Portrait of William Blake by John Linnell
William Blake penned some of the most immortal lines in the English language. Although he died in penury, his work made an indelible mark on literature that cannot be overestimated. Without his influence, there would be no Pre-Raphaelites, no Beat poets. His contributions to philosophical, psychological and religious thought made him a key figure of the Enlightenment. Dante Gabriel Rossetti called him “glorious luminary”. He was a man before his time.
Although he lived mostly in obscurity, his pictures now hang in the world’s greatest art collections and his poems are studied and read from elementary school onwards. Nearly two hundred years later, he is still a towering figure in British Literature.
But who was this visionary and poet? Where did his fantastical ideas come from?
Read our short biography to find our more on the short life of William Blake.
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)
He was born in 1757 in Soho, London, one of seven children. He left school at age ten and was otherwise educated at home by his mother. When he was a child his father would purchase him copies of drawings of Greek antiquities and Renaissance masters, which he would engrave copies of. At ten years old, his parents enrolled him in a drawing school. They also bought him a large numbers books, and he read widely on the subjects of his choosing. This was his introduction to poetry, though poets such Ben Johnson, Edmund Spenser and the Pslams.
From an early age, Blake claimed to see visions. His parents disapproved of him telling “tall tales”. The visions, usually filled with spiritual and celestial imagery, continued throughout his adult life, and greatly inspired his art and his writing. He wrote in 1803 that he would “converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv'd & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals”.
At age 15, he was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire for a term of seven years. Two years in, he was sent to copy images from the Gothic churches of London, including Westminster Abbey. The Abbey was a huge artistic and religious influence of his early years. The influence can be seen strongly in his later style.
Blake's Newton (1795)
At 22 years old, he became a student at the Royal Academy. He rebelled against the dominant fashionable influences of the school at this time, such as Rubens. The painter at the Academy at the time was Joshua Reynolds, whose work Blake hated, saying Reynolds was “hired to Depress Art.” He preferred the earlier Masters, such as Michaelangelo and Raphael. Despite his strong criticism he still submitted six works to the Academy between 1780 and 1808.
Recovering from the blow of a previous refused marriage proposal, he met his future wife Catherine Boucher. They married in 1782. Blake taught her to read and writer and trained her as an engraver. Throughout their marriage she would help to print his works. He printed his first collection of poems (Political Sketches) around 1783. At this time he and his fellow apprentice opens a print shop and began working with publisher Joseph Johnson. His house was the meeting place for likeminded dissidents of the time, such as Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, whose book Original Stories from Real Life he illustrated.
At age 31, Blake started working on relief etchings, otherwise known as illuminated printing. This involved writing his text on copper plates. He would then etch the plates in acid to dissolve the copper, leaving a design behind. The pages from these plates would then be painted by hand with watercolours and formed into a book. He used this method to prints some of his most well-known works, such as Songs of Innocence and Experience and Jerusalem. While the method above is what we now associate with Blake’s work, his most popular work at the time was Intaglio engravings. While the copper plates could take months to complete, the finished product could be reproduced widely, bringing the artist’s work to a much bigger audience.
The cottage circa 1880
At age 43, they moved to small cottage in the village of Feltham, where Blake was commissioned to illustrate the works of poet William Hayley. Four years later, they returned to London and he began his seminal work, Jerusalem. He held a private exhibition of his work at his brother’s haberdashery shop in Soho. The show was a failure, poorly reviewed and Blake sold no works.
Shortly before his death, Blake was commissioned to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy, with only a few watercolours completed before he died. Evidently he worked on this right up to his last moments: his records say the last of his money was spent on a pencil so he could continue working. As they were destitute, Catherine paid for the funeral with money lent to her by their friend Thomas Linnell. He was buried in a shared plot in Bunhill Fields in Islington. She continued to sell his works after his death but, believing to be in communication with his spirit, not without consulting him first.
In 2018, The Blake Society erected a memorial slab on his grave after the exact site was rediscovered.
Blake remains a deeply complex and extreme artist and thinker, whose ideas and beliefs on politics and religion morphed and changed over time. Many of his works belie an ambiguosity about the nature of life, God, heaven and hell as well as dissenting voice against the political powers of his day. He was anti-slavery and supported racial and gender equality. Because of this, many movements have ascribed meaning and interpretations in his use of allegory and symbolism. And indeed, his views changed frequently with the years as he experienced ups-and-downs in his marriage and his work. He certainly curious the ways in which to life a different kind of life, free from the shackles of society and tradition. Despite a life spent most in penury, he enjoyed a rich and fulfilling life illuminated by his artistic visions.
Some of my favourite William Blake Quotes...
Read More: How Amateur Sleuths Tracked Down Blake's Burial Place (The Guardian, 2018)
Watch: How Blake Used Light as a Symbol (The Met, 2013)