Enter an Archive of William Blake’s Fantastical “Illuminated Books”: The Images Are Sublime, and in High Resolution

William Blake earned his place as the patron saint of all free­think­ing out­sider artists. One might say he per­fect­ed the role as he per­fect­ed his art—or his arts rather, since his poet­ry inspires as much awe and acclaim as his vision­ary engrav­ings and illus­tra­tions. Stand­ing astride the Neo­clas­si­cal eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry and the Roman­tic era, Blake reject­ed the ratio­nal­ism and clas­si­cism that sur­round­ed him from birth and devel­oped a prophet­ic style drawn from an ear­li­er age.

He “sought to emu­late the exam­ple of artists such as Raphael, Michelan­ge­lo and Dür­er in pro­duc­ing time­less, ‘Goth­ic’ art, infused with Chris­t­ian spir­i­tu­al­i­ty and cre­at­ed with poet­ic genius,” writes the Met’s Eliz­a­beth Bark­er. (“Blake described his paint­ing tech­nique as ‘fres­co.’) But no one would ever mis­take the works of Blake for any­one oth­er than Blake, with their mus­cu­lar, hero­ic fig­ures, vio­lent­ly expres­sive faces, and tor­tured pos­es.

The William Blake Archive gives us access to a huge sam­pling of Blake’s work, from his book illus­tra­tions to his draw­ings and paint­ings, to his man­u­scripts, etc. The images are high res­o­lu­tion scans that users can add to a light­box, rotate, zoom into, view “true size,” or enlarge.

Per­haps most inter­est­ing are the images, like those here, from Blake’s “Illu­mi­nat­ed Books,” a series of philo­soph­i­cal, reli­gious, and mytho­log­i­cal works com­posed from about 1788 to 1822. The archive con­tains dozens of vari­ant print­ings of these end­less­ly fas­ci­nat­ing hand-let­tered books.

Becom­ing a furi­ous­ly pro­lif­ic, mys­ti­cal­ly inspired artist while liv­ing in pover­ty and near-obscurity—“considered insane and large­ly dis­re­gard­ed by his peers,” as BBC His­to­ry puts it—required for­ti­tude and almost super­hu­man belief in him­self, espe­cial­ly since his belief sys­tem was large­ly self-cre­at­ed. While Blake con­sid­ered the Bible “the great­est work of poet­ry ever writ­ten,” and its themes and nar­ra­tives spoke to him through­out his career, his own reli­gious ten­den­cies took the form of the mythol­o­gy he elab­o­rat­ed through the fan­tas­ti­cal illu­mi­nat­ed books.

“I must Cre­ate a Sys­tem,” he wrote in Jerusalem, com­posed between 1804 and 1820, “or be enslav’d by anoth­er Mans,” and so he did, invent­ing fig­ures like Los, Urizen (the oppres­sive, sup­pres­sive God of the Old Tes­ta­ment), Albion, the per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of Eng­land, and his daugh­ters, Bromion, Oothoon, and Theotor­mon. While work­ing on these unortho­dox projects, he bare­ly “eked out a liv­ing as an engraver and illus­tra­tor” of com­mer­cial books. He also drew and paint­ed sev­er­al Bib­li­cal sub­jects and scenes from lit­er­ary texts by his favorite authors, Mil­ton and Dante.

The illu­mi­nat­ed books, Bark­er writes “rank among Blake’s most cel­e­brat­ed achieve­ments.” Writ­ten “in a range of forms—prophecies, emblems, pas­toral vers­es, bib­li­cal satire, and children’s books,” these eclec­tic works “addressed var­i­ous time­ly subjects—poverty, child exploita­tion, racial inequal­i­ty, tyran­ny, reli­gious hypocrisy.” With lit­er­ary vig­or, moral clar­i­ty, and emo­tion­al insight, Blake harsh­ly cri­tiqued what he saw as the evils of his age, and more­over, offered an alternative—an anti-Enlight­en­ment, rad­i­cal­ly egal­i­tar­i­an, free love vision, com­posed of patch­work ele­ments of the Bible, Mil­ton, Emanuel Swe­den­borg, and pagan and druidic sources.

Two of the most famous of Blake’s illu­mi­nat­ed books show the influ­ence of Milton’s Il Penseroso and L’Allegro, stud­ies in the con­trast of melan­choly and mirth, which Blake once illus­trat­ed. In Blake’s hands, these become Songs of Inno­cence, “the gen­tlest of his lyrics,” writes BBC, and Songs of Expe­ri­ence, “con­tain­ing a pro­found expres­sion of adult cor­rup­tion and repres­sion.” Blake also found in Dante “a seem­ing­ly inex­haustible source of inspi­ra­tion in his own fer­tile mind,” Bark­er explains. But just as he trans­formed his artis­tic influ­ences, he took his lit­er­ary inspi­ra­tions in direc­tions no one else but Blake would think to do. And for that, he remains a sin­gu­lar­ly orig­i­nal artist, peer­less in inven­tive­ness and ded­i­ca­tion to his work.

See the William Blake Archive here. The link to his “Illu­mi­nat­ed Books” from which the images here come is at the top left-hand cor­ner of the archive’s nav bar.

You can pur­chase a copy of William Blake: The Com­plete Illu­mi­nat­ed Books in book for­mat here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

William Blake’s Hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry Illus­tra­tions of John Milton’s Par­adise Lost

William Blake’s Mas­ter­piece Illus­tra­tions of the Book of Job (1793–1827)

Artists Illus­trate Dante’s Divine Com­e­dy Through the Ages: Doré, Blake, Bot­ti­cel­li, Mœbius & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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