William Blake (1757–1827) occupies a unique place in the history of Western art. His creativity included both the visual and literary arts. In his lifetime he was best known as an engraver; now he is also recognized for his innovative poetry, printmaking, and painting. Blake's keen perception of the political and social climate found expression throughout his work. His strong sense of independence is evident in the complex mythology that he constructed in response to the age of revolution.
Blake was already recognized as an engraver at age twenty-five, when his first volume of poems appeared. At thirty-three, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he audaciously claimed that his birth had marked the origin of a "new heaven" in which his own art would exemplify the creativity prefigured by Milton and Michelangelo. By that time, Blake, in one of his most productive periods, had already produced Songs of Innocence and was at work on a series of illuminated books. In 1818 he met John Linnell, a young painter and engraver, through whom a group of young artists became Blake's followers. Calling themselves the Ancients, they helped perpetuate Blake's influence for generations.
The Morgan's Blake collection—one of this country's most distinguished—began with purchases as early as 1899 by Pierpont Morgan. During the tenure of Charles Ryskamp, director from 1969 to 1986, major gifts almost doubled the size of its Blake holdings. In recent years Ryskamp's own gifts of engravings, letters, and related materials have significantly enriched its scholarly resources.
This exhibition is made possible through the generosity of Fay and Geoffrey Elliott.
William Blake (1757–1827)
A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, Poetical and Historical Inventions Painted by William Blake
. . . . London: Printed by D.N. Shury . . . for J. Blake, 1809.
Shortly after a quarrel with the publisher R. H. Cromek regarding a commission for an engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims, Blake painted his own version and announced that he planned to engrave it. He exhibited it along with fifteen other drawings at his brother's shop in Soho in spring 1809. This slight catalogue of the exhibition contains descriptions of each work. For the Pilgrims, however, he devoted a twenty-eight page analysis of the characters as he understood Chaucer's descriptions; Charles Lamb (1775–1834) thought it very good Chaucer criticism. Only sixteen copies of this booklet survive. This copy was given to the Ancient Frederick Tatham some fifteen years later, when he and Blake met.