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Production of Book of Job: Sets, Copies and Versions (SE)

William Blake began drawing for the story of the Old Testament Book of Job in 1785. Several drawings, paintings and engravings followed, but the work on what came to be known as the Illustrations of the Book of Job began, after Blake moved to No. 3 Fountain Court in 1821.

While at Fountain Court, the address that appears in the imprint, Blake started working on a set of twenty-one watercolours illustrating the Book of Job for John Linnell, who he had met in 1818. These designs closely followed an earlier set of nineteen watercolours which Blake had done for his friend and most important patron Thomas Butts in 1805-06. Blake probably borrowed Butts’s set (now in the Morgan Library and Museum) in order to make tracings for Linnell’s (now in multiple ownership). www.blakearchive.org

Linnell commissioned an engraved version and the two men signed an agreement on 23 March 1823: Linnell was to pay £5 for the copperplates and Blake was to receive £100 for the engraving work as well as a share (£100) in the profit. To prepare for the engravings Blake had to create yet another series of slightly smaller sketches, based on his own set of twenty-one designs.  These new sketches abound in minute differences but even the engraved work differs from its preparatory sketches. The differences between the sketches and the engraved designs signify that, for Blake, the creative process was on-going and that he was continually improving his work.

The Illustrations of the Book of Job consists of 22 engraved plates, including a title-page which Blake especially prepared for the engraved version. It was completed in the spring of 1825 and is a very different production from Blake’s early interpretations: “[his] manner of handling the graver had been advantageously modified since his acquaintance with Mr. Linnell” according to Gilchrist. (p.303)

The Illustrations of the Book of Job exists in several proof stages as well as published states which tell us something about how the designs developed. Recent scholarship on the copperplates now held in the British Museum, has analysed the hammer marks on the back of the plates and identified the areas which Blake experimented with the most. To start with, Blake ran off some trial proofs, which he printed with his own press at Fountain Court in order to show them to potential subscribers. As far as we know, there are nine sets of pre-publication proofs. The copy bought by Alfred Tennyson is one of 215 published proofs printed on two different types of paper in February 1826 by James Lahee of Castle Street in London.

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Last updated: 14 March 2013

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