A lost trove of William Blake’s art has been discovered in a Manchester library, art that went unappreciated when it was made.
Alan Moore called him “England’s greatest Holy Fool.” He was in that remarkable subset of artists who are, observably, not mentally okay, but who create immortal work nonetheless. Perhaps best of all, he was one of those tragically romantic stories we can’t resist: an artist and writer who was unappreciated in his lifetime, his genius only recognized posthumously.
There’s something we love about that story, isn’t there? It validates us as men, and more deeply as human beings. We love the idea that yes, it may seem like we’re failures, it may seem like what we do doesn’t matter, but when we’re dead, then they’ll all be sorry. Then everyone will appreciate the work we did and call us brilliant. We love the story of Vincent Van Gogh, of John Kennedy Toole, of Robert Johnson, because it frees us from the Success Myth. That narrative tells us that we may seem now like failures, but it is too early to judge us. We may yet be the geniuses and legends of a future age, and we’ll be properly appreciated only when it’s too late.
That story is also William Blake’s. And just recently, fans of Blake’s stunning contribution to British art and poetry got a very impressive gift. Hundreds of commercial engravings done by Blake have been uncovered in the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Library. This is the kind of discovery academics dream of, a treasure hunt with a prize beyond measure. The dedicated researchers who worked so hard to find and catalog these lost masterworks deserve to pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
To my mind, though, the great beauty of this discovery is that they are commercial engravings.
What we see in these lost works, at least those that have been released so far, is a remarkable sample of Blake’s work. He is known for his half-sane visions, his attempts to explicate the universe he perceived, his art and writing teeming with themes of the gods and mythologies and hidden logic underlying reality. And yet in these commercial works, that impulse, that vision, is muted down to mere subtext. We see in them not a brilliant artist trying to make sense of the universe, but a brilliant artist trying to make rent that month. His powerful, iconoclastic line shows through, but the job takes precedence. His unlimited vision is seen here in its limited version, hemmed in by the need to suit the parameters of the job.
One can argue that limitations on art are what give rise to great achievement, and that’s certainly a valid case to make. More interesting to me, though, is how this underlines the narrative of Blake’s life. These were commercial engravings, stuff Blake did under deadline at the behest of some publisher. This trove is hundreds of images of a genius working a day job. And that makes the story all the more powerful.
Today, as you slog through whatever it is you have to do that keeps the bills paid and the wolf from the door, imagine that two centuries from now, dedicated researchers have found an archive of your work. Imagine their excitement as they compare your long-lost works to the familiar ones they know, seeing how your style and your vision come through in even the smallest decisions you made, trying to derive a sense of your mind from the work you did in life.
Your job today is to give those researchers something to get excited about. William Blake did it with every hurried, deadline-fraught line he laid on paper. You can do it too.