Index Bibliography

Illustrations to Gray's "Poems"

Currently Available:

Illustrations to Gray's "Poems", c. 1797-98 (Yale Center for British Art): electronic edition

Dates are the probable dates of composition.

The 116 water-color illustrations to Thomas 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 the same type of Whatman paper used for the Night Thoughts illustrations and mounted in these windows the texts of Gray's poems from a 1790 octavo edition published by John Murray, leaving out some prefatory materials, fly-titles, the notes, and the 7 engraved illustrations. Blake then drew and colored his designs surrounding the letterpress texts. On blank versos near the beginning of each poem, and in one case on a separate piece of paper pasted over letterpress text, Blake inscribed with pen and ink either titles for each design or quotations from the poem to indicate the passage illustrated. On most text pages, Blake also drew a pencil cross left of the first line of the illustrated passage. He numbered most leaves consecutively in pen and ink, beginning a new sequence for each of the 13 poems.

Blake conceived of his work as an illustrated book, rather than a series of unbound designs, as indicated by his offsetting Gray's texts above and to the right (left on versos) from the middle of each leaf--then the convention for all letterpress books. 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.

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--and hence literalizations--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.

Related Works

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

  • The Bard, from Gray
    Water color (?), exhibited 1785. Butlin 160.
  • Hyperion ("The Bowman"), Study for Gray's "Poems," Page 46
    Pencil sketch, c. 1797. Butlin 336.
    Fitzwilliam Museum
    Cambridge, England
  • Allegorical Subject with a River God
    Pencil sketch, c. 1805 (?). Butlin 597 recto.
    Victoria and Albert Museum
  • The Bard, from Gray
    Tempera painting, 1809 (?). Butlin 655.
    Tate Collection at Tate Britain
  • "Number IV. The Bard, from Gray," in Blake, A Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures
    typographic exhibition catalogue, 1809. Bentley 32. Erdman pages 541-42.
  • Sketches for "The Bard"
    Pencil sketches, with pen and wash on the recto, c. 1809 (?). Butlin 656 recto and verso.
    Philadelphia Museum of Art
    Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Friar Bacon and Gray, the Poet
    Pencil sketch, c. 1819-20. Butlin 746.
    Pembroke College
    Cambridge, England