The illuminated books and drawings of the Romantic poet William Blake (1757-1827) form only part of his achievement. He also illustrated works by other writers, including Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, and Gray, as well as several Biblical books. This exhibition draws on the resources of Thomas Cooper Library’s Department of Rare Books & Special Collections to explore Blake’s parallel careers as an independent visionary and as a respected craftsman-engraver and illustrator.
The center-piece of the exhibition is an original engraving by Blake from his series Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825), recently acquired with support from the Nancy Pope Rice and Nancy Rice Davis Library Treasures Endowment. Also on display is the first edition with Blake engravings of William Hayley’s poem The Triumphs of Temper (1803), recently purchased with gifts in memory of Mrs. James Willard Oliver.
The exhibition charts Blake’s development chronologically through both sides of his activity, from his earliest known work as an apprentice engraver in the 1770's through the extraordinary originality of his political and prophetic poems in the 1790's and early 1800's, and the deep emotion of the later illustrations he prepared for Edward Young’s poem Night Thoughts (1796-97) and Robert Blair’s The Grave (1808). Blake’s political sensitivity and humanity are evidenced in his illustrations for John Stedman’s Narrative (1796), about the suppression of slave revolts in colonial Surinam (now Guyana).
The original editions of many of the books that Blake for which Blake prepared engravings were acquired by the South Carolina College library soon after publication. The illuminated books of poetry for which he is now best known, including Songs of Innocence (1789), Songs of Experience (1794), Europe (also 1794) and Jerusalem (from 1804), are shown in the extraordinary Trianon Press color facsimiles sponsored by the Blake Trust, which were purchased for Thomas Cooper Library thirty years ago with support from the John Shaw Billings Endowment