William Blake - Biography and Legacy
English Poet, Painter, and Printmaker
London, United Kingdom
Westminster, United Kingdom
Biography of William Blake
William Blake was born in Soho, London, into a respectable working-class family. His father James sold stockings and gloves for a living, while his mother, Catherine Hermitage, looked after the couple's seven children, two of whom died in infancy. William, a strong-willed boy and an evident prodigy from a young age, often absconded from school to wander through the streets of London, or spent his time copying drawings of Greek antiquities; moreover, inspired by the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, he also developed an early fascination with poetry. Though his childhood was peaceful and pleasant, William began experiencing visions at the age of eight, claiming to see angels on trees, or wings that looked like stars. Though troubled by his stories, Blake's parents supported his artistic ambitions, enrolling him when he was ten at the Henry Par drawing academy, then a well-regarded preparatory school for young artists.
The drawing academy turned out to be too expensive, and Blake was forced to quit after four years. It was intended that he would become apprentice to a master engraver but - so the story goes - when his father took him to meet his prospective employer William Ryland, the young Blake refused, declaring that "it looks as if he will live to be hanged!", a prophecy which, strangely enough, came true years later. In the end, William was apprenticed for five years to James Basire, an engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. Blake came to value his training with Basire, which had a great impact on his work: especially his various on-site drawings of Gothic monuments. In his spare time, the young engraver studied medieval and Renaissance art, especially Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer, who in Blake's view - as paraphrased by art historian Elizabeth E. Barker - had produced a "timeless, 'Gothic' art, infused with Christian spirituality and created with poetic genius".
When he was 21, Blake left his apprenticeship and enrolled at the Royal Academy. His time there was brief, however, reputedly because he questioned the aesthetic doctrines of the president Sir Joshua Reynolds, describing the Academy as a 'cramped imaginative environment'. Blake began earning a living as an commercial engraver for various publications, including popular books such as Don Quixote. At this time, in 1799, according to the poet and Blake scholar Kathleen Raine, Blake wrote to his friend George Cumberland - one of the founders of the National Gallery - "that his 'Genius or Angel' was guiding his inspiration to the fulfillment of the 'purpose for which alone I live, which is [...] to renew the lost Art of the Greeks'". Such a statement already makes clear not only Blake's admiration for Ancient Greek art, but also his sense of the interconnectedness of art and spirituality. Importantly, however, the spiritual guides who he claimed governed his artistic vision never steered him into the confines of organized religion: he never attended church.
In August 1782, at the age of 25, Blake met, courted and married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a local grocer. Partly because the couple had no children, Blake devoted much time to teaching Catherine how to read, write, and draw, while Catherine helped her husband with his designs. In 1783, Blake published his first volume of poetry, Poetical Sketches; though sales were poor, the Blakes' finances were stable due to William's increasing popularity as an engraver. With his father's inheritance, Blake opened a shop with his friend James Parker.
In 1788, he used his method of "illuminated printing" for the first time in There is No Natural Religion, a small pamphlet containing his illustrated poetic and religious credo. Around this time, Blake's brother Robert died, probably of tuberculosis, after a long and grueling illness. His death had a profound impact on Blake, who began believing that Robert's spirit lived within him, inspiring him through visions and apparitions.
In 1795, Blake began a series known as the Large Colour Prints, depicting subjects from the Bible, Milton, and Shakespeare. Though Blake was never an isolated figure - he socialized widely, and attached himself to various cultural circles in London, through friends such as Henry Fuseli and James Barry - Raine notes that he was not an "easy man socially", being "proud, argumentative and violently opposed to current fashion, in his art and his philosophic and religious ideas alike". Certainly, Blake was radical in his political and religious views, and had no interest in conforming to social type. A kind of Platonist, he believed that the scientific view of the universe propagated by the Enlightenment was the "enemy of life", though, as the journalist Peter Blake adds, he was also an "artist with public ambitions", not yet the solitary hermit of his later years.
The same year he began work on the Large Colour Prints, Blake was introduced to Thomas Butts, who would become his main patron for several years, commissioning a large number of works. Loyal and supportive, Butts left Blake to pursue his private visions and impulses, "promising", as Raine puts it, "only to buy from him whatever he should paint." During this time Blake wrote: "I think I foresee better things than I have ever seen. My work pleases my employer, and I have an order for fifty small pictures at one guinea each, which is something better than mere copying after another artist."
The poet William Haley also became Blake's patron for a while, hiring him to undertake a commission in 1800, but Blake quickly became disillusioned with his assigned task, and, based at Haley's country estate at Felpham, sank into a depression, finding it impossible to "sacrifice his integrity as an artist for profit". The relationship between the two poets ended in acrimony, Haley describing Blake as his "spiritual enemy", and from around this time on, Blake found it increasingly hard to make a living, with engraving work drying up despite his connections with the London art world, and his ongoing commissions from Butts. Unlike his friends Fuseli and Barry, who held positions at the Royal Academy, Blake was not a member of the art 'establishment', and was never given the opportunity to undertake large-scale public works. In 1809, he lamented his lack of public commissions in England, writing in "The Invention of a Portable Fresco", a catalogue for his only public exhibition, that creating portable frescoes might be a good way to convince "visionless" patrons of the quality of his work.
Compounding his troubles, Blake's hallucinations and reveries increasingly led to him being perceived as insane: perhaps with some justification, as he is known to have publicly claimed that he revised Michelangelo's and Dürer's work on the artists' advice after communicating with them in visions. Coupled with his proud conduct and strongly-held beliefs - never humble about his craft, he once wrote to Butts that "The works I have done for you are equal to Carrache or Rafael" - Blake's mysticism drew him into ever more solitary patterns of existence. Nonetheless, he continued to generate a prodigious body of work, inspired by a deep faith in the power of imagination, and by his attentiveness to what he called "miracles". Blake once stated: "I know that this world is a world of imagination & vision. I see everything I paint in this world, but everybody does not see alike". Throughout his mature period, he often claimed to be encouraged in his work by Archangels, or to be in communication with historical and mythical figures such as the Virgin Mary.
For Kathleen Raine, "the bitterest irony in the story of Blake's failures and humiliations is that he was never unknown; on the contrary, he was in the heart of London's art world, and knew all the most famous artists and engravers of his day. And yet he failed where they succeeded, ousted by men of inferior talents and passed over by lifelong friends."
Blake lived in Soho, the neighborhood of his birth, for almost his entire life, very rarely travelling. But despite this lack of worldliness, he made himself a highly cultured man, acquiring a large collection of classical art prints, for example. After years of poverty, he was forced to sell his print collection, but in 1818 Blake's financial fortunes turned once again when he met John Linnell, the man who would become his second great patron. Linnell provided Blake with financial stability in the later years of his life through his commissions and purchases, and also introduced Blake to a group of artists known as The Ancients, or The Shoreham Ancients, who had been brought together by their collective admiration for Blake's work. Like Blake, this group spurned 'modern' approaches to art and aesthetics, and held a broadly Platonic view of the universe. Towards the end of his life, then, Blake suddenly found himself a revered 'teacher' and leader. Indeed, the most talented of the Ancients, Samuel Palmer, is generally considered an inheritor of Blake's vision and technique.
Around 1820, Blake moved into a house near the Strand, spending his days engraving in a small bedroom. In 1821, at the age of 65, he embarked on a commission from Linnell to illustrate The Book of Job. Writing of Blake around this time, Samuel Palmer described Blake as "moving apart, in a sphere above the attraction of worldly honors". "He did not accept genius", Palmer added, "but confer it. He ennobled poverty, and by his conversation and the influence of his genius, made two small rooms in Fountain Court more attractive than the threshold of princes." The diarist Henry Crabb Robinson, another friend from this period, wrote in a letter of 1826 that anyone who met Blake saw in him as "at once the Maker, the Inventor; one of the few in any age: a fitting companion of Dante". Robinson described Blake as embodying "energy" itself, shedding an atmosphere "full of the ideal" all around him, despite his age and relative penury.
William Blake died in August 1827, at the age of 70. At the time of his death he was working on a set of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy which are now considered amongst his best work. It is said that on the day of his death, as he worked frantically on these images, he proclaimed to his wife: "Stay! Keep as you are! You have ever been an angel to me: I will draw you!". A few hours later he passed away: the drawings are now lost.
Art critic Richard Holmes claims that when Blake died, "he was already a forgotten man", with sales for his engravings and painted poems scarcely reaching 20 copies over 30 years. Yet, for George Richmond, an artist associated with The Ancients, Blake "died like a saint...singing of the things he saw in heaven".
The Legacy of William Blake
William Blake is generally considered one of the great artistic polymaths, not just one of the finest poets in the English language, but also one of Britain's most revolutionary visual artists: the critic Jonathan Jones describes him as "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". Blake is also remembered for the intricate and unique philosophical and religious schemas which sustained his work: whereas Romantic contemporaries such as J.M.W. Turner and John Constable drew inspiration from the landscape, Blake turned inwards, to an imaginative world based on the Bible and other religious and literary texts, taking his viewers on what Elizabeth E. Barker calls "journeys of the mind." Kathleen Raine explains that to the artist himself, Blake's works represented "'portions of eternity' seen in imaginative vision". She compares him to Renaissance masters such as Michelangelo, Dürer, Dante, and Fra Angelico (Blake's favorite artist) in his ability to create all-enveloping imaginative realms seemingly ex nihilo, offering us "fragments of worlds whose bounds extend beyond any of those portions their work embodied".
It is all the more ironic, then, that Blake was disregarded by artistic and literary society during his lifetime. Since it was common knowledge that he claimed to work from visions, he was generally categorized as eccentric or insane; only when the art critic Alexander Gilchrist, born a year after Blake's death, took to the concerted study of his art and legacy - resulting in the publication of The Life of William Blake in 1863 - was the full scope and significance of Blake's visions realised. Gilchrist described Blake's hallucinations as encoding a "special faculty" of the imagination, his avowed connection to the spiritual world evidence not of madness but of a form of "mysticism". Gilchrist's writing created a new context for the study of Blake's practice, just as Pre-Raphaelite artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti were responding afresh to the clarion call of Blake's spiritual intensity.
More generally, Blake's visionary and mystical works exerted an enormous influence on the later development of Romanticism in art, and, subsequently, on Pre-Raphaelitism, Symbolism, and even modernism. Blake's influence on literature has also been profound: Walt Whitman, W. B. Yeats, and Allen Ginsberg are amongst the poets profoundly inspired by him, while Blakean visions also had an afterlife in the abstract and psychedelic pop lyrics of the sixties, especially in Bob Dylan's post-beat dream sequences. In the present day, Blake's legacy extends all over high and popular culture, including art, literature, music, and film. It is believed, for example, that the illustrations for Lord of Rings and other movies on mythological themes were inspired by his imagery.
Art critic Alexander Gilchrist claims that Blake made his work for "children and angels; himself 'a divine child,' whose playthings were sun, moon, and stars, the heavens and the earth". In proclaiming the values of creative freedom, imaginative play, religious tolerance, and all forms of love, Blake created work of an enduring and profoundly positive value.