William Blake was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake’s work is now considered seminal in the history of both poetry and the visual arts.
Once considered mad for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is highly regarded today for his expressiveness and creativity, as well as the philosophical and mystical undercurrents that reside within his work. His work has been characterised as part of the Romantic movement, or even “Pre-Romantic”, for its largely having appeared in the 18th century. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the established Church.
William Blake was born on 28 November, 1757, in London, England, the third son of Catherine néeWright (1723–1792) and James Blake (c.1723–1784) a hosier and haberdasher on Broad Street in Golden Square, Soho. As a child, William was prone to visions, including seeing God, and angels in a tree. He would later claim that he had regular conversations with his deceased brother Robert. It was soon apparent that Blake’s inner imaginative world would be a motivation throughout his entire life. Blake’s were highly supportive and encouraged his development as an artist.
He had early shown an interest in and aptitude for drawing, so, at the age of ten Blake entered Henry Pars’ drawing school. On 4 August 1772, at the age of fourteen Blake started a seven year apprenticeship with engraver James Basire, the official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. From Basire’s shop on Queen Street, Blake learned all the skills that would earn him an income. No record survives of any serious disagreement or conflict between the two during the period of Blake’s apprenticeship. However, Peter Ackroyd’s biography notes that Blake was later to add Basire’s name to a list of artistic adversaries—and then cross it out. This aside, Basire’s style of engraving was of a kind held to be old-fashioned at the time, and Blake’s instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his acquiring of work or recognition in later life.
After two years, Basire sent his apprentice to copy images from the Gothic churches in London (perhaps to settle a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice). His experiences inWestminster Abbey helped form his artistic style and ideas. The Abbey of his day was decorated with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies, and varicoloured waxworks. Ackroyd notes that “…the most immediate [impression] would have been of faded brightness and colour”. In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the Abbey, he was occasionally interrupted by the boys of Westminster School, one of whom “tormented” Blake so much one afternoon that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, “upon which he fell with terrific Violence”. Blake beheld more visions in the Abbey, of a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard “the chant of plain-song and chorale.”
On 8 October 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school’s first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds’ attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of “general truth” and “general beauty”. Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the “disposition to abstractions, to generalising and classification, is the great glory of the human mind”; Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit”. Blake also disliked Reynolds’ apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds’ fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Blake met Catherine Boucher in 1782. At the time, Blake was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. He recounted the story of his heartbreak for Catherine and her parents, after which he asked Catherine, “Do you pity me?” When she responded affirmatively, he declared, “Then I love you.” Blake married Catherine – who was five years his junior – on 18 August 1782 in St. Mary’s Church, Battersea. Illiterate, Catherine signed her wedding contract with an ‘X’. The original wedding certificate may still be viewed at the church, where a commemorative stained-glass window was installed between 1976 and 1982. Later, in addition to teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver. Throughout his life she would prove an invaluable aid to him, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.
He had been writing poetry for quite some time and his first collection, Poetical Sketches, appeared in 1783. While Blake was busy with commissions he also undertook the task of creating the engravings that would illustrate his own poetry, and he also printed them himself. He experimented with an early method of creating images and text on the same plate. His highly detailed illustrations often focus on parts of the human anatomy or fantastically imaginative creatures surrounded by various natural forms. Often tackling difficult metaphorical themes, his characters embodying inspiration and creativity do battle with oppressive forces like law and religion. He employed techniques for decorative margins and hand-coloured the printed images, or printed with the colour already on the wood or copper plate, the paint of which he mixed himself. This attention to the craft and details of each volume make no two of his works alike. He also illustrated works for other writers and poets including Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Original Stories from Real Life (1788).
The Book of Thel (1789), one of Blake’s first long narrative poems, was followed by the first of his prophetical works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1793). Other works finished around this time were America: A Prophesy (1793), Europe: A Prophesy (1794), Visions of the Daughters of Albion(1793), and The Book of Urizen (1794).
In 1800, the Blakes moved to Felpham in Sussex where William was commissioned to illustrate works by his then patron, poet William Hayley. In 1803 Blake was charged with sedition after a violent confrontation with soldier John Scolfield in which Blake uttered treasonable remarks against the King. He was later acquitted. In 1805 he started his series of illustrations for the Book of Revelations and various other publications including Geoffrey Chaucer’s 14th Century Canterbury Tales, Robert John Thornton’s Virgil and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Milton: A Poem was published around 1811. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (c.1820) is Blake’s longest illuminated work.
In 1821 the Blakes moved to Fountain Court, Strand. There he finished his work on the Book of Job in 1825, commissioned by his last patron John Linnell. The following year he started a series of watercolours for Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, which he worked on until the day of his death. William Blake died at home on 12 August, 1827. Unable to pay for a funeral, Linnell loaned the money to Catherine. Blake was buried in an unmarked grave in the Non-Conformist Bunhill Fields in London where Catherine was buried four years later among other notable figures of dissent like Daniel Defoe and John Bunyan. A grave marker now stands near to where they were buried.
In 1957 a memorial to Blake and his wife was erected in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey, London. The Tate Britain recreated William Blake‘s first and only exhibition – exactly 200 years after it was staged in 1809. It brought together at least nine of the surviving 11 works from the 16 in the original show. In 2010 eight hand-coloured artworks by William Blake, went on display at Tate Britain in London as part of a rehang in which nine rooms and 170 works devoted to the Romantics.