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Minute Particulars

Vol. 49 no. 3: Winter 2015–16

The Blakes at Their Press

  • Robert N. Essick
  • Jenijoy La Belle
11 December 2015
11 Dec. 2015


Blake’s penultimate watercolor illustrating The Divine Comedy pictures Dante drinking from the river of light in paradise. Beatrice resides in glory right of the river. Other figures in the design are not directly summoned by Dante’s text, including a seated male center left holding a scroll and with eyes turned upward. Roe identifies him as a “bearded poet” (190). Below him, sketched in tentative pencil lines, is a figure standing left of an easel bearing a canvas. This painter, who wears a high-waisted gown, may be female; she is holding a palette in her left hand and a brush in her right. Between these representatives of the arts is a loose sketch of what looks like a sturdy table with a figure standing at its left end. Roe was the first to observe that these motifs show “an engraver’s press” as “a man bends over” it (190). Variant descriptions are provided by Klonsky (“a man working at an engraver’s bench,” 162), Butlin (“a scene of painting and engraving,” 1: 587), and Tinkler-Villani (“an engraver,” 283). Baine offers the most detailed description: “Blake, like Michelangelo in his Last Judgment and Raphael in his Disputa, has sketched himself, in flames of inspiration. He is working at his press; and at an easel, palette and brush in hand, his earthly Emanation, Catherine, looks modestly down, as in his portrait of her …, presumably tinting some of the sheets which he is working off” (128). This tiny and tentative vignette deserves further consideration, especially because it calls to mind Blake’s own professional activities as etcher, engraver, and printer.