Boston Rare Book Week Preview: Blake Etchings

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The Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair opens today, the perfect prompt to preview one of the show’s incredible highlights, courtesy of John Windle: two original etchings from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and a single relief etching of the poem “Holy Thursday.”


First, a little background: In the 1780s, Blake revived the art of manuscript illumination, believing, in part, that the Industrial Revolution had degraded an art form into nothing more than a simple commodity. In response, Blake and his wife Catherine painstakingly printed, bound, and hand colored each book he produced. Few originals survive--only nine copies of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell are known to exist, for example. Slightly more endure--forty, to be precise--of Songs of Innocence, the first of Blake’s illuminated works and is a celebration of youthful innocence. 

                                                                                                                                                                                    Windle’s interest in Blake began in the 1960s when he worked for famed London book dealer Bernard Quaritch, which led to Windle’s opening of a San Francisco gallery devoted entirely to the 18th-century poet. Richard Davies at ABEbooks recently visited the Blake Gallery and spoke with Windle, which you can read here


The two plates at the Boston book fair hail from Copy Y, an incomplete copy that resurfaced in Cologne, Germany, in 1980. Printed in light brown on separate sheets with extensive hand-coloring in watercolor and additions in black ink, the two etchings are available for $250,000.

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Also available from John Windle is a single sheet relief etching from Songs of Innocence called “Holy Thursday.” This plate comes from Copy W, one of Blake’s proof printings for Songs of Innocence and is considered one of the earliest existing examples of Blake’s attempts at illuminated printing. The poem itself refers to Ascension Day, when London orphanages traditionally washed, dressed, and paraded thousands of their charges to St. Paul’s Cathedral for a special ceremony, and the verses contrast the brilliant ceremony with the bleak, somber reality that awaited the children afterwards. “Holy Thursday” is available for $150,000.

                                                                                                                                                                                     Images courtesy of John Windle

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