William Blake—Life and Works

The Family
William Blake, mystic, poet, and artist, was born in London on November 28, 1757. His father was a hosier, living at 28, Broad Street, Golden Square. The family consisted of four sons and a daughter, William being the second son, and the only one to achieve distinction. The eldest, James, succeeded his father in the hosiery business. The third, John, died young after leading a dissolute life. The youngest, Robert, who showed considerable capabilities as an artist, was greatly loved by William, and was nursed by him through the illness of which he died at the age of 21. Another boy, Richard, died in infancy.

Early Training and Poetical Attempts
William showed his artistic tastes at an early age. At the age of ten he was sent to a drawing school in the Strand. At fifteen he was apprenticed to an engraver. He also made drawings of the monuments in Westminster Abbey. He was greatly influenced by the Gothic style. His creative faculty found an outlet in the early years in poetry, some of which has survived in the thin volume of Poetical Sketches, printed for him by his friends in 1783. These pieces were composed between his 12th and 20th years.
As a Professional Engraver
In 1779 Blake set out to earn his living as a professional engraver. He did a lot of work in this line for the booksellers and publishers. During the next twenty years or so he supported himself largely by this means.
In 1781 Blake met Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a market-gardener, and married her in August, 1782. She made a perfect wife for him. She learned to draw and paint well enough to be able to help him in his work. She remained childless, and survived him by four years, dying in 1831.
A New Method of Printing
During the years 1783-87 Blake met a number of distinguished persons, but this society soon disgusted him, and he ridiculed it in a satire known as An Island in the Moon written in 1785. In 1788 he began to experiment with a new method of printing from etched copper-plates. It is related that the secret of this process was revealed to him in a vision by the spirit of his brother Robert. The first results of this process were the small dogmatic works: There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One. It developed further with the production of Songs of Innocence, which consisted of simple lyrical poems etched on copper with decorations coloured by hand.
The volume was finished in 1789 and was sold for a few shillings. This was the prelude to the remarkable series of books in “illuminated printing” which occupied Blake in some degree for the rest of his life.
Mysticism and Philosophy
Blake was now living in Hercules Road, Lambeth. Here he completed the works entitled The Book of Thel (1789); The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793); America (1793); Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793); Songs of Experience (1794); Europe (1794); Urizen (1794); The Book of Los (1795); The Book of Ahania (1795); and The Song of Los (1795).
During this period Blake was deeply under the influence of his visionary powers, and mysticism and philosophy emerged as his dominant interests.
Blake’s output as an artist was considerable. In 1795 he produced his stupendous series of large colour prints which can scarcely be matched in the whole history of art for imaginative content and magnificence of colouring. These include “Nebuchadnezzar”, “The Elohim Creating Adam”, and “Newton”. By 1797 he had completed his series of 537 water-colour designs for Young’s Night Thoughts.
The Problem of Earning a Livelihood
Blake’s circle of friends had become a little wider now, and included Thomas Butts. It was chiefly Butts’s patronage which enabled Blake to earn a livelihood while devoting much time and energy to his symbolical works which never produced any adequate return by their sales. He even laboured over a long poem, The Four Zoas. It is a poem of the greatest significance for the understanding of Blake.
Life and Work at Felpham
During the seven years from 1793 to 1800, Blake’s creative output was enormous. In 1800, Blake moved with his wife and sister, from London to Felpham in Sussex in order to work at some engravings for William Hayley. But three years later he returned to London with a great sense of relief. At first he had been able to work happily enough at Felpham, but soon he became more and more irritated by Hayley’s patronizing airs and lack of understanding. He also experienced much spiritual discomfort at Felpham because of the visions that he incessantly saw. He was forced to lead a double life, submitting on the surface to Hayley’s vanities and developing in secret his own imaginative faculties. The Felpham period was, therefore; a strangely mixed output of second-rate engravings for Hayley, of fine paintings, and of mystical poetry of great power, which was mostly embodied in the poem Milton. In January,1804 Blake was tried on a false charge of having used treasonable words against the King, and was acquitted.
Association with Cromek
In 1805 Blake joined the engraver Cromek in a scheme for the production of a series of engravings for Robert Blair’s The Grave. But here he was again deceived, Cromek paid him a small sum for the designs, and then employed another man to engrave them. Blake, already embittered by neglect, felt still more embittered and suffered from fits of depression.
The Failure of His Exhibition
In 1809 Blake held an exhibition of his works at the house of his brother James in Broad Street, Golden Square. Sixteen pictures were exhibited, including his large painting of Chaucer’s Canterbury pilgrims, and each visitor to the house received for his entrance to the house a copy of the now celebrated “Descriptive Catalogue”. The exhibition attracted very little notice, the only criticism of it, which appeared in Leigh Hunt’s The Examiner being malicious and unfair.
Years of Obscurity
During the years that followed, Blake fell into complete obscurity. It is not known for certain how he earned his living during 1810-17. It has even been suggested that for part of this period he was confined to a mental hospital. Some of his acquaintances, such as Robert Southey, who visited him in 1811, did regard him as insane. But his intimate friends were convinced that he was not at all mad. Throughout this period he was occasionally selling copies of his illuminated books. He also executed engravings for various employers. He was occupied, too, with the 100 etched plates of his greatest symbolical poem, Jerusalem.
“Illustrations of the Book of Job”
In 1818, Blake entered upon the last phase of his life, and until his death in 1827 was probably happier with his friends and in his work than he had been at any other period. He was now able to obtain more work, and became the centre of a circle of young artists who regarded him with affection and reverence. In 1821, Blake moved from South Molton Street to 3, Fountain Court, Strand, and here he executed his most widely known work in creative art, the “Illustrations of the Book of Job”. Though superficially illustrations of the Bible story, the engravings form one of the most important of Blake’s symbolical works. Their mystical content has not prevented the designs from being the most widely known and generally appreciated of his works.
Illustrations of the “Divine Comedy”, and Death
Blake was to make one more great effort in his art. In October, 1825, he was asked to make illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy and to engrave them. He completed a hundred water-colour designs, of which seven were engraved, and he was still at work upon these when he died on the 12th August, 1827. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields Cemetery, the approximate place being now indicated by a tablet placed there.
Blake’s Character
Blake suffered from the defects of his qualities. His mind was never systematically cultivated. His qualities isolated him from his contemporaries and drove his mind upon itself, so that the interpretation of his message to mankind cannot be made with accuracy. But through all his mental turmoil and difficulties in dealings with his fellow men he preserved his intellectual integrity, and he never prostituted his art. Throughout his life he tried to exalt the things of the mind, and for him the imagination was man’s highest faculty. Ceaselessly he fought against materialism. He was deeply religious, though in no conventional sense. In his later years Christ became identified in his mind with Art, and this fact provides many clues for the understanding of his doctrines. But perhaps the most illuminating revelation of his mind for most readers are the aphorisms and didactic statements which he engraved about the year 1820 around a representation of the Laocoon group.
Blake was not much understood by his contemporaries. He influenced them as little as he was influenced by them, and for many years after his death his name was unknown. His first full biography, written by Alexander Gilchrist, was published in 1863, and was reprinted under the supervision of D.G. Kossetti in 1880. Since that time his power and originality have gained fuller recognition, and he now holds a position as one of the greatest figures in English poetry and art. A bronze bust of him was placed in the Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey in November, 1957 to mark the bicentenary of his birth. Many of his pictures are to be seen in the Tate Gallery, London, and collections of his illuminated books in the British Museum.
“Poetical Sketches” (1783) Tiriel (1789)
”Songs of Innocence” (1789)
The Book of Thel (1789-91) Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793)
“Songs of Innocence and of Experience, showing the two Contrary states of the Human Soul”, published in one volume (1794)
America, A Prophecy (1794), Europe, A Prophecy (1794), The Book of Urizen (1794), The Song of Los, (1795) The Book of Ahania (1795), Vala or The Four Zoas (1796-1807), Milton (1804-1815), Jerusalem (1804-1820)
An important work of Blake is The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, written in prose.

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