William Blake is perhaps the most influential and innovative artist Britain has ever produced. Apart
from William Shakespeare, it is hard to imagine another writer who has had a bigger impact of the
world of literature and his paintings continue to inspire and astonish legions of people, even today.
However, Blake was an engraver to trade, and this was where he found his most expressive medium.
On his death in 1827 he left the world a vast and impressive collection of engraving plates which,
today reside in various collections around the world. However, to truly understand the uniqueness
of Blake, one must explore his world, and that is best expressed by his own invention; relief etchings.
William took the humble engraving techniques he learned as an apprentice and elevated them into
something altogether most splendid and in doing so he re-introduced the world of art to the glories
of the illuminated manuscript.
Blake - The Inventor
In 1779, Blake completed his seven-year apprenticeship with James Basire and was a qualified
engraver. He left Basire’s employ to begin studying at the Royal Academy of Art. His time there was
short-lived due to artistic differences with the, then president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Suddenly Blake
realised he needed to support himself and so he began to take work as an engraver. Standard
engraving was a way to make a living and fine for other people’s projects, but Blake realised that if
he was going to express his own creative vision, he needed something better.
William was a prodigious writer of poetry and prose, and his artwork was an expressive extension of
his ideas. Blake considered that the poems and the images were symbiotic, and one could simply
not exist without the other. So, in 1788, Blake trialled a new undertaking, one he called
“stereotype” but is better known as relief etching. This new process, unlike engraving, involved
treating the etched design with acid-resistant chemicals and then dissolving the untreated copper in
acid thus leaving behind the design and, or text in relief, hence, relief etching. It was quite
revolutionary. Not only was it much quicker to produce the plates, but more importantly to Blake, it
produced a new kind of illuminated manuscript joining text and designs seamlessly together in one
Blake’s wife, Catherine, whom he had trained to a high level in engraving techniques, was an
enormous help to him when working with his new invention for printing. “All Religions Are One”
and “There is No Natural Religion” were his first published illuminated manuscripts using his newly
invented technique. They are musings on the corruptive role of religion and, although they are a
little rudimentary, contain some beautiful imagery.
Famous Relief Etchings
The best examples of Blake’s new technique are certainly his prophetic books. He did not often use
relief etching for his commissioned work preferring, instead to save it for his own creations.
Undoubtably the most striking and epic of these works is, “The (First) Book of Urizen” (1794).
Although later editions dropped the word “first” in the title, it is still the same piece. This work is an
archetypal Blake masterpiece, combining all the elements that made his creations so unique and
enthralling. The subject matter for one thing, is based around the complex world of William’s
character creations and visions. Urizen, being the hero, is set amongst a creation story for Blake’s
world and follows him though the beginning of time. The second remarkable point of interest is the
fact that it is, of course, a complete printing in relief etching, showcasing the flawless marriage of
text and illustrations. Finally, the artwork itself is quintessential Blake, as it is at once fantastic and
moving, and contains some of William’s most enduring images.
It is not possible to reference Blake’s relief etching work without speaking about his magnificent,
“Pity” (1795). An uncharacteristic print with no text, this relief etching with ink and watercolour is
surly one of Williams most ethereal works. It belongs to a group called, “Large Colour Prints” and is
said to be based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”; "And pity, like a naked new-born babe,/ Striding the
blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd/ Upon the sightless couriers of the air,/ Shall blow the horrid
deed in every eye". The image portrays an image of two cherubs on a horse jumping over a sleeping
woman, “Pity” herself. The blues and greens of the painting create a feeling of dreamscape. Some
scholars believe that it may also incorporate some of Blake’s own characters such as the God
“Urizen” from the eponymous “Book” and that the woman is, in fact, Eve suffering the prophesised
“pain and sorrow of childbirth” after the fall of knowledge. This interpretation is founded in the fact
that it is fashioned using “stereotype” and Blake often reserved the technique for his own characters
and the blues and greens of the painting create a feeling of dreamscape, a common theme in
William’s “world”. However, it is most certainly named for the Shakespearean play. There are four
versions of this print in existence; one, slightly smaller version in the British Museum in London, the
second, less colourful is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the third, slightly tarnished
is in the Yale Center for British Art, but the most complete, some would say the only finished copy,
is housed in the Tate Gallery in London.
Although Blake is the only artist ever to use his invention purely, as it was, the process spawned a
great number of variants some of which are still used in printing today. In the mid-20 th century
American Artists developed the process of carbograph printing, which finds it’s root firmly in Blake’s
technique, and with the invention of the camera, photo-etching became popular and still is today,
due to the fact that it is so much less toxic than using chemicals. Many artists and printers in the 21 st
century use processes to create images that would not be possible without the innovative mind of
William Blake. He continues to inspire, almost 200 years after his death.