On Annotations


Yesterday on Twitter, there were some interesting discussions in early modern circles about a digitized edition of Erasmus’ New Testament annotated in the margins by none other than Martin Luther. The digitization had been published by a wonderful new-ish web project at the Universiteit Utrecht called Annotated Books Online, which — just like it says on the tin — is a growing collection of these unique volumes digitized for public consumption.

Clicking through the volume, my non-existent Latin led me to consider the form — printed books with manuscript annotations — more closely than the content. Such volumes, I suspect, reach their most fascinating when both the text and marginalia bear some authority. We all care already about what Erasmus thought about the New Testament; we care just as much about Luther’s views. The immediacy of this sort of tension in a single volume is simply tantalizing as a material instantiation of something so abstract as theological debate.1

This man was hired to depress art!

I immediately recalled one eighteenth-century example of this phenomenon, the British Library copy of the 1798 Malone edition of The Works of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds, in his role as the first president of the Royal Academy of Art, had antagonized a young William Blake, and Blake — the prototype of the art school dropout — let the world know how he felt in the margins. This is the only example of the form that I have actually read, in its the Eighteenth Century Collections Online digitization (regrettably, ECCO is only available to those with access to a good research library, so that link may not get you too far).

This was all the more exciting, because although these annotations were widely known to Blake scholars, they weren’t previously known to me. I was just looking for an edition of Reynolds’ “Third Discourse” in PDF form for reading on the train. Imagine my surprise as I figured out what I was looking at!

How much did Blake get?

In short, Blake felt that Reynolds’ style and pedagogy were too conservative, too focused on copying and skeptical of invention and inspiration, too cozy with elite patrons. But there were larger stakes as well. What it meant to be an artist was changing in Blake’s lifetime. Some young artists like Blake were unhappy with the professional identity represented to them by the late Reynolds — easy to caricature as a well-paid lapdog of the elite, prostituting his talents to their vanity projects. As he makes clear in the margins, Blake preferred the visionary rebellion of his professor James Barry, an Irish painter who famously disdained the portraiture practiced by Reynolds in favor of high-concept history painting. Barry, difficult to work with, was eventually ejected from the Royal Academy.

At right: in response to a note breathlessly enumerating the earnings of Reynolds, Blake has snidely asked: How much did Barry get? The answer, we are to understand, is not much.

We might also note that this sort of angry marginalia is an apt, if pessimistic, figure for Blake’s anti-establishment vision for the arts.

ECCO’s digitization has cut off some of the marginal comments, but happily, Blake scholar David Erdman has transcribed them, to help those of us far from the BL. It makes fascinating reading.

I’d love to hear about other notable annotated books that others have encountered.

[1] Although maybe I should write a blog post someday about the used paperback copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism I read as an undergraduate, which was rendered all the more fascinating by the marginal annotations of two different prior readers with different pens and handwriting, whose underlinings and notes betrayed different interests. Anonymity can be interesting, too, in its own way.

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