Of the first book set I was most interested in Night Thoughts. I was first drawn to the book because of the familiarity of the illustrations. William Blake is one of my favorite poets, and I have always enjoyed his combination of text and image; his Songs of Innocence and of Experience was one of my first encounters with cohesive visual and textual elements. As I read the lyric The Tyger I was always struck by how Blake’s artistry extended beyond the verse as he illustrated his subject in the background of the calligraphic lines.
Having only read and viewed the engravings of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience I was surprised when I looked at Night Thoughts to discover that Blake illustrated for poetic works beyond his own. While I personally prefer Blake’s poetry to Young’s, I found the combination to be stimulating as Blake’s engravings further dramatized Young’s verse. The flowing lines of Blake’s images implied a movement that was mirrored in Young’s determined pace.
The binding of Night Thoughts followed the cool color scheme that Blake employed in the book’s pages, and was eye-catching in its difference from the other books that we viewed. However, I would have enjoyed seeing the original leather binding of the book as it would have completed my first exposure to an original 18th century publication of Blake’s illustrations.
Illustration; Page 23
I was instantly drawn to The complaint and the consolation, or Night Thoughts by Edward Young. While Night Thoughts was not the only book from the set to have accompanying imagery, or even color, there was something bizarre about William Blake’s illustrations that I found off-putting and hypnotizing. The combination of the heavy subject matter of Young’s poem (Night Thoughts is about death and the fragility of human life) and the soft, almost translucent, color palette of Blake’s prints was unexpected but quite powerful. I suppose that I would expect a text about death to be illustrated with rich, imposing colors. Yet, Blake’s use of traditionally soothing tones for illustrations that are peculiar and disturbing resulted in a viewing experience that I found to be unsettling – far more so than if the illustrations had been rendered in dark, dramatic colors. I have always loved art that can make me feel uncomfortable –an artist must have an understanding of human tolerance for unpleasant experiences; they need to intuitively sense how much is almost too much. Blake most definitely understood, whether cognitively or innately, this balance.
Blake rendered his figures in such a way that, while I knew I was looking at visual representations of ‘other’ humans, I felt that they were somehow different, almost alien. After spending time with the book, I have decided that this foreignness comes from Night Thought’s characters being incredibly expressive and emotive while also looking almost dead. The figures seem languid with their fleshy pallor – they heighten the fragile state of human existence that concerns Young’s poem. Being relatively unfamiliar with William Blake illustrations, I had thought that maybe these sickly figures could just be inline with Blake’s esthetic but upon doing a bit of research on his artistic style I found his Night Thoughts prints to be slightly less epic in their drama than was typical of his other drawings. Blake took time to tailor his illustrations to the needs of the poem – something I appreciated as a viewer.
In my research, I came across this interesting fact: “while Blake based his designs closely on the text, many of the images are based on personifications or metaphors in the poem. This approach tends to literalize what is only a figure of speech in the text, thereby confounding conventional distinctions between the literal and the metaphoric.” I had noticed this while reading the poem, but I am not sure if I fully grasped the exact relationship between word and image until coming across the above quote. Out of Blake’s literal interpretation of Young’s poetic metaphors comes the fanciful, otherworldly quality of Night Thoughts that makes the book so intriguing. I think it is what makes me feel like I am looking into some type of parallel world that is familiar but, in some indescribable way (and I mean this beyond the obvious of floating people, human-like creatures, imaginary landscape etc), different from anything I know.
Illustration; Page 7
 The William Blake Archive. http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/work.xq?workid=bb515&java=no
I have selected New Kreuterbuch (1543) or The New Herbal by Leonard Fuchs. I was most intrigued by its detail, content, and influence on later botanical literature. Its shift in approach, influenced by the scientific revolution, is intriguing.
The author, Fuchs, was a German physician, humanist and botanist. The first edition of New Kreuterbuch was first published in Latin, in 1542, and has approximately 500 plant-portraits drawn from observation in Fuchs’s garden at Tübingen by Albert Meyer. These drawings were advancements in the realm of botanical literature. Although drawings had been used before (i.e. Herbarius Latinus), Fuch’s book transformed the page with carved relief woodblock carvings. The visual collaboration we see in New Kreuterbuch shows added technical delicacy and complexity alongside text. These medicinal plants come to life in the woodblock drawings, and the in-depth descriptions of the 400 German and 100 foreign plants is impressive. From the thin lines, to the figures’ three-dimensional nature, they certainly have a more scientific quality, more so than we see in the more stylized, thickly drawn plants in Herbarius Latinus.
The detailed drawings were transferred to woodblocks by Heinrich Füllmaurer, and cut into wood by Viet Rudolph Speckle. Portraits of all three artists are included in the work. This was groundbreaking. Typically, the author would feature himself, but not other contributors. New Kreuterbuch does not include biographical information about the illustrators and carver, but it does give faces to the hands behind the imagery.
Like many books of its kind, New Kreuterbuch was used for medicinal purposes. Each page lists which ailments the plant cures. This was medicine. Herbal remedies. In our current scientific world, how would we portray our remedies in book form? Can you imagine, woodblocks of mass-produced pills? It’s interesting to look at the context of this literature, and how it is represented in book form, especially in a society that does not value medicinal herbal remedies as highly esteemed as it did centuries before.
For this first book set, the book that I like the most is Encyclopedie, ou Dictionaire Raisonne des Sciences, des Arts et des Metiers, by Denis Diderot. While we only got to view one of the many volumes, it’s quickly apparent that this book reflects the era’s desire to fully record human history: here, there is a rich collection of definitions of each of the contemporary disciplines, from chemistry to civil engineering to music. The book alternates between many, many pages of words and definitions, followed by many, many pages of diagrams and images. The book is stuffed to the brim; it’s unbelievable.
The book’s relationship between the text and images is fascinating, and very different from what I’m used to. Normally, I’d expect a textbook or encyclopedia to keep its figures close to their respective text, or at least keep its images in the middle of the book, to make reference easier. Instead, this dictionary works by separating the words and images, so that all of the pictures come in this long stream. For me, at least, the text became almost irrelevant because I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the images in number and content. Sometimes there would be pages of day-to-day life, with figures elaborating on the mechanics or technology present in those ordinary images. In this sense, it’s more powerful than an ordinary dictionary, which relies on text with few images. Here, the images really provide depth and understanding to the basic definitions by demonstrating different principles and concepts.
And I think the book becomes stronger when put in context with its history. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, it faced a lot of criticism, and censorship by the printers, but managed to be successful and helped to pave the way for the French Revolution. So, I guess the volumes and the flourishing amounts of text and images sparked other people’s imagination and intellect.
The book which peaked my interest the most was Liber Chronicum. While I had viewed it previously, my viewing of it in class really gave me some valuable one-on-one time to closely examine both text and image in the book.
One thing I noted was the repeating of various images throughout the Chronicle. Cities that were supposed to be represented by the images, often were produced using the same woodcutting; an image of Florence might match Geneva. For me this realization drove home how time consuming the crafting of the woodcuttings must have been. And how much time it would have taken to craft individual cuttings for each city. I also imagine, there was a limit on how much the Chronicle’s author had seen of the world. This reminded me of how printing would bring about so many opportunities to transmit ideas, and share images of various parts of the world.
Another facet of the book which stood out to me was the coloring of the images. The images were originally made from cuttings without any colored ink. So, people who purchased the book would take it upon themselves to have it colored. A specific cutting that demonstrates a fun example of this is the one with knights, and (originally) blank family shields. In the Mortimer copy the shields are colored in, most likely with the owner’s family crest, which presents another interesting way of thinking about how images (not only text) function in the book as representations of history.
Within the Chornicle text and image are supposed to tell the story of all history. However, it is the pages that are left blank and the images that are made uncolored, where the books potential is fully realized. In giving the owner of the book the ability to add themselves in, to color the book themselves, make the Liber Chronicum a living text; completely original in all that it can tell us.
From all the books we looked at in Book Set One, De Humani coporis fabrica librorum epitome by Andreas Vesalius stood out to me the most. Christophe Plantin published the book in 1565 during the Renaissance and it is known to be one of the most influential books on human anatomy. The reason why I was drawn to it more than some of the other books was because of its cover (figure 1). I was drawn to its aged texture and faded color. If you look closely at the cover of the book you can see beautiful designs that once decorated the front and back of the book. These designs are done on pigskin, which is the material that the cover of the book is made of. When you open the book to its front page you can see the signature progression of owners that once used the book for reference and information.
The book is based on Vesalius’s lectures in which he dissected corpses to illustrate the information he was discussing with his students. It presents detailed examinations of the different parts that make up the human body (figures 2 & 3). Vesalius was able to produce these stunning illustrations by engraving copper. The details of the illustrations make them act like beautiful drawings but also serve the purpose of informing people about the human body.
De Humani Coporis fabrica librorum epitome is laid out in a way that makes it seem like a scientific diary. The illustrations work with the text (which is a mixture of Roman Capitals and miniscule type form) using a labeling system. Each part of the diagram is labeled with numbers or letters that are then explained in a detailed description on the page next to it. Both the text and images work together to help the reader match and understand what part of the human corpse he/she is observing. Figure 4 is a perfect example of this “labeling system” and also of what the other pages in the book look like.
. (figure 1)
(figures 2 &3) (figure 4)
(I think this is the correct place to write a blog post — if I’m wrong, I’m really sorry.)
The book I’d like to discuss is Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality, authored by Edward Young and illustrated by William Blake.
In the historical context, this book is relatively lackluster. It was made in 1797, setting no historical landmarks (a la the Gutenberg Bible), and never considered a historical staple in book history (a la The Nuremberg Chronicle). Its attraction was more of a personal one. The use of narrative illustration juxtaposed on word, fiction or poetry in particular, has always intrigued me greatly, and Night-Thoughts is a splendid example in this regard. William Blake is always a favorite, and his sinuous, energetic watercolor engravings seemed a perfect match for Young’s poetic venture through themes of death and mortality. I’ve researched the book since I first saw it, and am pleased to know that Blake’s gigantic project (537 watercolor illustrations, 200 of which were replicated through engravings) has at last been drawing the historical eye in recent years.
Of course, the other books offered in this set offered illustrations; and the Micrographia and the Encyclopedie both boasted engravings earlier than Night-Thoughts did. The reason I focus on Night-Thoughts in particular goes beyond my appreciation for poetry, fondness for William Blake, and personal attachment to watercolor paintings. Unlike the two non-fiction texts mentioned above, Night-Thoughts is entirely unclinical with its treatment of its illustrations. I adore it when images and text are entangled inexplicably, so that they resemble a single symbiotic organism; I loathe the dividing line. The nature of Blake’s illustration was one of rich liveliness, and they rarely were contained on the pages. The figures would crawl up the edges of the poetry above them, intrude into paragraphs, fall down margins. The spontaneity this creates is both brilliant to leaf through and, narratively speaking, the perfect treatment of Young’s poetry. I’d be interested to know if examples of similar word-illustration combinations existed in that time period.
– Evanleigh Davis
I don’t know about you all, but I felt the need for a visual supplement to the readings to truly understand the process of early printing. These two videos were quite enlightening.
The first is a video of the press, the second is of casting the metal type.
(there is a little bid of an audio overlap in the second video, but it is only for a few seconds)
The throw when the metal is poured into the mould made me nervous. It doesn’t look like the man in figure 8.1 from the reading was wearing a glove. Not only was it a challenging job, it was dangerous as well!