William Blake ( 1757 – 1827 ), poet, prophet, painter, and engraver. Although he was either ignored or scorned as a madman for much of his life, Blake’s poetry and painting were inspired by the notion of a prophetic tradition of liberty which looked to the models provided by Milton and the Bible but more fundamentally drew deeply on a popular tradition of Dissent.
Blake’s family evidently provided him with a background of religious nonconformity, although its specific nature is unclear. His father was a hosier who provided Blake with no formal schooling, but apprenticed him to the antiquarian engraver James Basire in 1772 [see prints, 22 ]. Basire’s shop practices influenced the bold linear style of most of Blake’s graphic work. On completion of his apprenticeship Blake studied at the Royal Academy , where he was evidently at odds with the orthodoxy established by Sir Joshua Reynolds and his followers. Subsequently Blake struggled constantly for independence. He earnt his living as an engraver from 1779 , which established his social position for most of his contemporaries in the class of urban artisans. In the 1780s he briefly entered a partnership running a print-shop, but the enterprise was a commercial failure.
He enjoyed initial success, often working closely with the artist Thomas Stothard . By 1790 he was doing most of his work for the publisher Joseph Johnson . Over the next decade he engraved a dozen book illustrations after Henry Fuseli (who may have introduced Blake to Johnson), and was probably known to other members of the Johnson circle including Thomas Paine and Mary Woll-stonecraft . Certainly most of Blake’s own work reflects a commitment to radical politics and an enthusiasm for the French Revolution . A copy of a poem called The French Revolution is extant in proof form (it appears never to have been published) which names Johnson as publisher, though Blake’s millenarianism has more in common with the metropolitan culture of popular religion than the rationalism of most of Johnson’s authors. Blake’s prophetic inclinations had attracted him to Swedenborgianism in the 1780s, but his interest seems to have waned by the early 1790s as the movement developed into a church in its own right.
The need to earn a living as an engraver dictated the amount of time Blake could spend on his own imaginative work, but he continually sought recognition as an artist in his own right. In the early 1780s he had been introduced to the circle of Revd A. S. Mathew ( 1733 – 1824 ) and his wife, Harriet , by John Flaxman . Flaxman and the Mathews helped with the publication of Blake’s first volume of verse, Poetical Sketches, in 1783 . Thereafter Blake’s poetry appeared in the form of the illuminated books, such as Songs of Innocence and of Experience ( 1794 ), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell ( 1790 ), America ( 1793 ), Europe ( 1794 ), and The Book of Urizen ( 1794 ), which he printed himself. Copies were issued in small editions (probably of no more than ten). Conceived when Blake’s prospects as an engraver seemed relatively positive, the project may have been designed as a supplement to his income which would also secure a public reputation. Production of the books was less innovative than is sometimes claimed, being more a variation on conventional graphic techniques. It involved drawing and writing backwards on copper, working directly on the metal plate so as to minimize the division between idea and execution (a notion essential to commercial reproductive engraving), then colouring the plates by hand afterwards. Blake’s wife, Catherine, seems to have been largely responsible for this last part of the process, but her labour was essential to everything he produced.
Blake seems to have stopped printing illuminated books in about 1795 and did not print a new book until 1811 . From 1795 to 1810 he worked primarily as a painter and illustrator. In 1795 – 6 he was commissioned to design and engrave illustrations to a deluxe edition of Edward Young ‘s Night Thoughts, but the project foundered after the publication of a single volume in 1797 . Thereafter he depended more and more on the commissions of loyal patrons like George Cumberland and Thomas Butts . He continued to write poetry, but Vala or The Four Zoas ( c. 1796 – 1803 ), Milton ( c. 1804 – 11 ), and Jerusalem ( c. 1804 – 20 ) were texts on which he worked intermittently for many years. Robert Southey claimed to have seen ‘a perfectly mad poem called Jerusalem’ in 1811 , but it was not first printed until 1820 . The Four Zoas was never actually printed and may have been intended for conventional letterpress publication in the manner of the edition of Night Thoughts.
Such were the financial difficulties faced by Blake and his wife that in 1800 they accepted the patronage of William Hayley and moved out of London to his estate in Sussex. Relations between Blake and Hayley deteriorated as the reality of the former’s subservient situation became clearer. To make matters worse, Blake was arrested in 1803 , accused of seditious words by a soldier he had thrown out of his garden. Acquitted with the support of Hayley, Blake returned to London. By the end of 1808 Blake was more involved in ‘Designing & Printing’ than producing illuminated books, but he was no more successful in finding a public for his painting or graphic art. The drawings he produced for a new edition of Robert Blair ‘s The Grave were largely responsible for what little public reputation Blake ever gained, but when the job of engraving the drawings was given to another engraver in 1806 Blake was bitterly disappointed by the loss of income. When the same publisher commissioned Stothard to paint Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, Blake felt that an idea of his own had been stolen. He decided to hold an exhibition centred on his version of the painting. The exhibition, which took place in his brother’s hosiery shop in 1809 , was a disastrous failure, bringing no sales and a review in The Examiner which described Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’. The disappointment was only compounded in 1812 when Blake took the Canterbury Pilgrims picture again, along with The Spiritual Form of Pitt ( 1809 ) and The Spiritual Form of Nelson ( 1809 ), to the annual show of the Associated Artists in Water-Colours which was another financial disaster [see watercolour painting ].
Milton was likely first printed in 1811 , but Blake probably only began printing illuminated books again in earnest around 1818 . His new friendship with John Linnell played a part in this decision. Linnell claimed that when he first met Blake the artist had ‘scarcely enough employment to live by’. The change of Blake’s circumstances from the early 1790s is evident in the dramatic increase in price he asked for the books. Whereas originally the illuminated books were conceived of as books of poems which would be sold from stock, now he reprinted them as more highly ornamented collections of coloured prints for commissions on which he was depending for a living. Apart from the splendid copies of works first published in the 1790s, Blake’s renewed interest in the illuminated book as a form led him to print Jerusalem for the first time in about 1820 .
Linnell’s friendship brought him work in other areas too. He commissioned a series of brilliant illustrations to the Book of Job in 1823 and secured a commission for woodcut illustrations for an edition of Virgil. It was also through Linnell that Blake came to know the group of young painters known as the Shoreham Ancients , who looked to him as a mentor but misunderstood the radicalism of his visionary art. Despite Linnell’s best endeavours, Blake died poor and in relative obscurity, finally unable to bridge the gap between artist and artisan in the eyes of the public. He was survived by Catherine , who proudly refused a royal pension. Only with the publication of Alexander Gilchrist ‘s biography in 1863 did an interest in Blake begin to grow beyond the antiquarian collectors and fellow-artists who were his patrons.