Teaching History or Retelling Ancient Stories with Pictures: William Blake and the School Version of Virgil


History is not only told by words but also images and objects. This paper looks into the book illustrations of an early 19th-century British school book and their means and purposes for history education. The English poet and printmaker William Blake made a famous set of woodcuts for Dr. Robert Thornton’s "Pastorals of Virgil" (1821) which later became the inspiration for Romantic art. Scholars have observed that Blake’s unconventional engravings caused Thornton’s hesitation and cutting down the blocks to fit the book. The controversial style of Blake’s woodcuts was much discussed and justified by his followers “the Ancients” and modern scholars. In my book "William Blake and the Art of Engraving" (Pickering & Chatto, 2009), I have also discussed an early imitator of Blake’s woodcut which reflects his contemporary aesthetic view. However, the context and motivation of Robert Thornton and his editions of Virgil have not been considered fully. This paper asks why Blake’s woodcuts were not considered to fit the book. By comparing the three editions of Thornton’s Virgil, I would argue that the 3rd edition was an “improved” version from Thornton’s point of view and publishing and educational purposes. From the observation of the extant woodblocks engraved by Blake (in the British Museum) and other artists used in the Thornton edition (discovered by me in the Huntington Library), one may understand the contemporary contrast aesthetics and the early 19th-century norm for teaching young people history.

Author Information
Mei-Ying Sung, FoGuang University, Taiwan

Paper Information
Conference: ECAH2017
Stream: Arts - Teaching and Learning the Arts

This paper is part of the ECAH2017 Conference Proceedings (View)
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Posted by James Alexander Gordon