On William Blake’s Art, by Catalin Ghita, Part II

(excerpts from the forthcoming book Revealer of the Fourfold Secret:

William Blake’s Theory and Practice of Vision)

By using a significant number of technique invariants, as well as certain patterns of representation, Blake’s pictorial works of art are metamorphosed into a more conservative mode of expression, reminiscent of the repetitive code embedded in the verbal works of art by the linguistic medium. Moreover, in my opinion, it is the technical-representative dimension which ensures the visionary character of Blake’s paintings and engravings; one can scarcely define the artist’s visual means of communication in the absence of the aforementioned twofold aspect.

Dealing with the problematic of Blake’s illuminated manuscripts, Viscomi synthesizes the evolution of Blake’s artistic technique: ‘The first six years of production progressed through a series of three formats: leaves printed on both sides and lightly washed (1789-93), color printing (1794-95), and single-sided printing with borders and richer coloring (c. 1795). After 1795, the format remained the same . . . ’  (60).

Raymond Lister too focuses his discourse on the Blakean technique of printing, emphasizing the aquatint-like effect which, quite unexpectedly, it seems, the process brought about. His observation is important because it can be partly applied to the artist’s illuminated manuscripts: ‘The technique of transferring the design to the paper in a press imparted a rich granulated effect, reminiscent of aquatint; this feature is characteristic of much of Blake’s colour-printing and is present also on some pages in his illuminated books which were sometimes similarly coloured’ (13).

Dabundo’s Encyclopedia of Romanticism offers a detailed description of Blake’s method of relief etching, holding that the artist’s technique is in stark contrast to the intaglio relief technique, as a traditional craft. Further important, albeit technical, details are furnished, so that her demonstration may be complete: ‘In Blake’s method of relief etching, he applied a ground only to the areas of the copper plate where the actual lines of the design would emerge from the surface of the plate. Text and design are painted on the plate using a solution impervious to acid’ (60).

According to Stewart Crehan, who analyses in an excellent manner the chief characteristics of Blakean art, the painter’s lighting is invariably frontal, adding that this and the elimination of a background help ‘to foreground [italics in the original] everything in the picture, reducing physical volume, distance and depth, and bringing everything up close to the viewer’s eyes’ (253). He notes subsequently that ‘[t]he “flashlight” effect creates a “thisness” or permanence, a kind of instantaneous, eternal present [italics in the original] . . . ’ (253). Finally, Crehan points out that ‘[t]he illusion of a transparently objective reality is hence replaced by another illusion, that of a world of universal, permanent and ideal forms . . .’ (267), simultaneously underlining that, as a linearist (following Dürer, Raphael, and Michelangelo), Blake revolts against Brunelleschi’s and Uccello’s illusionism.

Blake’s paintings are defined, in my opinion, by an ascensional craving: characters frequently appear in the guise of dancers whose primordial element is air, and whose only obsessive goal is reaching the above.[1] This contributes decisively to the visionary character of his pictorial works of art, in that it succeeds in establishing a communication between the transcendental and the transcendent, between the world of contingency and that of Eternity – the depicted heroes essay to leave the ground just as Blake’s geniuses conquer their limited perceptions and exercise them with a view to attaining the ultimate degree of vision.[2] I should also point out that Blake’s paintings as representations of visions are set in contrast with Joshua Reynolds’s, the latter urging his contemporaries to ‘beautify’ the heroes in art, so as to instil a feeling of sublime in the audience. Nevertheless, this desideratum is not matched by a radical aesthetic stance, but by a moderate, bourgeois telos, educational in nature and limited in scope to moral exemplarity. Blake, in his turn, has no need for character-modification: he claims that he renders them as close to the reality of his visions as humanly possible.

In the end, as Damrosch, Jr. notes, Blake’s pictures ‘are “read” in traditional pictorial terms, and the problems of interpretation which they raise are less radical than those of Blake’s language and form’ (349), which implies that it is his literary work which must be looked into more carefully.[3] However, all these examples show that, although ‘read’ in traditional terms, Blake’s visual works of art bring into focus a significant number of original elements which may enable one to interpret them in the light of the artist’s verbal mode of representation, and under the auspices of visionary construction. Blake’s creative process and his manner of expression cannot be accounted for satisfactorily in the absence of a brief pictorial analysis. It must also be remembered Blake’s works are somehow interconnected, and that a key to one automatically provides a key to another. Saree Makdisi is a case in point when he advises that ‘[…] if we try to read one of the illuminated books as a self-contained object, we will almost inevitably be frustrated. We will have greater success if we try to read it as a part of a virtual network of relations that opens away from it and undermines its autonomy’ (130). Concurrently, he adds the ‘principle of iterability and repetition’ (simultaneously technical and hermeneutic in form) to the critical equation: ‘The figural reiteration of images between works in Blake is inextricably related to the material reiteration of images among versions of the “same work”’ (129). Up to a certain degree, this reinforces my idea, inspired by Goodman’s distinction between descriptions and depictions, that verbal and visual representations are brought together, each borrowing certain modes of expression from the other. Only if Blake’s books are ‘read’ in toto can they be properly reflected upon and comprehended, without thereby subverting their visionary message.


[1] See, inter alia, Blake’s famous representation of the Last Judgment.

[2] Perhaps this universally appealing feature has made Blake’s visual art so popular outside Europe, and I refer specifically to Japan. For the Shirakaba Group’s enthusiastic reception of Blake’s paintings and engravings, see Yumiko Goto passim.

[3] As David V. Erdman notes, ‘certainly the poems can stand alone, while many of the pictures cannot’ (Illuminated Blake 10).

Works Cited

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. 1965. Ed. David V. Erdman. Commentary Harold Bloom. Newly revised ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1982.

—. Complete Writings, with Variant Readings. 1957. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

—. The Illuminated Blake. Annotated David V. Erdman. London: Oxford UP, 1975.

Clark, Steve and Masashi Suzuki, eds. The Reception of Blake in the Orient. London: Continuum, 2006.

Crehan, Stewart. Blake in Context. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1984.

Dabundo, Laura, ed. Encyclopedia of Romanticism: Culture in Britain, 1780s-1830s. New York and London: Garland, 1992.

Damrosch, Leopold, Jr. Symbol and Truth in Blake’s Myth. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1980.

Eaves, Morris, ed. The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Goto, Yumiko. ‘Individuality and Expression: The Shirakaba Group’s Reception of Blake’s Visual Art in Japan.’ The Reception of Blake in the Orient. Ed. Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki. London: Continuum, 2006. 216-3.

Lister, Raymond. The Paintings of William Blake. Cambridge, London, New York, New Rochelle, Melbourne, and Sydney: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Makdisi, Saree. ‘The Political Aesthetic of Blake’s Image.’ The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Ed. Morris Eaves. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 110-32.

Viscomi, Joseph. ‘Illuminated Printing.’ The Cambridge Companion to William Blake. Ed. Morris Eaves. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. 37-6.

On William Blake’s Art by Catalin Ghita – Part I

(excerpts from the forthcoming book Revealer of the Fourfold Secret:

William Blake’s Theory and Practice of Vision)

If one pays attention to the artist’s own phraseology, Blake’s secret of transforming experienced visions into aesthetic ones lies in the artist’s fidelity to the original, as emphasized by Allan Cunningham, in his Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1830): ‘Amongst his friends, he at length ventured to intimate that the designs on which he was engaged, were not from his own mind, but copied from grand works revealed to him in visions; and those who believed that, would readily lend an ear to the assurance that he was commanded to execute his performances by a celestial tongue’ (Bentley, Jr., Blake Records 636-37). In his unpublished Life of Blake (c. 1832), Frederick Tatham adds a significant detail concerning the infallibility of the ‘artistic copy procedure:’ Blake ‘persisted that while he copied the vision (as he called it) upon his plate or canvas, he could not Err; & that error & defect could arise only from the departure or inaccurate delineation of his unsubstantial scene’ (Bentley, Jr., Critical Heritage 217). It is perhaps more important that the consciousness of the artist involved in this type of creative process is automatically transferred to a level which prevents it from erring artistically and spiritually. Despite what Blake believed in regard to his aesthetic fidelity, some questions loom large, and they are raised by a significant number of textual modifications, which evince that the artist is not entirely free from error since his work requires revision.

If one is to credit Nelson Goodman, who considers that any copy theory (in the broadest sense of the word) is made futile by the subject’s inherent re-creation of the image,[1] and that, consequently, one cannot possibly specify what it is that one copies, then the inevitable question is the following: does not the artist who claims to reproduce a painting, an engraving or a manuscript perceived during a visionary experience actually fail to account for his own sensory subjectivity, so that it is not the object proper which is depicted, but rather its personalized version? Thus, Blake may be right if one concedes that there are two different levels of visual perception: a common, ‘vegetative’ one, which is prone to error and in whose case Goodman’s theory holds water, and a superior, privileged one, which is the only one apt to manifest itself during the visionary process, its divine origin rendering it infallible in theory. Blake dwells on this idea in Auguries of Innocence, when he writes: ‘We are led to Believe a Lie / When we see not Thro the Eye’ (E 496), these lines being reproduced almost verbatim in The Everlasting Gospel: ‘And leads you to Believe a Lie / When you see with not thro the Eye’ (E 520).

But sight is not the only factor involved in the visionary production. The difficulty of the problem is increased by the fact that Blake is simultaneously a visual and a verbal artist. Jean H. Hagstrum’s synthetic presentation is perhaps one of the clearest introductions to the topic: ‘Blake’s composite form consists . . . of (1) words [italics in the original] that appear as short-lined lyrics . . .; as long-lined prophetic poems . . . ; and as prose mottoes or aphorisms and of (2) designs [italics in the original] that have these constituent elements: (a) color, (b) border), and (c) picture or scene’ (13).

For the sake of clarity, in the following analysis of Blake’s composite aesthetics I shall employ Nelson Goodman’s terminology regarding the languages of art.[2] Technically, painting and engraving are autographic (they cannot be reproduced, since their alphabet of significance is restricted to an embedded code, which is unique in the case of each and every work of art), whilst literature is allographic (it can be reproduced, since its alphabet of significance is not self-contained). The argument may be refined if one considers, in parallel, Goodman’s distinction between depictions (as pertaining to visual arts) and descriptions (as pertaining to verbal arts): ‘Descriptions are distinguished from depictions not through being more arbitrary but through belonging to articulate rather than to dense schemes; and words are more conventional than pictures only if conventionality is construed in terms of differentiation rather than artificiality’ (230-31). If one cares to extend the theoretical debate, one must say that the articulate conservatism of the descriptions contained in a verbal work of art, which uses an alien alphabet of signification, contrasts the suggestive density of the depictions contained in a visual work of art, which uses a self-contained alphabet of signification. However, in Blake, language itself borrows an essentially pictorial density, in the sense that a poetic text surpasses its ordinary verbal limitations due to its author’s cunning manipulation of syntax, spelling, punctuation, and graphic display, whereas engravings, in their turn, borrow a linguistic conservatism, in the sense that artist’s drawings can be grouped under the auspices of certain mannerisms or invariants of representation.[3] In this case, one may acknowledge the existence of a visual-verbal continuum; hence the aesthetic product is partly autographic, partly allographic.[4] Each and every scholarly edition of Blake’s works makes serious concessions to their allographic dimension, and inevitably subverts their autographic component. In Blake’s case, one cannot speak of a domination of scriptiveness over visual representation, since textual and visual forms alike are magnanimously treated by the artist. The two arts cannot be conceived of as separate, but, rather, as complementary manifestations of a powerful creative self.[5]


[1] Goodman thinks that the putative copy ‘is the object as we look upon or conceive it, a version or construal of the object’ (9).

[2] For more details, see Goodman 113-22 et passim.

[3] Cf. also John B. Pierce’s assertion: ‘the medium of the coppper plate and the mechanism of the printing press offer a degree of fixity, reproducibility, objective autonomy typical of printed texts’ (157).

[4] Consider, for example, Blake’s own testimony to the involvement of the Divine Assistance in the making of Milton, both on scriptural and on pictorial levels, found in his letter to Thomas Butts, dated 6 July 1803, E 729-31, especially 730.

[5] Consider, for instance, the Prophetic Books, whose multiplication is based on the elaborate art of illuminated printing. This method, supposedly revealed by the artist’s deceased brother, Robert, unveils an intricate combination of long portions of texts and corresponding etched designs.

Works Cited

Bentley, G. E., Jr., ed. Blake Records: Documents (1714-1841) Concerning the Life of William Blake (1757-1827) and his Family. 1969. 2nd edition. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 2004.

—, ed. William Blake: The Critical Heritage. London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.

Blake, William. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. 1965. Ed. David V. Erdman. Commentary Harold Bloom. Newly revised ed. Garden City, NY: Anchor/Doubleday, 1982.

—. Complete Writings, with Variant Readings. 1957. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1979.

—. The Illuminated Blake. Annotated David V. Erdman. London: Oxford UP, 1975.

Goodman, Nelson. Languages of Art: An Approach to a Theory of Symbols. 1976. 5th ed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1985.

Hagstrum, Jean H. William Blake: Poet and Painter: An Introduction to the Illuminated Verse. 1964. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P, 1978.

Pierce, John B. The Wond’rous Art: William Blake and Writing. Madison, Teaneck: Fairleigh Dickinson UP; London: Associated UP, 2003.