Friday, 30 May 2014

Blake's apprentice—Thomas Owen

I recently purchased a print of a scene in Leeds engraved by one T. Owen.

Christ Church and Coal Staith, Leeds. | Drawn by N. Whittock. Engraved on Steel by T. Owen. | London Published by J. T. Hinton, No.4. Warwick Square March 1829.

This is a steel engraving on india laid paper (sheet 145 x 215mm) and shows an early steam locomotive hauling a train of coal wagons over a viaduct next to the staithe, or coal depot, at Leeds, Yorkshire. A couple are looking at the scene, while a group of children are playing in the foreground. The smoking chimneys of the city and the church of Christ Church can be seen in the background.

The engraving comes from Thomas Allen's A New and Complete History of the County of York. Illustrated by a series of views, engraved on steel from original drawings by Nathaniel Whittock. 6 vols. 1828-31.

Is it possible that the engraver is the Thomas Owen who was apprenticed to William Blake in July 1788? I can find no engraver named T. Owen in contemporary directories other than Thomas Owen, so I presume the identification is correct. He may be the Thomas Owen who helped to make the huge lithographs for The Architectural Antiquities of Rome, Measured and Delineated by G. L. Taylor and Edward Cresy. 2 vols. (1821-1822).

David Alexander, who discovered Owen's apprenticeship record, suggests that he is the Thomas Owen, history and landscape engraver, of 16 Newman Street, corner of Fetter Lane (date not given). Otherwise, Holden's Triennial Directories list Thomas Owen, engraver, at 16 New Street Square, Shoe Lane, from 1802 to 1807.

Thanks to research by his descendant Kirk Owen, we can suggest that Thomas Owen was born in Bishopsgate on 11 November 1775 and baptised at St Botolph without Aldersgate on 1 December. His parents were William and Mary. In June 1788 he would have been 12 ½ , somewhat young to begin his apprenticeship. (I am not completely convinced by this data.) More confidently, we can state that Thomas Owen was married at St George Hanover Square in 1794 to Amy who was from a French family by the name of Plank (or Planque) They had a son Edward, 1807-1874, a brass founder who had his own business in London. Edward was born in New Street Square, which fits nicely with the directory data. Thomas Owen died in 1851.

On Thursday 10th July 1788, Thomas Owen was apprenticed to William Blake, engraver, of St. James’s Parish, for a fee of fifty guineas (£52.10s.). The fee is the same as that paid by James Blake for William’s apprenticeship in 1772 to James Basire. This information derives from the Register of Duties Paid for Apprentices' Indentures, and was first located in the National Archives (IR1) by David Alexander. Duty of £2.12.6 was payable at a tax rate of one shilling in the pound (5%). Owen is the only apprentice Blake is known to have had.

Blake never sought the Freedom of the Stationers’ Company, which would have qualified him to set up in business and take apprentices in the City of London. Blake’s printselling business with James Parker in 1784-85 and his training of Thomas Owen in 1788-95 were in Westminster rather than the City of London, and were thus not governed by the guild statutes. Consequently the apprenticeship was not recorded in the registers of the Stationers’ Company, though Blake’s own apprenticeship had been recorded there. The poet-engraver is the only engraver named William Blake in St. James’s Parish in 1788 so we know that the identification of Owen as "our" Blake's apprentice is correct. (The "other" William Blake, that is William Staden Blake, 1748-?1817, engraver and print-publisher, was at ’Change-Alley, Cornhill, City of London from 1784 to 1817.)

The standard clause of every apprenticeship indenture was that the master “shall Teach and Instruct” his apprentice his “Art and Mystery”, “finding unto his said Apprentice, Meat, Drink, Apparel, Lodging, and all other Necessaries.” Presumably, therefore, Owen lived with the Blakes at 28 Poland Street from 1788 and moved with them across the river to the large house at 13 Hercules Buildings for the balance of his apprenticeship, 1790 to 1795.

During the time of the apprenticeship, Blake was particularly busy with commercial engravings, including those for Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories (1791), Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1791, 1795), Gay’s Fables (1793), and Stedman’s Narrative (1796). As Bentley points out, Owen must have become increasingly useful to Blake, polishing plates, mixing ink, laying in the outlines, and pulling proofs. Of course Blake’s name as the master appeared on the prints with which Owen helped, just as Basire’s name appeared on the prints Blake helped to engrave when he was an apprentice.

Owen’s assistance with commercial engravings must also have contributed to free Blake to pursue his newly invented technique of relief etching. Most of Blake’s own writings in illuminated printing were created during the period of Owen’s apprenticeship.

Robert N. Essick suggests that the hand of Thomas Owen may be found in the anonymous prints dated October 1790 to March 1791 in C. G. Salzmann’s Elements of Morality (translated by Mary Wollstonecraft, 1791): “They are technically quite simple, in comparison with Blake’s other etchings/engravings of the period, and contain awkward patches . . . . Perhaps the basic similarities in graphic syntax, but differences in the skillfulness of execution, between Blake’s plates for Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life (1791) and the Salzmann plates reveal the distinction between master and apprentice” (141).

It is striking that just as Blake's business partner James Parker experimented with aquatint, a process not used by Blake himself, so too does Thomas Owen adopt the new-fangled engraving on steel, William sticking with copper plates. Sometime I must check if Owen contributed other plates to Allen's New and Complete History of the County of York.

David Alexander.—“William Blake, graveur d’interprétation.”—William Blake (1757-1827) : Le Génie visionnaire du romantisme anglais.—Paris : Petit Palais/Paris Musées, [2009], 79-81.

Thomas Allen, 1803-1833.—A New and Complete history of the County of York. Illustrated by a series of views, engraved on steel from original drawings by Nathaniel Whittock.—6 vols.—London : I.T. Hinton, 1828-31.

G. E. Bentley, Jr.—Blake Records ... Addenda and Corrigenda

Robert N. Essick.—“Blake in the Marketplace, 2010.”—Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, vol 44, no 4 (Spring 2011).


Holden's Triennial Directory, 1802, 1803, & 1804.—3rd ed.—London : W. Holden [1802].

Holden's Triennial Directory, 1805, 1806, & 1807.—4th ed.—London: W. Holden [1805].

Roots Chat 

George Ledwell Taylor, 1788-1873.—The Architectural Antiquities of Rome. Measured and delineated by G.L. Taylor and Edward Cresy, architects and Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries.—2 vols.—London : G.L. Taylor, 1821-1822.

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