The Commercial Mr. Blake: William Blake as Book Illustrator and Copy Engraver

William Blake (1757-1827) is now generally recognized as equally a great poet and a great visual artist. During his lifetime however the works for which he is now most acclaimed -- the self-printed illuminated books of poetry such as the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and longer prophetic works like Milton and Jerusalem -- were known only to a small circle of admirers. To the public of his time his name, if known at all, would be most likely associated with his work as a book illustrator and copy engraver. Blake had been apprenticed as an engraver and it was chiefly in this capacity that he supported himself.

In this exhibit we show numerous examples of Blake's commercial work, including such spectacular triumphs of his own designs as his illustrations for Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1797), Robert Blair's The Grave (both the 1808 and 1813 editions), and one of his last completed works, the amazing set of Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825). Also on display are a many of the works Blake engraved after the works of other prominent English artists such as John Flaxman, Henry Fuseli, and Thomas Stothard. These three were (at least during parts of his life) good friends of Blake and all were instrumental in helping him obtain patronage and work. Much of this copy work is infused with Blake's own artistic sensibility and can be viewed at least in part as products of his own imagination.

Two large separate engravings are displayed: his enormous plate after Hogarth's painting illustrating a scene from John Gay's The Beggar's Opera (1790, our copy a later printing) and a recent aquisition to the McCormick Library, his rare portrait engraving of physiognomist John Caspar Lavater (1800 or 1801). Each is a superb example of Blake's technical abilities.


This exhibit will run until December 21st in the lobby of level 3 of Deering Library.


see also


Illustrations of the Book of Job

McCormick Library Exhibits

University Library Exhibits