- William Blake in the Desolate Marketby G.E. Bentley Jr.
G.E. Bentley Jr. has been accumulating facts about William Blake for decades. Because of the undisputed reputation of his works as indispensable books of reference they are kept within easy reach in every Blake scholar’s library. His latest, William Blake in the Desolate Market(2014), is about money. Apart from Blake Recordsit draws on Blake Books(1977), Blake Books Supplement(1995), and the checklists published in Blake/An Illustrated Quarterlyand uses Robert N. Essick’s The Separate Plates of William Blake: A Catalogue(1983), Martin Butlin’s The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake(1981), and Joseph Viscomi’s Blake and the Idea of the Book(1993) as sources for the tables in each of its chapters. These tables list Blake’s known, traced, and untraced plates and works. Each has a figure next to it: what sold when and for how much. What did not sell, Blake kept. [End Page 404]
Chapter one, introducing Blake the engraver, essentially focuses on the large, separate plates, especially the Canterbury Pilgrims, and R.H. Cromek, who taught Blake a few lessons in business; it presents Blake as aware of or responsive to market demands and teases out that he must have worked with great speed. Chapter two is about Poetical Sketches, which, though they were supported and fully financed by the Mathews, Blake remained indifferent toward. Chapter three is on the Print Shop at 27 Broad Street. Here Catherine gets some attention. Here skills were tested and honed through this business. Chapter four reminds us that Blake was also a teacher who had to cope with a wide range of pupils to supplement his income or to oblige friends. There is a fair amount on his apprentice Thomas Owen. “The Blakes as Printers, 1784–1827,” chapter five, emphasizes that Blake was never a keen printer owing to the “repetitive nature of plate-printing.” By now it is clear that Blake did not care about money. The chapter on Blake the painter (chapter six) again spans most of his life. Bentley explains that exhibiting at the Royal Academy was not worth the effort as it did not help with the sales of the paintings. Similarly, when Blake put the aggressive and calculated marketing he had learned from Cromek into practice by issuing a prospectus, a flyer, and a catalogue to advertise his own exhibition, it did not pay off. Chapter seven deals with the works in conventional typography: Descriptive Catalogue(1809) and William Hayley’s Designs to a Series of Ballads(1802) but not his Ballads … Relating to Animals(1805). Chapter eight is on illuminated printing and its costs as well as on the people who bought these works. Chapter nine gives the figures of Blake’s absolute earnings. Blake earned his living through engravings and painting and supplemented it through teaching and printing. The income figures, in other words, correspond with his public profile.
In William Blake in the Desolate MarketBentley assesses Blake’s abilities as a businessman and examines the paper trails of informal negotiations or advice left in the correspondence and the Notebook. He also discusses, for example, the inscriptions made by buyers (it is noteworthy that those buying Blake’s work considered payment worth recording on the object they bought) and explores Blake’s relationships with commercial booksellers and printers. The appendix, titled “Blake’s Patrons,” by far the longest section, gives the professions and residences of those who either bought or subscribed to Blake’s works. This information allows us to determine artistic networks as well as clusters of Blake supporters.
Bentley’s new book tells the story of Blake’s poverty. It is a very useful reference book and easier to navigate than Blake Records. The tables, presenting information taken from sales records, account books, or the inventory of Blake’s belongings, map Blake’s earnings decade by decade and income by income. But how precise can William Blake in the Desolate [End Page 405] Marketreally be...