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‘Reading Blake in the 1790s: Counterrevolution and European Visual Culture’ Susan Matthews (Roehampton)

16 February 2012

Blog post by Luisa Cale

Copy D of William Blake’s Europe: A Prophecy (1794), at the British Museum since 1859, is copiously annotated by a 1790s hand. Beneath its iconic frontispiece, known as ‘The Ancient of Days’ and featuring a Urizenic divine architect bent in the act of circumscribing the universe, the annotator penned lines about the creation from book VII of Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the title-page’s verso a long extract from Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest (1791) gives a gothic inflection to the Preludium facing it, which is retitled ‘The assasin’. Other titles are added in ink above other plates –‘A Comet’, ‘War’, ‘Plague’, ‘Mildews blighting ears of corn’, ‘Papal Superstition’, ‘Imprisonment’, ‘Fire’. In her talk for the Birkbeck Nineteenth-Century Forum, Susan Matthews used these inscriptions to raise important questions about the cultural work of marginalia. Do they deface, devalue, or even just normalize Blake’s work? Do they show the radical alterity of Blake’s illuminated plates? Do they articulate a dialogue, inscribe a friendship, mediation, imitation?


As Vincent De Luca argues, Blake’s illuminated books produce ‘walls of words’. For Jason Snart, one of their functions is to be impenetrable to practices of annotation. Blake’s  ‘composite art’ depends on a method of printing that unifies poetry and painting produced in the same medium; annotation threatens to disarticulate their union. However, the Copy D illustrations emphasize the fragility of this operation. Given that Blake’s illuminated books remediate a manuscript aesthetic, an inscription in darker ink and larger size might  not only supplement, but even supplant reading of the less clearly legible handwriting etched on the plate. Drawing on H.J. Jackson’s taxonomy of annotations, Susan explored how these ‘mundane marginalia’ participate in a culture of commonplacing, copying out quotations and listing parallels that might ‘illustrate’ the text. Adding titles is a further act of commonplacing. ‘Plague’, ‘Imprisonment’, ‘Fire’ extract the individual plates from their narrative, giving them alternative forms of ‘illustration’.


In Blake, Sexuality and Bourgeois Politeness (2011) Susan visualized the ‘female dream’ of Europe through the Romantic tradition of dream painting associated with Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781) and ‘Titania and Bottom’ from Midsummer Night’s Dream (1789, 1796). In her talk for the forum she revisited her methodology through the antithetic direction taken by the Copy D annotator. If she added Blake’s title and text to Fuseli’s paintings, the annotator’s act of ‘illustration’ illuminated Blake’s prophetic obscurity through literary samples from his precursors, situating his work within the continuum of literary history.


In the Q & A session there was a lively discussion on what the annotations reveal about the Romantic textual condition and Blake’s work in particular Blake himself used headings taken from Edward Bysshe’s anthology The Art of English Poetry (1702) in The Gates of Paradise. The textual annotations to copy D are comparable to Blake’s anthologization of plates from the Illuminated Books in the Small and Large Books of Designs produced for the Royal Academy miniature painter Ozias Humphreys, the owner of Copy D of Europe. Blake masked the text and produced alternative titles. For Keri Davies the Small and Large Book of Designs look like emblem books with image and motto. For Susan what stands out is the dynamism of the detached images; the use of participles to describe them indicates ‘activity, struggling, becoming and being’. This series of turns, however, seems to lack the radical possibilities of montage, for Susan argued that in the transition they lose their topicality and ‘the discontinuities, abrupt changes in scale that are what makes Blake interesting ... each has a title and all look the same, so it feels safer than turning the page and not knowing if it’s text or full-plate illustration’.


Yet how Blake’s Small and Large Books of Design work is all but clear. When the latest batch of related prints to hit the market was displayed at Tate Britain in 2007 and 2010, there was a debate about how the individual prints should be titled and catalogued. When Blake selected samples from his Illuminated Books for Books of Designs he aimed to disanchor them from their original books and give them new potential outside their original narrative moorings; yet the philological and curatorial effort identifies these plates by anchoring their identities within their previous book locations. Perhaps more work is needed to think about their radical possibilities outside their original book forms.


Luisa Calè directs the MA Romantic Studies at Birkbeck; her current project, entitled ‘The Book Unbound’, investigates practices that dismantle the book form from Walpole to Dickens.