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Sunday, 16 December 2012

William Blake

William Blake was born at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick St) in the Soho district of London on November 28, 1757. William's father, James Blake, was a non conformist who owned a clothing shop and was not rich. His mother was Catherine Wright Armitage Blake.

William was the third son of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Dearest to his heart was his younger brother, Robert, who died very young in 1787.

A visionary from early childhood, at the age of four the Almighty peered at William through a window and made him cry. Once he told his parents he had seen a tree full of angels and the prophet Ezekiel, which angered his father who thought his son a liar.

As a child he wanted to be a painter and by the age of 12, William was diligently collecting prints.

William barely went to school, (only enough to lean to read and write) and was otherwise educated at home by his mother.

William began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities at ten years old, a practice that was then preferred to real-life drawing. Four years later he became apprenticed to James Basire of Great Queen Street, London. After two years Basire sent him to draw the monuments in the old churches of London, a task that he thoroughly enjoyed.

In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in Westminster Abbey, during his apprenticeship to James Basire he was occasionally interrupted by the boys of Westminster School, one of whom "tormented" Blake so much one afternoon that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, "upon which he fell with terrific Violence".

At the age of twenty-one Blake finished his apprenticeship and studied briefly at the Royal Academy whilst setting himself up as a professional engraver. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials. Throughout his time there, Blake rebelled against the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, an advocate of what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens. Blake preferred to draw from his imagination.

Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions and openly wore the red revolutionary bonnet in the streets.

For some mystical reason Blake was not fond of soap - his wife contended that his skin not only did not attract dirt, but positively repelled it.

The first time Blake met pretty Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a Chelsea market gardener, the conviction that this was the man she must marry so overwhelmed her that she fainted. She was a visionary too. Blake, meanwhile was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. He recounted the story of his heartbreak for Catherine and her parents, after which he asked Catherine, "Do you pity me?" When she responded affirmatively, he declared, "Then I love you."

At the age of 25 William married the illiterate Catherine, who was five years his junior, on August 18, 1782 in St. Mary's Church, Battersea, London. After the wedding she signed the register with a cross as she couldn't write her name.

Pencil drawing by George Richmond of Catherine Blake

There were early problems, in their marriage such as Catherine's illiteracy and the couple's failure to produce children. At one point, in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, Blake suggested bringing in a concubine. Catherine was distressed at the idea, and he dropped it. Later Blake taught his wife to read and write.

Whilst William engraved words and pictures on copper printing plates, Catherine made the printing impressions, hand coloured the pictures and bound the books. She cooked for him and made his clothes never complaining. He was faithful to her despite writing about sexual energy and polygamy and their marriage remained a close and devoted one until his death.

If Catherine thought her William was spending too much time with his angels and not enough earning his daily bread at meal time she would place an empty plate at his end of the table.

Blake's collections of poetry included:
1789 Songs of Innocence, which eloquently explored issues of divine love. Unable to find a publisher for Songs of Innocence, Blake and his wife engraved and printed them at home.
1794 Songs of Experience, which considered the nature of evil.


William Blake by Thomas Phillips


Blake did all his publishing for his poetry in picture books, even making his own ink, hand-printing the pages and getting Mrs Blake to sew on the covers.

Blake's poetry in picture books featured his great innovative art form, which he called "Illuminated Printing". Blake wrote his texts in reverse and illustrated them on metal plates through a method of relief etching. The pages were then printed and colored before being bound. His precise method is not known. The most likely explanation is that he wrote the words and drew the pictures for each poem on a copper plate, using some liquid impervious to acid, which, when applied, left the text and illustration in relief. Ink or color wash was then applied, and the printed picture was finished by hand in water-colors.

Whenever he had the chance Blake would sing his poetry to friends and his wife. Instruments of the day included the church pump organ.

Blake's poetry in picture books did not sell well in his day and his Songs of Innocence earned him little. Neither were his unusual paintings popular. He was considered by many to have been insane and merely an interesting oddity. On the few occasions when critics did notice him, it was because they suspected he was mad. he was known as a lunatic.

Blake helped Thomas Paine escape to France when his Rights of Man was deemed too inflammatory in a revolutionary climate.



Blake lived at Felpham, West Sussex at what is now Blake House 1800-1803. It was a damp, thatched cottage which he rented for £20 a year. It is still a private residence.

Taken from his preface to his long poem, MiltonJerusalem was one of the most complicated works Blake ever wrote. A hymn of spiritual power and sexual liberty, Blake wrote Jerusalem whilst living in Felpham, despite the fact there are very few dark, satanic mills in that nick of the woods.

Blake's poem Jerusalem was set to music in 1916 by Charles Parry to beef up British morale during the bleakest days of the First World War. Despite the unorthodox theology of the words it is now one of the most popular hymns in the English language and many of the English population would like this to replace God Save The Queen as their national anthem.

During his time at Felpham, Blake was charged with high treason. He'd been overheard by a soldier in his garden uttering such seditious expressions as "D—n the King, d—n all his subjects" and he would "fight for Napoleon sooner than England." Blake maintained that ”the whole accusation is a wilful Perjury“. Found not guilty but a time of great fear for Blake, he felt his whole work was on trial.

The Non-conformist mystic wanted to escape from puritanical repressive Christianity and had contempt for organized religion. Blake believed that England had a special relationship with God, having accepted the myth that Christianity had been established at Glastonbury almost in Christ’s own lifetime, by his follower Joseph of Arimethea, and that as the Jews have failed him, God replaced them with the English as his “chosen people.”

At weekly dinners Blake met the leading radicals and freethinkers of his age, including Wollstonecraft, Richard Price, Joseph Priestley, William Godwin, Henry Fuseli, and Thomas Paine. He espoused savage anarchy and also peace and love and was an anti monarchist.

Though Blake's vast output of visionary art and poetry is revered now, in his own time they were regarded as convincing evidence of insanity. "There is no doubt this poor man was mad, but there is something, in the madness of this man which interest me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott," said Wordsworth said of the "cockney nutcase".

At the end of his life Blake enjoyed a little success, particularly with his Bible illustrations when Samuel Palmer and his coterie looked to him as a guru figure for their movement, "The Ancients". He sold a number of works to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend in need than an artist. Geoffrey Keynes, a biographer, described Butts as, "a dumb admirer of genius, which he could see but not quite understand." Dumb or not, we have him to thank for eliciting and preserving so many works.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Blake was recognized as the genius he was.

Blake died on August 12, 1827 in London. He was buried at Bunhill Fields in the East End where traditionally the Non Conformists were laid to rest.

Monument near Blake's unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields in London

Here's a list of songs inspired by the works of William Blake.

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