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William Blake and Henry VIII

Two very interesting, large engravings are coming up for sale on Monday 11 July with local and national interest. One of them depicts Henry VIII embarking from Dover to sail to France to meet the King of France for his famous Tudor PR stunt of the Field of Cloth of Gold, which is the subject for the second engraving.

Renaissance Monarch

Henry represented the richer and educated monarchs flexing their muscles in the sixteenth century as they attempted to control their lands. The ‘Renaissance Monarchies’ very much represented the growth of secular power. As part of Henry’s self promotion, he planned the meeting with Francis, King of France, with considerable opulence to show how rich and powerful he was. In reality the meeting achieved almost nothing, but Henry must have enjoyed being the host of such an occasion. Afterwards in 1520 he commissioned two huge paintings by Hans Holbein to celebrate the event. It is good to see Dover depicted in the painting and all the boats and worthy people.

William Blake

The society of Antiqaries in 1771 asked James Basire to make engravings of the two paintings. Basire demanded a fee of 200 guineas on the grounds that the high figure was required for the number of individual likenesses needed to be reproduced. The commission was agreed on the understanding that Basire would execute it ‘in his best manner.’ E. Edwards made a drawing of the original huge paintings, which James Basire then engraved with the assistance of his studio staff. The project took two years to complete. Interestingly, one of his assistants was the great William Blake, then a young lad starting his career. He lived with Basire at 32 Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn. Most of the engraving Blake did for Basire in the first two years of his apprenticeship cannot be identified, because his engraving followed the rules of the workshop. Blake was to become the consummate engraver and etcher in the years to come.

Consistent excellence

Engraving was very time consuming, the artist had to incise the copper with a special tool, a burin, which was slow hard work. Blake wrote “Engraving is eternal work … I curse and bless engraving alternately because it takes so much time and is so intractable, though capable of such beauty and perfection.” No wonder these two copper plates took two years. Basire used to sign every plate from his studio as Basire Sculpsit or similar. He did not mean he had actually carried out all the work himself, rather he may have done it, or supervised the whole operation. He insisted a consistent excellence in uniform style was an absolute requirement. Blake was lucky to have such a mentor. We are lucky to see such fantastically competent work depicting a very interesting event five hundred years ago.

If you have any engravings you would like to have valued, please contact Jonathan Riley of Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.