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)
Autograph letter, signed, dated 12 March 1804, to William Hayley.
Hayley, a prominent poet and patron, offered the Blakes a cottage at Felpham on the southern coast of West Sussex. In this rural environment, so different from his urban London, Blake worked for three years, until autumn 1803. This letter, written from London in early 1804 to report that engravings for Hayley's biography of the visionary British poet William Cowper (1731–1800) were not quite ready to be delivered, contains Blake's description of his work. "Engraving is Eternal work; the two plates are almost finish'd. . . . I curse & bless Engraving alternately, because it takes so much time & is so untractable, tho' capable of such beauty & perfection."
The engravings under discussion appeared in Hayley's Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper, Esq., 1803–4.
Gift of Charles Ryskamp in memory of Grace Lansing Lambert, 2005; MA 6334