Bishop Grosseteste academic’s discovery sheds new light on Victorian poets

Lincolnshire Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson owned an original copy of William Blake’s masterpiece Illustrations of the Book of Job, a Lincoln academic has discovered.  The book, which consists of a series of engraved prints by Blake published in 1826, has been part of the Tennyson Research Centre at Lincolnshire County Council for many years.

The discovery by Dr Sibylle Erle is significant as the book had been archived as part of Tennyson’s collection of Old and New Testaments Bibles. Until now Blake scholars were unaware that Tennyson owned one of the 150 original copies of Blake’s Job.

“This discovery is of international importance,” said Dr Erle, Senior Lecturer in English at Bishop Grosseteste University. “It poses the question, what did Tennyson make of Blake?

“Tennyson probably acquired the book before the publication of the first major Blake biography in 1863, which reignited interest in Blake and his work in the mid-nineteenth century. It’s important to realise that Tennyson got hold of his copy before the Blake revival started. Tennyson has been compared to Blake but now there is evidence that Tennyson was interested in Blake.

“I’m still working on the implications of this possession. The interesting question is: who else would have seen it? The Rossettis? Tennyson kept it with some other illustrated books in a prominent position on his drawing room table on the Isle of Wight, where they would have been placed to entertain visitors and to stimulate conversation.

“The real discovery is the list of books on Tennyson’s drawing room table. Blake’s Job was one of many illustrated books Tennyson chose to have on display. Blake did his own illustrations but Tennyson couldn’t. Illustrations, of course, were crucial to Victorian book illustration. What did Tennyson make of Blake, his artistic independence and relationship with his audience? That is what I want to think about and find out about.”

Grace Timmins, Collections Access Officer at the Tennyson Research Centre in Lincoln, commented: “It’s very pleasing when the unexpected significance of an item is discovered. Connections do emerge in the rich range of material here, but Dr Erle’s visits were particularly fruitful in an unexplored area.”

Blake’s biographer Alexander Gilchrist wrote that “The engravings are the best Blake ever did: vigorous, decisive…” while the art critic John Ruskin claimed “Blake is greater than Rembrandt”.

Dr Erle has been working on an online exhibition about Tennyson’s copy of The Illustration of the Book of Job. The website can now be found at www.lincstothepast.com/exhibitions/tennyson
Some of the books and other items from the Tennyson Archive are on display at Lincoln Central Library from now until 30th September 2013.

Dr Sibylle Erle is Senior Lecturer in English at Bishop Grosseteste University in Lincoln. She teaches mainly 18th and 19th-century literature and researches into text/image relationships, Anglo-German relations and problems of representation.

For further information visit the Bishop Grosseteste website.