Skip to navigation | Skip to main content | Skip to footer

'Europe' Plate i: Frontispiece, 'The Ancient of Days'

William Blake (1757-1827)

1827 (?)

D.1892.32

Title 'Europe' Plate i: Frontispiece, 'The Ancient of Days'
Object type Drawing
Date 1827 (?)
Artist/maker William Blake (1757-1827)
Support Paper
Medium Etching
Techniques Etching
Marks and
Inscriptions
signed & dated (?) : bodycolour (gold) : centre right the date, if it is a date, is hard to read and may be a smudged 'inv': Blake / [?]
Dimensions h:232 w:170 mm
Accession Lot Taylor, John Edward (gift, 1892)
Accession number D.1892.32

Collection Exhibitions : Aura and Authenticity : Exhibition Label : D.1892.32

How does the existence of multiple copies and versions of an artwork affect our response to it? William Blake first painted this image in 1794 and then repeatedly returned to it, redrawing and repainting it for the rest of his life. This particular etching was coloured by Blake just before his death. Is this hand-finished print an ‘original’ work of art, even though there are numerous versions of the same image in other collections?

Is Blake’s image so famous because it has been reproduced on posters and products so many times? Or is it frequently reproduced because it is famous?

Collection Exhibitions : Aura and Authenticity : Exhibition Label : D.1892.32

How does the existence of multiple copies and versions of an artwork affect our response to it? William Blake first painted this image in 1794 and then repeatedly returned to it, redrawing and repainting it for the rest of his life. This particular etching was coloured by Blake just before his death. Is this hand-finished print an ‘original’ work of art, even though there are numerous versions of the same image in other collections?

Is Blake’s image so famous because it has been reproduced on posters and products so many times? Or is it frequently reproduced because it is famous?

Blake's Shadow: William Blake and his Artistic Legacy

In this extraordinary cosmological fantasy Blake displays his adherence to Michelangelo's principal of defining composition through bodily mass to create figural sublimity or terribilità (fiery intensity). Like Newton, a gigantic figure fills the design; and like Newton, this celestial being uses his dividers, but here the joyless creator sets to measure interstellar spaces and control primal forces. Many commentators have associated this subject with Urizen, the Jehovah-like figure of spiritual and psychological repression found in Blake's prophetic books.

Collection Exhibitions: Revolutionary Light: Object Label: D.1892.32

William Blake believed that he was "under the direction of messengers from heaven, daily and nightly." This watercolour, known as the Ancient of Days was based on the frontispiece to his poem Europe, which he printed in 1794. While Milton composed his Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity at a time of bright hopefulness prior to the Puritan revolution, Blake wrote Europe during the latter part of the Reign of Terror in France. The result is that while the Nativity poem suggests an anticipatory optimism, Europe conveys instead a reflective and darker tone of pessimism.

The cosmic figure at the centre of this image is Urizen, Blake's embodiment of joyless oppression and the stifler of unfettered creativity. He appears 'like a meteor' from a burning orb, creating divisions and enforcing his unchangeable laws.

Blake hand coloured several versions of the etching and this version is thought to be the last that Blake worked on. In fact according to an early commentator, J.T. Nollekens, he coloured this impression "when bolstered-up in his bed only a few days before he died."

William Blake (1757-1827)

Poet, painter, engraver and visionary thinker, Blake stands out as a complete exception among his contemporaries. He is hugely admired today for his bright visionary watercolours and for his illuminated books, which use relief etching to combine text and illustration in a unique way, but was largely ignored or dismissed as an eccentric in his own day.