Brain Pickings

Maurice Sendak’s Rarest Art: His Vintage Illustrations for William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence”

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“On a cloud I saw a child, and he laughing said to me…”

J.R.R. Tolkien famously asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children”. Decades later, Maurice Sendak (June 10, 1928–May 8, 2012) would come to echo this belief — and yet he remains one of the best-loved and most influential children’s book authors and illustrators of all time, a patron saint of storytelling for young minds. From his heartwarming early collaborations to his most famous stories to his lesser-known and lovely posters, Sendak’s style is decidedly, unmistakably his own — but like that of any creative artist, it is also an assemblage of his influences. Chief among them is the art and poetry of William Blake, whose sensibility reverberated through Sendak’s work, beginning in his dawning days as an insecure young artist and crescendoing in his final posthumous love letter to the world.

In 1967, when Sendak was thirty-nine and at the peak of his career, he received an unusual assignment that moved his heart unlike any other — a chance to finally pay homage to his great creative hero. It was small and noncommercial, but he took it: The London publisher The Bodley Head wanted to publish a Christmas keepsake commemorating the company’s 80th anniversary, featuring seven poems from Blake’s Songs of Innocence. For each of them, Sendak was asked to create a single, exquisite line drawing. The slim booklet, simply titled Poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence (public library), was published in a limited edition of 275 copies, none of which were for sale — instead, they were given away as holiday gifts to the authors and artists The Bodley Head represented, and to a handful of other friends of the press.

The book is considered the rarest of Sendak’s published work — so rare that it’s practically impossible for even art historians to get their eyes on a copy for scholarly work. Only a handful are known to survive today, a couple of which signed by Sendak.

As a great admirer and nascent collector of Sendak’s work, and a generally stubborn person, I knew I had to track down a copy after I first heard about this rare masterpiece. After a dogged hunt, I finally struck gold — not just any old copy, but one of those ultra-rare signed ones, with a small, infinitely delightful original drawing alongside the inscription on the front free endpaper.

In the interest of cultural preservation and scholarship, I am delighted to share a glimpse of this treasure — my great hero paying homage to his great hero. Although the feeble digital screen does absolutely no justice to the vibrant analog humanity of this masterpiece, to know that it reaches the eyes and souls of others in even a small way, that it isn’t being sucked try of its aliveness by archival death, is good enough for me. Please enjoy.

Complement with Sendak’s final gift, My Brother’s Book, where Blake’s influence is at its most pronounced — at once his farewell to the world and his last love letter to his deceased partner, Eugene Glynn. Then, dive into the Sendak archive.

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