The story goes that William Blake worked until the very day he died. His final drawing was said to be a portrait of his wife sitting by his deathbed. Earlier in the day, he had spent his last shilling on a pencil. He'd been commissioned two years earlier by friend and patron (and fellow painter) John Linnell to do a series of illustrations for Dante's The Divine Comedy. Friends would frequently give Blake work to keep him and his wife fed and to keep him creating art. It was these images that he was working on when, on August 12, 1827, he finally laid down his pencil and left his “mundane shell,” allegedly drifting away “signing songs of his own design.”
There have been other published editions of Blake's 102 sketches and watercolors in his Dante series, but nothing has ever come close to this stunning edition from Taschen. We've come to expect impressive art books from Taschen, but the “out of box experience” on this gem was off the charts. First, it's impressively big and heavy, at an outsized 18” x 12” and 324 pages. When I opened the shipping box and found a cardboard briefcase inside, I thought whatever was inside better be something special. Hefting this giant buckram-covered tome from the case and cracking it open soon had me gasping, squealing, and feeling as dizzy as a teenage girl at a Beatles' concert.
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a serious William Blake obsession. I have a significant library of and about him, have traveled far to see his exhibitions, and I've memorized dozens of his poems. And yes, even some of his long-form prophetic ones. Preface to Milton, anyone? But even with all that, I was ill prepared for the impact of this book. It is breathtakingly beautiful. The production is impeccable. The paper they used is so heavily woven, the book is basically printed on linen, thick and sumptuous. I don't know how they managed to produce such spectacularly vivid images on such textured paper, but the printing is just that—spectacular.
The book not only contains the 102 illustrations, fourteen of which fold out, but there are also extensive excerpts from The Divine Comedy as well as two fascinating essays about Dante and Blake and the tradition of artists inspired by Dante's work, including Sandro Botticelli, Michelangelo, Eugène Delacroix, Gustave Doré, and Auguste Rodin. And, of course, the works of these other artistic giants are given the same glorious treatment.
This is the first book I've ever reviewed where I don't feel guilty about telling you that I haven't finished it. In fact, I'm not even halfway through. This book is so impressive and high-impact to me, I can only handle a few pages a night. And I look forward to those before-bed sit downs every evening.
The other impressive thing about this book is that it's available at Amazon for under $95. Even at its full retail of $150, it would be a bargain. William Blake: The Drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy is almost as impressive as the Folio Society's Edward Young's Night Thoughts (with over 530 watercolors by Blake) and that book costs $1700.
William Blake: The Drawings for Dante's Divine Comedy
by Sebastian Schütze and Maria Antonietta Terzoli
2014, 324 pages, 12.8 x 18 x 3 inches
$94 Buy one on Amazon