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A Small Book of Designs

Currently Available:

A Small Book of Designs, 1796 (British Museum): electronic edition

Dates are the probable dates of printing.

The miniature portrait painter Ozias Humphry commissioned Blake to print “a selection from the different Books of such as could be Printed without the Writing,” as Blake wrote Dawson Turner in a letter of 9 June 1818 (Erdman page 771). These impressions of the designs only from Blake’s illuminated books were richly color printed, very probably in 1796, the date Blake wrote on an impression of The First Book of Urizen plate 1 in copy B of A Small Book of Designs. Copy A, now in the British Museum, was prepared for Humphry and passed from his collection to his son, William Upcott. Blake or his wife Catherine gathered the 23 impressions with string through three holes, the method they used in his illuminated books, but he did not number them; they may not constitute a sequential series but simply a gathering of beautifully color printed designs.

When preparing the set of prints for Humphry in 1796, Blake apparently pulled a second impression of each plate (or at least of most of them) to build up his own stock of works. These impressions, now widely dispersed and eight not discovered until 2007, constitute most of copy B of A Small Book of Designs. The thinner color printing in the copy B impressions indicates that they are second pulls with little if any addition of color to the copperplates between pulls. Like those in copy A, these impressions were stabbed through three holes. Many years later, probably c. 1818 or later, Blake added pen and ink framing lines around the prints (similar to those in Songs copies R and V, both in the Archive), inscribed most of them with verse captions, and numbered them, apparently to indicate their order in a series. Blake had at least 22 numbered and framed impressions at one time, although subsequent treatment (or mistreatment) led to the erasure of some of the numbers and the trimming of the framing lines and captions.

Shared stab holes indicate that copy B was at one time bound, probably by Blake or his wife Catherine. Three plates in copy B—The First Book of Urizen plates 9, 12, and 22—are not present in copy A. These three impressions were probably not pulled during the 1796 printing of copy A but were printed as part of Blake’s production of color printed copies of Urizen in 1794. They are all full-page designs without text and thus could be incorporated into a group specifically printed without texts.

In his 1818 letter to Turner, Blake explains, with a note of regret, that the color prints for Humphry were created “with the Loss of some of the best things For they when Printed perfect accompany Poetical Personifications & Acts without which Poems they never could have been Executed” (Erdman page 771). Although the impressions in A Small Book of Designs are some of Blake’s finest works as a color printer, their separation from the texts of the illuminated books sacrifices the interplay between words and images. Blake’s attitude toward the Book of Designs when he produced them may have differed from his much later statements to Turner. Perhaps the verses he added to copy B at about the same time he was writing to Turner were attempts to compensate for that loss.

Related Works

Related works currently available in the William Blake Archive appear as links below. Works not currently available appear as plain text.

  • The Book of Thel , plates 2, 4, 6, 7
    Relief etchings, 1789. Bentley 18, plates 2, 4, 6, 7.
  • The First Book of Urizen , plates 1-3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 17, 19, 23, 24, 27
    Relief etchings, 1794. Bentley 38, plates 1-3, 5, 7, 8, 10, 11, 17, 19, 23, 24, 27.