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30 September 2014

The William Blake Archive is pleased to announce the publication of a fully searchable electronic edition of Blake’s 116 water color illustrations to Thomas Gray’s poems. The Archive first published these designs in April 2005 in our Preview mode. This republication substantially increases the number and range of Blake’s pictorial motifs available for searching on the Archive.

The designs for Gray’s poems are among Blake’s major achievements as an illustrator. They were commissioned in 1797 by Blake’s friend, the sculptor John Flaxman, as a gift for his wife Ann, to whom Blake addressed the poem that ends the series. The commission may have been inspired by the Flaxmans’ seeing Blake’s water color designs to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, begun in 1795. The Gray illustrations follow the same basic format. Blake cut windows in large sheets of paper and mounted in these windows the texts of Gray’s poems from a 1790 letterpress edition. Blake then drew and colored his designs surrounding the printed texts. Although listed by William Michael Rossetti in his catalogue of Blake’s drawings and paintings, published in the 1863 and 1880 editions of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake, the Gray illustrations were virtually unknown until their rediscovery by Herbert Grierson in 1919. They are now among the Blake treasures at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

Blake’s illustrations respond to Gray’s poems in a variety of ways, but always with respect for the specifics in the text. Many motifs are visualizations of Gray’s metaphoric images. The Gray illustrations share iconographic and stylistic similarities with the Night Thoughts designs; both series are indebted to the pictorial imagery Blake developed in his illuminated books of the early- and mid-1790s. For the more comic passages in Gray’s poems, Blake deployed a broad, almost caricature-like style. Many of the designs emphasize the imagination at work in the world through inspired acts of reading, writing, and performing music.

As always, the William Blake Archive is a free site, imposing no access restrictions and charging no subscription fees. The site is made possible by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the University of Rochester, the continuing support of the Library of Congress, and the cooperation of the international array of libraries and museums that have generously given us permission to reproduce works from their collections in the Archive.

Morris Eaves, Robert N. Essick, and Joseph Viscomi, editors
Joseph Fletcher, project manager, Michael Fox, technical editor
The William Blake Archive

The Book of Urizen, copy G, plate 5, Library of Congress