Making the Plates

William Blake's original relief-etched copper plates, used to print his illuminated books such as the Songs of Innocence and of ExperienceThe Marriage of Heaven and Hell and America a Prophecy, disappeared in the nineteenth century. Apart from the printed impressions themselves, the only evidence that has survived showing how Blake etched his plates in relief is a single fragment first noted by Geoffrey Keynes in his Bibliography of William Blake (1921), of a cancelled plate from America a Prophecy, now in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, upon examination, this single fragment clearly shows how Blake etched his plates, in two stages, to a depth of no more than 0.12 mm., making it possible to re-create relief-etched copper plates of the illuminated books that are all but indistinguishable from the originals.

To re-create the plates, exact-size photo negatives of original monochrome impressions have been used. The negatives are then modified to eliminate printing flaws in the original impressions – such as poor inking, smudging and spattering – in order to establish the clearest and most complete example. The amended negative is then transferred to the copper plate using one of two modern photographic transfer methods, where further refinements are made, either by scraping out unwanted details using an etching needle, or adding missing ones using a fine pencil brush and stop-out varnish to repair an incomplete letter form or tiny element of a design. Each plate is then etched in two stages to the same shallow depths as the America fragment, exactly following Blake's method and practice.

The first experimental plates were made more than 20 years ago from one-to-one negatives of the facsimiles of the Songs included in the two editions of Alexander Gilchrist’s Life of William Blake (1863, 1880). These impressions had been printed from electrotypes made from a few original relief-etched copper plates of the Songs, recovered by Mr. Gilchrist, being the only remnant of the series still in existence on copper' (1863, ii.267), that subsequently also disappeared.

More recently, more than one impression printed by Blake has been used to re-create an exact replica of the original relief-etched copper plate, rather than a facsimile of a single impression. To re-create the plate in this way, impressions from original copies are used that were printed and largely left in monochrome. Comparisons are also made with posthumous impressions, for example, with the set of impressions printed on paper watermarked 1831 and 1832 in the British Library. Unlike those Blake printed, these posthumous impressions were printed on dry paper, often under more pressure than Blake used. As a result, the embossments left by the plate, together with the printed impression of the plate edges left unwiped of ink, record the exact dimensions and contours of the original copper plate; Blake's impressions are rarely heavily embossed, and being printed properly on dampened and blotted paper, the impression shrinks fractionally as it dries.

 
 
 
William Blake, fragment relief-etched copper plate, cancelled plate 'a' of America a Prophecy 1793, 82 ✕ 58 mm. (damage on right side not related to Blake).

William Blake, fragment relief-etched copper plate, cancelled plate 'a' of America a Prophecy 1793, 82 ✕ 58 mm. (damage on right side not related to Blake).

Image of title page Songs of Innocence transferred to the copper plate using a screen-print method, to simulate how the plate would have looked following Blake writing his text in mirror writing and drawing his design in reverse in stop-out varnish onto the plate prior to etching.

Image of title page Songs of Innocence transferred to the copper plate using a screen-print method, to simulate how the plate would have looked following Blake writing his text in mirror writing and drawing his design in reverse in stop-out varnish onto the plate prior to etching.


 
HISTORIC PIGMENTS USED TO MIX GOLDEN YELLOW OCHRE INK SHOWN WITH PALETTE KNIFE AND LEATHER INK DAUBER

HISTORIC PIGMENTS USED TO MIX GOLDEN YELLOW OCHRE INK SHOWN WITH PALETTE KNIFE AND LEATHER INK DAUBER

MIXING HISTORIC PIGMENTS WITH LINSEED OIL.

MIXING HISTORIC PIGMENTS WITH LINSEED OIL.

Inks and Papers

The same attention to historical accuracy given to the production of the plates has also been given to preparing inks, selecting papers, inking and wiping the plates, and printing. Using the Pantone colour chart, the colour of ink to be reproduced is checked against Blake's original impressions, the ink mixed, printed, and checked again. Inks are specially mixed before each printing session from a selection of historic pigments that we know Blake used, including bone black, vermillion, madder lake, gamboge, yellow ochre and Prussian blue, supplied by Kremer Pigmente of Germany (suppliers of historic pigments to museums and galleries for restoration).

To bind the dry pigments together, thick linseed oil and lead white have been used to produce a dry, paste-like mix, the presence of lead white (established in laboratory analysis of Blake's original monochrome and colour prints using x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy by Rebecca Donnan at the National Gallery of Art in Washington) helping to absorb the oil and give the printed impressions their characteristic chalky effects.

The papers used to print the impressions have been chosen from a selection of hand-made laid and wove papers that in colour, texture, and weight compare with the papers that Blake used to print his illuminated books and separate prints. A few of the impressions have been printed on laid papers produced during Blake’s lifetime, including examples made by J Whatman, as well as examples of hand-made wove papers produced in the early twentieth century. There is also a hand-made wove paper specially watermarked with Blake’s initials. The papers are torn to the same size as the copies of the illuminated books that have survived untrimmed since Blake issued them stitched into paper wrappers (for example, in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library), approximately 195 x 140 mm for the Songs and 390 x 280 mm. for the sheets to print America and Europe.

 

The Printing Process

The relief-etched plates are inked using a leather-covered dauber, as Blake did (rollers were not invented until near the end of his life). With a dauber, the ink is slowly built up in mist-thin layers on the delicate relief surfaces. A letterpress printer’s “ball” is too large and cumbersome to apply ink with the delicacy of touch that is needed, and the “dollies” with heads the size of a marble or smaller, used in applying coloured inks à la poupée in intaglio colour printing, are too small. As Blake must have found, a dauber approximately 60 mm. in diameter is best, with the face partly flattened and firm, smooth leather stretched across, then wrapped and firmly tied around the base of the handle. With such a dauber, and with time, patience and skill, thin layers of ink are applied by ever-so-lightly touching the relief plateaus, dozens and dozens of times; the face of the dauber being just large enough to spread across most of the etched shallows, little more than one-tenth of a millimetre below.

Once the plates have been inked, any of the shallows that have been inadvertently touched by the dauber must be carefully wiped, using a fine clean rag firmly held over the end of a sharp stick or other pointed instrument. Plates of the Songs can take to up to 30 minutes or more to ink and wipe, while the plates of America and Europe can take up two hours. This may help to explain the care and especially the time that Blake needed to ink and wipe his relief-etched plates, as described by John Jackson and W. A. Chatto in A Treatise on Wood Engraving, Historical and Practical (1839).

Following Blake's practice, in some cases plate edges and other discrete relief surfaces are also wiped. In spite of these efforts some instances of spattering, tiny driblets of ink and traces of wiping may be found, an inevitable result of inking and wiping the plates as Blake did and a characteristic of many of his printed impressions. Printing itself is carried out in Edinburgh on an early nineteenth-century Hughes & Kimber star-wheel rolling press dating from the 1830s.

Because Blake etched his copper plates of text and design in relief, leaving the printing surface standing proud, rather than etching them conventionally by biting into and below the surface of the plate, he was able to print from these raised surfaces using very little pressure. This was done in order subsequently to be able to print on the verso of the sheet, with the result that when the sheets were bound together printed impressions faced one another as in a conventional book. Using very little pressure also made it possible to print a second impression from the same inked plate by slightly increasing the pressure. This was done by adding sheets of paper or a very thin wool blanket before passing the plate and new sheet of paper to be printed between the rollers. This resulted in a printed impression where the ink was thinner, thus transforming the colour, for example from a dense blue-black to a thin beryl green, depending upon the pigments used to mix the ink.

This practice can be taken a stage further, by printing a second, third and even a fourth impression from the same inked plate, with the result that not only is the colour of ink very much thinner with each subsequent impression, but due to the increase in pressure upon the soft, dampened and blotted paper, the embossing that is created increasingly reveals the contours of the relief-etched copper plate itself. Although this was not Blake’s practice, the result can be extremely attractive as well as instructive, giving to the impression a subtle three-dimensional or sculpted quality.

As each plate has been carefully inked by hand it is impossible to duplicate the same layering and grainy texture of the ink when the plate is again prepared for printing, with the result that not only is each set of impressions different, but each impression within a set, being printed lighter and thinner than the one before, is also unique. Like Blake’s originals, no two impressions of the same image are identical, even when printed using the same mix of ink.

 
Michael Phillips Inking a relief-etched copper plate using a leather-covered dauber

Michael Phillips Inking a relief-etched copper plate using a leather-covered dauber

wiping the edges of a copper plate prior to printing

wiping the edges of a copper plate prior to printing

Placing the inked and wiped plate on the bed of the press

Placing the inked and wiped plate on the bed of the press

Printing on a Nineteenth-Century Star-Wheel Copper Plate Rolling Press

Printing on a Nineteenth-Century Star-Wheel Copper Plate Rolling Press


William Blake's Printing Process