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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Senate House Library treasures volume: Featuring old clothes and Shakespearean contemporaries

Charles Lamb’s Specimens of English Dramatic Poets, who Lived about the Time of Shakespeare (1808) is a compilation of extracts of plays, each preceded by a brief contextualisation of the extract. Represented dramatists include Beaumont and Fletcher, Philip Massinger (alone and in collaboration), James Shirley, Thomas Kyd, George Peele, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Decker, John Marston, George Chapman, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Middleton, William Rowley, John Webster and some who have dropped into obscurity: Robert Tailor, Joseph Cooke, Cyril Tourneur, Robert Narrington and Edward Ravenscroft among others. The book was well received and ran into several further editions and reprints in the nineteenth century, from 1813, and the twentieth, when evidence of its canonical status was demonstrated by its choice as an Everyman classic. Versions appeared with further editorial intervention, by the essayist and biographer E. V. Lucas and by William Macdonald.

For Senate House Library, the first edition of a book edited by a significant literary personage dealing with Shakespeare’s contemporaries is inevitably significant, the Library having developed strong Shakespearean holdings ever since acquiring Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence’s library in 1929. In itself, the first edition of Lamb’s book is not rare, with at least thirteen copies recorded in institutional libraries in the United Kingdom. But the Senate House Library copy is a presentation one, inscribed by Lamb’s friend and fellow poet Robert Southey: ‘R. Southey from the Editor, Keswick. Aug. 6. 1808.’ It originally formed part of what Southey called his ‘Cottonian library’. The name paid joking homage to the seventeenth-century bibliophile Sir Robert Cotton, while referring to a collection of books bound by members of his family, using whatever materials they had to hand (such as old dresses previously worn by the Southey ladies) – in this instance, flowered beige calico cloth. The book is the most striking of eleven titles by Lamb to have been given to Senate House Library in early editions by Sir Louis Sterling.


Dragons, childhood et al.: recent acquisitions

When Sir Louis Sterling gave Senate House Library his collection of about 4,200 specimens of English literature in 1956, he intended it to be added to, and left money for the purpose. One of this year’s acquisitions was a 1920 edition of Walter de la Mare’s Songs of Childhood, his first book of poetry (originally published in 1902 under the name “Walter Ramal”). This issue states of itself: “In this new edition one or two poems have been omitted; there are a few new ones; and what is common to both volumes has been here and there revised”. In addition, the work has joined a series, Longmans’ Pocket Library. The small work is significant for Senate House Library because it supplements editions in the Walter de la Mare Family Archive of Walter de la Mare’s Printed Oeuvre, a collection of editions and translations of De la Mare’s work. This copy was acquired in 1921 by J. B. Stoughton Holborn of Foula: i.e. John Bernard (“Ian”) Stoughton Holborn (1872-1935), an academic and author who in about 1900 purchased the Scottish island of Foula (twenty miles west of the Shetland Islands and the most remote inhabited island in the British Isles), and therewith became its laird.

Songs of Childhood

Sterling also hoped that his gift would encourage further donations. An area of his collecting was private press books from the heyday of the private press movement and earlier. Salient are the extensive holdings of presses, such as a complete set of books issued by the Kelmscott Press and seventy books from the Golden Cockerel Press, but numerous presses were represented by a small number of items: for example, the Bowling Green Press; the Centaur Press; the Seizin Press. In this spirit, the Library was delighted to accept specimens of the output of three modern private presses, Rufus Books, based in Toronto, the Clutag Press, established in 2000 in Thame, Oxfordshire, and the Happy Dragons Press, begun by Julius Stafford-Baker in 1969; the recent gifts are all of twenty-first century works, some from the ‘Dragon Poems in Translation’ series inherited from the Keepsake Press. Unlike the books from the private press movement, the twenty-first century items received are paperbacks, and several are mere pamphlets – a fascinating proof of publishing changes. Interest in good-quality type and paper, in layout and often illustration, and limited editions, often with numbered copies, continue the established private press tradition. Some of the items received are rare: four “dragon poems” from the Happy Dragon Press, translated from the Spanish of Pablo Neruda, the Polish of Krystof Kamil Baczynski, the Turkish of Mehmet Yashin and the German of Erich Fried, are the first to be recorded in British institutional libraries, as is John Reibetanz’s poem Fallen, printed in fifty copies (Rufus, 2012).

Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring an enchanted voyage

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s ‘The Voyage of Maeldune’ adapts a well-known Irish legend in P.W. Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances (1879). It relates the adventures of a chieftain who seeks to revenge his father’s death, but who is blown off course on a Ulyssean voyage of enchantment and calamity. The journey brings him to magic islands that cast a frenzied spell on his crew, who fall to slaying each other. The spell is broken only on the Isle of a Saint where they encounter a hermit who admonishes forgiveness. Weary of strife and sin, the mariners return home. On seeing his father’s killer, the hero forsakes revenge and leaves him be.

Composed in 1879-80, the text of the manuscript is, besides relatively small variants, identical to the version published in Ballads, and Other Poems (1880). The poem is written in black ink with extensive revisions in Tennyson’s hand on thirteen leaves of ruled laid paper, torn with hurried force from a copybook now held at the Houghton Library (Harvard Notebook 47), which contains other early fragments of the poem. The ragged, dirty pages contain the final stages of creation as Tennyson fair-copied and further revised the poem. They significantly modify the well-known story that Tennyson composed in his head while walking up and down the garden before committing his poem to paper.

That Sir Louis Sterling liked Tennyson is clear from the fact that, in addition to two private press editions of Tennyson’s work presumably acquired for the publisher rather than the author, he owned 31 printed editions of his works, including some in more than one copy, some in trial copies, and The Princess in the first five editions. This is one of three Tennyson holograph manuscripts in the Sterling Library.

MS SL/V/32

Voyage of Maeldune

Senate House Library treasures: featuring the servant problem

In 1847 Henry Mayhew (1812–1887) and his brother Augustus (1826–1875) brought to the

Part 2, "It's my cousin, Ma'am"

Part 2, “It’s my cousin, Ma’am”

publisher David Bogue an idea for a comic series, to be published in shilling monthly parts. It would purport to be written by the much-harassed mistress of a middle-class household and deal with the problems of recruiting and managing domestic servants, already a favourite subject of the comic weekly magazine Punch (founded in 1841). Bogue accepted their proposal and commissioned George Cruikshank, the outstanding English political and social caricaturist of the first half of the nineteenth century, to supply two etchings for each part, together with a wrapper design and title-page vignette.

Although the resulting work has not survived the nineteenth century, initially it was a great hit, reputedly selling more copies than the monthly parts of  Pickwick Papers had doneCruikshank’s brilliantly comic plates helped greatly in this respect. While part publication was a common mode of publishing in the Victorian era and helped readers to spread the costs of their purchase, it was expected that readers would ultimately have the parts bound, and a title page was typically issued with the final issue of parts for the purpose. Thus unbound parts in institutional libraries are relatively rare. We chose to feature the parts for The Greatest Plague in Life rather than those for Dickens’s more enduring Nicholas Nickleby or Little Dorrit, also in the Sterling Library, for their greater rarity: ours is currently the only set of original parts for the Mayhew work recorded on COPAC. For Senate House another endearing feature of the Mayhew is its local flavour: when the story begins, the narrator is in a boarding house in Guildford Street, Russell Square – bereft of her own establishment, she complains, because of a pack of lazy, ungrateful, good-for-nothing servants.

Part 3, back

Part 3, back

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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Senate House Library treasures volume: featuring Thomas Carlyle

The historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) was an inveterate annotator who had no

Aurora Leigh, annotated by Thomas Carlyle

Aurora Leigh, annotated by Thomas Carlyle

business to be writing on books that did not belong to him. Nonetheless, Senate House Library has reason to be grateful for the fact that he did. The first edition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s narrative poem Aurora Leigh (1857) is a drab production – but the Senate House Library copy has been considerably enlivened by having been annotated throughout by Thomas Carlyle, in typically acerbic fashion. These annotations have been reproduced in full in The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle, vol. 32: October 1856-July 1857 (Durham [N.C.] and London: Duke University Press, 2004). But nothing substitutes for seeing his handwriting next to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s text: for example, as he urges ‘don’t!’when the protagonist says it is ‘too easy to go mad’, or as he sums up his view at the end of Book I of the poem: ‘How much better had all this been if written straight forward in clear prose utterance.’

            The treasures volume sometimes corrected long-held misconceptions. The compiler of the printed catalogue of Sir Louis Sterling’s library (1954), to which this copy of Aurora Leigh belongs, suggested that Mary Aitken, Carlyle’s niece and housekeeper (1848-95), had lent the book to Carlyle. Prof. Rosemary Ashton pointed out the impossibility of this hypothesis, Mary having been only eight years old at the time. The letters, not generally available when the printed catalogue was being compiled, reveal that the book had apparently been sent to Carlyle by his brother John from Dumfriesshire.