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William Blake is undoubtably one of Britain's greatest creative polymaths, with his artistry ranging from painting and engraving to writings and poetry. Learn more about his life and career in this biography.
Born in Soho, London in 1757, he was a man out of his time, and as such was widely viewed as an eccentric, some would say heretic, rather than a creative genius. Although he was a prodigious artist, poet and philosopher, he gained little fame or critical acclaim during his lifetime. Indeed, it was more than 20 years after his death, on the publication of Alexander Gilchrist's, "Life of William Blake", that his work finally began to be viewed in a different light and acknowledged for the fantastic collection that it is. Today much of Blake's writings and paintings remain in private collection, however they are often to be found on public display and are always stirring and thought provoking.
Blake's Artistic Beginnings
William's middle-class parents were English Dissenters; a group of Christians who rejected the teachings of the Church of England or indeed any organized religion. They raised their five children including William to read and debate the bible and all religious philosophies. Perhaps this early influence was the reason the young Blake was said to frequently have visions of a religious nature which would continue and inspire him his whole life. His parents, although concerned by his reports of seeing angels and sometimes even God himself, believed them to be an expression of his artistic nature and did their best to embrace his experiences. At the age of ten, William concluded his schooling and was instead sent to study drawing at the renowned Pars's Drawing School. William showed great promise but sadly, due to financial constraints, had to leave after only four years.
Now fourteen, Blake secured an apprenticeship with engraver James Basire. He became an accomplished engraver and used it both as a profession and as an artistic medium his whole life. After he had completed his training, William also studied for a short time at the Royal Academy, however it was short lived as he found the restrictive style too limiting and stated that it stifled his creativity. This concluded Blake’s limited formal artistic training, but it was clearly enough to set him on his path of creative genius. It is astonishing to imagine that a man who was only educated to the age of ten was to become one of the most prolific and profound romantic poets ever published.
Engraving and Relief Etching
Blake's journeyman, Basire, was a very traditional, some would say "old fashioned" engraver and he was chiefly commissioned to create line engravings of architecture for publications. During his apprenticeship, William was often sent to gothic churches such as Westminster Abby to make sketches of the sculptures there. It was during this time that Blake developed a deep appreciation of the Greek and Roman classical form which was to inform his style throughout his life. Engraving was an inordinately popular form of expression for artists in the 18 th century due to the fact that they were used in commercial printing and therefore allowed them to reach a great many people with their work. It was used in pamphlets, illustrations and books but it was a hugely labour-intensive process and could take months if not years to produce and perfect. Blake left a great many accomplished plates, including, Europe Supported by Africa and America (1792) which was created for John Gabriel Stedman's book, The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolved Negroes of Surinam (1796) and of course the beautiful plates for his own, Illustrations of the Book of Job, widely considered to be amongst his most impeccable work.
Although William completed much of his commercial work in line engraving, for his own projects he sought out new techniques. He used his skills as an engraver to expand on the traditions of "stereotype" (a 16th century process whereby a metal cast is made of a wooded engraving) and created a new procedure. Instead of carving the metal away from the plate with acid like in conventional engraving, he treated the metal with an acid resistant substance thus allowing all the design to be left behind. This was subsequently called relief etching. It meant that Blake could not only fashion illustrations, but also add text, thus creating a new form of illuminated manuscripts. Most of William's most famous works were developed using this method, including, Songs of Innocence and Experience, and the mighty Jerusalem.
Perhaps understandably for an engraver, Blake's paintings were primarily watercolour and ink drawings. He was indeed the archetypal romantic painter, always depicting his subjects in heightened colours and scenes. He was a master of allegory and often raised eyebrows and even ire by his choice of expression. Although the majority of his early work was inspired by religious or classical figures, much of his later art was fuel by his inner landscape and informed by his religious visions. In fact, he created a whole kingdom of characters which often appeared in his work from his own imaginings. Many of his contemporaries considered him quite mad as he readily spoke about his visions and fantasies with people and it was common knowledge among the artistic community of the day. A particularly evocative example of Blake's inner world made art, is The Ghost of a Flea (1820) which is today, found in the Tate Gallery in London. This tiny, intricate painting is a rather gothic window into the mind of a genius. William introduces us to a chimeric character who represents the reincarnated soul of a debaucher now consigned to drink blood as penance for his excesses. This notion was said to have come to Blake during one of his many seances as did several other inspirations. A prolific artist, he produced work until the very day of his death in 1827. He left a collection of over 250 paintings, many of biblical characters in classical and romantic attitude.
Although much of Blake's artwork was indeed allegorical, it was through his poetry that his true views were expressed. He was a great witness to the human condition, openly speaking out whenever he saw injustice. Profoundly influenced by his parents' Christian yet liberal views, he often wrote about the hypocritical actions of so-called Christian society and its treatment of the poor or disenfranchised.
In his lifetime his poetry was not widely read, but some of his more gifted contemporaries considered his work truly inspired. Indeed, Samuel Taylor Coleridge is quoted as stating that he was, "a man of genius" after reading his profound collection, Songs of Innocence and Experience. Today, Blake’s poetry is so widely known it is almost part of the British psyche. Classics such as The Tyger and Jerusalem can be quote by most and yet little consideration given to the author. In literary circles, Blake is commonly and widely regarded as the most moving and profound of all the romantic poets, although he predates the group of young poets typically referenced by the term.
Blake was born to and lived through a time of cultural and actual revolution. His understanding of the world had been moulded from an early age by parents who could not take religious dogma at face value. He had learned, from a very young age, to love God and to have a health contempt for organised religion. He was a natural advocate of the underdogs of society, be they women in authoritarian marriages (Free Love Movement), people sold or born into slavery (abolitionism) and of course on a mystical level even Satan himself ("No Natural Religion") who Blake considered perhaps just a misunderstood "freedom fighter". William relished any opportunity to express his distaste for injustice. His poetry is almost entirely a call to arms against the Church and State and their shabby treatment of the common man. His body of work has therefore been a jumping off point for many modern-day platforms, from feminism and equality to child advocacy and the peace movement to name just a few.
Artistically, Blake is considered a romantic artist, but he is more accurately described as pre-romantic as he predates many of the big names of the romantic movement. However, William was undoubtable more of a revolutionary than a romantic. Unlike his fellow, romantic artists and poets who would pay homage God's glory, Blake would question and examine every aspect of creation to find, what he considered, truth. Undoubtably, therefore, William's first and foremost inspiration was the bible and religious teachings. His parents were very Christian if not religious people and he was taught from a very young age to question every aspect of religious life. His works often depicted religious themes set in a thought-provoking way, encouraging the viewer or reader to test the status quo and move beyond convention.
Early artistic inspiration came from exposure to the greats of the renaissance such as Michelangelo and Raphael courtesy of his father who bought the young William copies of drawings of classical antiquities for him to practice his drawing skills with. Blake was enthralled and it was through this that he discovered his passion and skill for art. At this time, he also discovered the writings of Edmund Spencer and Ben Jonson, who not only inspired William's writing style, but that of generations of poets and playwrights the world over.
Another profound influence on Blake’s work was the zeitgeist of Revolution which was inescapable at the turn of the 18th century. Both France and America were in the process of throwing off the yoke of monarchy and suppression and the social injustice affected William on a very deep level. Indeed, his work, both artistic and literary is full of allegory condemning tyranny and injustice. Finally, a list of Blake's influences would not be complete without referencing his profound and prolific visions. A great many of Williams paintings and poems can be directly attributed to the fact that his "guides and angels" had directed his views and thinking. Sadly, the thing that ignited such creativity in him was the very thing that caused him to be rejected by critics and contemporaries. Indeed many people dismissed Blake as insane when they heard reports of his regular visitations from fairies, angels and occasionally even God himself.
Blake's Enduring Legacy
Today William Blake is considered one of the most visionary minds Britain has ever produced. His influence is as far-reaching as his abilities. Certainly, the most profound forerunner to the romantic and pre-Raphaelite movements inspiring the likes of the great Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Blake also encouraged a raft of great writers from Walt Whitman to William Butler Yeats. He is additionally considered one of the main inspirations for the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 18th century which saw a great resurgence in artisanal work and was the artistic antidote to the industrial revolution. However, William’s legacy did not stop there and continues on into the 20 th century and beyond where we find his fine hand in all manner of popular culture; from the writings of Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan to Phillip Pullman and the illustrations for Tolkien's, The Lord of the Rings to modern graphic novels. Blake's genius resonates through time like no other artist before or since. His brilliant, creative mind is as vibrant, relevant and inspiring today as it was two hundred years ago. His work continually sparks new innovation in artistic fields and no doubt will for ages to come.