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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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William Blake was an engraver to trade, and this was where he found his most expressive medium. He left the world a vast and impressive collection of engraving plates which, today reside in various collections around the world.


William Blake is perhaps the most influential and innovative artist Britain has ever produced. Apart from William Shakespeare, it is hard to imagine another writer who has had a bigger impact of the world of literature and his paintings continue to inspire and astonish legions of people, even today. However, to truly understand the uniqueness of Blake, one must explore his world, and that is best expressed by his own invention; relief etchings. William took the humble engraving techniques he learned as an apprentice and elevated them into something altogether most splendid and in doing so he re-introduced the world of art to the glories of the illuminated manuscript.

Blake - The Inventor

In 1779, Blake completed his seven-year apprenticeship with James Basire and was a qualified engraver. He left Basire's employ to begin studying at the Royal Academy of Art. His time there was short-lived due to artistic differences with the, then president, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Suddenly Blake realised he needed to support himself and so he began to take work as an engraver. Standard engraving was a way to make a living and fine for other people’s projects, but Blake realised that if he was going to express his own creative vision, he needed something better.

William was a prodigious writer of poetry and prose, and his artwork was an expressive extension of his ideas. Blake considered that the poems and the images were symbiotic, and one could simply not exist without the other. So, in 1788, Blake trialled a new undertaking, one he called stereotype but is better known as relief etching. This new process, unlike engraving, involved treating the etched design with acid-resistant chemicals and then dissolving the untreated copper in acid thus leaving behind the design and, or text in relief, hence, relief etching. It was quite revolutionary. Not only was it much quicker to produce the plates, but more importantly to Blake, it produced a new kind of illuminated manuscript joining text and designs seamlessly together in one printing.

Blake's wife, Catherine, whom he had trained to a high level in engraving techniques, was an enormous help to him when working with his new invention for printing. All Religions Are One and There is No Natural Religion were his first published illuminated manuscripts using his newly invented technique. They are musings on the corruptive role of religion and, although they are a little rudimentary, contain some beautiful imagery.

Famous Relief Etchings

The best examples of Blake’s new technique are certainly his prophetic books. He did not often use relief etching for his commissioned work preferring, instead to save it for his own creations. Undoubtably the most striking and epic of these works is, The (First) Book of Urizen (1794). Although later editions dropped the word first in the title, it is still the same piece. This work is an archetypal Blake masterpiece, combining all the elements that made his creations so unique and enthralling.

The subject matter for one thing, is based around the complex world of William's character creations and visions. Urizen, being the hero, is set amongst a creation story for Blake's world and follows him though the beginning of time. The second remarkable point of interest is the fact that it is, of course, a complete printing in relief etching, showcasing the flawless marriage of text and illustrations. Finally, the artwork itself is quintessential Blake, as it is at once fantastic and moving, and contains some of William's most enduring images.

It is not possible to reference Blake's relief etching work without speaking about his magnificent, Pity (1795). An uncharacteristic print with no text, this relief etching with ink and watercolour is surely one of Williams most ethereal works. It belongs to a group called, Large Colour Prints and is said to be based on Shakespeare's Macbeth; "And pity, like a naked new-born babe, Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd. Upon the sightless couriers of the air, Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye". The image portrays an image of two cherubs on a horse jumping over a sleeping woman, Pity herself. The blues and greens of the painting create a feeling of dreamscape. Some scholars believe that it may also incorporate some of Blake's own characters such as the God Urizen from the eponymous Book and that the woman is, in fact, Eve suffering the prophesised "pain and sorrow of childbirth" after the fall of knowledge.

This interpretation is founded in the fact that it is fashioned using stereotype and Blake often reserved the technique for his own characters and the blues and greens of the painting create a feeling of dreamscape, a common theme in William's world. However, it is most certainly named for the Shakespearean play. There are four versions of this print in existence; one, slightly smaller version in the British Museum in London, the second, less colourful is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the third, slightly tarnished is in the Yale Center for British Art, but the most complete, some would say the only finished copy, is housed in the Tate Gallery in London.

Etchings Today

Although Blake is the only artist ever to use his invention purely, as it was, the process spawned a great number of variants some of which are still used in printing today. In the mid-20 th century American Artists developed the process of carbograph printing, which finds it's root firmly in Blake's technique, and with the invention of the camera, photo-etching became popular and still is today, due to the fact that it is so much less toxic than using chemicals. Many artists and printers in the 21st century use processes to create images that would not be possible without the innovative mind of William Blake. He continues to inspire, almost 200 years after his death.