Fragment of a cancelled copper plate from William Blake’s America

Contributor: Robert Rix

Location: Library of Congress, Washington DC

Description: The poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) printed his Illuminated Books, combining text and picture, from copper plates. The technique he used was unique and is still subject to debate. We know that he wrote directly on the copper with an acid-resistant liquid; he then proceeded to cover the plate in corrosive acid that etched away the uncovered areas of the plate, leaving text and design in relief, which was finally inked and placed in a rolling press. The exhibit shows how Blake painted text in mirror writing so that the plate, when pressed against the paper, prints in normal script. Legend has it that Blake was instructed in this peculiar printing technique in 1788, when his dead brother, Robert, appeared to him in a vision. However, Blake never gave any detailed account of how his etchings were made. The exhibit is the only surviving fragment on which Blake’s etching technique is visible. It has therefore been of great interest to critics who have tried to reconstruct how Blake made his Illuminated Books.

The piece of copper is 82 ✕ 58 mm and cut from a larger copper plate. Thus, the exhibit could be said to belong to the much-discussed category of the Romantic ‘fragment’. Yet, unlike other Romantic fragments, such as S.T. Coleridge’s dream that he only partially managed to record in Kubla Khan: or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment, it is possible to recover what Blake’s complete vision would have looked like, because he printed an impression of the full plate before it was cut up. This print shows us that the fragment comes from the middle of the right side of the full plate. The plate was intended for Blake’s poem America: A Prophecy from 1793, which consists of 18 plates in its final form. The fragment belongs to one of three cancelled plates related to the poem. The two other plates (for which only the prints survive) contain rejected story lines, which shows us that ideas that Romantic works were created without premeditation do not hold up to scrutiny. But why Blake rejected the plate from which the fragment was cut is moot, as the print he made shows only minor textual and visual variances from the plate that was eventually used for printed copies of America. Perhaps, the copper plate was damaged (note: the scratches on the right-hand side of the fragment were not Blake’s doing).

Appearing in late 1793, America was the first of Blake’s so-called ‘Continental Prophecies’. The poem explores political repression and the revolt that overturns it through an interpretation of the American Revolution as a cosmic drama. Blake includes historical figures such as Horatio Gates, Benjamin Franklin and Nathanael Green (the names visible on the fragment), but mythopoeic figures, such as ‘Londons Guardian’ (also on the fragment) and ‘Albions Angel’ are given more attention. These are forces that represent mythopoeic aspects of the British government and religious orthodoxy. Their opponent is the fiery Orc (the spirit of revolution), who is freed from his chains in the ‘Preludium’ to the poem. In this way, Blake is exploring the American Revolution as the very paradigm of liberty and as a harbinger of universal revolution, both politically and spiritually. This is symbolized in the pictorial design visible on the fragment: a bird is taking to the air with extended wings and the legs and lower body of a floating nude male with a large trumpet, out of which issues a flaming blast, perhaps illustrating an apocalyptic angel blowing the last trump.

On the fragment, these images and the text stand out in relief on the metal from having been drawn with a solution impervious to acid, so that the surrounding surface would be bitten away. Blake was keen to see this as an analogy to his artistic ambition, which was to expose the iniquities of established authority and reveal the divine potential of man. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a work etched only a few years before America, Blake makes this clear: he speaks of eradicating all sanctimonious religious control ‘by printing in the infernal method, by corrosives … melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid’ (plate 14). But Blake could not ignore the concrete materiality of having to purchase copper for this process, and the cost of the metal was relatively high. Hence, he would sometimes use the versos of already etched plates for other poems. This recycling is a sign of Blake’s frugality and a reflection of his failure to prosper as an artist in his own day. But the physical juxtaposition of poems also has conceptual ramifications. The back of the plates used for America were etched with designs for Blake’s next libertarian prophecy, Europe. So, the idea in America that the revolution would spread as ‘Stiff shudderings’ to shake ‘the heav’nly thrones! France, Spain, and Italy’ (plate 16) is thus both intellectually and materially connected with Europe. A similar contiguity is seen in connection with The Songs of Innocence, whose versos were used for the designs that would make up The Songs of Experience.

The back of the fragment was also used for a new design. Sometime after March 1806, Blake began to teach drawing and engraving to Thomas Butts, Jr., the son of his patron. The verso of the piece was used by the young Thomas for engraving the head of a saint. The fragment has survived only because it was reemployed as material for practicing and then stored in a drawer of an auctioned cabinet that belonged to the Butts family. Apparently, all other specimens of Blake’s relief-etched plates were lost in the nineteenth century. Upon the artist’s death, the coppers were left to his wife and his friend Fredrick Tatham, who printed off new impressions of his work. Others also made use of them. The poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti explained in a note added to Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake: With Selections from His Poems and Other Writings (1863) that the illustrations included in the volume were printed from the artist’s ‘original plates … being the only remnant of the series still in existence on copper; the rest having, it is believed, been stolen after Blake’s death, and sold for old metal’ (vol. 2: 267). The recycling of printing plates was not unusual, given the relatively high value of copper.

Provenance: Library of Congress, Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection (PR4144.A5 1794). Purchased by William A. White from the dealer John Pearson, 21 Dec. 1896 for £33; sold after White’s death from his collection by the dealer A. S. W. Rosenbach to Lessing J. Rosenwald, 1 May 1929; given by Rosenwald to the Library of Congress in 1945.

Date: c.1793

Creator: William Blake

Subject: William Blake

Media rights: Library of Congress

Object type: copper plate, fragment

Format: copper

Language: English

Publisher: Library of Congress

Catalogue number: Library of Congress, Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection (PR4144.A5 1794)