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A Book of Rare Beauty

William Blake was the first to integrate image and text

Each September, when Martin Antonetti opens his art history course The Artists 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 & 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.

Night Thoughts was certainly revolutionary in its design,” Antonetti says, “so different from the staid neo-classical mise-en-page that was typical of the era; and it was the perfect vehicle for Blake’s violent emotions and muscular spirituality.”

After more than 200 years, Blake's colors in Night Thoughts remain clear and vibrant

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.

Although Blake, who lived from 1757 to 1827, made his living primarily as an engraver, working for publishers of others’ works, his writings, paintings and illustrated books have elevated his historic prominence as an artist. His own limited-edition books of poetry -- Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, Milton: A Poem, and Jerusalem -- are today considered among the treasures of visionary literature.

Young’s Night Thoughts, first published in 1745, was one of the most popular English poems of the 18th century. In it, the poet ponders life’s difficult questions of love and loss during nine brooding nights after his wife’s death.

The 1797 edition now at Smith was rebound early in the 20th century, but was sewn too tightly for the good of the pages, which over time had broken along the inner gutter, explains Antonetti. Something needed to be done quickly and correctly to preserve the valued and heavily used book.

After much deliberation and planning, and with the financial assistance of Janice Oresman ’55, a longtime supporter of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, the Smith College Museum of Art, and the college’s Print Workshops, the book received the needed repairs at the hands of Daniel Gehnrich, a renowned bookbinder and paper conservator in Paxton, Massachusetts.

The repair was a necessary measure, notes Antonetti, to save a work of art that is valued for its educational use, its historic rarity, and the visual appeal of its illustrations.

“We often show this book to visitors and in class presentations. It’s one of the single most amazing books in the collection,” attests Antonetti, “and admired by everyone who sees it, from kids to connoisseurs.”

1/5/07   By Eric Sean Weld
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