This letter is from William Blake to his good friend George Cumberland, who was also involved in printmaking. Cumberland was exploring ways of developing new printing processes, and in this letter Blake describes how to lay a varnish of wax evenly onto a metal plate.
The process Blake describes is for preparing a plate for etching. Wax is laid on a plate, which is then scratched into gently, clearing lines that can then be bitten into with acid, creating grooves to hold the printing ink. Blake talks about creating a surface that will ‘receive any impression minutely’, a process similar to transferring with carbon paper. Lines could be drawn on fine paper laid on the wax, and the lines would show on the wax on the plate. With the paper removed the design would remain on the wax.
There may be a joke in Blake’s question as to what animal produces ‘virgin’s wax’ – it was merely refined beeswax, originally virgin wax; in other words new wax.
Blake reveals a little about how his home life contributed to his work, writing ‘Peace & Plenty & Domestic happiness is the Source of Sublime Art, and prove [proof] to the Abstract Philosophers that Enjoyment & not Abstinence is the food of Intellect’.
6 Decembr 1795
I congratulate you not on any atchievement . because I know that the Genius that produces . these Designs can execute them in any manner . notwithstanding the pretended Philosophy which teaches that Execution is the power of One & Invention of another - Locke says it [ ] same faculty that Invents Judges , & I say he who
[ ] Invent can Execute.
As to laying on the Wax it is as follows
Take a cake of Virgins wax (I dont know what animal produces it) & stroke it regularly over the surface of a warm plate. (the Plate must be warm enough to melt the Wax as it pafses over) then
immediately draw a feather over it & you will get an even surface which when cold will receive any imprefsion minutely
Note The danger is in not covering the Plate All over
Now You will I hope shew all the family of Antique Borers, that Peace & Plenty & Domestic Happinefs is the Source of Sublime Art , & prove to the Abstract Philosophers - that Enjoyment & not Abstinence is the food of Intellect
Health - to Mrs Cumberland & family
The prefsure necefsary to roll off the lines is the same as when you print, or not quite so great. . I have not been able to send a proof of the bath tho I have done the corrections. my paper not being in order
G Cumberland Esqr
Bishopsgate near Egham