A few weeks ago, I blogged about a simple Photoshop technique for recovering faded text in old manuscripts. I used a couple of objects from Four Zoas as a demo because we’ve been working a lot with Four Zoas and, well, it’s pretty hard to read.

It wasn’t a true experiment, though. Because FZ has been so heavily scrutinized by scholars past and present, nearly every conceivable reading is documented and available for verification. In other words, I was working towards a recovery that I already had in mind. Not-so-boldly-going where many have gone before.

OK, so maybe that’s fine for proof-of-concept. But what about a real test? Could we try this out on something we really had trouble reading? Wouldn’t you know it—a recent letter acquisition provided exactly that opportunity.

Penmanship is a Lost Art

The letter in question is 11 October 1819, from William Blake to an unidentified addressee (most scholars guess John Linnell). Our focus in not on Blake’s script, however, but some stuff that’s been scribbled on the reverse side by an unknown hand (most likely a collector, archivist, etc.). Our standard sources of Bentley, Erdman, and Keynes are silent on the matter. Uncharted territory.

Well, hey, hasn’t Eric been fiddling around with this kind of stuff in Photoshop, and also speaking in the third person? Yes to both. Let’s give it a go.

Here’s the unedited view, a compressed JPEG (for web delivery) created from the original TIFF on which all editing was done (click to enlarge):

Image of William Blake Letter 11 October 1819.

Pretty hard on the eyes. Let’s first attempt an entire-object Levels Adjustment:

Edited image William Blake letter 11 October 1819.

A little better. I think we need to isolate the text, though. Let’s add a Mask Layer, [patiently] tracing over the text and then using Levels Adjustment separately:

Edited image William Blake letter 11 October 1819.

Not too bad. Let’s exaggerate the Levels Adjustment even more:

Edited image William Blake letter 11 October 1819.

And just for an alternate view, how about we combine entire-object techniques with the Layer Mask selection:

Edited image William Blake letter 11 October 1819.

So through these experiments, we have produced a few different looks that may help transcribers pick out some new details. Clearly, one thing Photoshop is not capable of is clarifying horrendous penmanship. But at least the horror is easier to see now.

Anyway, we now have our ideas of what the text says. What do you think?