William Blake’s Engravings of Dante’s Inferno

The University of Tulsa Special Collections and Archives is fortunate to have a collection of books related to art.  These volumes range from artist’s books (books made by hand by the artist themselves) to biographies.  One of these books, Blake’s Illustrations of Dante is part of the Kay and Roger Easson Library of William Blake.  This book was published by The Trianon Press in Paris for the William Blake Trust in 1978.  Seven prints made from Blake’s engravings, a short history and descriptions of the engravings, and preliminary sketches are enclosed within the book.  These engravings not only have an interesting subject matter but also a fascinating history.  Blake’s friend John Linnel suggested to the artist that he should make engravings for Inferno while he was completing his work on the Illustrations of the Book of Job.  Blake worked on these engravings on and off during the last three years of his life.  By the time of his death in 1827, Blake had managed to complete 102 large sketches and watercolors inspired by the poem along with “copperplate versions of seven subjects chosen by Blake” that were mostly finished.  Following an argument with Blake’s wife over the payment for the engravings, Linnel was able to create prints from the plates.  The original set of prints in the collection of Sir Geoffrey Keynes were used to make the facsimiles in this book.

The full print shown here is of “The Circle of the Thieves” from lines 33-70 of Dante’s poem.  This image is made from one of the mostly finished plates and there are sketches and other engravings from early versions of the plate.  The image showing 4 sketches on one page are early versions of other prints from the book.  This work’s display of an artist’s process and changes in works over time illuminates the long process of arriving at a final work of art.

“The Circle of the Thieves” from lines 33-70 Preliminary sketches of engravings

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