William Blake, the author of The Tyger and the preface to Milton (now perhaps best known as the hymn “Jerusalem”), was also a skilled artist and a prodigious engraver. These illustrations, his last completed commission before his death in 1827, are arguably the greatest testament to his talents.
Blake completed the engravings in relief etching – which meant that they were all composed in reverse. This achievement is all the more remarkable when we consider that Blake never drafted the intricate border designs and texts, composing them on the spot as he carved the plates – backwards! Like most of Blake’s works, they failed to attract commercial interest during his lifetime, but after his death they were acclaimed by such notable critics as John Ruskin. Ruskin declared that in certain respects, Blake’s illustrations were finer than Rembrandt’s.
Blake was an insightful yet idiosyncratic reader of the biblical text. He imbues his illustrations with dense scriptural allusions and often highlights intriguing pieces of text from the King James Version of Job in order to set the story in a new and surprising light. If we take a comparison of the first and last plates as an example, we can see that Blake drawing an explicit contrast between Job and his family before and after his climactic encounter with God. In the first plate, Job and his family are austerely gathered under a tree, piously focussed on their prayer books. Musical instruments hang (including, notably, a harp) hang in the tree above them – probably an allusion to the famous lament of the exiles in Psalm 137. Job and his family are – in fact – in spiritual exile, and Blake highlights a small detail in the biblical text to underscore this: “Thus did Job continually” (Job 1:5).
By the end of the sequence, the scene is different: Blake and his family now sing and dance, their austere bound books have been replaced by free-flowing scrolls, and the instruments are now taken down from the tree and are being played. Blake thus highlights the importance of creativity and imagination in worship, and invites his audience to see Job’s story as one in which his testing is designed to open his eyes to the dulling, repetitive piety of his former life.
The set of illustrations shelved in the Danson Library were donated to the College in 1899, by a former Greats student, Alfred Vaughan Payton. He most likely donated the prints to be used in the old undergraduate library for students to study and enjoy. Sadly the prints remained in obscurity in the library’s collection until they were rediscovered in 2012 by a Trinity student. Subsequent research revealed that they are part of the initial 150 print run which Blake and Linnell commissioned, as many of the pages contain a unique watermark – “J Whatman, Turkey Mill, 1825”.