Denounced by contemporaries as an eccentric and madman; a seer of visions and implacable opponent of dogmatic ways of thinking, William Blake followed his own artistic path through life, seemingly uninfluenced by predecessors and unfollowed by those who came after him. In the first approximation, his creative work can be observed as a cluster of original ideas, allegories and symbols dealing with ultimate problems of human existence such as the eternal struggle between good and evil, the origin of morality, the existence of free will and the like. In terms of its content, his masterpiece The Book of Urizen is certainly one of the most comprehensive attempts to give answers to these questions – in Blake’s unique artistic, mythological, philosophical, mystical way – but there are other reasons we decided to include it in our selection of rare illustrated books. This book was originally printed in 1794 as “The First Book of Urizen” with Blake’s magnificent relief etchings as illustrations. Only eight copies are known to exist today, of which one was auctioned as part of a private collection at Sotheby’s in 1999 and sold for $2.5 million.
The Book of Urizen has been described as an alternative to Genesis – and rightly so, bearing in mind that this monumental poem tells the story of creation in its own way, using allegories and poetic figures to challenge dogmatic views presented in its much better known counterpart. Blake is primarily occupied with the origin of evil, and the solution he proposes greatly differs from the one that represents the very foundation of Judaism and Christianity. According to him, Evil is not a deviation from Good but is present from the very beginning of creation as its inherent quality; that evil is the evil of logic and reason, of law that is made in such a way that no one can obey it. From Blake’s point of view, both science and religion hide the real truth from man – the former by binding him to material universe and its mechanical laws, the latter by taming his thoughts and directing them through entrenched channels of dogmatic thinking. The only way of transcendence is a quest for ecstatic vision, an attempt to “cleanse the doors of perception” so that “every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.” (The quoted parts are of course from Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell)
The fact that Blake illustrated his own books speaks about his multi-faceted personality and contributes to internal coherence of his work. But he did even more than that – he printed his own books, too. Actually, he invented a printing method which he named “illuminated printing” (today, this method is known as relief etching) and used it to print his drawings and poetry. In essence, when this technique is used, parts of the design that absorb the printing ink are raised above the surface of the copper plate instead of being incised into it, as in the case of conventional etching. The design is drawn on the plate using stop-out varnish, which is acid-resistant. Once the plate is immersed in acid, the unprotected parts will be eaten away, leaving the design untouched and raised in relation to the surrounding surfaces. Thereupon, printing can be conducted using the same method as in the case of woodblock printing.