The shadow of Los: embossing in Blake’s Book of Urizen


William Blake’s works in illuminated printing are both beautiful and perplexing. The beauty arises from the boldness and originality of the designs, the brilliance and delicacy of the colouring, and the profundity and harmony of the verse. The perplexity often arises largely from the novelty of Blake’s methods of printing and arranging his works. 

Among the most puzzling of his works is The First Book of Urizen (1794),1Bibliographical details here derive chiefly from G. E. Bentley Jr, Blake Books, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977. However the eighth copy of Urizen was only recently discovered by Detleff Dörrbecker in Vienna, and it is described here de visu, not from Blake Books. sometimes merely titled The Book of Urizen. The book exists in eight copies in nine different and evidently authoritative arrangements; each copy is apparently ‘complete’ although the eight copies variously contain twenty-four, twenty-six, twenty-seven, and twenty-eight leaves, and there are significant differences in both designs and text in each protean performance.2See ‘Final intention or protean performance: Classical editing theory and the case of William Blake’, in Paul Eggert (ed.), Editing in Australia: Proceedings of a Conference, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, 1989, which was in proof when this essay went to press. 

An example of the beauty and enigmatic nature of the work may be seen in the impression of plate 21 in the National Gallery of Victoria (fig. 1), which represents a nude woman (Enitharmon) with her arms by her side, holding a cloth and looking down at a half-grown boy (Orc) who is embracing her, while to the right a bearded man (Los) leaning on a great hammer looks down at them. The man’s chest is girdled by a large red chain which falls between his legs.3Bentley, Blake Books, p. 178. In Copy A, Enitharmon has her hand in the small of Orc’s back, and a vivid sun is setting at the middle left in copies B–C, G, British Museum Print Room (BMPR) pull, National Gallery of Victoria pull. Los looks downward (not at Enitharmon) in copies C and F and the BMPR pull. The design is an extension of the text (chapter 7): 

1.     They named the child Orc, he grew 

Fed with milk of Enitharmon[.] 

2.     Los awoke her; Ο sorrow & pain! 

A tight’ning girdle grew 

Around his bosom. In sobbings 

He burst the girdle in twain, 

But still another girdle 

Op[p]ressed his bosom. In sobbings 

Again he burst it. Again 

Another girdle succeeds[.] 

The girdle was form’d by day: 

By night was burst in twain. 

3.     These falling down on the rock 

Into an iron Chain 

In each other link by link lock’d[.] 

4.     They took Orc to the top of a mountain 

Ο how Enitharmon wept! 

They chain’d his young limbs to the rock 

With the Chain of Jealousy … 4G. E. Bentley Jr, William Blake’s Writings, 2 vols, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978, vol. I, pp. 269–70, pl. 20, 11. 376–94. 

Los’s jealousy of Orc is explicitly sexual in the design but not so in the text. 

The National Gallery of Victoria’s impression differs in some interesting ways from other performances of the same plate. Enitharmon’s hand is by her side rather than on Orc’s back as in other impressions, so that Orc’s possessive, demanding gesture is not reciprocated. Behind her and to her right are folds of clothing perhaps depending from that hand; in other impressions there appears to be drapery visible between and beside Orc’s legs, but what it is and where it comes from is obscure. The large object like a lichened rock behind Loss head usually seems to be sky. 

One of the problems is to know exactly what was etched on the plate itself.5None of the copperplates for The First Book of Urizen survive; indeed only one fragment of an abandoned version of America has come down to us from all the hundreds of plates Blake made for his works in illuminated printing. In The First Book of Urizen

Ordinarily the whole area of the design was coloured, so that the original etched lines are very difficult to make out. One explanation for this very heavy colouring may be that as many as seven plates [but not pl. 21] were etched on top of other designs, and the etched lines of Urizen may have revealed an awkward amount of the earlier designs.6Bentley, Blake Books, p. 171. 

Since Blake covered the whole surface of the copperplate each time he colour-printed it,7Copies A–F and the separate impressions of Urizen in the Large and the Small Books of Designs and elsewhere were all colour-printed about 1794–96; Copy G was printed about 1815 in orange from the relief-surfaces and subsequently the impressions were entirely covered with watercolour, so that the details of the etched surface are still very difficult to determine. The evidence of what is on the copperplate is clearer on the embossing on the National Gallery of Victoria’s impression of plate 21 than on the one in Copy G. he may have needed only very rough indications of the design on the copper itself. 

The impression of plate 21 in the National Gallery of Victoria may have been made in 1796 for a collection of plates called the Large Book of Designs (Copy B). Certainly it is very similar to the corresponding plate in the Large Book of Designs (Copy A) in the British Museum Print Room. As Ted Gott writes: 

The patterns of the colour-printed areas are extremely close on both impressions … particularly in the sky at upper left, in the area behind Los’s head in the top right corner, and in the mottled green­­­ and yellow–ochre hues along the baseline. This seems to suggest that the National Gallery of Victoria’s Los, Enitharmon and Orc was printed immediately after the British Museum impression, as a lighter second pull from a single inking of the plate (or with only minor re-inking of a few areas) … the plate was pulled through the rolling press with extreme pressure, leaving a strong and quite legible embossing of the relief-etched design on the verso of the sheet. This heavy press-work would answer Blake’s need for additional force to gain a reasonable second impression from the thinner layer of pigment left on the plate without re-inking.8Martin Butlin & Ted Gott, William Blake in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, generously shown to me in typescript, from which I quote. Bob Essick points out to me that ‘inking’ here should probably be ‘coloring … since the color printing medium appears not to have been an ink. The second pull (maculature) from pl. 21 does not, I suspect, have any ink on it’. 

The heavy pressure used in printing this impression of Urizen plate 21 is very unusual, for Blake’s works in illuminated printing are printed from the surface of the plate, as in conventional typography, not from the engraved recesses in it, as in conventional intaglio engraving, and very little pressure was ordinarily needed or used. Indeed, many copies of Blake’s works in illuminated printing show no plate-mark at all, and it is certainly possible to print such works without a printing-press.9The electrotypes of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience can be printed by placing a piece of paper on the inked plate and rubbing the back with a wooden spoon, a great advantage for anyone who wishes to print quickly or surreptitiously. Some of the great colour monoprints may have been printed from plates which had no etched design at all. Everything may have been drawn in colour on the printing surface with no guidelines at all. 

The very heavy pressure with which the National Gallery of Victoria’s copy of Urizen plate 21 was printed has carried the etched design through to the embossed verso of the page (fig. 2) with astonishing clarity. The etched lines are even more clearly visible in the photograph – taken with a sharply-raked light – than in the original, and they lead to a number of interesting conclusions. 

 

For one thing, the incised lines are etched in broad masses rather than engraved with very narrow fine lines. For another, the pressure was heaviest on the bottom half of the page, suggesting that Blake had built up the surface beneath the copperplate to raise the bottom rather more than the top, resulting in uneven pressure when it was printed; or perhaps the plate itself was deformed. Unfortunately the ‘National Gallery of Victoria’ stamp just above Enitharmon’s head obscures the embossing just where it is faintest, but probably there were no etched lines there anyway. The embossed lines show with varying degrees of clarity that what was etched were the outlines of the figures plus the hammer of Los and his chain of jealousy. All the mass of rocks to the left of Enitharmon, the boulder or hillside behind Los’s head, the sun, and the luridly streaked sky are scarcely visible in the embossing and probably were scarcely if at all visible on the copperplate. All the delicate modelling of flesh, the minute contours of facial features, the muscles and the expression are added by hand on the paper rather than printed from the copperplate.10Plate 21 is therefore etched in much the same way as those works such as America, Europe and Jerusalem which exist in at least a few copies printed in simple monochrome showing the etched outlines very clearly. Plate 21 is apparently etched on the verso of Urizen plate 11 (see Bentley, Blake Books, p. 167), and either plate 11 or plate 21 should be expected to show the platemaker’s mark of the manufacturer, but the admittedly faint remains of the surface of plate 21 embossed on the verso of the National Gallery of Victoria pull do not seem to show one. In particular, Enitharmon’s right hand, which hangs demurely by her thigh in the print and clasps the back of Orc in other impressions, is not clearly visible in the embossing at all. It was only the shadow of the image which was given on the copperplate; the firm and determinate outline, the precise character and lineaments of beauty are largely dependent on the execution of the master’s hand when finishing the print on the paper. 

In the standard work on Blake as a printmaker, Professor Robert N. Essick argues persuasively that the Urizen plates which were etched on top of earlier designs (plates 5–6, 14–16, 18, 27) are characterised by ‘shallow etching’,11The evidence is partly that in Urizen (Copy D) plate 27 the paper took ink from the recesses of the plate, showing the former design still faintly visible. Urizen plates 1, 3–5, 7–18, 20–8 seem to be etched on the versos of the copperplates of Marriage plates 2, 6–10, 12–18, 20–2, 24–7 and Urizen (plates 12, 22), (17, 26), but of course these did not involve etching one design on top of another. and he suggests that most of Blake’s works in illuminated printing may have been etched very shallowly. Alternatively, ‘Blake may have used exceptionally shallow etching [chiefly] on plates specifically intended for colour printing in order to facilitate printing from bitten areas’.12Robert N. Essick, William Blake, Printmaker, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1980, p. 94. He correctly draws attention to ‘the very light plate-marks of Blake’s colour-printed impressions’, which demonstrate that Blake normally did not use the sort of ‘excessive pressure’ which would pick up ink from the recesses of deeply-etched plates. 

However, the National Gallery of Victoria’s colour-printed copy of Urizen plate 21 was certainly printed with great, even ‘excessive’, pressure, and nothing is visible from its fairly deep recesses to indicate that it was characterised by ‘shallow etching’. Perhaps different plates in the same work, such as Urizen, had to be printed in different ways because Blake’s materials and intentions were not uniform. 

After Blake’s death in 1827, Frederick Tatham printed America (copies N, P–Q), Europe, a Prophecy (I, L–M), For the Sexes (F–L), Jerusalem (G–J), and Songs (a–o), usually on paper watermarked 1831 and 1832, but he did not print Urizen, the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Milton, or the Visions of the Daughters of Albion.13The designs in The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los and The Song of Los were apparently ‘printed from unetched plates’ (Essick, William Blake, Printmaker, p. 147), and therefore there was little or nothing for Tatham to print for these works. Possibly the intricate variations required in printing explain why Tatham did not print copies of Urizen and the Marriage of Heaven and Hell

As we can see from the embossing of the print, the shadow of Los, Blake’s works in illuminated printing had surprisingly little to do with the mechanics’ art which he so scorned. At least for colour-printed works such as The First Book of Urizen, the etched shadows served principally as reminders to him of the basic elements of the design, hints about the general direction of the story, rather than controls upon the performer. The shadow is the image on the lost copperplate, the embossing on the back of the paper; the substance, the performance, is the realisation of genius. A glimpse of the shadow is wonderful chiefly for what it tells us of the beautiful substance that Blake created on the paper. 

Gerald Bentley Jr, University College, University of Toronto (in 1989).

Acknowledgements 

I thank Ted Gott and Sonia Dean of the National Gallery of Victoria for much kindness while I was working recently in the National Gallery and for information and photographs generously sent to me thereafter, and Bob Essick for valuable advice on a draft of this article. 

 

Notes 

1          Bibliographical details here derive chiefly from G. E. Bentley Jr, Blake Books, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977. However the eighth copy of Urizen was only recently discovered by Detleff Dörrbecker in Vienna, and it is described here de visu, not from Blake Books

2          See ‘Final intention or protean performance: Classical editing theory and the case of William Blake’, in Paul Eggert (ed.), Editing in Australia: Proceedings of a Conference, Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra, 1989, which was in proof when this essay went to press. 

3          Bentley, Blake Books, p. 178. In Copy A, Enitharmon has her hand in the small of Orc’s back, and a vivid sun is setting at the middle left in copies B–C, G, British Museum Print Room (BMPR) pull, National Gallery of Victoria pull. Los looks downward (not at Enitharmon) in copies C and F and the BMPR pull. 

4          G. E. Bentley Jr, William Blake’s Writings, 2 vols, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1978, vol. I, pp. 269–70, pl. 20, 11. 376–94. 

5          None of the copperplates for The First Book of Urizen survive; indeed only one fragment of an abandoned version of America has come down to us from all the hundreds of plates Blake made for his works in illuminated printing. 

6          Bentley, Blake Books, p. 171. 

7          Copies A–F and the separate impressions of Urizen in the Large and the Small Books of Designs and elsewhere were all colour-printed about 1794–96; Copy G was printed about 1815 in orange from the relief-surfaces and subsequently the impressions were entirely covered with watercolour, so that the details of the etched surface are still very difficult to determine. The evidence of what is on the copperplate is clearer on the embossing on the National Gallery of Victoria’s impression of plate 21 than on the one in Copy G. 

8          Martin Butlin & Ted Gott, William Blake in the Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1989, generously shown to me in typescript, from which I quote. Bob Essick points out to me that ‘inking’ here should probably be ‘coloring … since the color printing medium appears not to have been an ink. The second pull (maculature) from pl. 21 does not, I suspect, have any ink on it’. 

9          The electrotypes of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience can be printed by placing a piece of paper on the inked plate and rubbing the back with a wooden spoon, a great advantage for anyone who wishes to print quickly or surreptitiously. Some of the great colour monoprints may have been printed from plates which had no etched design at all. Everything may have been drawn in colour on the printing surface with no guidelines at all. 

10        Plate 21 is therefore etched in much the same way as those works such as America, Europe and Jerusalem which exist in at least a few copies printed in simple monochrome showing the etched outlines very clearly. Plate 21 is apparently etched on the verso of Urizen plate 11 (see Bentley, Blake Books, p. 167), and either plate 11 or plate 21 should be expected to show the platemaker’s mark of the manufacturer, but the admittedly faint remains of the surface of plate 21 embossed on the verso of the National Gallery of Victoria pull do not seem to show one. 

11        The evidence is partly that in Urizen (Copy D) plate 27 the paper took ink from the recesses of the plate, showing the former design still faintly visible. Urizen plates 1, 3–5, 7–18, 20–8 seem to be etched on the versos of the copperplates of Marriage plates 2, 6–10, 12–18, 20–2, 24–7 and Urizen (plates 12, 22), (17, 26), but of course these did not involve etching one design on top of another. 

12        Robert N. Essick, William Blake, Printmaker, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1980, p. 94. 

13        The designs in The Book of Ahania, The Book of Los and The Song of Los were apparently ‘printed from unetched plates’ (Essick, William Blake, Printmaker, p. 147), and therefore there was little or nothing for Tatham to print for these works.