is of course a special need for such exhibition and description of the Huntington collections, for they are not easily accessible to most Blake students, and they are never loaned to other institutions. To make up for this isolation, the Huntington is uniquely beautiful and wonderfully gracious and accommodating to students who do wend their way to the imaginary barony of San Marino in the avocado groves in the foothills of the mountains above Los Angeles.
The Huntington collection of Blakes has been repeatedly and extensively described, in the catalogue of drawings and paintings by C. H. Collins Baker (1938), revised and extended by R. R. Wark (1957, reprinted 1969), and in the handlist of the entire collection by R. N. Essick in Blake (1978). There have been Huntington exhibitions focusing on Blake in 1936 (Paradise Lost drawings), 1940 (ibid.), 1953, 1965-66 (William Blake and his Circle), 1972-73 (the followers of William Blake), 1974, 1978 (Prints by Blake), 1981-82 (prints by the Blake Followers), 1983, and 1984. The administration begin page 115 | of the Huntington has been splendidly generous in making known its Blake riches.
One might well wonder what this new catalogue can offer which has not been available before, since the ground has been so frequently traversed. The answer is rather surprising. Most of the Huntington exhibitions and all the catalogues before Essick’s were concerned almost exclusively with Blake’s drawings and paintings. The scope of this work is, therefore, vastly greater than those of its predecessors. Further, even the graphic works are described in considerably greater detail than was heretofore available. The edition of Baker’s catalogue revised by Wark (1957) consists of only fifty-five pages, whereas the corresponding sections of Essick’s work comprehend drawings and paintings (pp. 1-140), separate prints (pp. 193-204), works of questionable attribution (pp. 233-38), and portraits of Blake (pp. 239-40), and to what Baker and Wark surveyed Essick has added extensive sections on Blake’s writings (pp. 141-91) and his commercial book illustrations (pp. 204-31).
The first great virtue of this admirable catalogue, then, is its comprehensiveness.2↤ 2 No attempt is made to detail the Huntington’s extensive holdings of reprints, criticism, and scholarship concerning Blake nor to describe the related materials such as the bill for Blake’s funeral or drawings and manuscripts of contemporaries like Flaxman, Fuseli, Stothard, and Palmer. For the first time we have an account of “all original Blake materials at the Huntington” (p. xi), not just the drawings and paintings.
The second great virtue of the new Huntington catalogue is its method: “[It] is based on a new examination of them [Blake’s works] and all relevant documents I have been able to locate. My major goal has been to provide scholars and students with basic facts about the physical properties of the works recorded” (p. xi). With a first-class scholar such as Essick working with the primary materials of his field, the results are bound to be impressive.
With each drawing, he gives not only the physical details such as size and defects, but a meticulous and elaborate description, and usually a reproduction as well—there are fifty plates in all, including all those for Comus, Paradise Lost, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity,” and the Illuminated Genesis Manuscript.3↤ 3 These reproductions are serviceable, but they are only in black-and-white, and they are not so good as those in previous Huntington catalogues. A major catalogue deserves better plates than these. Doubtless the motive was to keep the price to the remarkably low level of $20. Further, there are careful comparisons with other versions of the same subjects, e.g., for the Paradise Lost designs. In future, critical accounts of these Huntington designs should begin with Essick’s descriptions of them.
An incidental advantage of the 1985 catalogue is that it is more up-to-date than its predecessors. Essick reports that the Huntington copies of Innocence (I), Songs (N), and Visions (E) were disbound in 1983 and 1984 and that rare prints were acquired as late as August and December 1984 (pp. 146, 149, 163, 194, 203).
Most of the new profits from this catalogue are for literary scholars, for the Huntington copies of Blake’s writings and of books with his commercial engravings have only been described in detail previously in comprehensive bibliographies such as Keynes’ great Bibliography of William Blake (1921), the Keynes & Wolf Census (1953), and Blake Books (1977). One might have expected, or indeed hoped, that his predecessors had exhausted what is to be found in the Huntington books, but this is not the case. Though Essick builds confidently on the work of his predecessors, he has a good deal that is new to offer, and every copy has been described with a fresh eye. For instance, he reports (as no one else has) that the edges of All Religions Are One (A), No Natural Religion pl. a2, Song of Los (E), and The Ghost of Abel (C) are deckled (pp. 143, 145, 165, 175), indicating that they were the original outside edges of the sheets from which they were cut, and he can even deduce from these facts that the All Religions Are One plates “are quarter pieces [cut] from a sheet approx. 75.6 × 54 cm.” (p. 143). He points out numerous small variants which Blake created in coloring his works in illuminated printing and which have not been remarked before. In Songs pl. 13-14 (“The Little Boy Lost [and Found]” in Innocence [I] and Songs [E]) the boy has been given a hat (pp. 146, 157), in pl. 19 (the innocent “Holy Thursday” in Songs [E]) the man at bottom left has a book in his hands (p. 157), and in pl. 46 (“London” in Songs [N]) a serpent has been added in the bottom margin (p. 163). In Song of Los (E) pl. 8, the etched butterfly visible beside 11. 6-8 in other copies is not apparent (p. 166), and in Milton (B) pl. 4 there are “Eight stars drawn in [the] sky with pen and ink” (p. 169). All these variants should be recorded in the standards bibliographies of Blake. Essick has advanced our knowledge very considerably with his original observation and careful recording of these minute details.
Very occasionally the vagaries of institutional records or of proofreading have had small unfortunate consequences. Of the history of the Huntington’s copy of Blake’s great print of Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims he can say no more than that it “has been in the Library’s collection for many years” (p. 202); in recording the variants in Blake’s transcription of Genesis in his Illuminated Genesis Manuscript (pp. 112-114) he corrects and supplements his predecessors very usefully but omits Blake’s alteration in Genesis 2.4 of “the day that” to “the day when,” and he mistranscribes Blake’s 3.16 “in sorrow shalt thou” as “in sorrow shalt though”; watermarks such as J Whatman are regularly recorded in large capitals rather than in large and small capitals, thus creating unnecessary variants. But these eccentricities are very few and trifling.
This is a scholarly work of considerable importance, constituting a real advance in knowledge, thorough, accurate, intelligent, and illuminating. The Huntington Library and Art Gallery and the community of Blake students are exceedingly fortunate that a scholar of Essick’s eminence should have devoted himself to such an apparently thankless task and produced a work of such remarkable excellence. Semper honos nomenque tuum laudesque manebunt (Aeneid 1.607).