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Vol. 49 no. 3: Winter 2015–16

Ocean Growing: Blake’s Two Versions of Newton and the Emerging Polypus

  • Joseph Fletcher
11 December 2015
11 Dec. 2015


No interpretation has discussed the marked differences between the two prints of Newton: the 1795 version portrays Newton sitting in a hunched posture on a rock formation, the surface of which—with the exception of some patches of burnt orange and blue—is largely bare, like his own body. He seems meant to be associated with the rock on which he sits, emphasizing Blake’s view that the laws of Newtonian physics had fixed the world in Urizenic petrification, as later stated in A Descriptive Catalogue: “The Horse of Intellect is leaping from the cliffs of Memory and Reasoning; it is a barren Rock: it is also called the Barren Waste of Locke and Newton” (E 546).

In the 1804–05 print the rock is teeming with life, as if a coral population of sponges and spiky urchins had proliferated on the work in the intervening ten years. The richly textured and finely articulated coralline forms result from Blake’s method of color printing, which Viscomi has described as “printing wet paint from flat millboards or relief plates onto large sheets of paper.” The printed paint could be left in its “accidental” spongy state (closely resembling the rough texture of a coral reef), which Blake could choose to refine by washing over the printed colors in watercolors and by outlining them in pen and ink (Blake and the Idea of the Book 128). Perhaps the rich, spongy forms resulting from Blake’s color-printing technique suggested, in the later version, marine creatures, which he could then develop in pen and ink. The most notable additions in this regard are the two sea anemones or marine polyps rooted below Newton’s buttocks. Their tentacles trail in an ocean current, an effect that lends a dynamism to this later design.