William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His so-called prophetic works were said by 20th century critic Northrop Frye to form “what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language”. His visual artistry led 21st-century critic Jonathan Jones to proclaim him “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced”. In 2002, Blake was placed at number 38 in the BBC’s poll of the 100 Greatest Britons. Although he lived in London his entire life (except for three years spent in Felpham), he produced a diverse and symbolically rich œuvre, which embraced the imagination as “the body of God” or “human existence itself”.
Although Blake was considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, he is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterised as part of the Romantic movement and as “Pre-Romantic”. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England (indeed, to almost all forms of organised religion), Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American Revolutions. Though later he rejected many of these political beliefs, he maintained an amiable relationship with the political activist Thomas Paine; he was also influenced by thinkers such as Emanuel Swedenborg. Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake’s work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th-century scholar William Rossetti characterised him as a “glorious luminary”, and “a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors”.
William Blake was born on 28 November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick St.) in Soho, London. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Blake’s father, James, was a hosier. He attended school only long enough to learn reading and writing, leaving at the age of ten, and was otherwise educated at home by his mother Catherine Blake (née Wright). Even though the Blakes were English Dissenters, William was baptised on 11 December at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and remained a source of inspiration throughout his life.
Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Maarten van Heemskerck and Albrecht Dürer. The number of prints and bound books that James and Catherine were able to purchase for young William suggests that the Blakes enjoyed, at least for a time, a comfortable wealth. When William was ten years old, his parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but instead enrolled in drawing classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake made explorations into poetry; his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson, Edmund Spenser, and the Psalms.
On 4 August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, at the sum of £52.10, for a term of seven years. At the end of the term, aged 21, he became a professional engraver. No record survives of any serious disagreement or conflict between the two during the period of Blake’s apprenticeship, but Peter Ackroyd’s biography notes that Blake later added Basire’s name to a list of artistic adversaries – and then crossed it out. This aside, Basire’s style of line-engraving was of a kind held at the time to be old-fashioned compared to the flashier stipple or mezzotint styles. It has been speculated that Blake’s instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his acquiring of work or recognition in later life.
After two years, Basire sent his apprentice to copy images from the Gothic churches in London (perhaps to settle a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice). His experiences in Westminster Abbey helped form 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”. This close study of the Gothic (which he saw as the “living form”) left clear traces in his style. In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the Abbey, he was occasionally interrupted by boys from Westminster School, who were allowed in the Abbey. They teased him and one tormented him so much that Basire knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, “upon which he fell with terrific Violence”. After Basire complained to the Dean, the schoolboys’ privilege was withdrawn. Blake experienced visions in the Abbey, he saw Christ and his Apostles and a great procession of monks and priests and heard their chant.
On 8 October 1779, 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 towards art, especially his pursuit of “general truth” and “general beauty”. Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the “disposition to abstractions, to generalising 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.
David Bindman suggests that Blake’s antagonism towards Reynolds arose not so much from the president’s opinions (like Blake, Reynolds held history painting to be of greater value than landscape and portraiture), but rather “against his hypocrisy in not putting his ideals into practice.” Certainly Blake was not averse to exhibiting at the Royal Academy, submitting works on six occasions between 1780 and 1808.
Blake became a friend of John Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland during his first year at the Royal Academy. They shared radical views, with Stothard and Cumberland joining the Society for Constitutional Information.
Gordon Riots: Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, records that 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. The mob 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 the attack. The riots, in response to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholicism, became known as the Gordon Riots and provoked a flurry of legislation from the government of George III, and the creation of the first police force.
Relief etching: In 1788, aged 31, Blake experimented with relief etching, a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and the finished 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 to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name).
This is a reversal of the usual 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 referred to as “stereotype” in The Ghost of Abel) was intended as a means for producing his illuminated books more quickly than via intaglio. Stereotype, a process invented in 1725, consisted of making a metal cast from a wood engraving, but Blake’s innovation was, as described above, very different. The pages printed from these plates were hand-coloured in water colours and stitched together to form a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and of Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Jerusalem.
Engravings: Although Blake has become most famous for his relief etching, his commercial work largely consisted of intaglio engraving, the standard process of engraving in the 18th century in which the artist incised an image into the copper plate, a complex and laborious process, with plates taking months or years to complete, but as Blake’s contemporary, John Boydell, realised, such engraving offered a “missing link with commerce”, enabling artists to connect with a mass audience and became an immensely important activity by the end of the 18th century.
Blake employed intaglio engraving in his own work, most notably for the illustrations of the Book of Job, completed just before his death. Most critical work has concentrated on Blake’s relief etching as a technique because it is the most innovative aspect of his art, but a 2009 study drew attention to Blake’s surviving plates, including those for the Book of Job: they demonstrate that he made frequent use of a technique known as “repoussage”, a means of obliterating mistakes by hammering them out by hitting the back of the plate. Such techniques, typical of engraving work of the time, are very different to the much faster and fluid way of drawing on a plate that Blake employed for his relief etching, and indicates why the engravings took so long to complete.