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March 7, 2006 > Flaming Pages: The Illuminated Books of William Blake

Flaming Pages: The Illuminated Books of William Blake

by Mona Shah

The first-ever presentation by British poet, painter, printer, and visionary
William Blake will be showcased at University of California East Bay. Blake, who lived between 1757 and 1827, is best known for his "illuminated" book art that weaves richly symbolic poetry with luminous visual metaphors. He was little appreciated in his lifetime, but now is regarded as one the greatest artists of the Romantic era.

"The extremely rare original illuminated books are scattered in so many different collections that Blake's complete development as a book artist has never been seen before in one gallery," said Lanier Graham, director of the University Art Gallery.

His best known art is book art in which he invented remarkable ways to weave words and images into dynamic harmonies. Nothing like these visual-verbal compositions has been seen since the hand painted "illuminated manuscripts" of the Middle Ages, and nothing like his printed "Illuminated Books" (as Blake called them) would ever be seen again.

Blake lived modestly in London for most of his life with his beloved wife, Catherine Boucher, who bound his books and colored some of the plates. After a seven year apprenticeship under James Basire, ending in 1779, he earned a meager living as a commercial engraver but his heart was in the books he wrote, printed, and published himself.

Exactly how he was able to fuse words and images into such profoundly moving combinations, page after page, in waves of glowing color, is a great mystery to art historians. His epic paragraphs are filled with mythic symbols which require serious study to comprehend. With each successive level of understanding, appreciation for the layered modes of expression grows. Often his pages are flaming visions reflecting the emotional condition of the subject.

Professor Morton Paley, one of the world's leading authorities on William Blake, has taught in the English Department of UC Berkeley for many years. Those who have read his many books on Blake and other figures of the Romantic Era have been moved by the depth of his insights and breadth of his vision.

Paley notes that to understand Blake in his totality, his words must be combined with his own handwriting, luminous inks, and watercolors in books he designed and printed himself. When Paley began reading Blake, an original book could be purchased for several hundred dollars. Now, it would cost several million dollars. However, thanks to modern technology, anyone can buy a beautiful facsimile for several hundred dollars, and a good copy for the price of a movie.

Some William Blake books are simple enough for children while others are as dense as Dante or Milton. The depth of Blake's humanity and spirituality continues to inspire millions. Some of his most moving words, set to music as a hymn, are still sung in many churches. Visit the CSUEB Art Gallery to experience William Blake's art for yourself now through April 19. More information can be found online at

Flaming Pages
Feb. 2 to April 19, closed for spring break March 20 to 26
12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
University Art Gallery
California State University East Bay
25800 Carlos Bee Blvd., Hayward
Admission is free.

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