In the history of printmaking, the early 19th century is notable for the first steps taken in the development and application of lithography. As the present work is Blake's first and only known lithograph, and dates from the time when the technique was first being introduced to England by its inventor Alois Senefelder and his licensees, there has been much speculation as to how Blake first acquired his knowledge of the technique.
In 1800 Senefelder patented lithography in London under the name polyautography, selling the license to Philipp Andre, who then sold it to Georg Jacob Vollweiler in 1805. To elicit interest in the new technology, Vollweiler issued circulars inviting amateurs to try their hand at the new art, offering instruction and materials, with the lithographic stones on loan at a moderate price. Although it cannot be proved, it is not unreasonable to assume that Blake encountered lithography via Vollweiler at this time.
An inscription on the reverse of this impression, in the hand of George Cumberland (1754-1848), Blake's lifelong supporter and intimate, describes Blake's unique lithographic method:
'White Lyas - is the Block
draw with Ink composed of asphaltum dissolved in dry [?]
Linseed oil - add fine venetian Tripoli & Rotten Stone Powder.
Let it dry. when dry saturate the stone with water and
Dab it with the broad Dabber, and [deleted] coverd very thinly with
best Printers Ink and print as a block-
The inscription reveals Blake's idiosyncratic approach to the medium. Instead of using lithographic crayons and tusche, he employed a mixture of asphaltum, linseed oil and finely ground limestone to paint his design onto white lias, a limestone found near Bath. Blake appears to have omitted the gum arabic etch, the key chemical component of the lithographic process which fixes the image within the actual stone. This etch enhances the capacity of the areas of the stone holding the image to accept greasy ink and repel water, thereby facilitating the repeated printing of consistent impressions. Although Blake's asphaltum-based compound would have repelled water, permitting the inking of the image, it would not have had the durability of an etched matrix.
As Essick observes, it is improbable that the promoters of the new art of lithography would have sanctioned a deviation from the normal lithographic procedures on which they held the patent, and this, together with Blake's relative anonymity at the time, might explain the omission of Enoch from both issues of Specimens of Polyautography, the first surveys of lithography in England, published in 1803 and 1805, and the extreme rarity of this print.
The lithograph depicts Enoch, a mysterious figure from the Hebrew Scriptures who 'walked with God' and did not die. Credited by early Christian and Jewish theologians with the invention of writing, Enoch is represented as illuminated by the light of Heaven, the Father of the Arts, surrounded by figures representing Poetry, Painting and Music, and the spirits of Prophecy and Inspiration. A vine laden with grapes trails the borders as a metaphor of creative fruitfulness.
The four known impressions are:
- The British Museum, London. Printed on buff wove paper, pasted into an album of early English lithographs.
- The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from the Collection of Sir Geoffrey Keynes. Printed on chocolate brown wove paper.
- Previously the R. Lister Collection; sold Christie's, London, 2 December 2008, lot 61. Printed on brown paper.
- The present impression, from the collection of Edward Croft-Murray, Keeper of the British Museum Print Room from 1953-1973.