Beautiful Things: Blake’s Illustrations of Dante

Blake's Illustrations of Dante

Continuing our irregular series of ‘Beautiful Things’ from the Library’s collections, we return to the Sterling Library and one of its many irreplaceable treasures: a set of engravings of seven of William Blake’s illustrations of the Divine Comedy.

Towards the end of his life, Blake was commissioned by his patron, engraver and painter John Linnell, to produce a set of illustrations of Dante’s masterpiece.  Blake began 102 watercolour designs which reached various stages of completion before his death (and can be viewed on The William Blake Archive).  Of these, seven, depicting scenes from the Inferno, were selected to be engraved by Blake.  The Sterling Library set is one of five proofs produced for Linnell in 1826, and was in the possession of his family until 1918.  As with the watercolours, the plates were unfinished at the time of Blake’s death, but the pure line engravings (a change from Blake’s technique of combining etching and engraving) produced are powerful and elegant, while the prints themselves are of exceptional quality and freshness, having been carefully stored by the Linnells.

Linnell did not produce prints of the plates for sale until 1838,  and although Blake’s illustrations have since been used in many editions of the text, they were not widely known or used in the nineteenth century.  Selections from the watercolours and prints were reproduced in the Savoy in 1896, accompanied by essays by W.B Yeats and in his 1899 bibliography of illustration of the Divine Comedy, Ludwig Volkmann wrote of the illustrations ‘although to-day almost forgotten and never mentioned in any treatise on the pictures to Dante, are to be ranked among the most interesting artistic works suggested by the Comedy’ (Iconografia Dantesca, 1899, p. 134).  This is clearly demonstrated by the engravings: the scenes depicted are familiar from Dante’s text, but the interpretation is unique to Blake.  The depiction of  Dante and Virgil exemplify Blake’s vision: he does not follow the usual conventions of Dante illustration of attempting to reproduce a likeness of Dante or depicting Virgil as the typical classical poet, as Yeats writes ‘he intended to draw, in the present case, the soul rather than the body of Dante and read “The Divine Comedy” as a vision seen not in the body but out of the body.” (‘Blakes illustrations to the Divine Comedy’ The Savoy, 1896, 4, pp. 38-41).

Today, Blake’s illustrations are widely reproduced and easily recognisable but this particular set of prints are to be valued for their quality and provenance and, although unfinished are a beautiful example of Blake’s skill as an illustrator and engraver.

Quotes are taken from Dorothy L. Sayer’s translation of the Divine Comedy

[S.L.] IV [Blake - 1826] fol-5105

Inferno, Canto V: the circle of the lustful and the encounter with Francesca da Rimini.

Like as the starlings wheel in the wintry season

In  wide and clustering flocks wing-borne, wind-borne

Even so they go, the souls who did this treason,

While the one spirit thus spoke, the other’s crying,

Wailed on me with a sound so lamentable,

I swooned for like as I were dying,

And , as a dead man falling, down I fell.

(lines 40-42, 139-142)

[S.L.] IV [Blake - 1826] fol-5100

Inferno, canto XXV: circle viii, bolgia vii: thieves: Cianfa, in the form of a reptile attacks and merges with Agnello.

Clasping his middle with its middle paws ,

Along his arms it made its fore-paws reach,

And clenched its teeth tightly in both jaws;

(lines 52-54)

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Beautiful Things – London Impressions

London Impressions: etchings and pictures in photogravure by William Hyde and essays by Alice Meynell was published in 1898.  Both the words and the images in this book are beautiful.  Hyde uses a very soft sometimes charcoal like approach to photogravure – a photo-mechanical intaglio printing process that uses light to expose an image on to a plate which is then acid-etched.  The charcoal-like nature of Hyde’s work is accompanied by accurate and fine detail.  This mix of techniques does indeed provide a very impressionistic view of London at the end of the 19th century.  Alice Meynell is now mostly remembered as a poet but she was also a suffragist, a critic, an editor and an early questioner of Europe’s colonial imperialism.  Her prose in London Impressions often speaks of the colours, sounds and other sensory experiences of London.

An Impression

BL Meynell fol-6

‘Add to this the black garments of the crowd, which make every man conspicuous in the light, and the abrupt and minute patches of white – exceedingly pure white of sharp shapes and angles – scattered throughout the drifting and intercrossing multitude.  The white of a footman’s shirt, the white of the collars of innumerable men, the white letters of advertisements, the white of the label at the back of cabs and hansoms, and many and many another little square, triangle, and line of white, are visible to the utmost distances.  They have an emphasis that is never softened; nothing except snow, could be whiter; and nothing, perhaps, makes so salient a part of the enormous fragmentariness of the street view.’ (p. 7-8)

Utilitarian London

BL Meynell fol-4

Terrible London

BL Meynell fol-5

The Climate of Smoke

‘And yet the artificial climate of London is at its best when it is very obvious, and when it has strong scenes of sunset or storm to deal with.  The time when it is insufferable is noonday or full afternoon on a cloudless day in summer, when there is not wind enough to drift it, helpless, out of town, and when it is not thick enough to keep the sun away.  It makes the sunshine ugly.  No beauty, even artificial or obvious belongs to the smoke then, and it plays no antic pranks in mimicry of cloud.  It has no shadow and no menace; it has no opportunity for stage-plays: it is disconcerted, and cannot make a penny theatre of its London.  Every one must know such days, of which the essence should have been their purity, plain and splendid.  By their light is the smoke seen to be nothing in the world but a sorry smirch.  The horizon is thickened with it, and there it wreaks its chief ‘effects’, but all near things are also oppressed by it; the spirit of the sunshine is gone, and a blazing sun upon miles of blue slate roofs and yellow houses, with the uncleanness of smoke just showing in the blaze, is actually that impossibility – sunshine without beauty.’ (p. 10)

Kensington Gardens

BL Meynell fol-3

The Trees

‘The leaves of the street-side tree flutter bright emerald green through the whole night (out of town discolouring night) of leafy summer.  That local colour is never quenched, as human blushes are quenched at night.  It rather takes a more conspicuous quality, under the closeness of the electric light; it is sharply green.  Whereas the days has its mists and veils, and may at times darken a tree nearly black, by setting the sky alight behind it, the night has none of these shadows.  The light of night is stationary and unchangeable, and there are some solitary trees here and there that undergo the unshifting illumination at the closest quarters; the light that knows no hours and makes no journey gleams near upon the motion of the leaves and glosses their faces.  It is beforehand with the twilight, so that the dusk when it comes finds the place taken, and it will not let the tree go until the light of day flows in fully, and dawn is over.’ (p. 12)

London Impressions is a book from the Bromhead Library, a collection of around 4000 volumes almost exclusively about London and Londoners. 

Beautiful Things – Text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.

Beautiful Things – The Chinese Drawings.

‘The Chinese Drawings’ (SLIV 63 Sterling Library) are atypical of the kind of material that Sir Louis Sterling collected but on seeing these exquisite drawings it is easy to understand why he wanted them.  The printed catalogue of Sterling’s collection, published in 1954, describes them simply as ‘A set of twelve coloured drawings on paper, mounted and bound in dark red morocco, gilt, dark red watered silk linings’.  We know something of the provenance of the drawings from a note tucked into their album, which reads thus:

Second only in importance to what are called the Mandarin Series (which are larger designs), sets such as this are scarce on account of the subjects being Chinese national types; i.e., pictures of the common people as compared with celebrity mandarins.  This set was captured at the Taku Forts in 1842, and their captor stated that they were at least twenty years old, and possibly much more, at that time.

The circumstances were these  

Captain Henry Eden, R.N. was senior Lieutenant of the Dido during the closing operations of the Chinese War, 1841-1842.  The day after the taking of Woosung, June 17, 1842, Lieutenant Eden landed in command of the boats’ crews belonging to the squadron, which included the marines of the Dido and destroyed the enemy’s forts, magazines, etc.  In one of those forts this set of Chinese drawings was found by Lieutenant Eden and he carried them off as a prize, retaining them in his family until his death, when they came into the possession of his sons, from one of whom they were purchased in 1919.

Beautiful Things – text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.

We would love to hear from anyone who can add to our knowledge of these beautiful drawings.

SLV 63 -4379

SLV 63 -4380

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Beautiful Things – The Insects of Surinam.

This is the first of a series of occasional postings regarding beautiful things I have come across whilst doing the part of my job that involves fetching books for readers.  Beautiful Things is a record of accidental discovery.

The Insects of Surinam is a volume of sixty plates by Maria Merian.  Published in 1705 the illustrations and descriptions concern the metamorphosis in the life cycle of insects. The Latin title translates ‘The metamorphosis of the insects of Surinam, in which the caterpillars and worms of Surinam, with all their transformations, are drawn and described from life, each of them placed on the plants, flowers and fruits on which they were found’.

The Guava

The Guava

In 2004, Special Collections displayed the volume as part of an exhibition on natural history; the accompanying guide states:

Merian travelled to Surinam (Dutch Guiana) at the age of 52 in 1699, financing her trip by selling her paintings and collection of insects, in order to study insects in their natural habitats.  She remained there for 21 months, breeding, collecting and sketching insects.  Merian financed the publication of her subsequent book on insects of Surinam herself, losing money on the venture.  Two versions were published, one with the text in Latin (shown here), one in Dutch.  Merian engraved three of the 60 plates, a team of three engravers the rest.  They depict about 90 studies of caterpillars evolving into insects, mostly life-size, and include the names and local uses of plants.

The engravings are the first extensive visual record of South American plants and insects and the first record at all of many of the subjects.  Later editions add 12 more plates based on the drawings of Merian’s elder daughter, Johanna.

The Casava root with a piece of bread.

The Cassava root with a piece of bread.

The work was also exhibited in 2008 at the J Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, where the guide noted:

‘Each image was organized around a single plant and was accompanied by a text in which Merian described the colors, forms, and timing of each stage of transformation. By including the caterpillars’ food sources in her natural history illustrations, Merian brought a more ecological approach to the study of metamorphosis.

Merian’s work helped to disprove the common belief that insects reproduced by spontaneous generation from decaying matter such as old meat or rotten fruit, and her aesthetic sensitivity raised the standards of scientific illustration.’

The J. Paul Getty Museum – Los Angeles

The Casava or Manihot.

The Cassava or Manihot.

Beautiful Things – Text and photographs by Charles Harrowell.