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A Book of Rare Beauty

Each September, when Martin Antonetti opens his art history course The Artist’s Book in the 20th Century, he begins with one historic book: a 1797 edition of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, elaborately illustrated by William Blake.

That book—an arresting folio lavished with ethereal images, vibrant colors and timeless poetry—captures the essence of the genre of artists’ books: a seamless combination of visual and literary content, an artistic integration of image and text. It is among the most valuable items in the Mortimer Rare Book Room’s eminent collection.

“I think of Blake as the progenitor of artists’ books,” says Antonetti, a lecturer in art and curator of rare books, who also teaches the course The Art and History of the Book. “This book is one of his truly great productions.”

The book was printed with metal type for the poetry and full-page etchings for the illustrations. On many of the pages, the text is nearly engulfed by the pictorial field, weaving the images into the experience of reading the poems. This technique of creating an image-text, as it is now called, prefigured by 100 years the production of modern artists’ books.

Blake’s publisher, R. Edwards, had intended for the edition to be issued uncolored, but in his spare time Blake and his wife Katherine hand-colored a few copies for friends. Experts who have examined the Mortimer Rare Book Room copy consider it to be one of those colored by Blake himself. — ESW

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