William Blake and the Book of Urizen

The book of Urizen (1794) is a mythical story written and illustrated by William Blake, a poet and artist. The story or poem deals with the subject of creation, or rather pre-creation, and each stanza is dramatically illustrated and etched into copper plates. The story is seen as a parody of the Book of Genisis.

The story follows the central character Urizen, a Lucifer like character who casts himself apart and away from the other ‘eternals’ to create his own world of religious enslavement.

When the books were published they really didn’t garner much success. In his time he was actually thought to be mad by his contemporaries due to his outlandish theories and stories, and his equally strange habits. Blake is said to have drawn on this idea of his madness to create the work as a way to express his radical religious views without fear of prosecution. Blake was indeed religious, but was ardantly opposed to the teachings on the Church of England and its practises as well as all other religions.

His apparent trademark style is apparent here, with hauntingly dramatic images, and equally dramatic colours in dark hues of green blue and purple, which set a distinctly ominous tone. The swirling pattern of the woman’s dress and the long grass, which frame the message, compliment the calligraphic style of the type. Each image is just as detailed.


(Slideshow images: (l-r) Book of Urizen Title Page, William Blake, 1794, From Old Books; Book of Urizen extract, William Blake, 1794, From Old Books)

(Portrait of William Blake (1807) by Thomas Phillips, sourced from Wikipedia)


Illustrations of a Prostitute

‘A Harlot’s Progress’ created by William Hogarth in 1731 was a magazine subscription of its time. The series of six images were created and realised in succession depicting the tragic life of the fictional Moll Hackabout. The whole set of engravings were spawned from the third image. Hogarth struck upon the idea creating a fictional past and future for the character. The series proved so popular that an act of Parliament was passed to ban the piracy of the story.

The first image introduces the protagonist, Moll Hackabout, as she arrives from the countryside to London and her fateful meeting with the brothel owning old woman. It is here that she hears the suggestion that her good looks could be very profitable. As the images progress so does Moll’s character; from mistress to common prostitute, her imprisonment, her death, and her miserable funeral attended mainly by scavengers and other prostitutes. The brutality of Hackabout’s life captured in six images… It’s easy to understand why they proved so popular.

The heavy use of symbolism in the story acts as a way to move the story forward whilst linking each image to another. An example of symbolism would be Moll Hackabout on her arrival. Here she is depicted in white suggesting her innocence and naivety. The dead goose (coincidentally in white) also in the scene highlights her impending doom. The use of white is used as a link in the final image, where Moll’s white hat can be scene- used to symbolise the beginning of the end. Other icons appear throughout serving as symbols of her immoral actions and choices.

‘A Rake’s Progress’ (written after the huge success of ‘A Harlot’s Progress’) follows a similar storyline to that of its predecessor. In this story, also in the media of engravings and paintings, the protagonist is Tom Rakewell, the son of a rich merchant father in London. The illustrations depict the demise of his character, as he wastes his fortune on gambling and prostitution, leading to his imprisonment and then referral to Bedlam. Although Hogarth’s work seems to follow the pattern of dark storylines and subject matter, they serve as fables to teach the viewer the differences between right and wrong- and the ultimate consequences of immoral living.

A Harlot’s Progress still proves as popular today. In recent times, many adaptions have been created for film and television. The newest adaption will take the form of an operatic reproduction composed by Scottish composer Iain Bell. The reproduction will premier next year (2013) in Vienna as announced by the New York Times.

A Harlot’s Progress, William Hogarth c.1731

A Rakes Progress, William Hogarth c.1732