BLAKE, William (1757-1827)
Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims. Painted in Fresco by William Blake & by him Engraved & Published October 8, 1810
London: 1810 [but Philadelphia: Sessler, circa 1941]. Engraving, printed on Rives wove paper watermarked "France". A rich impression in excellent condition. Fifth state (of five). Image size: 11 3/4 x 37 inches. Sheet size: 17 1/4 x 39 3/4 inches.
Final state of the largest Blake engraving.
"Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage," wrote William Blake (1757-1827), poet, and probably the most imaginative and original artist in the history of British art. "We all pass on, each sustaining one or other of these characters, nor can a child be born who is not one or other of these characters of Chaucer."
Working in an archaic style intended to evoke the engravings of Chaucer's time, Blake presents us with the cast of Chaucer's Tales as they begin their pilgrimage. Since Blake understood his subject so well, and wrote with such elegance, we can do no better than to use as a guide his own description of the engraving: "The time chosen is the early morning, before sunrise, when the jolly company are leaving the Tabarde Inn. The Knight and Squire with the Squire's Yeoman lead the Procession; next follow the youthful Abbess, her nun, and three priests; her greyhounds attend her... Next follow the Friar and Monk, and then the Tapiser, the Pardoner, and the Sompnour and Manciple. After this 'Our Host,' who occupies the centre of the cavalcade, and directs them to the Knight, as the person who would be likely to commence their task of each telling a tale in their order. After the Host follows the Shipman, the Haberdasher, the Dyer, the Franklin, the Physician, the Ploughman, the Lawyer, the Poor Parson, the Merchant, the Wife of Bath, the Miller, the Cook, the Oxford Scholar, Chaucer himself; and the Reev comes as Chaucer has described:- And ever he rode hindermost of the rout."
The view is eastward from the Tabard in Southwark, across the Bridge from London, as Blake conceived it to have been in Chaucer's day. He based his costumes on ancient monuments and other records. "As a literary piece," it has been noted, Blake's engraving "has hardly an equal in the whole field of art."
The engraving was begun late in 1809 and issued by the artist in October the following year. In his Prospectus for the issue, Blake declared that the English nation would 'flourish or decay' according to the recognition they gave him for his year's labor. The printing plate survived, and passed after Blake's death through the estate of Blake's wife, finding its way to the collection of John Giles. Sold at auction with Giles collection in 1881, the printing plate was purchased by Colnaghi who issued restrikes on laid, India paper. By 1940, the plate was in the possession of a New York art dealer, who sold it to the wife of noted collector A. Edward Newton for her to present to her husband as a fiftieth anniversary present. After Newton's death, the plate was sold with his famed library at auction, on 16 April 1941, for the princely sum of $2300 to Charles J. Rosenbloom via his agent at the Parke Bernet sale, Philadelphia bookseller Charles Sessler.
Before delivering the printing plate to Rosenbloom, Sessler had a small number of prints pulled on French hand-made paper. Although Rosenbloom only authorized 35 prints, Essick and Young identified at least ninety-one impressions. "Whereas most of the identifiable Colnaghi restrikes were flatly printed, the Sessler prints were heavily inked and printed. The plate shows minimal wear and the Sessler prints are generally preferable to Colnaghi's earlier printings -- probably because of better cleaning of the copper and superior presswork" (Essick and Young). Rosenbloom donated the plate to Yale University in 1973.
Robert Essick and Michael Young, "Blake's Canterbury Print: The Posthumous Pilgrimage of the Copperplate" in Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly , Vol. 15, No. 2, Fall 1981, pp. 78-82; Essick, Separate Plates of William Blake , XVI.