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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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One of the truly remarkable aspects of Blake's body of work is the extraordinary number of sketches left to us which in turn help us understand the mind of this genius and the process involved to create his paintings and illuminated manuscripts.


William Blake remains one of the most influential British artists of the 17th century, some would say ever. Famed for his exquisite artwork and his thought-provoking poetry, Blake was born in London's Soho in 1757. He knew next to no critical or financial success in his lifetime, but he has left an indelible mark on the history of art and the art and literature worlds in general. A great number of his considerable output of sketches is currently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Early Studies and Influences

From a very young age, perhaps eight or nine, William’s creative mind distracted him. It distracted him from his studies, from life and from himself. He often told his parents about his elaborate visions and in an effort to channel this energy into something productive, they sent him to Henry Par's drawing academy. The foundation in drawing that young William received there set him in good stead. In addition, his father was in the habit of gifting him copies of classical Greek and Roman antiquities which he copied eagerly for practice.

When Blake began his apprenticeship as an engraver with James Basire, a very important part of his training was the ability to sketch and draw out designs ahead of creating the engraving plates so understandably accuracy and detail were of the utmost importance. Due to the fact that Basire's work came almost entirely from the world of antiquities, Blake was often sent to the many gothic churches around London to create and bring back faithful drawings of the various statues and crypts found there. Although no sketches of that time remain, it is supposed that during his seven year training, William became an extremely proficient sketcher because in 1879, after he achieved his qualification, he entered the Royal Academy of Art in Somerset House to better equip himself to become an artist.

While studying at the Academy, Blake had the opportunity to avail himself of the many life drawing classes offered there. There are, today, many of his early drawings and sketches within the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Briton. Although William was a keen student, he was also very outspoken and could not remain silent to what he considered the hypocrisy of the then president Sir Joshua Reynolds. Blake felt stifled by the apparent structure and felt he was not allowed to grow in his own direction. He left the Academy after only a short time, and he continued to be vocal about his distain for Reynolds and his "kind" his for the rest of the elder's life.

The Visionary Heads Sketch Book

It is well document that the visions that young William experienced as a child continued all his life and that he used said visions as inspiration for much of his illustrations and poetry. Nonetheless, it was always assumed that his illustrations were extrapolated from his mindscape. However, in 1818, introduced by a mutual friend, Blake began to work with John Varley, renowned astrologer of the time. Varley was fascinated by the accounts of Blake's visions which ran to Archangels, historical figures, departed loved-ones and on occasion even God himself. Varley engaged William to provide him with illustrations for his book, Treatise on Zodiacal Physiognomy (1828). However, the meetings between the two, which continued daily for almost a year, became an exercise in automatic drawing.

Blake would, prompted by Varley, endeavour to conjure up visions of famous of biblical characters and then try to draw who and what he saw. The result of these meeting were three journals and countless loose drawings of a myriad of faces, from Solomon to Julius Caesar and from Merlin to the ghost of a flea (which incidentally was a later, now famous, painting). The sketches range from macabre to fascinating. Both Blake and Varley made detailed accounts of their meetings which survived and for many, many years scholars searched for the journals of which they spoke. Finally, in 1967 the first was discovered. Known as the small sketchbook it was broken up in 1969 and is, today, largely in the collection of British art historian, Martin Butlin. The second, discovered in 1989, is known as the large sketchbook. It remains intact and is in the private collection of Mr Allan Parker. Both books contain similar pictures and some of the drawings are actually by Varley himself who made copies of Blakes pictures, although it is easy to tell the two artists apart. There are several loose sketches in the collections of various museums, but unfortunately the final of the three sketchbooks, referred to as "The Folio" remains lost to the artworld, although scholars are certain that it did exist.

Other Important Works

One of Blake's last commissions was from his good friend, John Linnell. Linnell asked William to create illustrations to accompany a publication of Dante's Divine Comedy. All of the images for the Divine Comedy are fascinating, even the less complete or partial works give an insight into the mind of a genius. Perhaps most enthralling of all, are the collection of sketches found in The Notebook of William Blake. This book came into Blake’s possession on the untimely death of his beloved brother, Robert, in 1787. Due to the fact that the pages had belonged to his brother, Blake treasured it his whole life, and although there are a few of Roberts on sketches and musings in the book, it is full of ideas and drawings from William’s mind. It is tremendously valuable as a record of the artist’s process and it does, in fact, contain the beginnings of some of his most famous illustrations in sketch form. William is best known for his wonderful illustrations which accompany his books of poems and in this little notebook he has started creating some images for his, Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794).

Finally, there are of course a whole collection of Blake's sketches which are undoubtably worth seeing if only for the fact that it gives context to the great man's working process. There is an extensive collection at both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Tate Britain, both in London and occasionally there are collections exhibited together which would be well worth a visit for any Blakean.

The Legacy of Blake's Drawings

To understand Blake’s legacy through his sketches and drawings is to take a walk through history and follow the great artists of the pre-Raphaelite movement (such as John William Waterhouse, William Morris and William Holman Hunt), surrealists like Picasso and Magritte, and all the way to today’s great graphic artists like Alan Moore and Bill Watterson. William Blake's fine hand can be seen in all of these artists work and more besides. There is such a free and enabling quality to Blake's work that it almost has the power to transcend time and style. Hence it is agelessly inspiring generation after generation to express everything that they are. The only limitation is the range of your imagination.