Blake was born at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, London, England into a middle-class family. His artistic talent was noticed and encouraged from an early age. At ten years old, he began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities, a practice that was then preferred to real-life drawing. Four years later he became apprenticed to an engraver, Henry Basire. After two years Basire sent him to copy art from the Gothic churches in London. At the age of twenty-one Blake finished his apprenticeship and set up as a professional engraver.
In 1779 he became a student at the Royal Academy, where he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens. He preferred the Classical exactness of Michelangelo and Raphael.
In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron. In the same year he married a poor illiterate girl named Catherine Boucher, who was five years his junior. Catherine could neither read nor write and even signed her wedding contract with an X. Blake taught her reading and writing and even trained her as an engraver. At that 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 circa 1783. In 1788, at the age of thirty-one, Blake began to experiment with "relief etching", which was the method used to produce most of his books of poems. Blake claimed the method was revealed to him in a vision of his dead brother, Robert. 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. The pages printed from these plates then had to be hand-colored in water colors and stiched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for four of his works: the Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem. Each of his illuminated books was thus a unique work of art and a radical break with not only traditional book printing but the traditional means of presenting poetic and philosophical discourse. Blake seems to have believed, or rather hoped, that self-published books could liberate the artist and author from the tyranny of censorship by Church and State but its time-consuming nature meant that his most personal and prophetic works reached a minute audience in his lifetime.
Blake also became a friend of the painter John Henry Fuseli.
Illustration: The archetype of the "creator" is a familiar image in the illuminated books of William Blake. Here, Blake depicts an almighty creator stooped in prayer contemplating the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books, hand-painted by Blake and his wife, known as the "Continental Prophecies", considered by most critics to contain some of Blake's most powerful imagery.
Religious and political visions
Blake had an idiosyncratic view of his Christian religion. In 1789 William and Catherine joined the Swedenborgian New Church. He believed that the truth was learned by personal revelation, not by teaching. What he called his 'visions' were perhaps hallucinations, experiences that he allowed to guide his life. It was these that gave him such a strong and uncompromising belief in his own artistic direction, but also led others to call him eccentric or even mad.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake began to develop his own mythology, which included a pantheon of characters such as Orc, a messiah and Urizen, a cruel Old Testament-style god. Blake loved Milton's work and Blake tried, as Milton had, to create his own definitions of heaven and hell. This desire to recreate the cosmos is the heart of his work and his psychology. His myths often described the struggle between enlightenment and free love on the one hand, and restrictive education and morals on the other. Blake believed himself a prophet of a New Age, and his identification with free love and democracy has helped to make him a hero of many modern artists. The poet W. B. Yeats admired Blake's spiritualism and helped to popularise him in the 20th century.
The Last Judgement is a work in which Blake sums up and illustrates all the mythology that he has created.
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. 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 he dropped it. Later in life, the pair seem to have settled down, and their apparent domestic harmony in middle age is better documented than their early difficulties.
Later in his life Blake sold a great number of works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend in need than an artist. Geoffrey Keynes, a biographer, described Butts as 'a dumb admirer of genius, which he could see but not quite understand.' Dumb or not, we have him to thank for eliciting and preserving so many works.
About 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 mediocre poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote (which was published later between 1804 and 1808). The preface to this book included the poem And did those feet in ancient time, which Blake decided to discard for later editions. This is ironic, because as the words to the hymn Jerusalem, this is now one of Blake's most well-known if not well-understood poems.
Blake returned to London in 1802 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804-1820). 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. Blake benefited from this group technically, by sharing in their advances in watercolour painting, and personally, by finding a receptive audience for his ideas.
He died while still hard at work. His last work was said to be a sketch of his wife. Perhaps Blake's life is summed up by his statement that "The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself."
- c.1788: All Religions are One, There is No Natural Religion
- 1789: Songs of Innocence, The Book of Thel
- 1790-1793: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
- 1793: Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America: a Prophecy
- 1794: Europe: a Prophecy, The First Book of Urizen, Songs of Experience (The sequel to Songs of Innocence, with many of its poems intended as counterpoints from the Fallen world to those in the first book, this was Blake's only Illuminated book to achieve even limited success in his lifetime. It includes the poems The Tyger and The Sick Rose)
- 1795: The Book of Los
- c.1804-c.1811: Milton: a Poem
- 1804-1820: Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion
Works by other authors illustrated by Blake:
- 1797: Edward Young, Night Thoughts
- 1805-1808: Robert Blair, The Grave
- 1819-1820: John Varley, Visionary Heads
- 1821: R.J. Thornton , Virgil
- 1823-1826: The Book of Job
- 1825-1827: Dante, The Divine Comedy (Blake died in 1827 with these watercolours still unfinished)
Books on William Blake
- Jacob Bronowski, William Blake and the Age of Revolution ISBN 07100727750710072783 (pbk.)
- Jacob Bronowski, William Blake, 1757-1827; a man without a mask
- S. Foster Damon, A Blake Dictionary ISBN 0-394-73688-5
- Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry ISBN 0-691-06165-3
- Peter Ackroyd, Blake ISBN 185619-278-4
- The William Blake Archive
- http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/blake/ (archive of an exhibit of his work at the National Gallery of Victoria)
- Project Gutenberg e-texts of poems by William Blake
Works inspired by Blake
- Red Dragon, a novel by Thomas Harris, whose title refers to Blake's painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. After the success of Harris' earlier novel, The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon was also made into a film (twice).