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An Evening of Blake: Part Two

abstract:In part 2 of a 4-part series of interviews with distinguished William Blake scholars, curator and collector Professor Robert Essick discusses Blake’s unique literary and pictorial vision with BookBuffet founder, Paula Shackleton.


March 28, 2004

Writers, agents, editors, scholars, historians, and collectors met in common cause on February 17th—celebrating the visionary poet and artist William Blake. Co-hosted by BookBuffet and inspired by the author Janet Warner whose recent publication, Other Sorrows, Other Joys: The Marriage of Catherine Sophia Boucher and William Blake (St. Martin’s Press; 2003), was reviewed in an author interview for this website this past November.

This is the second part of a 4-part series of interviews (click here for part 1) with some of the distinguished participants of “An Evening of Blake”. We hope that at the culmination of this series, you, our readers and members, will have a greater appreciation and understanding of William Blake, and the professionals in the various scholarly disciplines who each play an important role in preserving, understanding, interpreting, and keeping his vision and genius alive.

An interview with Professor Robert Essick, Blake collector, curator of the Huntington Blake Collection, and editor of

BB: How long have you been collecting William Blake’s artwork and what got you interested in this?

Robert Essick: Since about 1967. A lecture on the “Job” engravings got me interested. I then took a seminar on Blake while in graduate school from the lecturer Professor Andrew Wright at UC San Diego.

BB: What is involved with developing a Blake collection?

RE: Patience, luck, money, knowledge—not necessarily in that order.

BB: How valuable is Blake’s work and who generally buys the pieces?

RE: Lots of folks, but usually not academics. Book collectors mainly, but some print collectors. Very few drawings and paintings collectors. Values range from, oh, $5 to $2.5 million. The latter was the auction price, a few year’s ago, for a copy of Blake’s The First Book of Urizen. There is now on the market a tempera painting by Blake with an asking price of $3.8 million.

BB: Who would you say has the best representation of Blake’s work, and how accessible is it to the public?

RE: The British Museum. Quite accessible.

BB: How do you determine authenticity?

RE: With my eyes. Connoisseurship is a complex matter. Instinct mostly. And of course there are differences between determining the authenticity of a supposed Blake manuscript and a drawing, print, or painting.

BB: What do you love about Blake’s work?

RE: The combination of the literary and the pictorial. The power of his sublimity. The craftsman of his unique printmaking activities. The compound of the physicality of the object and spirituality of the vision.

BB: How would you evaluate William Blake’s position in the development of etching and watercolor as art forms? Is he seen more as a poet, an artist, or as an illustrator?

RE: In Britain, he has been seen as both a poet and an artist. In America, mostly as a poet. But his reputation as an artist is growing—in the “artist/illustration” binary you noted above. His most influential works have been his very small wood engravings illustrating an English version of one of Virgil’s eclogues. Most of the more recent work supposedly inspired by Blake is just junk. He was, however, a great influence on the greatest poet of the last century, W. B. Yeats. Also [he was] an inspiration to American poets such as Theodore Roethke and Alan Ginsburg.

BB: Is there renewed interest in Blake since the Tate Museum exhibition last summer, and can you tell us about that collection, if it’s traveling?

RE: A reduced version of that show, now about three years old, went to the Met in New York. The show may have had some impact on the Blake market at its upper reaches.

BB: When Pollock was filmed, Ed Harris who played Jackson Pollock actually learned to imitate the artist’s splatter technique and his results were quite successful. I understand you and Joseph Viscomi [Professor of English Literature at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, author of Blake and the Idea of the Book, and co-editor and creator of the William Blake Archive] have experimented with Blake’s techniques of printing. Did you find the process exhausting, fun, rewarding?

RE: Fun and rewarding. We both complement historical research with studio experimentation.

BB: If you were asked to consult on a movie about Blake, how would you like to see his work and the man portrayed?

RE: Not sure. I’m not very picky; each creative person—director, poet, painter, composer—can create his or her own image of Blake.


Next week, BookBuffet will post our interview with Diane Reverend, Executive Editor for St. Martin's Press, NYC.



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