William Blake and the technology of publishing

A page from Blake's Book of Urizen

A page from Blake’s Book of Urizen

Blake is virtually unique in European art for the way in which image and poetry are married in his visionary prophetic books. Early in his professional life Blake hit upon a novel method for printing his own books from etched copper plates, where hand written text and images could be combined. He continued to use this throughout his life, and most of his major works were published in this way. The method itself is fascinating, not least for the many parallels it has with contemporary publishing technology. But it also, by analogy, tells us a great deal about the nature of the turbulent, fiery universe of Blake’s Prophetic Books. He always claimed that the method appeared to him in a vision, where his dead brother Robert revealed how it should be done. This was the method. He worked directly onto a copper place, using a camel hair brush to paint the letters and images in a mixture of salad oil and candle-grease. The plates were then etched in an acid bath. The acid bit into the copper except where the layer of candle-grease lay, and, over three or four hours gradually revealed the words and text as ridges of copper standing above the etched surface. From these plates he could produce as many impressions as he wished, in his own home, when orders were placed. They would then be finished with coloured inks, if the buyer so desired.

These days, once again, any writer or poet with a certain amount of technical know-how can produce on their home computer a complex amalgam of text and image to their own unique design. And, as with Blake’s process, copies can be printed to order, from one to thousands, for very little cost. As we have seen this magazine (along with uncountable others) has benefited enormously from such methods. The computer screen with its glowing letters and infinitely malleable image pixels has replaced the acid bath. One imagines that Blake would have been dazzled but also rather horrified at the sheer ease of the process now, and the vast quantity of prosaic personal outpourings thus produced. But something is gained. We are a little closer to Blake. Thought, image, and the word can again be fused together by anyone who has the vision and the patience, without need of the publishing conglomerates and their satanic marketing machines. However, to see the metaphor as Blake saw it more effort is needed. For him the etching process itself was an intrinsic part of his vision. In his books Appearance (the material world as it appears to the ordinary man) was to be dissolved away, and the visionary truth revealed. As he says in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (one of the first of his Books to be produced by this method):

But first the notion that man has a body distinct from his soul is to be expunged; this I shall do by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives, which in Hell are salutory and medicinal, melting apparant surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid. If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. 

This is a short extract from an article: Urthona, Blake’s Spirit of infernal imagination, which will appear in the next issue of Urthona journal, due out October

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