Blake’s wood-engravings were commissioned by Dr Robert John Thornton through John Linnell, whose doctor he was. Blake first met Thornton in September 1818 and by September 1820 Blake was actually working on the engravings which were commissioned for the third edition of Dr Thornton’s The Pastorals of Virgil … adapted for Schools, published in 1821; the first unillustrated edition had been published in 1812.
These tiny woodcut illustrations, though untypical of Blake’s art as a whole, were the most influential of all his works on other artists by way of the work of the Ancients, particularly Calvert and Samuel Palmer. As Samuel Palmer wrote (A.H. Palmer 1892): ‘I sat down with Mr. Blake’s Thornton’s Virgil woodcuts before me, thinking to give their merits my feeble testimony. I happened first to think of their sentiment. They are visions of little dells, and nooks, and corners of Paradise; models of the exquisitest pitch of intense poetry. I thought of their light and shade, and looking upon them I found no word to describe it. Intense depth, solemnity, and vivid brilliancy only coldly and partially describe them. There is in all such a mystic and dreamy glimmer as penetrates and kindles the innermost soul, and gives complete and unreserved delight, unlike the gaudy daylight of this world. They are like all that wonderful artist’s works the drawing aside of the fleshy curtain, and the glimpse which all the most holy, studious saints and sages have enjoyed, of that rest which remaineth to the people of God’.