In William Blake’s illuminated prints, it’s difficult to say where the poet leaves off and the visual artist begins. But nineteenth century print limitations made it difficult to reproduce the artwork well, and soon Blake’s art became overlooked and his poetry “translated” into type.

Promoting a re-evaluation of Blake’s art has become a mission for Joseph Viscomi, professor of English and co-editor of the William Blake Digital Archive.

Nineteenth-century print limitations helped define William Blake as a writer. Modern technology is redefining him as a multimedia artist. Most of us know Blake (1757-1827) as a poet, the author of “The Tyger” and “The Lamb.” We read his poems as children and rediscover them again in college. But the poems we read are what Joseph Viscomi, professor of English and co-editor of the William Blake Archive, calls “translations.” They’re lifted from their original settings, removed from their illustrated format. For Blake didn’t just write verse, he combined his visual and verbal talents into one medium—the illuminated print.

In the late 1780s, Blake began exploring ways to publish his own work. A trained printer, he already had the equipment and experience. But he wanted to move beyond letterpress printing—which uses set type—toward a format all his own. He came up with a technique called “relief etching.” Using quill pens and acid-resistant ink, he wrote his poetry onto copper plates and added illustrations to complement the text. Then he put the plates in an acid bath that etched away any surface not covered with ink. After printing from the plates, Blake and his wife hand-colored the pages and sewed them together into what he called “illuminated books.”

In Blake’s books, it is difficult to say where the poet leaves off and the visual artist begins. But when the Victorians rediscovered Blake in the mid-nineteenth century, they had no way to reprint the books as originally produced—photographic reproduction hadn’t been invented yet. Blake’s art was put aside, his poetry “translated” into type, and he became famous as a poet.

Promoting a re-evaluation of Blake’s art has become a mission of sorts for Joseph Viscomi. He became interested in Blake while working as a curatorial assistant in prints and drawings while a graduate student at Columbia. At the same time, he printed his own etchings and relief etchings. He says, “I approached Blake from the back door, the studio.” Blake’s print techniques fascinated Viscomi, and he eventually published Blake and the Idea of the Book, an in-depth exploration of those methods.

Viscomi’s work with Blake’s prints led him to become an editor of a set of Blake books co-produced by the William Blake Trust and the Tate Gallery. These volumes reproduced the poetry’s original format as closely as possible, keeping the images true to size and the colors accurate. But such a set was expensive to print. Says Viscomi, “The facsimiles could only include one copy from each book and a few supplementary illustrations.” In the midst of the project, Viscomi and his co-editors, Morris Eaves and Robert Essick, realized that they were creating a beautiful research tool, with limitations. They decided to take what Viscomi calls “the next step” and create a digital archive of all of Blake’s works that would, theoretically, be able to present not just one copy, but all available copies of a text, unrestrained by the limitations of print.

The trio approached the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia with the project and received an enthusiastic go-ahead. The Institute saw the Blake archive as an opportunity not only to preserve fragile manuscripts but also as a means to develop and test tools for use in future archives.

Being a guinea pig has not been easy, Viscomi admits, but it has been exciting. He says, “On good days, you feel like you’re solving new problems. On bad days it’s frustrating because there’s nothing to look back at and say, `oh, that’s how they did that.’”

Although creating a digital archive is more affordable than a collection of printed facsimiles, it is still time consuming. After Viscomi convinced the Library of Congress to lend the archive their Blake collection, he spent days in the library’s rare book room taking film transparencies of each page with a photographer. Each morning, Viscomi received the transparencies from the previous day’s shoot and checked their accuracy against the original prints. His earlier work as a printer came in handy then—he already had a trained eye capable of picking up tiny discrepancies that would invalidate the film.

Later, the transparencies were scanned into digital files and color-corrected. The images and text were then “tagged” in SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language), which makes it possible for viewers to search throughout the archive for words and visual motifs. As well, visitors can view enlargements of the plates. Says Viscomi, “That’s helpful for an editor who needs to go into a text and look at punctuation and words and tell if something is touched up or not, if it was added by Blake or by someone else.”

The Blake editors have worked hard to make the archive user-friendly. Each window has a marker that reminds viewers where they are. The design ensures that the archive is easy to use for even the most book-bound researcher. At the same time, though, Viscomi knows that the archive might leave out people with slow machines and small monitors. He says, “We had to balance current equipment with where we expect to be two years from now. Are we designing for laptops and modems? If we scan at too low a resolution, the images lose their fidelity.” Ultimately, the editors decided not to sacrifice detail for smaller files.

The editors plan to continue to add to the archive’s collection of illuminated texts into the next year. By the end of the summer of 1998, Viscomi hopes to have at least one copy of each illuminated book online.

Blake worried that artists and poets who could not reproduce themselves lost out,” Viscomi says. “So he created his own form of publication and advertised it as a method that `combines the Painter and the Poet.’”

Two hundred years later, the art world has finally caught up with Blake—through the internet.

Julia Bryan was formerly a staff writer for Endeavors.

Visit the William Blake Archive online at http://jefferson.village.Virginia.EDU/blake