William Blake was an English painter, poet and printmaker. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.
Born 28 November 1757, died 12 August 1827
Created a unique printing technique to combine his art and poetry
Inspired future artists and thinkers with his personal blend of religion, politics and mysticism
A Short Biography
William Blake was born in Soho, London, into the family of a modest shopkeeper who sold gloves and stockings. His early schooling consisted of being taught to read and write but by ten he was more interested in art and his father bought picture of Greek antiquities and books of art for him to copy from. Even at this early age Blake was different and had visions of angels while out walking the streets. These disturbed his family but seem to have been tolerated, at least by his mother. Recognizing his talent and his resistance to conformity, his parents took him out of school and sent him to drawing classes. However they could not afford to continue his art training for very long, so they found an artistic craft – engraving – to apprentice him to when he was 15, and he entered a seven-year apprenticeship with a certain James Basire, on Great Queen Street in central London. While an apprentice Blake was sent to make drawing in several Gothic churches, particularly Westminster Abbey, where Blake experienced several visions and the Gothic style left a lasting impression on him and his subsequent work.
When he finished his apprenticeship he went on to earn a modest living making engraved illustrations for books and other publications. Engravers prepared plates that could then be used in printing presses to create illustrations, so in an age before photography engravers were essential intermediaries between a drawing or painting and its bulk reproduction.
In 1779, his apprenticeship over, Blake obtained a place at the Royal Academy where he paid no fees but only had to buy his own materials. He found the art in fashion at that time – Rubens for example – to be ‘unfinished’ and ‘generalized’ and had several disputes with the president of the Academy, Joshua Reynolds over Reynolds’ championing of this style. Blake preferred the detailed finish characteristic of artists like Michelangelo and Raphael. While at the Royal Academy he became close friends with other artists, like the Wedgwood pottery designer John Flaxman and fellow-engraver Thomas Stothard, sharing not only art but an interest in radical politics and human rights.
In June of 1780 there were riots in London which were simultaneously anti-Catholic, anti-privilege and against the war with revolutionary America. Churches, houses and prisons were burned and Blake one night found himself at the head of a mob attacking the infamous Newgate Prison. TheseGordon Riots are named after Lord George Gordon, a virulent anti-Catholic credited with triggering the riots through his inflammatory speeches. They led to the creation of the first police force.
The Song of Los
Sometime later Blake met Catherine Boucher and after a one-year courtship they were married on August 18, 1782. Catherine was illiterate when they married – not uncommon for women at the time – but Blake taught her to read and she became a skilled draftsman and helped Blake with many of his designs.
In 1783 Blake’s first book of poetry – Poetical Sketches – was published in the very limited edition of just 50 copies and the following year, after Blake’s father died, he opened a printing shop with a friend from his apprentice days. They worked mostly for Joseph Johnston, a publisher of radical books by important figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Paine and Thomas Malthus. Johnston’s house was a salon for dissident thinkers and he was an ardent support of the French Revolution, as was Blake, who wore the Phrygian cap of the Revolutionaries, at least until the rise of Robespierre turned Blake away from the cause.
Blake’s partnership and the printing shop did not go well and William and Catherine soon had to leave the house on Broad Street they had taken to be near Blake’s family home. His life was consistently troubled with financial problems. Blake was devastated by the death of his favourite brother Robert at that time and had a vision of Robert’s soul leaving his body at the moment of his death.
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing
Blake also said it was the dead Robert who described to him the novel technique he developed for his ‘illuminated writing’. In this method Blake drew and wrote on copper plates with an acid-proof ink and then removed the surface of the copper with acid. This left his drawings and writing in relief on the plate, allowing him to print bold designs and use colour more reminiscent of painting than of etchings. With Catherine’s help he would then hand-finish the prints with colour and ink. Blake used this method for perhaps his most famous work, Songs of Innocence and Experience, as well as other major works. The technique was slow, difficult and therefore expensive, limiting the number of books he could publish.
From 1800 Blake spent four years living in the country-side, in Felpham, Sussex, working on illustrations for a book by the poet William Hayley, but returned to London after becoming disillusioned with this partnership.
In 1818, already 65, Blake attached himself to an artist group committed to the rejection of modern techniques and the development of a New Age, called the Shoreham Ancients. Inspired by this new direction Blake created his famous illustrations for the biblical Book of Job. Blake had been introduced to the group by a young artist called John Linnell, who, in 1826, commissioned Blake to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy. However Blake had only done a few watercolours for this work when in the summer of 1827 he put aside his painting and died singing the glories of the Heaven he believed he was ascending to.
Blake’s works were inherited by another religious radical who regrettable destroyed some which he declared to be blasphemous. Others with overt sexual imagery were destroyed by John Linnell.
William Blake has a special place in the iconography of British poets and artists. Ignored or called mad while alive, his works became a catalyst for the development of Romanticism and his art and writing has continued to this day to attract a wide following among those who share some of his mystical vision and politics and also those who simply love art and poetry.
His influence on future generations, from the Pre-Raphaelites to William Butler Yates and Aldous Huxley was the result of the publication in the 1860’s of his biography. In more recent times Alan Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, The Doors and Van Morrison all cite him as a major influence. He has been described as the single greatest influence on 20th century art, literature and music.
Sites to Visit
All of Blake’s original ‘illuminated writing’ plates were lost in the 19thcentury, except for a single fragment of one plate, which is now in the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C
The cottage in Felpham, now West Sussex, is still standing.
There is plaque commemorating Blake and John Linnell at Old Wyldes’, North End, Hampstead.
The exact location of his grave was lost, but there is a monument in the graveyard at Bunhill Fields in Islington, London, close to the actual grave.
Recent biographies are The Stranger From Paradise: A Biography of William Blake by G.E. Bentley (2001) and Blake by Peter Ackroyd (1995).
There are no full-length biographic films of William Blake, but his poetry has been quoted in numerous films. A documentary, William Blake: Singing for England, was produced for the Omnibus series in 2000 by the BBC.
The William Blake Archive is an on-line collection of most of his works. Physical collections are also held at the University of Toronto and the University of Texas at Austin