Although the poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) is now regarded as one of the giants of the English Romantic movement, his contemporaries doubted his sanity and much of his verse might never have seen the light of day had he not printed it himself. One of the younger sons in a working-class London family, he received no formal schooling but was apprenticed in his youth to an engraver. His main source of revenue thereafter came from the skilful transcribing of book illustrations to copper plates for printing. Sometimes Blake was also commissioned to furnish the artwork; more often he engraved images by other artists.
For his own books he employed a different technique from his commercial work. He drew directly onto the copper with an acid-resistant ink, then doused the plate with a biting mixture of vinegar, salamoniac and verdigris, leaving the design to be printed in relief. Instead of using cast type, he incorporated the text in the overall design, writing the words backwards in mirror image. Sometimes he hand-coloured the books after printing. Sometimes, as in the case of the Library's copies of America and Europe, he left them uncoloured. Because of his limited resources and labour-intensive methods, editions were necessarily small. Only seventeen copies of America are known to exist and only twelve of Europe.
The Library's copies are bound together in one volume, which makes sense, for they are closely related works. Although America was inspired by the American War of Independence and Sir Isaac Newton appears in Europe, these poems are not realistic or historical in flavour but visionary. They share the same cast of mythical figures (Los, Urizen, Orc etc.) invented entirely by Blake. The verse, though powerful, is Blake at his densest and most difficult, but the illustrations include some of his most famous and most haunting images, such as ‘The Ancient of Days striking the first circle of the earth’ (frontispiece to Europe).
The title-page of America says it was ‘printed by William Blake in the year 1793’ and the title-page of Europe is dated 1794. Blake sometimes returned to his stored plates in later years, however, to make fresh printings and his widow, Catherine, occasionally did likewise after his death. Watermarks in the paper used for the Library's copies reveal that they could not have been printed before 1812, but exactly when they were produced – and by whom – is uncertain.
Sir George Grey gave the bound volume containing America and Europe to the Library in 1887 as part of his founding collection of rare books and manuscripts. He pencilled a note on the flyleaf, saying, ‘I purchased this book at the sale of the effects of a deceased artist, (I now forget his name), who had obtained it direct from Blake.’ Grey's vagueness has frustrated later researchers, but among the possibilities for the ‘deceased artist’ are Frederick Tatham (1805-1878), who is known to have assisted Catherine Blake in printing and selling copies of her late husband's work, and a Tynemouth-based painter named James Ferguson (d. 1871), who bought a few of the engraved books after Blake's death.
Related resources: view William Blake’s America; a prophecy, and Europe; a prophecy in digital format; other heritage information.