By Lisa J. Sherlock, Victoria University's chief librarian
In December 2015 Victoria University Library acquired an important addition—the jewel in the crown—to the Bentley collection of William Blake and his contemporaries: five plates from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The five plates include the title page on which appears the attribution “The Author & Printer W Blake,” “The Blossom,” “A Cradle Song,” and “A Dream.” They represent the earliest extant printing of any illuminated book and the first printing and first issue of one of the most renowned books in English poetry.
The Songs of Innocence plates represent William Blake’s first, tentative attempts at illuminated printing. This is referred to as Copy W as listed in the standard bibliography by G.E. Bentley, Jr., Blake Books. It is believed to have been printed in tandem with Copy U in 1789 by Blake with the help of his wife Catherine. Only a very few library collections own examples of Blake’s early printing including Harvard’s Houghton Library (which owns Copy U), Library of Congress, the Huntington Library, the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich, the British Museum and the libraries at Oxford and Yale.
The early history of Copy W of Songs of Innocence is not known. It was sold from the “Property of a Nobleman” at an auction in London in 1940, and then sold again in 1941 through Sotheby’s before being acquired at an unknown time by an American collector. The set of plates, which numbered 22 at the time of sale in 1941, were later disassembled and offered for sale as single or pairs of plates at the owner’s request. Copy W of Songs of Innocence, then, has not been a complete book for many years.
Since Copy W appeared on the market, the only extant copy of Songs of Innocence produced in its earliest known printing was Copy U at the Houghton Library, Harvard, in 1950. As Copy U and Copy W were believed to have been printed in the same press-run—and share many of the same characteristics—a comparison of the two will allow researchers to understand Blake’s printing processes and provide evidence of the early development of what is termed “relief printing,” the graphic technique Blake invented and used.
The five plates will be on exhibition in the E.J. Pratt Library Reading Room as of November and until the library closes for the Christmas holidays. Other recent acquisitions from the Bentley/Blake Collection will also be on display to celebrate the 10-plus years since the collection was acquired for the library from Professor Gerald E. Bentley in 2005. The Songs of Innocence plates were acquired through the support of the Friends of Victoria University Library and an anonymous donor.