The Fondren Library at Rice University in Houston recently acquired a functional replica of Romantic English polymath William Blake’s printing press. Mr. Blake (1757-1827) gained posthumous notoriety for his paintings, poems, and prints, which often appeared together in ornate illuminated books hand-bound by the artist. Though in his time he was dismissed as a bit of a madman, today he is widely considered one of the most noteworthy figures in British history. The replica printing machine, a star-wheel copper-plate rolling press, joins an extensive collection of Mr. Blake’s work already at Rice. Upon the press’s arrival from its prior home at Christ Church, Oxford, the Fondren Library is now the only place in North America where such an object exists.
The press was built by printmaker and scholar Michael Phillips, whose website sells replicas of some of Mr. Blake’s most famous illuminated works. According to his bio, Mr. Phillips is an Emeritus Fellow at the interdisciplinary Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York with over 30 years of research into Mr. Blake’s materials and processes.
His replica prints and plates have been collected by institutions including the Pierpont Morgan Library, Victoria University Library, University of Toronto Special Collections, Union College Library, Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections at Northwestern University, King’s College, Cambridge, Eton College Library, and the British Library. In a press release from Rice, Mr. Phillips explained some of the significance of Mr. Blake’s practice:
For 400 years, conventionally, the printing of an illustrated book required two completely different kinds of printing workshops, each one having numbers of specialists for each stage of the process. Blake’s invention brought all of that into one — not only for writing the poems and drawing the design, but from the method of reproducing them. Apart from the copper plate and the paper, Blake was responsible for every stage in the creation and reproduction of his works — even stitching the leaves into paper wrappers and selling them to his customers.
The press was unveiled to the public on March 1, and can now be visited in the Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center. The acquisition was spearheaded by professor of English Alexander Regier and Vice Provost and University Librarian Sara Lowman. Mr. Regier, whose published works include 2019’s Exorbitant Enlightenment: Blake, Hamann, and Anglo-German Constellations, has a previous working relationship with Mr. Phillips. The idea to bring the press to Houston originated several years ago after the two scholars met in Oxford to discuss Mr. Blake’s printing process.
Mr. Reiger said the press “makes real and tangible many things that you often only hear about in theory in the classroom.” He can be seen discussing Mr. Blake’s prints and their presence in Rice’s collection in a YouTube video produced by Brandon Martin for the University in 2019.
For more information on how to view the press, check the Rice Library website.