William Blake was born on 28 November 1757 in what is now Broadwick Street, Soho, London. In 1767 or 1768, he started as a pupil at a drawing school in The Strand. In 1772, he started a seven-year apprenticeship with James Basire as an engraver. Basire was a traditional line engraver on copper, and Blake would have gained a sound and practical understanding of that craft. Among the tasks which he undertook was to make copies of the royal tombs in Westminster Abbey for the Society of Antiquaries, and he produced many drawings of them. From the completion of that apprenticeship, Blake undertook commercial engraving jobs when he was able, in order to supplement his income.
In the autumn of 1779, he entered the Royal Academy Schools, where he met the sculptor James Flaxman, who was to remain a friend, and became an important benefactor. The Royal Academy had only been founded in 1768, and its President was still Sir Joshua Reynolds, who viewed Blake’s drawings when a student. Blake’s aspiration, it would appear, was to be a history painter, although the best career prospects were in portraiture.
Lear and Cordelia in Prison (c 1779) is one of Blake’s earliest paintings in ink and watercolour, and shows a scene from Shakespeare’s play King Lear.
In 1780, he exhibited his first work, a watercolour, at the Royal Academy; he exhibited there again in 1784, 1785, 1799, 1800, and 1809. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher. In 1784, he opened a printshop in partnership with James Parker, which was dissolved within three years.
The Good Farmer, Probably the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (c 1780–5) is one of seven sketches which Blake made to illustrate this parable from the Gospel of Saint Matthew.
The Death of the Wife of the Biblical Prophet Ezekiel (c 1785) shows how sophisticated Blake’s work had become, when using pen and wash. Throughout his work as a prophet, Ezekiel had preached that people should not weep or mourn the death of their loved ones. Here he is faced with his own grief, on the death of his wife; whilst others are showing their grief, he must abide by his own teaching.
Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (c 1786) is a delightful watercolour of this last scene from Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and shows the fair and sinuous curves which Blake had acquired as an engraver. Oberon and Titania, the King and Queen of the fairies, are seen at the left, with Puck facing the viewer. In the words spoken by Titania to her fairy train:
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.
In 1787, his brother Robert, who had been involved in Blake’s projects, died, but Blake met Henry Fuseli, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy. The following year, Blake produced his first works using his process for illuminated printing, and the year after he published his first major independent works: Tiriel, Songs of Innocence, and The Book of Thel. This process was based on an acid etch which leaves the design standing in relief, so is sometimes known as relief etching.
For some time since he had been a student at the Royal Academy, Blake aspired to create a series of paintings showing scenes from British history. One which he worked up into a complete painting, albeit rather later, is The Penance of Jane Shore in St Paul’s Church (c 1793), again using watercolour and gouache.
King Edward IV of England had kept many mistresses, among them Elizabeth Shore, known as Jane Shore (c 1445-1527), who had also had affairs with the King’s close associates. Following the King’s death in 1483, Jane Shore was charged with conspiracy and promiscuity. As part of her penance for the latter, she had to stand at Paul’s Cross, by Saint Paul’s Cathedral, in London, and it is that penance which Blake shows here: she is seen holding a candle and wrapped in a sheet.
The painting has yellowed considerably, as a result of a glue varnish which Blake applied, which masks its subtle colours.
In 1793, he published For Children: The Gates of Paradise, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, and America: A Prophecy. In 1794, he published Europe: A Prophecy, The First Book of Urizen, and Songs of Experience.
Blake’s books of the 1790s were self-published using his illuminated printing process, and the manual application of watercolour paint to the resulting print. The result was a limited edition of often beautiful prints, such as Pity (c 1795).
Blake has again referred to a Shakespeare play, this time the tragedy Macbeth, and its lines in Act 1 Scene 7:
And pity, like a naked new-born babe,
Striding the blast, or heaven’s cherubim, horsed
Upon the sightless couriers of the air…
One of his most sophisticated and relatively conventional paintings, this is unusual for depicting Shakespeare’s figure of speech in literal terms, and demonstrating how effective that is in portraying an emotion.
Nebuchadnezzar (1795–c 1805) is typical of others of these prints, with its strange bestial figure. King Nebuchadnezzar became excessively proud, according to the account in the Old Testament, resulting in him going mad, and living like a wild animal. Blake shows him already partially changed into an animal, with claws instead of nails, and his hands intermediate between human hands and animal forefeet.
Newton (1795–c 1805) is another print, in which Blake makes clear his view of science, and the importance of the spiritual world. Newton, epitomising the pinnacle of rational and scientific thought, is absorbed in a geometric task with his compasses, but cannot see the rich natural and creative world of the rock on which he is seated.
In 1795, he published The Song of Los, The Book of Los, and The Book of Ahania. Between 1795 and 1797, he also designed and engraved illustrations for Night Thoughts, by Edward Young.
Blake’s experiments in self-publishing had not been commercially successful. Extraordinary and beautiful as his illuminated books are to us, neither his poetry nor its presentation in that form had achieved any recognition, nor brought in money to keep him and his wife from poverty. This changed in 1799, when he gained Thomas Butts as a patron, and started painting fifty glue tempera works illustrating the Bible for him.
Because of his choice of materials and media, many of these glue tempera paintings are now badly cracked and severely discoloured, making it hard to appreciate how they would have appeared then. The Christ Child Asleep on the Cross, or Our Lady Adoring the Infant Jesus Asleep on the Cross (1799-1800) has kept its colours rather better than most, and can perhaps give an impression of how they once looked.
This shows at best an apocryphal if not invented scene, in which the young Jesus anticipates his eventual fate, by sleeping on a wooden cross, surrounded by the carpenter’s tools, including compasses or dividers.
The Nativity (1799-1800), which was painted for Thomas Butts using glue tempera on a copper plate, is a unique interpretation of this very popular scene. On the left, Joseph supports the Virgin Mary, who appears to have fainted. Jesus has somehow sprung from her womb, and hovers – arms outstretched once again – in mid-air. On the right, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth greets the infant, with her own son, John the Baptist, on her lap.
In 1800, under the patronage of the poet William Hayley, Blake moved to Felpham, near Chichester, Sussex, returning to London in 1803.
The Death of the Virgin (1803) is one of another series of paintings made for Thomas Butts, this time using watercolour. His emphasis has now shifted to design, using partial symmetry and better-defined form. His colours have become higher in chroma, although this may also reflect the change in medium.
Although still not even comfortably off, Blake was at last kept more busy with financially-rewarding work: from about 1803-1810, he worked on illustrations for Milton, A Poem; from 1804-20, he worked on his last great poem, Jerusalem, the Emanation of the Giant Albion; from 1803-10 he painted more than a hundred watercolour illustrations for Thomas Butts; and from 1805-7 he made illustrations for Robert Blair’s The Grave.
Blake’s emphasis on design is also reflected in paintings such as The Entombment (c 1805), made in ink and watercolour.
In 1808-09 he illustrated Paradise Lost.
Sir Jeffery Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims on their Journey to Canterbury (1808) is one of his more ambitious later works in glue tempera, celebrating Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
In 1809 Blake held a private exhibition of his work at his brother’s house, which lasted longer than expected, although it did not transform his circumstances. In 1812, he showed four paintings at the exhibition of the Associated Painters in Water-Colour.
Blake’s most extraordinary and phantasmagoric works largely result from later in his career. His watercolour of Milton’s Mysterious Dream (c 1816-20) is a good example, combining the sweeping curves of the engraver with a cascade of figures, and symbols such as eyes.
In 1818, Blake met John Linnell, the painter, who then became his most important patron and supporter. Through Linnell he met John Varley, Samuel Palmer, and other artists. In 1823, John Linnell commissioned Blake to engrave his illustrations for the book of Job.
In 1824, he illustrated John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, then in 1825 until his death, Blake was busy working on illustrations of Dante for John Linnell.
Blake’s last great project to illustrate Dante gave him free reign to create some of his most visionary works, such as the ‘whirlwind of lovers’ in The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (c 1824). Painters have tended to give the adulterous couple of Francesca da Rimini and her husband’s brother a rather easier if not sympathetic treatment, in some cases perhaps recognising how close they had come to suffering the same fate. Blake’s less-than-condemnatory treatment results not from his own life (he appears to have remained in a monogamous marriage throughout), but curiously from a lifelong disbelief in marriage.
In his late paintings, even the most mundane of themes becomes an exploration of the boundaries of art and the imagination. The Punishment of the Thieves (1824–7), anticipates figurative painting of a century or more later, and the darker psychological recesses of sex and snakes. Dante refers to the thieves being bitten by snakes, but Blake uses the creatures in other ways.
One of his last glue tempera paintings, Count Ugolino and His Sons in Prison (c 1826) shows a complex episode from Dante’s Inferno Cantos 32 and 33, of a nobleman accused of treason. Thrown into prison for his alleged crime, Ugolino and his sons were starved to death, a scene also shown in a painting by Fuseli in 1806.
Blake died while still at work on his Dante paintings, on 12 August 1827. In 1965, following remodelling of the cemetery in which he was buried, even the location of his grave has been lost.
Blake, W (2000) William Blake: the Complete Illuminated Books, Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978 0 500 28245 8.
Blake, W, Erdman, DV & Bloom H (1988) The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake, Newly Revised edn, Anchor Books. ISBN 978 0 385 15213 6.
Butlin, M (1981) The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 02550 7.
Frye, Northrop (1947, 1969) Fearful Symmetry, a Study of William Blake, PrincetonUP. ISBN 978 0 6910 1291 9.
Vaughan, William (1999) William Blake, British Artists, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 84976 190 1.