Peter Otto

Peter Otto

Peter Otto

Peter Otto, Research Professor and Professor of English Literature at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and recipient of the Distinguished Outstanding Researcher Award at the University of Melbourne, has served as Associate Dean for the Arts Faculty and Head of the English Department at Melbourne University. His career includes a stint as Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Renmin University, Beijing, China, and the Ludwig Hirschfeld-Mack Visiting Chair of Interdisciplinary Australian Studies at Freie Universität, Berlin, Germany. He also serves as a member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities.

Otto’s paper, “William Blake, the Secularization of Religious Categories, and the History of Imagination,” examines Blake’s rereading of the historical context surrounding the sources that influenced his prodigious creative work, attempting to trace, amidst the ruins of religious and secular eschatologies, the emergence of modern discourses of creativity. For Blake, art does not so much reveal eternal reality as offer imagined worlds that enable attempts to supplement, compete with, or transform the actual world.  While, Otto suggests, this approach to art leaves conventional religion behind, it also ensures that some of its key forms can be rediscovered at the center of our modern secular world.

William Blake was contracted to compose designs for Robert Blair’s poem The Grave in 1805. Blake attracted the attention of Robert Harley Cromek, an ambitious publisher attempting to break into the market. Blake agreed to produce forty designs for an illustrated edition of the poem, twenty of which Cromek accepted to be included in the new manuscript. Initially Blake appears to have been engaged to engrave the designs as well as to draw them, which would have been a financial windfall very welcome to the perpetually thirsty purse of the Blakes. However, upon seeing the first plate engraved by Blake, Cromek hired Luigi Schiavonetti to engrave Blake’s designs with an eye toward a more mainstream and commercially acceptable aesthetic. Blake, never one to accept disappointment with composed equanimity, excoriated Cromek in letters and his own fragments of poems, and referred to Schiavonetti as “Assassinetti.”

Robert Blair. The Grave, a Poem. Illustrated by twelve etchings executed from original designs. London, Printed by T. Bensley, for the proprietor, R.H. Cromek, and sold by Cadell and Davies [etc.] 1808.

(Click to view all illustrations)

Robert Blair. The Grave, a Poem. Illustrated by Twelve Etchings Executed from Original Designs. London: Printed by T. Bensley, for the proprietor, R.H. Cromek, and sold by Cadell and Davies [etc.], 1808.

The title-page and frontispiece displayed here are indicative both of the eloquent illustrations and of the tumultuous history involving its designer. The frontispiece, a portrait of Blake, was painted by Thomas Phillips and engraved by Schiavonetti, perhaps as a peace offering and acknowledgment of Blake’s contribution to the work. The title-page, known as “The Skeleton Reanimated,” is of Blake’s design, but engraved by Schiavonetti. In a twist of irony, despite the mixed reactions to the book Phillips’ portrait of Blake was universally appreciated by the reviews following its publication.

Alexander Gilchrist. Life of William Blake, "Pictor ignotus". With selections from his poems and other writings, by the late Alexander Gilchrist ... Illustrated from Blake's own works, in facsimilé by W.J. Linton, and in photolithography; with a few of Blake's original plates. In two volumes. London, Cambridge, Macmillan and Co., 1863.

(Click to view another illustration by Blake)

Alexander Gilchrist. Life of William Blake, "Pictor ignotus." With selections from his poems and other writings, by the late Alexander Gilchrist ... Illustrated from Blake's own works, in facsimilé by W.J. Linton, and in photolithography; with a few of Blake's original plates. In two volumes. London, Cambridge: Macmillan and Co., 1863.

Blake drew this illustration of Chaucer’s pilgrims from the Canterbury Tales in 1806 while he was finishing his designs for Robert Blair’s The Grave. Accounts vary, but according to Blake, Robert Cromek, The Grave’s publisher, appropriated the idea of a fresco of Chaucer’s pilgrims after seeing Blake’s initial design, eventually using Thomas Stothard’s designs instead and cheating Blake out of a lucrative commission to design and engrave illustrations for a new edition. This is the same edition as one owned by Robert Browning.

Lady Mary Shepherd. An essay upon the relation of cause and effect : controverting the doctrine of Mr. Hume, concerning the nature of that relation, with observations upon the opinions of Dr. Brown and Mr. Lawrence connected with the same subject. London : Printed for T. Hookham, 1824.

(Click to enlarge)

Lady Mary Shepherd. An Essay upon the Relation of Cause and Effect: Controverting the Doctrine of Mr. Hume, Concerning the Nature of That Relation, with Observations upon the Opinions of Dr. Brown and Mr. Lawrence Connected with the Same Subject. London: Printed for T. Hookham, 1824.

This is the same edition as one owned by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, with an inscription on the half-title: "William Blake Esq./with the author's best compliments."

 

 

- Exhibition Text by David Smith

Peter Otto