Signature and imprint, "Painted in Fresco by William Blake & by him Engraved & Published October 8. 1810, at No 28. Corner of Broad Street Golden Square". Inscribed below the image, "Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims", and with the names of the pilgrims, "Reeve, Chaucer, Clerk of Oxenford, Cook, Miller, Wife of Bath, Merchant, Parson, Man of Law, Plowman, Physician, Franklin, 2 Citizens, Shipman, The Host, Sompnour, Manciple, Pardoner, Monk, Friar, a Citizen, Lady Abbess, Nun, 3 Priests, Squires, Yoman, Knight, Squire".
Third state: ca. 1810-1820.
Hand-colored in watercolor by the artist, on wove paper.
This example of Blakes largest print was hand-colored by the artist with delicate flesh-toned watercolor, creating a subtle effect quite different from his full color works on paper. It is a stand-alone print, rather than part of a group of illustrations of Chaucer's tale, and it dates from Blake's later years. Blake ultimately created five states of this image; this impression is one of three colored examples and the only known colored print of the third state. The engraving shows the beginning of Chaucer's story, when the pilgrims set out on their journey in the early morning. Each of them is labeled in the inscription below the image, but they are also easily recognizable from Blakes detailed depiction of their individual costumes and identifying characteristics. Blake sought to create a medieval aesthetic for this engraving, evident in the flat, stiffened nature of the figures arranged in the shallow frieze-like composition and the Gothic architectural elements of the Tabard Inn. In his explication of this image, Blake stated that he drew from the style of "Durer and other old original Engravers," artists he appreciated because they executed their own designs, a practice that became increasingly rare during Blake's lifetime. Blake believed that the rise of the reproductive engraver was tantamount to a fall from grace in the transition from the medieval to the modern era. In fact, this engraving was the object of an ongoing dispute between Blake and Robert Cromek, a publisher who had prevented Blake from engraving his own designs for an earlier project. In 1806-7, Cromek contracted Thomas Stothard, a contemporary painter and illustrator, to create a painting of the Canterbury Pilgrims (Tate Gallery, London), which Cromek widely promoted with a traveling exhibition. Upon Cromek's announcement of his intentions to publish a print after Stothard's painting, Blake claimed that the two men had stolen his idea for the painting, and immediately created his own version in direct opposition to Stothard's image. In 1809, Blake held an exhibition of his painting (now in Pollok House, Glasgow) and announced plans to create an engraving after it. For Blake, his engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims was essentially a public demonstration that an artist should not be separated from the reproduction of his own designs, a development that resulted from being seduced by the forces of commerce. In the end, Blake was triumphant in the clash with Cromek. While Blake dutifully published his own engraving within a year after his exhibition of the painting, Cromek's engraving after Stothard's painting was continually delayed for numerous reasons, including the death of Cromek himself, and the project eventually fell by the wayside. (Andaleeb Banta)