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New York Arts in the Berkshires

Word, Image, and Deed A review of Michael Phillips’s presentations on William Blake. June 28-29, 2013, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester MA

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William Blake, Cancelled plate from "America, a prophecy." Unique plate with pencil corrections by Blake, bound in with six other plates from America, a prophecy. Lessing Rosenwald Collection. Library of Congress.
William Blake, Cancelled plate from “America, a prophecy.” Unique plate with pencil corrections by Blake, bound in with six other plates from America, a prophecy. Lessing Rosenwald Collection. Library of Congress.

How do we access the past? The viewer of contemporary art is invariably ensconced in, if not assaulted by, the strategies of artist, gallerist, and critic setting a work in terms of the present. The viewer, even the neophyte, invariably is attuned to the content of the discourse—racial memories of South Africa, female experience in the United States, sexual identity, response to AIDs, poverty, or age, in term that resonate with lived, personal experience. How does an exhibitor or critic bridge the cultural gap that so actively stands between our present and our past, especially with artists outside of the mainstream?

Michael Phillips, a printmaker and scholar associated with the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York, employs a tactile recreation of the artist’s methods. Among his many individual and collaborative works are The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a facsimile edition of William Blake published by the Bodleian Library and University of Chicago Press, 2011 and William Blake The Creation of the Songs from Manuscript to Illuminated Printing, British Library and Princeton University Press, 2001. Phillips has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Yale Centre for British Art, the British Library Centre for the Book, and a British Academy Research Readership in the Humanities, among others.  He appeared at the International Word and Image Conference at the College of the Holy Cross, giving both a talk and a demonstration of printing. An exhibition of Phillips’s facsimiles of Blake’s works and one original print by Blake were on view in the College’s Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Art Gallery.

William Blake, (1757- 1827) painter, printmaker and poet, is now considered an indispensable precursor of Romanticism’s visual as well as literary expression, as typically stated by no less a critic than Northrop Frye. Largely ignored by his contemporaries who found his imagery and social theories at best idiosyncratic and at worst the product of an unstable or anti-establishment mind, he was revered by the subsequent generation as a creator of deep, even epic themes of creation, redemption and social equality. His influence on England’s avant-garde was profound; William Michael Rossetti, the brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, edited an edition of Blake’s poetry in 1890. The award-winning William Blake Archive http://www.blakearchive.org/blake/main.html indicates the artist’s importance to the present.

From his early experience, at age ten in Henry Pars’s drawing school, Blake was captivated by models from the Renaissance (Michelangelo and Raphael) and classic sculpture (Laocoön). Entering the Royal Academy at the age of twenty-one, he chaffed at the emphasis given to diffuse outline and Baroque expression, as part of Reynolds’s eighteenth-century founding legacy. The artist’s politics have intrigued future readers as much as his art. America: A Prophecy, of 1793 addresses the American Revolution mingling both historical figures such as Washington, with personifications such as Orc, the spirit of revolt; and Europe: A Prophecy, with similar mythical allusions the following year. For many critics, Blake’s progress as a printer constitutes the most revelatory insights into his creative evolution. Michael Phillips, trained as a print maker, has pursued this direction to attempt to recreate the process of Blake’s work. Blake’s revolutionary techniques of etched relief rather than intaglio, as well as his color experiments in both relief and monotypes have captivated contemporary interest. The artist was well versed in the reproductive techniques of his time, having apprenticed in the London studio of James Basire, engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. There he illustrated Richard Gough’s, Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain of 1786 and other works that illustrate the techniques of broken line and dot, hatch and cross hatch, and the dot-and-lozenge system, familiar from bank-note engraving. Subsequently setting up his own studio, Blake developed innovations that are admired as well as debated today.

After Blake’s death in 1827, his wife and collaborator Catherine inherited his stock of printed books. She lived in the household of Frederick Tatham for several months and then on her own until her death in 1831. Tatham, one of the younger artists who formed a circle with Blake in his later years, claimed that Catherine had left him the artist’s works including his illuminated plates. Tatham produced monochrome editions of Blake’s AmericaSongs, and Jerusalem in the 1830’s. Just as nonconformity had been the hallmark of Blake’s life, so apparently his inheritor followed suit, but with infelicitous consequences. Drawn to a conservative religious movement associated with the Scottish preacher Robert Irwin, Tatham was apparently motivated to destroy, or sell, a number of Blake’s works for their purported unorthodox content. Whatever the circumstances, Blake’s copper plates have been lost. By chance, a fragment of a cancelled plate America: A Prophecy, reused for another purpose, has survived and is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. This was the Rosetta Stone for Michael Phillips’s facsimiles.

William Blake, fragment relief-etched copper plate, cancelled plate 'a' of America a Prophecy 1793, 82 x 58 mm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.
William Blake, fragment relief-etched copper plate, cancelled plate ‘a’ of America a Prophecy 1793, 82 x 58 mm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

Phillips begins his reproductive process with exact-size photographic negatives of the originals. He then intervenes to correct any print flaws such as ink smudges on the original impressions. The negative is transferred to the plate and further refined with the etching needle or a brush with stop-out varnish. Emulating what he argues was Blake’s technique, he etches in two stages, stopping “between first and second stage to apply stop-out varnish to letters and parts of the design vulnerable to underbiting” (from The Illuminated Books of William Blake Re-createdhttp://williamblakeprints.co.uk). Philips began his facsimiles more than twenty years ago, and his website carefully illustrates each step of the process. Phillips speaks of a plate with a “depth of no more than 0.12 mm., [that makes] it possible to re-create relief-etched copper plates of the illuminated books that are all but indistinguishable from the originals.”

The plates are inked with historic pigments carefully matched to the colors used by Blake in the originals. A leather ink dauber allows Phillips to gradually apply ink to optimal surface coverage. Significantly, the first printing demands little force given the painstaking application of ink and shallow depth of the raised surfaces of the plate. The image does not recess into the paper. The process of watching the inking and the “pull” is mesmerizing. Most striking to the uninitiated, it the realization that for the artist to produce plates with both his poetic text and the associated image, Blake needed to inscribe his words in reverse. One is immediately reminded of Leonardo’s mirror writing.

Michael Phillips, Frontispiece of Blake's Europe, a Prophecy, printed from re-created copper relief-etched plates
Michael Phillips, Frontispiece of Blake’s Europe, a Prophecy, printed from re-created copper relief-etched plates

The exhibition included several examples of printed from the relief-etched copper plates of Blake’s illuminated books which Mr. Phillips has re-created. We illustrate two if them here. [—ed.]

Michael Phillips, Plate 6 of Blake's Europe, a Prophecy, printed from re-created copper relief-etched plates
Michael Phillips, Plate 6 of Blake’s Europe, a Prophecy, printed from re-created copper relief-etched plates

Blake also produced a limited number of “large color prints” using a technique Blake described as “fresco.” The Metropolitan Museum possesses Pityabout 1795, finished with pen and ink and watercolor, and possibly the artist’s first large color print. The Large Book of Designs, and the Small Book of Designs, that follow in 1796 (copies in the British Museum) are apparently monotypes using chalks mixed with oil and tempera paints. Blake completed the prints with ink and watercolor.

Phillips’s contention that Blake applied various colors to a single plate has been validated by recent conservation analyses. Just as he mingled a variety of colors in his monotypes, he sometimes applied a variety of colors to an etched plate, even when the plate was used to strike a print a second time. Deeply convinced of his own mission, Blake engaged in innovations that challenge even the most meticulous scholar of today.

Michael Phillps mixing historic inks
Michael Phillps mixing historic inks

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, Il Museo di Roma a Trastevere, etc. and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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