"Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims. Copper engraving by William Blake, with additions in watercolour by the artist Third state, 1810–20. In the collection of the Morgan Library"Blake's painting of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims which measured three feet by one foot was followed by his engraving of the same design. During the year which Blake worked on this large, intricately detailed engraving he wrote two or three prospectuses which were printed commercially for prospective buyers. The copper plate for the Chaucer engraving and a copy of the print can now be found in the Yale University Art Gallery.
Chaucer Prospectus, Second, Composite Draft, (E 568)
An Original Engraving by [William Blake]
his Fresco Painting of [Chaucers Canterbury Pilgrims]
[Mr B having from early Youth cultivated the two Arts
Painting & Engraving & during a Period of Forty Years never
suspended his Labours on Copper for a single Day Submits with
Confidence to Public Patronage & requests the attention of the
Amateur in a Large Stroke Engraving] 3 feet 1 inch long
by one foot high
[Containing Thirty original high finishd whole Length,
Portraits on Horseback Of Chaucers Characters, where every
Character & every Expression, every Lineament of Head Hand &
Foot. every particular of Dress or Costume. where every Horse is
appropriate to his Rider & the Scene or Landscape with its
Villages Cottages Churches & the Inn in Southwark is minutely
labourd not by the hands of Journeymen but by the Original Artist
himself even to the Stuffs & Embroidery of the Garments. the hair
upon the Horses the Leaves upon the Trees. & the Stones & Gravel
upon the road; the Great Strength of Colouring & depth of work
peculiar to Mr B's Prints will be here found accompanied by a
Precision not to be seen but in the work of an Original
The arts like all of life in Blake's time were affected by the Industrial Revolution. Mechanisation led to new styles and tools for engraving which were less labor intensive. The use of mass production techniques removed the artist from more tedious aspects of the production. Believing as Blake did in Art as a product of the Imagination, he chose to distance himself from less than 'human' means of manufacture of art.
Michael Bedard comments on the the alternatives faced by the traditional artist as the machine age gained ground in his book William Blake: The Gates of Paradise:
"Blake's lament was the lament of an artist and craftsman who see industry and machine methods destroying both art and craft in the interest of business and profit. His plea for the integrity of the individual artist who unites idea and execution in his work. 'Michelangelo's art depends on Michelangelo's execution altogether,' he wrote. Once the two are separated, design becomes a matter of a production line, and art is no more than a commodity."
"In rejecting the ways of the world of commerce and the spread of machine methods into the world of art, Blake embraced the Illuminated Book with renewed passion. While industrial production prided itself on the the ability to make an endless stream of Identical copies, in Illuminated Printing each copy was unique. While industry prided itself on speed and efficiency, Blake's mode of production was deliberately slow and inefficient. While industrial production was grounded on the division of labor and the distinction between those who worked with their heads and those who worked with their hands, Blake's was an artisan's spirit. He took pride in the work of his hands and relentlessly pursued the unity of head and hands in the work of art."
Blake chose to make his engraving in the traditional way he had been taught as an apprentice with Basire. He studied Chaucer using the translation from middle English. He determined the style of clothing worn in the period. He painted types of horses which he felt were appropriate to each rider. Every detail of his engraving was determined by what he could learn about the 15th century which he was representing, and the information which Chaucer had included in his poem.
In creating his engraving for the Canterbury Tales Blake deliberately rejected the influences of the Industrial Age and embraced the ways of the artisan who brought all of his own skills to an artistry which was correct, honest and conveyed the author's intent.