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William Blake

1757 – 1827

Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims by William Blake

Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims   1810

  Original etching and line engraving.
Signed in the plate.
Ref: Essick XVI iii/v   (The Separate Plates of William Blake, 1983, pp.60-89)
S 348 x 945 mm; I 302 x 926 mm
Original William Blake etching and line engraving.

Magnificent lifetime proof impression in Essick’s 3rd state of the plate (Essick records only one known impression in his 1st state of the plate and two examples in his 2nd state). Before the right hand of the taller boy was added on the right shoulder of the small child closest to the lower left corner of the image. Prior to much burnishing of lighter areas and darkening of shadows across the entire plate and before much alteration to the shafts of radiance above the horizon.

In this state the plate shows its original imprint, giving William Blake’s publication address at his brother’s house, “No.28 Corner of Broad Street, Golden Square” – this address was removed in Essick’s 4th state and drypoint inscriptions of verse were added at either side of the title. William Blake is thought to have achieved Essick’s 2nd and 3rd states of the plate at some time soon after his issue date of October 1810. It is thought that he then laid the plate aside for many years before extensively re-working the whole design to produce the Essick’s 4th state around the years 1820-1823.

Lifetime impressions of William Blake’s Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims, are exceptionally scarce, the majority of known impressions having already gravitated into the permanent collections of museums. In view of the fact that only three impressions earlier than this example are known worldwide, it is unlikely that a finer impression could ever be obtained. The posthumous printings of the reworked plate by Colnaghi, Sessler and others do not even begin to compare in quality with the present example, which was almost undoubtedly printed by William Blake himself.

This is a particularly brilliant impression in Essick’s 3rd state, inked with beautiful clarity and not over heavily as was the case with most impressions in this state. It was this style of clear, silvery impression which Blake appears to have been trying to achieve in this, his most elaborate original engraving. William Blake is believed to have found many impressions of the third state to be excessively dark and he reworked the plate extensively for the fourth state to reduce the darkness of printing and increase contrast (see Essick The Separate Plates of William Blake, 1983, p.68). This is an exceptionally fine and bright impression in the third state of the plate, Chaucer’s horse and the dark areas on the other horses having been printed with a beautiful light clarity rarely found in this early state of the plate.

The composition of Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims was both ideologically and commercially pivotal to William Blake’s life. Blake regarded this subject as his crucial attempt to establish a reputation as a painter-engraver and to achieve the sort of critical and financial success that had escaped him for so many years. In attempting to have complete artistic and financial control of both the engraving and publication of one of his own independent plates, William Blake was following in the tradition established by James Barry, whom he admired greatly. The importance which Blake placed on his Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims design is demonstrated by the extended consideration which he gave to it in his various writings of around 1809-1812. In the Descriptive Catalogue, William Blake devoted 27 pages of his 68 page booklet to a description of the painting and in both this and his 1810 advertisement for the print he took pains to describe each pilgrim in turn, stressing the ways in which they are each eternal archetypes of human character: “the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps.”

Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is widely seen as being the first great work of English literature and it was William Blake’s aim to encompass the whole of this long and complex literary work in a single image. The engraving shows Chaucer and the twenty-nine pilgrims of the Canterbury Tales in procession, riding out from the Tabard Inn in Southwark at the beginning of their journey to Canterbury. From left to right they are the Reeve, Chaucer, the Clerk of Oxenford, the Cook, the Miller, the Wife of Bath, the Merchant, the Parson, the Man of Law, the ‘Plowman’, the Physician, the Franklin, two citizens, the Shipman, the Host, the Sompnour, the Manciple, the Pardoner, the Monk, the Friar, a citizen, the Lady Abbess, the Nun, three priests, the Squire’s Yeoman, the Knight and the Squire. Not only did Blake see these figures as eternal archetypes of human character, in his representation of a pilgrimage he believed Chaucer was depicting the pilgrimage of mankind itself.

The subject of Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims was, from its very inception, embroiled in a controversy which deeply disturbed William Blake for many years and it is this controversy which has been the centre of much academic debate. The controversy surrounds the fact that R.H. Cromek saw Blake’s design early in its development and soon afterwards commissioned a very similar panoramic view of the pilgrims from Thomas Stothard (the artist for whom William Blake had worked extensively as a reproductive engraver). It appears that William Blake felt himself cheated out of what he saw as a commission by Cromek and the rivalry which developed in Blake’s mind between his own project for this design and Stothard’s competitive project, led to a terminal rift with these important employers. In recent decades, Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims has received more scholarly attention than any other of Blake’s separate plates; however, the controversy regarding the origins of this design has finally been resolved by Robin Hamlyn of the Tate Gallery (see Stothard description elsewhere on this site).

Whatever the origins of the design, it is clear that William Blake planned originally to publish a print of Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims by around 1806. Upon learning of Cromek and Stothard’s plans, he set out instead to produce a tempera painting of the subject that would form the centrepiece for his own exhibition of works (the tempera painting is now in the Stirling Maxwell Collection at Pollok House, Glasgow). This exhibition eventually opened at his brother James’s shop in Golden Square in 1809. William Blake clearly regarded the Chaucer subject as an attempt to win patronage for himself, rather than to get patrons for others (especially Stothard). He announced plans for the publication of the print in a prospectus dated 15 May 1809. Gilchrist states that William Blake began work on this plate in September or October 1809. The first state of the plate was almost certainly completed by October 1810, and the second and third states are thought to have followed shortly thereafter (see Essick, p.84).

It has been many years since so fine a lifetime impression of William Blake’s Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims has been available for sale. In particular, it is exceptionally rare to find an impression in such good, intact condition.

On warm white wove paper with margins beyond the image on all sides and with the full engraved lettering. Trimmed just within the platemark. Traces of an inked fingerprint are visible in the left margin of the sheet (this may be William Blake’s own fingerprint). Traces of old worm tracks on the reverse of the sheet have been expertly conserved to museum standards (these tracks are not visible from the front surface of the sheet). A detailed condition report is available upon request. A truly outstanding example of this important original print by William Blake.