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Book of the Month

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November 2007

William Blake

Detail from the frontispiece of Europe: a Prophecy. This image is often described as The Ancient of Days.

 Europe: a Prophecy

Lambeth: 1794
Sp Coll RX 132

The 28th of November 2007 sees the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Blake, one of the most significant and celebrated figures in western art and poetry. Fittingly, this month we look at one of his recognised masterpieces - unquestionably one of Glasgow University Library's greatest treasures - the illuminated book, Europe: a ProphecyEurope, the second of Blake's Continental Prophecies (alongside America: a Prophecy and The Book of Los), is frequently acknowledged as one of his most obscure, complex and elusive pieces.

Frontispiece to Europe.  This work, often described (but not titled by Blake) as the
"Ancient of Days", shows an old bearded man, Urizen, using a huge pair of compasses
 to delineate the material world at the moment of creation.  This is a Gnostic interpretation of the creation story where a demiurge (a subordinate deity)
rather than a benevolent God is the Creator.

Blake's illuminated books, produced from 1783-1795, are remarkable examples of complex syntheses: of form - poetry and painting; and of subject - the real with the mythical. This complexity has resulted in more than a century of debate regarding their interpretation. How do the text and images interact? Are the mythical characters veiled descriptions of real people? Or, is the work just a fantastical and diverting journey through Blake's vivid imagination? Their compelling and fascinating nature has led William Vaughan to comment of the books: they are "really at the heart of Blake's thinking. For Blake scholars they are where he begins and ends."

Detail from the frontispiece showing the giant compasses marking out the material world. 
According to Anthony Blunt, this image is emblematic of much that Blake wishes to rail against in
Europe.  He sees this moment of creation as  rational order being imposed on chaos - a moment
of sublime error - the reduction of the infinite to the finite and therefore the destruction
of imagination. 

Europe: a Prophecy does not set out to be prophetic in the conventional sense: it does not set out to predict the future. Rather, according to Paley (in Drrbecker), the function of the prophetic form is "to expose the otherwise hidden motives and consequences of human decisions". As Drrbecker explains: "it is a 'prophetic' mode of historical representation as interpretation" where "the history of the immediate past is recounted as an exemplum with a view towards the future".


The title page of Europe:  It has been argued that the serpent,
representing Orc, is quite deliberately placed opposite Urizen
 in the frontispiece.  Urizen represents Creation while Orc
represents the Fall.  This juxtaposition is intended to
underline the error of the material world where,
 ironically, it is the Creator who limits and the serpent,
 as revolution, who releases.

Blake created his own mythological creations to populate his poems and paintings: concepts and ideas became personified into universal representations. He used these mythological characters to explain and act out his singular view of history. According to Martin Butler, Blake divided the nature of man into four personified elements:

"Los, the imagination and eventual source of redemption; Urizen, the reason and vengeful Jehovah of the Old Testament as opposed to the merciful Christ of the New; Luvah, the senses; and Tharmas, the emotions". Each of these characters has an emanation, or female "offshoot", who is commonly a negative character attempting to dominate her male counterpart.

Europe sees the interaction between Los and his emanation Enitharmon, who represents pity. They have given birth to Orc, the spirit of energy - another important force for salvation. Orc's birth angers Urizen, who feels threatened, and Los who is jealous; consequently Orc is "bound". The poem describes Enitharmon's dream as she sleeps for eighteen hundred years. According to Drrbecker the dream sequence allows Blake to explore "the growth of the old order, of the unholy alliance of organized religion with tyrannical monarchy, and the challenge confronting the ancien rgime in the revolution at the end of the Eighteenth Century".

The first page of the preludium.  The image shows a bandit waiting
to mug an unwitting traveller.  While continuing the dualism
 of good and evil from the frontispiece and title page, the focus is shifted back to the human world.  The image has also
 been read (by Erdman) as a political allegory adapted from one of Gillray's prints. The mugger in the cave represents
 Edmund Burke, an outspoken critic of Republican France,
 waiting to attack the"Everyman on his peaceful pilgrimage".

Detail from plate 3: Blake included great detail in his images: he engraved many different types
 of birds including Birds of Paradise. Erdman suggests that these birds are tools adopted
 by Blake to guide the reader in how the text should be read - a Bird of Paradise augurs well and suggests hope.

The poem opens with a reference to the birth of the "secret child" who causes war to cease: an obvious reference, according to Drrbecker, of the birth of Jesus. It closes with Orc, who has become free from bondage, appearing "in the vineyards of red France" as an apocalyptic second coming.

Plate 3: A winged woman floating in the air.  She has variously
 been identified as a visualisation of a comet,
 a huge winged Cassandra and Orc's mother.


Plate 4: a scene of merriment or bacchanal.  Some of the naked figures
 appear to be dancing whilst others are resting, apparently exhausted.
  Again, opinion is divided over the interpretation of these
 images but most agree that they display a distinct sexuality and eroticism.

According to Piquet, Blake's Europe slides in comfortably beside a variety of apocalyptic poems written between 1790 and 1820 by several authors including Joan of Arc by Robert Southey, Destiny of Nations by Coleridge and Shelley's Queen Mab. Piquet suggests that all of these poems offer a transposition of Biblical books on a "different key". He suggests that they conform to a "millenarian" outlook where history is presented from a panoramic viewpoint. The poet/prophet uses flashbacks and anticipations of the future to simultaneously control the three dimensions of time: "a past brimming over with injustice and oppression, a present in which pent up energies break out, an imminent future marked by the advent of a Regained Paradise and the end of a woeful history of human suffering".

Detail from plate 4: This appears to be the moment that Enitharmon discovers the flames of revolution emanating from Orc's head.

Detail from plate 4

When considering Europe in the context of Blake's other Continental Prophecies, critics have often read it as a glorification of the French Revolution - heralding an impending end to the old order and the beginning of a universal liberation of mankind. However, this is just one interpretation. Competing theories suggest that Blake may have intended the Continental Prophecies to highlight the inherent limitations of political revolutions. Drrbecker describes the multitude of different interpretations and readings of Blake's poetry as "the principle of rhetorical indeterminacy" where the reader is forced into an "actively hermeneutic role" through interpreting meaning. Readers are obliged to make interpretative choices and thus "participate in the . construction of 'meaning'".

Plate 6: this image is emblematic of the
pain and misery suffered by mortals under
 Urizen's rule while Enitharmon sleeps. 
This image shows women weeping over
 a dead child.

Europe comprises seventeen plates engraved, printed and coloured by Blake's own hand (an additional small preface plate has been found in two extant copies of the work - probably added after 1820). Blake was not a fan of ordinary typography, instead preferring that his major poems and epics should be read only in the illuminated printing style that he had designed. This process, which combines text and image, was apparently intended to mirror the appearance of medieval manuscripts. Europe, produced in 1794, was one of the earliest examples of this new technique.

The technique that Blake developed allowed him to have complete artistic control over his work: what Essick describes as "a unity between conception and execution". Blake largely used a technique known as relief etching to achieve the effects he desired. This process was easier and faster than traditional intaglio printing. Relief etching allowed the artist to paint the images and text (in reverse) directly onto the copper plate using an acid resistant varnish known as stopping-out solution. When placed in an acid bath, the uncovered areas of the plate were eaten away leaving the area "stopped out" standing in relief. The plates were subsequently inked with pigment specially thickened by mixing with carpenter's glue; this created a rich, heavy textured effect upon printing. The designs were usually tidied up later with watercolour and ink.

Detail from plate 6: it has been suggested that
the large cauldron will imminently be used
to prepare an unthinkable meal! The idea of
cannibalism as consequence of famine was not
unusual in the late 18th Century. 

Plate 7: a depiction of some unidentified danger approaching
 from off the page - this image  is very powerful.  The glow,
reflected in the clouds in the background, has been identified
(by Erdman) as the harbingers of war; while the couple represent
all of the innocent victims of warfare.

The aesthetic results produced by these printing innovations, like many other aspects of Blake's work, are now revered as groundbreaking; however, at the time, the colour prints may have looked amateurish to prospective clients and crude in comparison with work from established printing houses.

Detail from plate 7: Blake has somehow captured fear, heroism and the inevitability
of imminent tragedy in the eyes of the old man.

Certainly the illuminated books did not sell very well; their poor marketability combined with the high cost and time demands of creation resulted in very few of the books being produced. There are only twelve extant copies of Europe, of which three were printed posthumously. Of the nine remaining, two were printed in 1795 and another was produced late in Blake's life in 1821.





The Glasgow University copy, designated copy "B", is from the original 1794 printing - probably produced shortly after a series of proof prints. Martin Butlin suggests that copy B was probably partially colour printed in 1794 before being coloured in 1795 or 1796, when Blake's interested in colour printing was at its height.

Plate 10: this sinister looking figure floating on a cloud, most
commentators believe, represents papal power.  Bindman argues that the source for these designs ultimately lies in Lutheran depictions of the Pope as one of the evil powers on Earth.

Detail from plate 10: the two female figures represent, according to Schiff, emblems of
 royal power submitting to papal authority.

We can trace the provenance of our copy right back to the first half of the Nineteenth Century. The first known owner of the work is Thomas Griffiths Wainewright, a friend of Blake and a remarkable character.  He was an accomplished poet and painter but also had a dark side.  He was strongly suspected of murdering his sister-in-law, Helen Abercrombie, as part of an insurance scam although insufficient evidence was found to charge him. However, he was later arrested for forgery and transported to Tasmania where he died in 1847. 

His copy of Europe was subsequently owned by Philip Augustus Hanrott who acquired the work from the book dealer H. G. Bohn, before selling it himself, to the book dealer French on 19th July 1833. Following a period of ownership by C. J. Toovey, Europe passed into the hands of the Cunliffe family where it remained until 1971. During the early period of its life, the copy was bound with two other Blake works, copy B of America: a Prophecy and Jerusalem, copy G. However, in 1963 Lord Cunliffe had the three works dis-bound. In 1971, Europe passed into the hands of H. M. Treasury in lieu of death duties.  It was deposited in Glasgow University Library by the Treasury before finally being donated four years later in 1975.



Plate 11: This image depicts the Great plague of 1665 which, according to
Drrbecker,  here symbolises all of the plagues suffered by mankind
across the centuries.  The shadow cast by the passing bell-man
represents the shadow of death striking down the girl
on the right of the plate.

Detail from plate 11: the girl who has been struck down by the plague reaches up heavenwards. 
This image is juxtaposed beside the inscription on the door "Lord have mercy on us",
to show that the Lord's mercy has been denied these victims.


Detail from plate 11: The inscription on the door


Detail from plate 12

William Blake was a remarkable and contradictory character. A man who worked beyond the acceptable mainstream of artistic society, he did not belong to any particular artistic circle; yet, undoubtedly, his artistic sensibility and vision was influenced by the radical social and political milieu of late Eighteenth Century London. As William Vaughan points out, Blake was a new kind of artist - a harbinger of what was to come - "The very idea of the artist as an intransigent individualist emerged as a result of the intellectual and political ferment of his age".

Blake's background is often discussed when critics try to explain or interpret his work.

He was born into a non-conformist family of London artisans before going on to train as an engraver. The young William Blake was different from most other children - he reported seeing "visions": the earliest and perhaps most notorious one being of a tree filled with angels on Peckham Rye. However, these visions did not cease: they continued right into Blake's adulthood and according to Essick, "the intertwining of extrasensory perception and artistic expression [later proved] integral to his concepts of mind, art, and religion".

Following an unsuccessful attempt at historical painting at the newly formed Royal Academy, Blake began to experiment more with his own style and subject matter. Unlike other contemporary artists he embraced his own imagination for subjects to paint. This shift in emphasis became central to how Blake viewed the world around him and the role of art. For Blake, according to William Vaughan, art only became worthwhile if it was, in some way didactic: artists had a role as "guardian[s] of the spirit and the imagination" in a modern and rapidly changing world. For Blake, art was inseparable from religion. He rejected traditional ideas about organised religion, instead believing that true religion could only be revealed through imagination hence artistic expression.


Plate 12: here Blake covers the page with a spider's web,
traditionally associated with vice and evil.  At the foot of the page,
a female figure can be seen completely entwined in web. 
Drrbecker argues that the figure is adopting an attitude of prayer
 and that perhaps Blake is commenting on the 'traps' laid by
 organised state religion.

Detail from plate 14: Baine suggests that this assortment of caterpillars,
 vultures, spiders and eagles are emblems of empire - all preying upon the helpless.

Plate 14: this page is bustling with all kinds of animal life.
  Erdman suggests that they are responding to the call
 of Enitharmon, who has awoken from her long sleep.

Detail from plate 14: Orc, the serpent and spirit of rebellion slithering up
a vine beside the text commanding him to "arise".

Plate 15: the final plate shows a man rescuing a woman and child from fire.
  The figure has been described by Erdman as Los, rescuing his children from the apocalyptic scene.  He suggests that Blake is attempting to evoke the image of Aeneas rescuing father and child from burning Troy.


William Blake's art was not popular during his own lifetime; for much of his life he was forced to survive by eking out a living through the generous and charitable commissions of a few close friends. It was only later in the second half of the nineteenth century that, championed by the Pre-Raphaelite movement, his merits as an artist and poet began to be recognised.

Detail from plate 15: the "light" of Orc's fury appears in the "vineyards of red France".

Now Blake is celebrated as one of the most important figures in western art and literature - a true icon. Blakeiana has become an international industry with his images and poems reproduced throughout the world and academic papers on his work and its meaning published in their thousands. As William Vaughan notes, "Even today . he remains a controversial figure . for some an inspiring genius . for others . an unsettling eccentric". On this important anniversary of Blake's birth, Glasgow University can be proud indeed to own a copy of this rare and important work in its Library.

Another of Blake's remarkable illuminated books, Visions of the daughters of Albion, also held by Glasgow University Library will be on display until the beginning of December 2007.  It can be viewed in the Special Collections display case on level 12 of the library.  The display forms part of the 2007 Archive Awareness campaign on 'Freedom and Liberty'. For more information on the Archive Awareness campaign, please see:





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Robert MacLean November 2007