Lot 42
  • 42

William Blake

40,000 - 60,000 USD
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  • William Blake
  • The Blossom (Bindman 67; Bentley 11)
  • etching
  • 107 by 72 mm 4 1/4 by 2 7/8 in
  • sheet 209 by 146 mm 8 1/4 by 5 3/4 in
Relief etching printed somewhat unevenly in grayish-black ink and strengthened in shell gold with extensive hand-coloring in watercolor and gouache and shell gold, c. 1800-03, numbered 10 in gray ink in upper right margin, on wove paper


The print is in good condition, with wide margins, the colors strong and fresh. A window of pale light-stain surrounds the image, mainly visible verso, some further discoloration at the sheet edges.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

William Blake
Songs of Innocence
Lots 42 - 47

In 1789 Blake published Songs of Innocence, the first of his great illuminated books.  It is a series of 23 poems with illustrations, printed from 31 plates in the new technique of relief etching.  He later created a companion volume, Songs of Experience, which he published separately and then beginning in 1794 as a combined volume, Songs of Innocence and Experience (here referred to as Songs).  Bentley lists 26 copies of Innocence of which only eight have the original 31 plates (see Literature below, p. 366 and Postscript p. 4). 

Each copy of Innocence and of Songs is unique.  Blake used a variety of different colored inks for printing and though in some cases the color of the printing ink is consistent throughout a volume in others it differs from plate to plate.  He also changed the order of the plates, as well as the sequences, so that some of the poems moved from Innocence to Experience.  Because the plates were colored by hand, there are differences – sometimes subtle and sometimes vast – among the various impressions of any single composition. 

The following seven plates, offered in six lots, are from what Bentley has identified as copy Y of Innocence.  A further eight plates were sold in these rooms on November 1, 2007, lots 16 to 21.  Joseph Viscomi has made the convincing case that copy Y was once part of the same volume as copy R, which was acquired by the 1st Baron Dimsdale (1712-1800)  or his descendants (see Literature below).  What is now copy Y was apparently separated from the remaining plates while in the possession of the Dimsdale family, possibly as a result of the volume having been damaged in a bonfire in the 1890s. 

The physical evidence points to Blake having pulled the plates from copy Y after he had begun printing Songs.  One sheet has a fragment of a Buttenshaw watermark, a paper he used when he was in Felpham in 1800-1803.  Furthermore, Blake's approach to printing and coloring had changed during the decades following the first pulls of Innocence.   While the early copies were printed on recto and verso, the later copies are printed only on the recto of each leaf.  In these later impressions Blake inked the plates to their very edges, creating a kind of border around the images.  This created a more pictorial effect, setting them off from the blank background rather than allowing them to blend into the surrounding paper.  He also used a denser, often opaque color throughout the image and text, creating a richer appearance.  He also retouched the outlines in pen and black ink to clarify elements of the composition and text and reinforce the effect of what he referred to as "the bounding line."

The plates from copy Y are unusual in being subtly highlighted throughout with what was referred to as "shell gold," a powdered gold leaf in a liquid suspension.  In many of the plates this is difficult to distinguish from the ochre ink, and in some cases it is not altogether clear whether he actually printed in shell gold or just used it to heighten the printed outlines.  See particularly The Laughing Song (lot 44), which is the most richly colored of the present group. 

The following applies to all six lots from copy Y: 
Probably  the 1st Baron Dimsdale (1712-1800) or his descendants;
Anonymous sale, Sotheby's, London, as the property of "a gentleman", 12 March 1952, lot 151, for £1,000;
To Nicolas Rauch, Geneva;
Heinrich Neuerburg, Cologne (L. 1344a).

Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Druckgraphik von William Blake aus der Sammlung Neuerburg, January 27 – March 28, 1982.

G.E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Books, (reprinted with New Preface and Post Script) Oxford 2000, pp.  366, 379 (note 17), 412 and Postscript p. 4. 
D.W. Dörrbecker, "Innocence Lost & Found:  An Untraced Copy Traced," in Blake, An Illustrated Quarterly, vol. 15, no 3 (Winter 1981-82), pp. 125-131;
J. Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book, Princeton 1993, pp. 305-06, 308-11 and pp. 417-18, notes 1, 2 and 8.