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
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)
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;