The beauty of an exhibition at the Ashmolean is that it’s guaranteed to be on a manageable scale, seeing as they only have three large rooms for their temporary exhibition space. This must surely have presented some difficulties though when it came to planning their current show on William Blake: how can you possibly contain a man who was arguably the eighteenth century’s greatest visionary, a whirlwind of poetry and printing, polemic and prophecy, into three rooms?
The answer, of course, is that you can’t, and perhaps it is best not to try. So the Ashmolean has taken a single aspect of Blake’s multitudinous talents, and examined his journey as a printer, from his enrolment into drawing school at the age of ten, to his death in 1827. As an avid fan of Blake the poet from my student days, I confess I was disappointed that it didn’t feature more highly. However, it left the path for his equally important, but less celebrated innovations in printing.
The first room, admittedly not wildly exciting, lays the groundwork for his later tastes: making copies of old Masters as an apprentice, and sketching medieval tombs in Westminster Abbey to make engravings from would later manifest itself in his taste for the Gothic. It is easy to imagine the teenage Blake sitting in the gloomth of that ancient sacred building, his imagination firing up and darting around in all directions as the statues he was sketching re-animated by the flicker of candle light. Several years after leaving the Royal Academy (where he endured a 6 year stint of formal teaching) he had become an enormous commercial success as a copy engraver. Had he been an ordinary man, content with this artistically modest measure of success, he and his wife might have lived out their lives in relative prosperity and the gradual oncoming of obscurity. However, Blake was the very antithesis of ordinary, and not content with copying other people’s work, he began his revolution in printing.
The traditional method of etching learnt by Blake was to cover metal plate with an acid-resistant waxy ground, which the design would be etched into with an etching needle. The plate is then washed with acid, which bites into the exposed metal, leaving behind the design, and the remaining ground is washed off. However, Blake’s earliest printing innovation was to reverse this process: eclipsing the waxy ground altogether, he drew the design directly onto the metal plate using the acid as ink. This was his first experiment in bringing some of the freedom of the paintbrush to the printing process but he was to take it even further but inventing a new kind of colour printing. Using glue based pigments to paint the outline of the design directly onto the plate, the piece could then be finished after it had been printed in pen, ink and watercolour. During the 18th century there were in fact two standard colour printing techniques:
1. Ink a single plate with different colours, using a rag dauber.
2. Engrave different plates and print them one on top of the other in different colours. If one printed two colours on top of each other a greater colour range could be reached. This method allowed for greater precision, but was still difficult to perfect as the images had to be exactly lined up.
However, with Blake’s innovative technique different effects could be achieved by scraping lines in thickly applied ink, or using a sponge to create texture; this brought the spontaneity of drawing without the predictability, making it an exciting new media. With this method he dispensed of etching altogether, simply painting directly onto the copperplate. As each impression became correspondingly thinner in ink, he would finish them by hand in watercolour, and so each print becomes entirely unique. Another innovation he began to employ was combining text and image on a single plate, which took many years to perfect.
These techniques culminated in the production of Europe, one of Blake’s most famous prophecy-poems, which is displayed fantastically along one long wall in the exhibition, allowing the viewer to view them in sequence. The prints are truly exquisite in the flesh: he has perfected his backwards mirror writing, and the images have a richness and intensity of colour hitherto unseen in printing, a result of Blake adding a gluey paint mixture to the surface of the plate before printing, which gave it a more textured, three-dimensional surface. This method breathes life into his narrative of oppression and the dominance of reason over imagination, a thinly veiled criticism of eighteenth century London suffering the effects of war with France, the rise of commerce, and the tyranny of organised religion which sought to banish all sensuality. Also on display at the Ashmolean is a recreation of Blake’s study, helping us to imagine the artist feverishly bent over his enormous printing press, straining to create his illuminations, which would pull back the veil of hypocrisy shading the world and tell the truth about society.
By Helena Louise Cuss