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 Experience, The 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.

Fig. 1: 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). Etched in two stages to a total depth of 0.12 mm., etching stopped between first and second stage to apply stop-out varnish to letters and parts of the design vulnerable to underbiting (e.g., letters beginning lines 3 and 5, ampersand line 4).

In general terms, 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, for example, to repair an incomplete letter form or tiny element of a design. Each plate is then etched in two stages - stopping between the first and second stage to protect any vulnerable areas with stop-out varnish - 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, like Copy U of Songs of Innocence in the Houghton Library, and Copy BB of the Songs in a private collection. 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.

Fig. 2: 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.

Fig. 2: 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.

For example, to re-create the relief-etched copper plate of ‘A Divine Image’, the impression formerly in the collection of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, has been used together with that in the British Library, also posthumous. Both have then been compared with the impression in Copy BB, the only example that Blake is known to have printed. Where details have failed to print or are blurred in one example, they have been copied from another, in order to recover and re-create the original relief-etched copper plate that was used to print all three. More than 30 plates from the Songs, series of plates from America a Prophecy and Europe a Prophecy, as well as examples from other illuminated books, have now been re-created in this way.

Fig. 3: Image of the title page of Songs of Innocence transferred to the copper plate using a photopolymer liquid resist, with stop-out varnish applied to the plate edges following the contours of those of the original relief-etched plate protected by the wax dyke during etching, that were inked and left unwiped when printed posthumously.

Fig. 3: Image of the title page of Songs of Innocence transferred to the copper plate using a photopolymer liquid resist, with stop-out varnish applied to the plate edges following the contours of those of the original relief-etched plate protected by the wax dyke during etching, that were inked and left unwiped when printed posthumously.

Fig.4: Title page of Songs of Innocence following first stage of etching, with stop-out varnish applied to delicate areas of design and text vulnerable to under-biting, to protect them before the second stage of etching.

Fig.4: Title page of Songs of Innocence following first stage of etching, with stop-out varnish applied to delicate areas of design and text vulnerable to under-biting, to protect them before the second stage of etching.

Fig.5: Title page Songs of Innocence following second stage of etching to a total depth of approximately 0.14 mm., with the photopolymer liquid resist and stop-out varnish stripped away, and the plate polished and degreased in readiness to be inked prior to printing.

Fig.5: Title page Songs of Innocence following second stage of etching to a total depth of approximately 0.14 mm., with the photopolymer liquid resist and stop-out varnish stripped away, and the plate polished and degreased in readiness to be inked prior to printing.