William Blake (1757–1827) was a Romantic poet, artist and engraver. This small notebook (159 x 197 mm; 58 leaves) belonged to Blake’s brother, Robert, who died in 1787. While a few drawings in the notebook are in Robert’s hand, the majority of sketches and writing are by William who was probably writing in it from February 1787.
Blake continued to work in the notebook for over thirty years, starting from the front and drawing a series of emblems in pencil under the title ‘Ideas of Good and Evil’. These emblems record the journey of man from birth to death and may well have been prompted by Blake’s reaction to his brother’s premature death.
From this group of emblems, Blake selected seventeen designs which he etched and published in a small volume entitled For Children: The Gates of Paradise (1793). When Blake reached the end of the notebook, probably in about 1793, he turned it upside down and began working from the end on the back of each leaf. He used these pages to transcribe fair copies (later heavily annotated) of earlier draft of poems, many of which would appear in 'Songs of Experience' (1794).
When he started to write these poems into the notebook, some of the pages were already covered with sketches for an aborted edition of illustrations of John Milton's Paradise Lost. While some of these sketches were preserved, many were overwritten.
Although Blake mostly worked in this notebook between 1792 and 1794, he kept it with him throughout his life. He picked it up again to draft further poems at the front from 1801, and was still composing as late as 1818.
The closely-filled pages of this notebook give a fascinating insight into Blake's compositional process, allowing us to follow the genesis of some of his best-known work, including 'London', 'The Tyger' and 'The Chimney Sweeper'.
The provenance of this notebook ties it to two other well-known British artists. It was presented by Blake's widow in 1827 to William Palmer, the brother of Blake's pupil, the artist Samuel Palmer. William Palmer sold it to the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti for ten shillings in 1847.
- Article by:
- Julian Walker
- Childhood and children's literature, Romanticism
Julian Walker looks at William Blake’s poetry in the context of 18th-century children’s literature, considering how the poems’ attitudes towards childhood challenge traditional ideas about moral education during that period.
- Article by:
- Ruth Mather
- Power and politics
Ruth Mather considers how Britain's intellectual, political and creative circles responded to the French Revolution.