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