illuminating william blake
by robbin murphy

   Two hundred years ago, the illuminated books of visionary English poet and printmaker William Blake were the "new media" art of their day. Not only did Blake exploit the possibilities of the then new technologies of lithography and steel engraving to create highly original combinations of image and text but he also used these machine technologies in conjunction with custom-blended inks and hand-painted watercolor. In addition, throughout his career he experimented with what we would think of now as hypermedia by issuing the same "book" assembled in alternative versions with the plates in differing orders.

The William Blake Archive

   The result was that there could never be one standard edition of, say, his Songs of Innocence, only a number of manifestations that all could be considered--both individually and as a whole--the original book.

Needless to say, Blake's working methods make for highly complex hybrid objects that defy categorization and make the use of traditional textual studies extremely frustrating, if not impossible. Blake isn't a poet who illustrated his words but a true multimedia artist who designed, wrote, etched, printed, and colored the books himself. As such, his work stands at the intersection between the tradition of medieval illuminated manuscripts and the dawn of the machine age; it resonates with our own concerns today as we enter what some are calling "the digital age."

Due to the limitations of print technology to effectively reproduce multiple media, Blake has been recognized foremost for his poetry even though he was primarily a visual artist by trade and produced a great number of paintings and drawings. Any consideration of Blake's work would be incomplete without including his diverse image production in all its variations. Of the 19 individual books Blake himself produced about 175 unique copies, and about twenty percent of those have been reproduced in print with varying degrees of success. Attempts by the Blake Trust in London to publish a definitive volume that would be both lavishly illustrated and useful to scholars proved highly problematic.

Eventually it became evident that a digital electronic archive was a better solution; starting in 1995, the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia (IATH) and the Getty Grant Program have supported the efforts of "The Blake Archive" to take advantage of digital technology in order to produce an electronic archive based on the books that would be supplemented by Blake's paintings, drawings, and commercial illustrations. Their goal is to offer high-quality reproductions in ways that will enhance interdisciplinary understanding of the work.

Multiple Browser Windows: Object View (in background) with Enlargement window
open at top left and Transcription window at right

Working closely together, the IATH and outside researchers are scanning images from about 55 key copies of the 19 illuminated books that will, for the first time, form a suitable archive for serious research, and promote a better understanding of Blake's work as a whole. As a result of new research made possible by this project, previously neglected copies of the books have been re-evaluated in light of new understanding of Blake's working methods. For example, it is now possible for scholars to compare what was etched on the plate and what was added or changed afterwards in printing and coloring the impressions. Previous reproductions couldn't offer enough detail and the original objects were impossible to compare since they were housed in widely dispersed locations. The digital reproductions of the archive can be searched, enlarged, enhanced and juxtaposed to investigate features that were previously imperceptible in reproduction.

When complete, the archive will contain approximately 3000 images searchable by both text and image and it will offer annotation tools developed at the IATH to enable users to construct a kind of visual concordance by creating pathways within and across different media. The result will take the form of an archival edition of the books on CD-ROM and at this website.

The website itself is exemplary in its economic use of hypertext and images. Little bandwidth is wasted on unnecessary design elements--so download time is devoted to the images themselves (which load remarkable fast anyway)--yet the site is extremely easy to understand and navigate. Viewers have a choice of using a version with various Java-based enhancements (image-annotation software, search histories) or a less flexible non-Java version that draws on the same underlying materials but uses two methods of presentation.

By the end of last year, the main research and development phase of the project had been completed and it now contains two smaller books that are fully operable. Now that major technical issues have been addressed, the plan is to move into full-scale production with the goal of making one copy of each book available by summer 1998. The complete online edition of David V. Erdman's Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake will be released in the spring.


Photo Credits: "The William Blake Archive"

© Hyperactive Co. 1998