A New Acquisition: William Blake’s Illustrations to Robert Blair’s The Grave

William Blake, 1757-1827. William Blake’s Watercolour Inventions in Illustration of The Grave by Robert Blair. Edited with Essays and Commentary by Martin Butlin and an Essay on the Poem by Morton D. Paley. Lavenham, Suffolk: The William Blake Trust, 2009. Copy 32 of 186.

The William Blake Trust has been publishing facsimile editions of Blake’s books and illustrations, often in conjunction with the Trianon Press, for over 4 decades. We own most of these limited editions (e.g. Blake’s Book of Job, Book of Los, Jerusalem, his illustrations of Milton, Thomas Gray, and Laocoön, and more) which were either purchased at publication or were acquired as part of other collections like the Wickenheiser Milton collection.

We also own a first edition of The Grave (1743), shown here, and about a dozen eighteenth century editions of the work, along with many later impressions.

The history of Blake’s watercolor illustrations, or “inventions,” is a fascinating one. Blake was paid for 20 illustrations by Robert Cromek, the publisher who was bringing out, in 1808, the first illustrated edition of Blair’s religious poem. They had an understanding that he would also engrave the plates for an additional fee. After completing the watercolors, Blake’s first engraving was rejected, and Cromek brought in the more fashionable engraver Louis Schiavonetti to make the engravings from Blake’s watercolor “inventions.”

Blake's illustrated title page

"Death's Door" in watercolor

Blake's rejected engraving of "Death's Door," reproduced from one of the few surviving copies in a private collection

Schiavonetti's engraving based on Blake's watercolor

The original watercolors were then lost for almost 200 years. They were purchased in a Glasgow bookshop in 2001, and after much legal wrangling, and the failure of their owners to find an institutional purchaser for the group, they were broken up and sold individually at Sotheby’s in 2006. Fortunately, the Blake Trust was able to make high-resolution digital images of them before the sale. Now that the watercolors are dispersed in the market, this edition has now become the authoritative collection and reference to them.

Our copy of Cromek’s 1808 edition is shown below.

-JM

About Jeffrey Makala

The Irvin Department of Rare Books & Special Collections is located in the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library at the University of South Carolina. The department preserves and makes accessible rare materials and special research collections supporting teaching and research across a wide range of disciplines.
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