Arranged thematically, the exhibition begins with an exploration of the artist's lifelong engagement with medieval art. Among the highlights of this section are the vivid early studies of tombs in Westminster Abbey, richly colored in watercolor and gold, the monumental engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims (ca. 1820, Yale Center for British Art), and Blake's imaginative designs for Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1779, The British Museum).
Engravings such as Job (1793, The Keynes Family Trust) and Edward and Elenor (1793, The British Museum), and illuminated books including America, a Prophecy (1793, The British Museum, National Gallery of Art, and the Library of Congress), The Daughters of Albion (1793, Library of Congress), the Book of Thel (1789, The Pierpont Morgan Library), and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790, The Pierpont Morgan Library), among others, reveal the broad scope of Blake's imagination and illustrate his unique iconography. Blake listed them, and more, in his 1793 Prospectus of works offered for sale in his Lambeth workshop. At the time, Lambeth was a poor London neighborhood where Britain's most radical politics found expression in the age of the French and American revolutions. Blake's illustrated books, which have traditionally drawn wide appeal—including The Songs of Innocence and of Experience—are included in this exhibition, interpreted within the context of the political upheavals and social concerns of the era.
Blake's dark prophetic vision is represented by a series of large color prints, ca. 1795–1804. Each of these majestic monoprints is unique, pulled from a design painted on copperplates or millboard, and worked up in pen and ink. Presented without texts, these powerful images take their monumental figures from literary sources such as the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare, as well as Blake's own imaginative universe.
The Songs of Innocence and of Experience—which contains the celebrated poems The Tyger, London, and The Sick Rose—is the best known of Blake's works. Originally, Blake produced this minute and colorful volume as two separate books; he combined them in 1794, and continued to print copies from the original relief-etched copper plates throughout his life. Blake claimed to have learned this innovative printing technique in a vision—one of many he said he experienced since childhood—of his deceased younger brother, Robert.
In The Songs, as in all of Blake's illuminated books, the artist and poet took unprecedented control over every aspect of production. He composed the poems, drew the designs, transferred each onto the copperplate, exposed the plates to an acid bath, and, with Catherine's assistance, printed the plates using a large rolling press he kept in his home. Blake mixed his own colors and painted each sheet by hand; his wife bound the pages together in boards. In this way, Blake not only saved the expense of a printer, he was able to work discreetly, avoiding the scrutiny of government spies and censors, as well as the very real possibility of imprisonment for publishing seditious material.