Fall 2009

Illuminating Blake: The Vision Behind the Work

By Julia Dauer

Special Collections, located in the Pohndorff Room of the Lucy Scribner Library, houses a wide variety of rare and ne books, including the Norman M. Fox Collection. The Fox Collection contains almost 400 volumes, many of them Victorian illustrated books. Each fall, the Fox-Adler lecture series brings a speaker to campus focusing on one aspect of the Fox Collection’s holdings. This year’s lecture, “Blake’s Enlightened Graphics: Illuminated Books and New Technologies,” was presented by Joseph Viscomi, Professor of English at UNC Chapel Hill and co-creator of the Blake Digital Archives.

In conjunction with Professor Viscomi’s visit to campus, Special Collections curator Wendy Anthony mounted an exhibit in the library’s rst oor cases, with assistance from Professor Catherine J. Golden, Chair of the Fox Lecture Committee. Showcasing the library’s Blake holdings, in original and facsimile, as well as several pieces from Mr. Fox’s private collection the exhibit, highlights the wide range of Blake’s works. including reproductions from Reproductions of Blake’s brilliantly illuminated Songs of Innocence (1794) and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-3) are particularly striking with two small facsimile prints displayed alongside the electrotype plates used for their reproduction, allowing viewers to conceptualize Blake’s creative process.

The exhibit also displays a selection of Blake’s less famous work, as a hired book illustrator. His title page illustration for Robert Blair’s “The Grave” (1813) is particularly moving. The illustration depicts a eshy gure suspended along its right margin, trumpeting down at the skull of a shrouded skeleton, stretched out along the page’s bottom edge. The skeleton raises its ribcage toward the text, apparently almost reanimated by the trumpeter’s efforts.

One case contains four large color plates, including a stunning rst generation reproduction of Blake’s The Temptation of Eve, from his illustrated Paradise Lost and the hauntingly illuminated Night the Eighth, Plate 63 from Illustrations to Young Night’s Thoughts, Done in Water Color by William Blake (1797). Both plates showcase Blake’s characteristic interest in the relationship between light and dark, sin and virtue, combining swatches of bright, warm color with their sinister counterparts to great effect. “The Temptation of Eve” depicts the moment of the human descent into the world of sin, but Eve here looks almost radiant, gingerly plucking an apple from the mouth of the twisting serpent. Though the landscape looms darkly behind the Tree of Knowledge, Blake’s gures dance before it in a milky foreground. These pale gures add depth and interest to the episode’s somber overtones. Likewise Blake’s Night the Eighth combines almost playful gures in its upper register with drifting dark faces in the lower register, suspending the viewer between the two apparently conicting images.

Viscomi’s lecture highlighted the contemporary importance of closely examining and comparingBlake’s texts in their original, illuminated form. This engaging, aesthetically diverse exhibit conrms Blake’s ongoing magnetism. Blake’s precise and passionate investigation of the tensions between light and dark and the relationship between image and text continues to captivate the contemporary viewer.