Marja-Leena Rathje
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William and Kate Blake

I have just finished reading a fascinating book about a famous artist-printmaker-poet and his wife. As a printmaker, I found this passage particularly intriguing to find in a historical novel:

William and I began to be real partners in Printing. He had been teaching me for a long time to assist him at the big wooden press. It was not usual for Engravers to keep Copper-plate presses in their houses, so we were proud of ours. It stood six feet tall, made of sturdy polished oak.

There were two other important tasks which went into Printing. One was the preparation of Paper, and the other was of Ink.

"We must print on the best paper we can afford," William always said.

So we bought wove paper from James Whatman, which was heavier than ordinary paper and did not have the chain lines that usual papers showed from the mould in which they were made. We dampened our sheets of paper the day before we were to print, passing five or six leaves through a flat tub of water two or three times, and then stacking them on a flat board to keep them very smooth.

Ink was a big part of our lives: it was messy, but I loved it. We used to make our own, mixing powdered pigment with burnt linseed oil. Burning the oil was a smelly business. First it was boiled, and then set on fire. This made the oil properly stiff to mix with the pigments. Then we would grind the oil and pigment on a marble slab till it was the right thickness.

The colours of inks were wonderful. At first we only used blue-blacks or brown blacks, but later when William produced his own books, we used red ochre, yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt umber, Prussian blue. William taught me how to ink a plate with a linen dabber and to wipe off the plate's surface with the palm of my hand. What a mess! The Print is a Marriage of ink and paper, as Engravers always say. Or it is a baby, born from the marriage, under blankets on the Bed of the press. We hung the prints up to dry on a clothesline, like baby clothes.

This is quoted from pages 80-81 of Other Sorrows, Other Joys - The Marriage of Catherine Sophia Boucher and William Blake by Janet Warner. Here's a good description of the book.

The story, mostly in the voice of Kate Blake as she was called, is part fiction, part fact and reveals the challenges of her marriage to this famous artist, her devotion to helping him in his work and how she became an artist herself but without the recognition as was often the case back then. The book includes many images of Blake's work and interesting historical times and characters too! The late author Janet Warner's web site reveals that she was a university professor originally from British Columbia and had written an earlier book on Blake. I enjoyed the site with its brief bio, excerpts from the book and a few links.

This book was certainly a serendipitous find when I was in the library unexpectedly one day last month but without my reading wish list. I've always been intrigued by Blake's work, even blogging about it once, so it was great to read about the challenges he met, with his helpmeet, in earning a living while still trying to remain committed to his own visionary work.

UPDATE October 5th: I've just come across this in my morning net wanderings and it feels too too related not to mention:
Mad genius: Study suggests link between psychosis and creativity.
What do you think?

Marja-Leena | 03/10/2009 | 18 comments
themes: Books, History, Other artists, Printmaking


That was fascinating and I'll have to remember to look for that book. Blake has always been one of my very favorite artists, both for his prints and for the fabulous poems they illustrated. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy it seems and as for women being given respect for their work all you have to do is read about Colette.

Thanks, Marja-Leena! I didn't have no idea that Blake used his wive's skills in making prints.

I think what we should have, would be reprints of all Blake's books with illustrations. I have seen his paintings that were in old Tate in London, but that's a long time ago.

One must remember that Blake didn't get his deserved fame in his life time, though. He was considered (or maybe he WAS) some kind of religious fanatic.

Oh, that William Blake. Odd to imagine him concerned with the practicalities of picture reproduction, given his mysticism on the one hand and his wild, visceral condemnatory tendencies on the other. But then it's just as important that his paintings survived along with his poetry.

His heart was in the right place, railing against widespread poverty and cruelty to animals long before these became popular causes. In particular he disliked the former Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, and he made his dislike stick.

I met murder on the way
He had the face of Castlereagh


Posterity will ne'er survey
A nobler scene than this.
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh.
Stop traveller, and (well, you can guess the word).

The answer is never antagonise a poet.

Susan, I've long known Blake's work but not really that much about his life and nothing about his wife. This book opened my eyes, especially to the role of his wife but also many things in the society of the day, where the wealthy males had the power and influence (not that that's changed, hmm). Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist, was a friend of the Blakes and managed to become known but it was a struggle for her too for she also depended on men for support. So yes, you are right that nothing worthwhile ever comes easy, and in those days it was even harder for women.

Ripsa, thanks for chiming in. It really is amazing how many times we learn about a wife in the background who has helped the husband at the expense of her own aspirations. Yes, it's really heartbreaking when such a genius, maybe a bit of a mad one, did not get the full recognition in his lifetime, even though he did have several patrons. He was gifted, or cursed depending on your point of view, by visions, and he relied on those visions for his creative output. Genius and madness seem a fine line apart, subjecting the individual to terms like fanatic - look at Van Gogh, Munch and many other artists.

BB, Blake was actually brilliant in developing printmaking techniques and not all for the sake of reproduction. Of course many of his commissioned works were to copy paintings into engravings, but he did original prints as well, especially for his books. For many years he and his wife had their own printshop in their home. Blake would often get frustrated having to do the bread and butter work when he wanted to do his own original prints, poems, painting and books, so Kate and William's brother Robert ran the business. Oh, the politics of that day, what with religion, the ideals of the French Revolution and the things you mention - it was quite a time for his circle of thinkers. Oh, Blake could use words - the pen is mightier....!

Most interesting. How involved indeed the process was. This knowledge makes one admire the artists of yore even more.

Anil, thanks. Yes, it's an involved process. Some artists even today grind their own inks, but usually buy them ready made so that saves a lot of time and effort. I've done a bit with metallic powdered pigments.

There's more: Blake's wife Kate was illiterate when they met. He taught her to read and write, beyond 3Rs, and said on more than one occasion that her intelligence was clearly superior to his.

Black Pete, yes indeed, that was covered in the story. Kate came from a 'lower-class' family and was looked down on by William's mother and some of his family. She continued to often feel inferior amongst some of William's wealthier and snootier patrons. Also, she participated with William when he was having his visions, giving him his notebook to record them as they happened, or chased away the occasional demons. She even had her own visions sometimes. How's that for spiritual connectedness with one's spouse?

The things I learn here! This is fascinating. I'm going to check to see if the book's in our library.

Hattie, I hope you find the book for I'm sure you will enjoy it. I'd love to hear your comments.

The closeness of creativity and madness is interesting. People did think that Blake was mad, but if so let madness reign. The author of two or three of the most famous poems in the English language and the creator of astonishingly original and unforgetable biblical illustrations deserves his reputation as a genius. If he saw visions and sunbathed naked in his Sussex garden in the company of his wife, it is only his due. He certainly, like his tiger, burnt bright in the forests of the night.

Joe, how wonderful to accept Blake's genius, bravo say I. Your words take me back to university days of art and literature when I first discovered Blake and Milton's Paradise Lost. The religious stuff was a bit over the top for me but the art is divine.

It's true what Joe said about Blake. I'm no genius but I thank God I'm not 'normal'.

Susan, yes, me too!!

I once had a friend who insisted that bipolar people are not mad, but rather reacting appropriately to the world.

I think I agree. At least in the bipolar people I know, the not psychotic ones, it's pretty clearly plain genius trying to get along in a world run by persons of far lesser IQ. That would indeed drive one to more than just drink....

Hi 99! I think I'd agree, though I haven't personally known many bipolars as far as I know. Even so-called normal people can get upset by do much that is wrong in this world...

How fascinating. I bet you're glad you don't have to burn linseed oil to get results though!

Lucy, that past, yes, I'm glad! It's enough work to mix powdered pigment into the oil without getting it into one's lungs. Even those powdered pigments may be further ahead in processing from the Blakes' day.