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Tennyson's Copy and Blake’s Victorian Reputation

Alfred Tennyson was given his copy of the Book of Job by Benjamin Jowett on 9th April 1856. It is one of 150 published proofs printed on India paper and published in February 1826 along with 65 copies on French paper by James Lahee of Castle Street in London. Lahee then removed the word “Proof” to print 100 copies on plain paper. The latter is normally referred to as the first edition. In total there are 315 copies dating from 1826. At some point in 1826, Linnell bought the plates as well as the copperplates from Blake, which Blake acknowledged in a letter dated 14 July 1826.

Tennyson’s copy has the word “Proof” in the bottom right hand corner of every single sheet. Each plate is dated and inscribed with “London Published as the Act directs March 8: 1825 by William Blake No 3 Fountain Court Strand” (except for the first plate which has “March 8: 1828”). Macmillan’s agent, James Fraser, points out this mistake on plate 1 in the 1860s, which Linnell says he had not noticed before. (Bryant, “The Job Designs”, p. 142) The imprints stay the same in all versions: the prepublication prints, the published proofs and the first and second printing of the work. The word “William” also appears in abbreviated form (“William”) and there is no consistency in how Blake signed each plate (“WBlake invenit & sc” or “WBlake invenit & sculpt” or “WBlake inv & sculp”). This signature appears in different positions inside the frame in the bottom halves of the plates, which suggests that Blake finished the plates at different times.

The title-page dates the work as “1825” but we can be pretty certain that the publishing process only commenced in 1826. When the work was first published, the copies were printed in sets. The proof copies, printed on India or French paper, were mounted on paper and bound.

The reason the proof copies didn’t sell as well as the first edition, is - if we are to believe a letter written in 1892 by Linnell’s son - that the paper became damp and was spoiled through foxing. A close inspection of Tennyson’s copy reveals foxing especially in the upper sections of the pages.

It took Linnell almost forty years to sell the work. In a letter written in 1863, Linnell mentions that he still had sets of the proofs left. He printed another 100 copies in 1874. The work has been published in facsimile but the plates have not been used since. Financially, the Illustrations to the Book of Job was a success for Blake because Linnell, who handled the sales, paid Blake the largest sum he had ever received for any of his works.

After many years of nearly total neglect, Blake’s reputation underwent a revival in the middle of the nineteenth century.  He had been an independent, self-publishing poet who had managed to stay faithful to his poetic vision, because he didn’t have to rely on traditional publishing methods. Blake’s nineteenth century reputation was mostly propelled by his art work so that many thought of him as a painter rather than a poet.

When Linnell retired in 1859, his nephew James Henry Chance became the literary agent for Blake’s Illustrations of the Book of Job.  Chance asked Linnell to send the remaining copies to his house in 28 London Street and placed an advertisement, to promote himself as the new agent, and announced that a “very limited number” of the engravings originally printed in 1826 was still available for sale.

In May 1863, Alexander Gilchrist’s two-volume biography, The Life of William Blake was published posthumously.   It had been completed by Gilchrist’s widow, Anne Gilchrist, and with the help of the Rossetti brothers Dante Gabriel and William, both great admirers of Blake.  The second volume contains examples from published as well as unpublished works, letters and a fully annotated catalogue of Blake’s drawings, engravings and paintings. Dante Gabriel Rossetti chose the poetry and his brother William produced the catalogue.  Dante Gabriel Rossetti finished the chapter on the Book of Job.

According to Linnell’s accounts, copies were ordered by the King, the Royal Academy, Thomas Lawrence, George Richmond, John Flaxman and Algernon Charles Swinburne.


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Last updated: 14 March 2013

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