Blake, William (1757–1827)
Poet, mystic, painter, and engraver, Blake is one of the most
enigmatic yet most significant figures in the history of English
literature, and a man who has likewise exerted strong influence
on the graphic arts. He was born in London, England, November
28, 1757. Little is known definitely about his family’s ancestry,
but it seems probable that his parents and other relatives
were humble folk.
William Blake manifested his artistic predilections at a very
early age, and his father and mother did not discourage him.
They offered to place him in the studio of a painter. The young
man refused, however, pointing out that the apprenticeship
was a costly one and saying that his numerous brothers and sisters
should be considered; he held that it was not fair to impoverish
his family on his behalf. Then engraving was suggested
to him as a profession, because it required less expensive training
than painting and was likely to yield a speedier financial return.
Accepting this offer, Blake went at the age of 14 to study
under James Basire, an engraver not very well known today,
but who then enjoyed considerable reputation and was employed
officially by the Society of Antiquaries.
Blake worked under Basire for seven years and was engaged
mainly in making drawings of Westminster Abbey to illustrate
a huge book then in progress, the Sepulchral Monuments of Richard
Gough. It is said that Blake was chosen by his master to do
these drawings not so much because he showed particular aptitude
for drafting, but because he was eternally quarreling with
his fellow apprentices; the young artist apparently believed he
was superior to his confréres and made enemies by failing to conceal
his belief. While at the Westminster Abbey, Blake asserted
that he saw many visions.
Blackwell, Anna Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
192
In 1778 he entered the then recently founded Royal Academy
School, where he studied under George Moser, a chaser
and enameller who engraved the first great seal of George III.
Yet it was not to Moser that the budding visionary looked for
instruction; he was far more occupied with studying prints of
the old masters, especially Michelangelo and Raphael. A short
time later Blake left the Royal Academy and began to work on
his own.
He had to work hard, however, for meanwhile his affections
had been engaged by a young woman, Catherine Boucher, and
he needed funds for the pair to marry. Blake engraved illustrations
for magazines and the like, and his marriage was solemnized
in 1782. His wife’s name indicates that she was of French
origin, but it is not known if she was related to François Boucher
or to the fine engraver of the French Empire, BoucherDesnoyers.
The marriage proved a singularly happy one.
Regarding Catherine’s appearance there still exists a small
pencil-drawing by Blake, commonly supposed to be a portrait
of his wife. It shows a slim, graceful woman, just the type of
woman predominating in Blake’s other pictures, so it may be
presumed that she frequently acted as his model.
After his marriage Blake took lodgings on Green Street in
Leicester Fields, and he opened a print shop on Broad Street.
He made many friends at this period; the most favored among
them was Flaxman, the sculptor. Flaxman introduced him to
Mr. Matthew, a clergyman of artistic tastes who manifested
keen interest in the few poems Blake had already written and
generously offered to defray the cost of printing them. The
writer accepted the offer and brought out a tiny volume, Poetical
Sketches.
Thus encouraged, Blake gave up his print-selling business,
moved to Poland Street, and soon after published his Songs of
Innocence, the letterpress enriched by his own designs. In addition,
the whole volume was printed by the author himself by a
new method of his own invention.
Blake lived on Poland Street for five years, during which
time he achieved and issued The Book of Thel, The Marriage of
Heaven and Hell, and the first book of The French Revolution. In
1792 he moved to the Hercules Buildings in Lambeth, where
dire poverty forced him to do much of his commercial work,
notably a series of illustrations to Young’s Night Thoughts, yet
he also found time for original drawing and writing, including
the Gates of Paradise and Songs of Experience.
Eventually he tired of London, however, and moved to Felpham,
near Bognor in Sussex, taking a cottage close to where
Aubrey Beardsley would live at a later date. Here Blake composed
Milton, Jerusalem, and a large part of the Prophetic Books,
and made a new friend, William Hayley, who repeatedly aided
him monetarily. The Sussex scenery—afterward to inspire
Whistler and Conder—appealed keenly to Blake, and in one of
his lyrics he exclaimed, ‘‘Away to sweet Felpham, for Heaven
is there,’’ while to Flaxman he wrote ‘‘Felpham is a sweet place
for study, because it is more spiritual than London. Heaven
opens here on all sides her golden gates; her windows are not
obstructed by vapours, voices of celestial inhabitants are more
distinctly heard, and their forms more distinctly seen and my
cottage is also a shadow of their houses.’’
Eventually Blake returned to London, taking a house in
South Molton Street in 1803. Here again he endured much
poverty and was forced into doing illustrations for Virgil and
also a series of designs for Blair’s Grave; but later his financial
horizon was brightened by help from John Linnell, the landscape
painter. Shortly afterward Blake did some of his finest
work, including his Spiritual Portraits and his drawings for The
Book of Job, after which he began illustrating the Divine Comedy
of Dante.
In 1821 he again changed his home to Fountain Court in
Strand and continued to work at the Dante drawings, but only
seven of them were ever published, for Blake’s health was beginning
to fail, his energies were waning, and he died August
12, 1827.
Sixteen years before his death, Blake held a public exhibition
of his drawings, engravings, illustrations, and the like, and
only one paper saw fit to print a criticism of it—The Examiner,
edited by Leigh Hunt. It is customary for Blake’s idolators
today to scorn those who then disdained his work, but Blake’s
work emerged as somewhat of a novelty, especially the mysticism
permeating his pictures, which had virtually no parallel in
English painting prior to his advent. Also, Blake was still maturing
as a technician and still had many grave limitations which
are quite evident when placed beside that of his contemporaries.
If Blake the draftsman and illustrator was a fierce iconoclast
who turned his back resolutely on the styles current in his time,
most assuredly Blake the poet was sublimely contemptuous of
the conventions of Augustanism, and thus he prepared the way
for Burns, Wordsworth, and Shelley.
Had Blake written only his Poetical Sketches, his Songs of Innocence
and the subsequent Songs of Experience, his contemporaries
could never have leveled the charge of madness against
him. It was his later writings like The Book of Thel and the Prophetic
Books that branded him, for in these later poems the writer
threw simplicity to the winds. Giving literary form to visions,
Blake is so purely spiritual and ethereal, so far beyond the
realm of normal human speech, that mysticism frequently devolves
into crypticism. His rhythm, too, is often so subtle that
it hardly seems rhythm at all.
Yet even in his weirdest flights Blake is still the master. And
if, as already observed, the coloring in many of his watercolor
drawings is thin, the very reverse is true of the poems written
toward the close of his life. Their glowing and gorgeous tones
have the barbaric pomp of Gautier’s finest prose and the glitter
and opulence of Berlioz’s or Wagner’s orchestration.
Sources
Digby, George. Symbol and Image in William Blake. Oxford
Oxford University Press, 1957.
Erdman, David, ed. The Illuminated Blake. Garden City,
N.Y. Doubleday, 1974.
Keynes, Geoffrey, ed. Blake Complete Writings. Oxford Oxford
University Press, 1974.
King, James. William Blake His Life. London Weidenfeld
and Nicolson, 1991.
Nesfeld-Cookson, Bernard. William Blake Prophet of Universal
Brotherhood. U.K. Crucible, 1987.
Raine, Kathleen. From Blake to ‘‘A Vision.’’ Dublin Dolman
Press, 1979.
———. William Blake. Westport, Conn. Praeger, 1971.
Wilke, Joanne. William Blake’s Epic Imagination Unbound.
London Croom Helm, 1986.
Wilson, Mona. The Life of William Blake. London Oxford
University Press, 1971.
Wolf-Gumpold, Kaethe. William Blake Painter, Poet, Visionary
An Attempt at and Introduction to his Life and Work. London
Rudolf Steiner Press, 1969.