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University of Toronto Quarterly 76.2 (2007) 714-770

Blake's Heavy Metal1
The History, Weight, Uses, Cost, and Makers of His Copper Plates
G. E. Bentley, Jr
Professor Emeritus, Department of English, University of Toronto

'Here alone I in books formd of metals
Have written the secrets of wisdom'

Urizen pl 4, ll 69–702

For Blake's work in designing and engraving, we know a good deal about the surface on which he worked. Usually, of course, it was paper, whether the record3 is explicit or implicit. For the graphic works, sometimes Butlin specified not only 'paper' but grey paper (no. 572), 'yellowish paper' (no. 634), 'Tracing paper' (no. 646, 754, 856), 'tracing-like paper' (no. 408), 'buff cartridge paper' (no. 254), 'prepared paper' (no. 407), card (no. 347 [miniature of Johnny Johnson], 635), and 'common thick mill-board' or 'pasteboard' (according to his disciple Frederick Tatham) for the Large Colour Prints (no. 289–329).4

For his drawings Blake also used Canvas,5 'Fine linen' (no. 667–68), Muslin (no. 811), Ivory (no. 376–78, miniatures of Thomas Butts, his wife, and son), Glass (Felpham Rummer [1803], not in Butlin), Panel (no. 750 ['Ghost of a Flea'], 810), Pine (no. 808–9), Mahogany (no. 674, 806–7), and a Wood-block (no. 773). [End Page 714]

But for present purposes, the most interesting material is metal.6 It was of course copper on which Blake usually made his engravings and etchings. Scores of these pieces of copper survived Blake's death in 1827, and about 1831 Tatham printed Songs of Innocence and of Experience, America, Europe, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise, and Jerusalem. However, Tatham managed to lose most of the copper plates. The only surviving piece of copper <Illustration 10a> from Blake's works in Illuminated Printing is part of the abandoned version of America (1793) pl a <Illustration 1>.

Copper was enormously important to Blake; as he himself wrote, 'Mr B ... during a Period of forty Years never suspended his Labours on Copper for a single day.'7 His own works in Illuminated Printing were etched on copper, and he might have written of them what Urizen says of his universal creation:

'Here alone I in books formd of metals
Have written the secrets of wisdom'

(Urizen pl 4, ll 69–70)

In letterpress printing, one pass through the press prints several pages – four pages per side in a quarto, twelve pages in a duodecimo, &c. But in printing from an engraving in a rolling press <Illustration 3>, a single pass through the press normally produces only a single image. The copper plate had to be cleaned, re-inked, and printed twelve times to produce twelve copies of the image.8

The pressure of the roller on the dampened paper was so heavy that the engraved image was slightly embossed on the paper. Even when the ink was wiped off the plate, the obscured portions can sometimes be detected in a raking light; in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (copy M) the 'Chorus' of 'A Song of Liberty' was not inked, but embossed portions of it may still be seen.9

Text and engravings were printed in separate shops, sometimes at considerable distance and inconvenience. For Hayley's Designs to a Series of Ballads (1802), Seagrave in Chichester printed the text and sent it to Blake [End Page 715]

Click for larger view
Illustration 1
America (1793) pl a [Library of Congress] (16.1 x 22.8 cm), an alternative to pl. 5. It was kept by Blake for more than ten years and carried to Felpham (1800) and back to London (1803) – copper was valuable and money was scarce in the Blake household – until eventually it was cut up about 1805 [Illustrations 10a, b, c] to be used for apprentice engravings by Blake's student Thomas Butts.
[End Page 716]

in Felpham to add the prints, collate text and prints, stitch in wrappers, and...


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