William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake's work is today considered seminal and significant in the history of both poetry and the visual arts. He was voted 38th in a poll of the 100 Greatest Britons organised by the BBC in 2002.
According to Northrop Frye, who undertook a study of Blake's entire poetic corpus, his prophetic poems form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language." Others have praised Blake's visual artistry, at least one modern critic proclaiming Blake "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced." Once considered mad for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is highly regarded today for his expressiveness and creativity, and the philosophical vision that underlies his work. He himself once indicated, "The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself."
While his visual art and written poetry are usually considered separately, Blake often employed them in concert to create a product that at once defied and superseded convention. Though he believed himself able to converse aloud with Old Testament prophets, and despite his work in illustrating the Book of Job, Blake's affection for the Bible was accompanied by hostility for the established Church, his beliefs modified by a fascination with Mysticism and the unfolding of the Romantic movement around him. Ultimately, the difficulty of placing William Blake in any one chronological stage of art history is perhaps the distinction that best defines him.
William Blake was born in 28A Broad Street, Golden Square, London, England on 28 November 1757, to a middle-class family. He was the third of seven children, who consisted of one girl and six boys, two of whom died in infancy. Blake's father, James, was a hosier. He never attended school, being educated at home by his mother. The Blakes were Dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life.
Blake began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father (a further indication of the support his parents lent their son), a practice that was then preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms, through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer. His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but was instead enrolled in drawing classes. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake was also making explorations into poetry; his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.
Apprenticeship to Basire
On 4 August 1772, Blake became apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the term of seven years. At the end of this period, at the age of 21, he was to become a professional engraver.
There is no record 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 had a detrimental effect on his struggles to acquire work or even recognition in later life.
After two years Basire sent him to copy images from the Gothic churches in London (it is possible that this task was set in order to break up a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice), and his experiences in Westminster Abbey contributed to the formation of 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".
The Royal Academy
In 1778, 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 toward art, especially his pursuit of "general truth" and "general beauty". Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the "disposition to abstractions, to generalizing 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.
In June 1780, Blake was walking towards Basire's shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison in London. Many among the mob were wearing blue cockades on their caps, to symbolise solidarity with the insurrection in the American colonies. They attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. Blake was reportedly in the front rank of the mob during this attack; most biographers believe he accompanied the crowd impulsively.
These riots, in response to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholicism, later came to be known as the Gordon Riots; they provoked a flurry of legislation from the government of George III, as well as the creation of the first police force.
Marriage and early career
In 1782, Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron, and Catherine Boucher, who was to become his wife. At the time, Blake was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. Telling Catherine and her parents the story, she expressed her sympathy, whereupon Blake asked her, "Do you pity me?" To Catherine's affirmative response he responded, "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'. 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.
At this time George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake's work. Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published around 1783. After his father's death, William and his brother Robert opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson's house was a place of meeting for some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time in England: Joseph Priestley, scientist; Richard Price, philosopher; John Henry Fuseli; Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist; and Thomas Paine, American revolutionary. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the American and French revolution and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in the French revolution.
Blake illustrated Original Stories from Real Life (1788; 1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft. They seem to have shared some views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage, but there is no evidence proving without doubt that they actually met. In 1793's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment.
In 1788, at the age of 31, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, a method he would use to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and of course his poems, including his longer 'prophecies' and his masterpiece the "Bible". The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and final products as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid in order to dissolve away the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name). This is a reversal of the normal method of etching, where the lines of the design are exposed to the acid, and the plate printed by the intaglio method. Relief etching, which Blake invented, later became an important commercial printing method. The pages printed from these plates then had to be hand-coloured in water colours and stitched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.
Later life and career
Blake's marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death. There were early problems, however, such as Catherine's illiteracy and the couple's failure to produce children. Gilchrist refers to "stormy times" in the early years of the marriage. It is possible that at one point, in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, Blake suggested bringing in a concubine. Catherine was distressed at the idea, and Blake promptly withdrew it. Blake taught her to write, and she helped him to colour his printed poems.
Around the year 1800 Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex (now West Sussex) to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a minor poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton: a Poem (published between 1805 and 1808). The preface to this work includes a poem beginning "And did those feet in ancient time", which became the words for the anthem, "Jerusalem". Over time, Blake came to resent his new patron, coming to believe that Hayley was not paying as well as he could afford to pay.
Blake returned to London in 1802 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804–1820), his most ambitious work. Having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims, Blake approached the dealer Robert Cromek, with a view to marketing an engraving. Knowing that Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work, Cromek promptly commissioned Thomas Stothard to execute the concept. When Blake learned that he had been cheated, he broke off contact with Stothard, formerly a friend. He also set up an independent exhibition in his brother's shop, designed to market his own version of the Chaucer illustraton, along with other works. As a result he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue (1809), which contains what Anthony Blunt has called a "brilliant analysis" of Chaucer. It is regularly anthologised as a classic of Chaucer criticism. It also contained detailed explanations of his other paintings.
He was introduced by George Cumberland to a young artist named John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the Shoreham Ancients. This group shared Blake's rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. At the age of 65 Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. These works were later admired by Ruskin, who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt, and by Vaughan Williams, who based his ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing on a selection of the illustrations.
Blake abhorred slavery and believed in racial and sexual equality. Several of his poems and paintings express a notion of universal humanity: "As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various)". He retained an active interest in social and political events for all his life, but was often forced to resort to cloaking social idealism and political statements in Protestant mystical allegory.
He rejected all forms of imposed authority; indeed, he was charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King in 1803, though he later was cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges. The charges were brought by a soldier called John Schofield after Blake had bodily removed him from his garden, allegedly exclaiming, "Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves." According to a report in the Sussex county paper, "The invented character of [the evidence] was ... so obvious that an acquittal resulted." Schofield was later depicted wearing "mind forged manacles" in an illustration to Jerusalem.
Blake's views on what he saw as oppression and restriction of rightful freedom extended to the Church. His spiritual beliefs are evidenced in Songs of Experience (in 1794), in which he shows his own distinction between the Old Testament God, whose restrictions he rejected, and the New Testament God (Jesus Christ in Trinitarianism), whom he saw as a positive influence.
Later in his life Blake began to sell a great number of his works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend than a man whose work held artistic merit; this was typical of the opinions held of Blake throughout his life.
The commission for Dante's Inferno came to Blake in 1826 through Linnell, with the ultimate aim of producing a series of engravings. However, Blake's death in 1827 would cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of the watercolours were completed, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Even so, they have evoked praise:
'[T]he Dante watercolours are among Blake's richest achievements, engaging fully with the problem of illustrating a poem of this complexity. The mastery of watercolour has reached an even higher level than before, and is used to extraordinary effect in differentiating the atmosphere of the three states of being in the poem'.
Blake's illustrations of the poem are not merely accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise, or furnish commentary on, certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text. In illustrating Paradise Lost, for instance, Blake seemed intent on revising Milton's focus on Satan as the central figure of the epic; for example, in Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808) Satan occupies an isolated position at the picture's top, with Adam and Eve centered below. As if to emphasise the effects of the juxtaposition, Blake has shown Adam and Eve caught in an embrace, whereas Satan may only onanistically caress the serpent, whose identity he is close to assuming.
In this instance, because the project was never completed, Blake's intent may itself be obscured. Some indicators, however, bolster the impression that Blake's illustrations in their totality would themselves take issue with the text they accompany: In the margin of Homer Bearing the Sword and His Companions, Blake notes, "Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost." Blake seems to dissent from Dante's admiration of the poetic works of the ancient Greeks, and from the apparent glee with which Dante allots punishments in Hell (as evidenced by the grim humour of the cantos).
At the same time, Blake shared Dante's distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power, and clearly relished the opportunity to represent the atmosphere and imagery of Dante's work pictorially. Even as he seemed to near death, Blake's central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante's Inferno; he is said to have spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching.
On the day of his death, Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried, "Stay Kate! Keep just as you are – I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me." Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses. At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the same house, present at his expiration, said, "I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel."
George Richmond gives the following account of Blake's death in a letter to Samuel Palmer:
He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ — Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.
Catherine paid for Blake's funeral with money lent to her by Linnell. He was buried five days after his death – on the eve of his forty-fifth wedding anniversary – at the Dissenter's burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where his parents were also interred. Present at the ceremonies were Catherine, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, Frederick Tatham and John Linnell. Following Blake's death, Catherine moved into Tatham's house as a housekeeper. During this period, she believed she was regularly visited by Blake's spirit. She continued selling his illuminated works and paintings, but would entertain no business transaction without first "consulting Mr. Blake". On the day of her own death, in October 1831, she was as calm and cheerful as her husband, and called out to him "as if he were only in the next room, to say she was coming to him, and it would not be long now".
On her death, Blake's manuscripts were inherited by Frederick Tatham, who burned several of those which he deemed heretical or too politically radical. Tatham had become an Irvingite, one of the many fundamentalist movements of the 19th century, and was severely opposed to any work that smacked of blasphemy. Sexual imagery in a number of Blake's drawings was also erased by John Linnell. Blake is now recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. The Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour in Australia in 1949. In 1957 a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey, in memory of him and his wife.
Northrop Frye, commenting on Blake's consistency in strongly held views, notes that Blake "himself says that his notes on [Joshua] Reynolds, written at fifty, are 'exactly Similar' to those on Locke and Bacon, written when he was 'very Young'. Even phrases and lines of verse will reappear as much as forty years later. Consistency in maintaining what he believed to be true was itself one of his leading principles ... Consistency, then, foolish or otherwise, is one of Blake's chief preoccupations, just as 'self-contradiction' is always one of his most contemptuous comments".
From a young age, William Blake claimed to have seen visions. The earliest instance occurred at the age of about eight or ten in Peckham Rye, London, when he reported seeing a tree filled with angels "bespangling every bough like stars." According to Blake's Victorian biographer Gilchrist, he returned home to report his vision, but only escaped being thrashed by his father through the intervention of his mother. Though all the evidence suggests that his parents were largely supportive, his mother seems to have been especially so, and several of Blake's early drawings and poems decorated the walls of her chamber. On another occasion, Blake watched haymakers at work, and thought he saw angelic figures walking among them. In later life, his wife Catherine would recall the time he saw God's head "put to the window". The vision, Catherine reminded her husband, "Set you ascreaming."
Blake claimed to experience visions throughout his life. They were often associated with beautiful religious themes and imagery, and therefore may have inspired him further with spiritual works and pursuits. Certainly, religious concepts and imagery figure centrally in Blake's works. God and Christianity constituted the intellectual center of his writings, from which he drew inspiration. In addition, Blake believed that he was personally instructed and encouraged by Archangels to create his artistic works, which he claimed were actively read and enjoyed by those same Archangels. In a letter to William Hayley, dated May 6, 1800, Blake writes:
"I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate."
In a letter to John Flaxman, dated September 21, 1800, Blake writes:
"[The town of] Felpham is a sweet place for Study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates; her windows are not obstructed by vapours; voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard, & their forms more distinctly seen; & my Cottage is also a Shadow of their houses. My Wife & Sister are both well, courting Neptune for an embrace... I am more famed in Heaven for my works than I could well conceive. In my Brain are studies & Chambers filled with books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life; & those works are the delight & Study of Archangels."
In a letter to Thomas Butts, dated April 25, 1803, Blake writes:
"Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy'd, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv'd & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends."
In A Vision of the Last Judgement Blake writes: "What," it will be Questioned, "When the Sun rises, do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?" Oh no, no, I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty." William Wordsworth wrote: "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." Whilst others accept him as mystic and visionary.
Blake in popular culture
In addition to his influence on writers and artists, Blake's role as a song-writer and as an exponent of sexual and imaginative freedom have made him an influential figure in popular culture, especially since the 1960s. Far more than any other canonical writer his songs have been set and adapted by popular musicians including U2, Van Morrison, Jah Wobble, Tangerine Dream, Bruce Dickinson, Kathleen Yearwood and Ulver. Folk musicians have adapted his work, and figures such as Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg have been influenced by him. The genre of the graphic novel traces its origins to Blake's etched songs and Prophetic Books. Children's author Maurice Sendak and exponents such as Grant Morrison, Robert Crumb, and J.M. DeMatteis have all cited Blake as one of their major inspirations.