William Blake: 1757 – 1827

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William Blake, November 28, 1757–August 12, 1827

William Blake is well known as an English poet and painter. During his lifetime he was not recognized for his genius; but today Blake is viewed as a significant and early figure of the Romantic period of European culture. He was one of the most brilliant representatives of the creative movement in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that emphasized the free expression of the feelings of the artist in his works.

William Blake was born on November 28, 1757 in the Soho district of London. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. His father was James Blake, a London hosier, and his mother was Catherine Wright Armitage Blake. Since William exhibited a love of art at an early age, his parents enrolled him in drawing classes and elected to educate him on other subjects at home.

At age 14, William was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire of London for a seven-year term. At the end of this training, Blake emerged as a skilled engraver but he chose to enroll as an art student at the Royal Academy instead of pursuing a professional career at this time.

In his years at the Academy, William Blake developed his particular creative style in opposition to the trends of the time, especially the popular extravagance of the Baroque works of Peter Paul Rubens. Blake was drawn to the Classical period and the style and precision of Michelangelo and Raphael. Some of Blake’s early paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1780 and 1808.

William’s gift of verse was also evident in his youth. A volume of his first poetry called “Poetical Sketches,” published by friends in 1783, contains lines that he had written as early as 1768 when William was only 10 or 11 years old.

Throughout his life, beginning at age 4, William claimed to have experienced visions. These apparitions were often of a spiritual and religious nature and formed the basis of his literary and visual creations. It was this mystical behavior that earned him a reputation of being an unstable man among his contemporaries. In fact, the noted poet William Wordsworth is quoted in a biography of Blake as having said, “There is something in the madness of this man which interests me more then the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott.”

William Blake was married to Catherine Boucher in 1782 in St. Mary’s Church, Battersea. Although Catherine was illiterate—she signed their wedding contract with an “X”—William taught her to read and write and later trained her as an engraver. Catherine remained with William to the day of his death and she proved to be invaluable to him, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits through a number of crises.

The frontispiece of William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence & of Experience” published in 1826.

Due to his posthumous acclaim in the literary and visual arts, Blake is not as well known for his work as an engraver and, in particular, his innovative contributions to the graphic arts. Aside from the spectacular beauty of his print work—his hand-illustrated series of epic and lyrical poems “Songs of Innocence” (1789) and “Songs of Experience” (1794) being among the most original and stunning prints ever produced—William invented the technique known as relief etching. This is the method that is associated with the illuminated printing of his most important work.

The previous method of engraving exposed the images and text to acid and, therefore, the copper plate was recessed in those areas and the transfer of ink to paper took place with the intaglio method. Beginning in 1788, at the age of 31, Blake began his experiments with relief etching where the text of the poems was applied to copper plates with pens and brushes using an acid-resistant medium. He then etched the plates, dissolving the untreated copper and leaving the design to stand in relief. The pages printed from these plates were hand painted in water colors and then stitched together to finish the book.

Due to the lack of popularity of his own creative output during his lifetime, Blake took to commercial work to make a living. Some of the books that he illustrated are: “Night Thoughts” by Edward Young, “The Grave” by Robert Blair, “Paradise Lost” by John Milton, “The Book of Job,” “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyon and “The Divine Comedy” by Dante. The last two of these remained unfinished when Blake died in 1827.

“Job’s Evil Dreams” from William Blake’s illustrations of The Book of Job.

Among his original works, some of the more popular titles are “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” “Visions of the Daughters of Albion,” “The First Book of Urizen,” “Milton, a Poem” and “Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion.” The preface to the last of these contains the well known verse “And did those feet in ancient time … ” that was later composed as a hymn called “Jerusalem” and became a British national anthem.

William Blake died in his house on August 12, 1827 at age 69 in the midst of his work. Living in near poverty, Catherine borrowed the money needed for the funeral of her loving husband. The service was attended by a small group of his closest friends. Today, a monument marks the approximate location of the remains of William Blake and his wife—Catherine died four years later—at Bunhill Fields in London.

William Blake lived at a time of great transformation in society; the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. To some extent his work reflects a deep emotional reaction to the coldness of those times and a longing for a simpler and more humanitarian world. However, despite his justified anger toward the socially negative impact of science and technology at the turn of the nineteenth century, Blake made a colossal contribution to art in its literary, visual and, some would say, musical forms.

Had Blake lived in our day, he would no doubt have found in the technology of the personal computer an outlet for his visionary, mythical and humanistic creative expression. As it happened, William Blake was one of the first and most important multimedia artists that ever lived.

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