They are done as if by a child; several of them careless and incorrect, yet
there is a spirit in them, humble enough to move simple souls to tears.
Edward Calvert, quoted in A Memoir of Edward Calvert by his Third Son (1893 )
In 1818 Linnell introduced Blake to his friend and family physician Dr Robert
John Thornton (best known for his sumptuous publication The Temple of Flora,
1798-1807). Thornton had published his school edition of Virgil in 1812,
with a second edition printed in 1819. This included not only Virgil's Latin
verses but also 'imitations' of Virgilian poetry by other authors. One of
these was Ambrose Phillips, who had written an imitation of Virgil's first
Eclogue (or pastoral poem composed in the form of a dialogue). Blake was
commissioned to illustrate Phillips's verses for the expanded third edition
of Thornton's Virgil for which he provided seventeen wood-engraved designs,
fourteen of which are in the Gallery's collection.
In wood-engraving the composition is incised into the wood block instead of
being gouged out so as to stand in relief (as in a wood cut). The resulting
effect is of a white design against a dark ground. Blake had never used this
technique before though it had been brilliantly employed in the 18th century
for small, graceful book illustrations. Blake's illustrations, however, are
far from being elegant vignettes. Bursting with intensity, they have a
freedom and ruggedness that is astonishing for their time. For this reason
they seem to have been unappreciated by Dr Thornton. They perfectly capture
the poetry's mood of rustic simplicity with its melancholy overtones.
Initially the woodblocks were slightly larger, but they had to be cut down to
allow them to be accommodated four to a page in Thornton's small format