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?

* Update Nov.16, 2013: Link has expired and has been removed.

October 3, 2009 in Books, History, Other artists, Printmaking by Marja-Leena