William Blake

William Blake

Poet: William Blake
Date of Birth: 28 November 1757, London, England
Date of Death: 12 August 1827, London, England

William Blake was a poet, painter and printmaker and was largely unrecognised within his own lifetime. Now, he is considered a seminal figure in the history of poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. He lived his entire life in London, except for three years he spent in Felpham, yet he produced a diverse and rich œuvre of work that embraced the imagination as deity and human existence.

Due to his idiosyncratic views Blake was considered mad by his contemporaries but later critics held his expressiveness and creativity in high regard. A committed Christian he was hostile to the almost all forms of organised religion, Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions although he later rejected many of these political beliefs.

William Blake was born in Soho, London, the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. He attended school long enough to learn reading and writing, leaving at the age of ten, and was otherwise educated at home by his mother. The Blakes were English Dissenters, however Blake was baptised at St James’ Church, Piccadilly, London. The Bible was an early influence on him and remained a source of inspiration throughout his life.

Blake began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased by his father. It was with these drawings that Blake found classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo and Dürer. When he was 10 years old Blake was enrolled in drawing classes at Par’s drawing school in the Strand. In 1772 Blake was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire for seven years. At the end of the term at the age of 21 he became a professional engraver.

The Ancient of Days, 1794, wood etching. Located in a private collection

In 1774 Basire sent Blake to copy images from the Gothic churches in London. Blake’s experiences in Westminster Abbey helped form his styles and inspired his ideas. Blake claimed he had visions in the abbey in which he saw Christ and his Apostles and heard a procession of monks and priests chanting.

In 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House. He rebelled against the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school’s president Joshua Reynolds. Blake detested Reynolds’ attitude towards the pursuit of general truth and general beauty. Blake preferred the Classical precision of Michelangelo and Raphael.

In 1780 Blake was walking towards Basire’s shop when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison. Known as the Gordon Riots the mob attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes , set the building ablaze and released the prisoners. Blake was reportedly in the front rank of the mob during the attack. The riots led to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholics and the creation of the first police force.

In 1782 Blake married Catherine Boucher. She signed their marriage certificate with an ‘X’ and he then taught her to read and write. He also trained her as an engraver and throughout his life she proved an invaluable aid, helping to print hi illuminated works and maintaining his spirits through misfortune.

Blake’s first collection of poems, ‘Poetical Sketches’ was printed c.1783. He and former fellow apprentice James Parker opened a print shop in 1784, working with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson’s home was a meeting-place for some of the leading English intellectual dissidents of the time, such as Joseph Priestley, John Henry, Mary Wollstonecraft and Thomas Paine. Blake, along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin had great hopes for the French and American revolutions. He wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries but despaired at the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in France.

Pity, 1795, relief etching. Located in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

Despite there being no evidence that they met, Blake illustrated Mary Wollstonecraft’s Original Stories from Real Life in 1791 and he seemed to share the same views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage. 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 a woman to find complete self-fulfilment.

In 1788 Blake experimented with relief etchings, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. The process is perhaps better known as illuminated printing. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid- resistant medium. Illustrations appeared alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. The plates were then etched in acid to dissolve the untreated copper to leave the design standing in relief. This was a reversal of the usual method of etching, where the lines of the design were exposed to the acid, and the plate printed by the intaglio method. Blake is better known for his relief etching; however his commercial work was largely intaglio engraving.

Blake’s marriage to Catherine was a close and devoted partnership. He taught his wife to write and she helped him colour his printed poems. It has been suggested by some scholars that Blake tried to bring a concubine into the marital bed in accordance with the radical beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, however this is merely conjecture and lacks evidential proof.

Blake moved to a cottage in Felpham, Sussex, in 1800 to take a job illustrating the works of the poet William Hayley. It was in this cottage that he started working on Milton, the preface of which is a poem which became the words for the anthem ‘Jerusalem.’ Over time, Blake came to resent his new patron as he felt Hayley had no interest in true artistry. In 1803 Blake’s trouble with authority came to a head when after an altercation with the soldier John Schofield he was charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the king. He was cleared of all charges at the Chichester assizes but went on to depict Schofield as wearing mind-forged manacles in an illustration to Jerusalem.

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, 1799 -1800, watercolour. Located at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA

In 1804 Blake returned to London and began writing and illustrating Jerusalem. He approached the dealer Cromek with his concept of portraying the characters of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to market an engraving and Cromek commissioned Blake’s friend Stathard to execute the concept. On learning that he had been cheated, Blake cut off his friendship with Stathard and set up an independent exhibition in Soho. Balke also gave vigorous expression of his views on art in series of polemical annotations to the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds, denouncing the Royal Academy. Through the artist John Linnell Blake met Samuel Palmer and the Shoreham Ancients, a group of artists who shared the rejection of modern trends and the belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. At the age of 65 Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. In later life Blake began to sell several of his works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts.

In 1826 Blake was commissioned to produce a series of engravings for Dante’s Divine Comedy. His death in 1827 cut short the project with only a few watercolours completed and seven of the engravings ready for proof form. Blake worked up until his death, he was buried in a shared grave at the Dissenter’s burial ground in Bunhill Fields, London, UK.

The Chimney Sweeper: A little black thing among the snow by William Blake

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

©JG Farmer 2019

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