Little Tom the Sailor
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An example of Blake's alternate engraving techniques is found in his broadside Little Tom the Sailor which was executed soon after his arrival in Felpham on September 18, 1800. Hayley had devised a project for providing financial support for the family of a boy who had been killed at sea. Hayley wrote a sentimental poem which would be illustrated and printed by the Blakes and sold for the benefit of the boy's family. Perhaps Hayley provided the pewter for the project which made it more complex than Blake's method of relief printing on copper which he had developed for his 'illuminated books'. Four separate sections comprise the single sheet.
Quoting from Engravings of William Blake, Archibald G B Russell (1912):
"The ballad was written by Hayley, 22nd September 1800, for the widowed mother of a Folkstone sailor lad, named Tom Spicer, who had been drowned at sea...Ballad and imprint are executed in the ordinary method of relief-etching employed by Blake in the engraved books. The pictorial designs are examples of what he called 'woodcuts on pewter'".
In his notebook Blake wrote two undated memoranda on the use of pewter in engraving. Note the care required to avoid extraneous marks.
Blake's Notebook, (E 694)
To Engrave on Pewter. Let there be first a drawing made correctly with black lead pencil, let nothing be to seek, then rub it off on the plate coverd with white wax. or perhaps pass it thro press. this will produce certain & determind forms on the plate & time will not be wasted in seeking them afterwards"
To Woodcut on Pewter. lay a ground on the Plate & smoke it as for Etching, then trace your outlines & draw, them with a needle. and beginning with the spots of light on each object with an oval pointed needle scrape off the ground. [& instead of etching the shadowy strokes] as a direction for your graver then proceed to graving with the ground on the plate being as careful as possible not to hurt the ground because it being black will shew perfectly what is wanted"
Blake depended on Catherine to execute the more routine aspects of his productions including some printing and coloring. Her assistance was engaged in this project in spite of the distractions on her of settling into a new home and coming down with an illness. Hayley apparently had business in London which required his attention.
Letters, [To William Hayley], (E 714) "Felpham 26th November, 1800 Dear Sir, Absorbed by the poets Milton, Homer, Camoens, Ercilla, Ariosto, and Spenser, whose physiognomies have been my delightful study, Little Tom has been of late unattended to, and my wife's illness not being quite gone off, she has not printed any more since you went to London. But we can muster a few in colours and some in black which I hope will be no less favour'd tho' they are rough like rough sailors. We mean to begin printing again to-morrow. Time flies very fast and very merrily. I sometimes try to be miserable that I may do more work, but find it is a foolish experiment. Happinesses have wings and wheels; miseries are leaden legged and their whole employment is to clip the wings and to take off the wheels of our chariots. We determine, therefore, to be happy and do all that we can, tho' not all that we would. Our dear friend Flaxman is the theme of my emulation in this industry, as well as in other virtues and merits. Gladly I hear of his full health and spirits. Happy son of the Immortal Phidias, his lot is truly glorious, and mine no less happy in his friendship and in that of his friends. Our cottage is surrounded by the same guardians you left with us; they keep off every wind. We hear the west howl at a distance, the south bounds on high over our thatch, and smiling on our cottage says: "You lay too low for my anger to injure." As to the east and north I believe they cannot get past the turret. My wife joins me in duty and affection to you. Please to remember us both in love to Mr. and Mrs. Flaxman, and believe me to be your affectionate, Enthusiastic, hope-fostered visionary, WILLIAM BLAKE [From the Gilchrist Life]Russell on page 39 tells us that: "The lower of the two pictorial designs which accompany the ballad...is a beautiful example of Blake's quieter and often happier mood."
In another letter (E 724) to Hayley written after his return to London, Blake expresses this sentiment:
"Engraving is Eternal work ... I curse & bless Engraving alternately because it takes so much time & is so untractable. tho capable of such beauty & perfection"