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.

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