Biography of William Blake, 1757-1827

Biographical Sketch by Wendi Capehart and Leslie Laurio

William Blake was born in the Soho part of London on the 28th of November, 1757. His father, James Blake, kept a hosier's shop where he sold stockings. The family were not very well to do. Young William, a born individualist, was already marching to the beat of his own drum, although it meant he was often alone.

Even as a child, William Blake was clearly talented at design, and his father tried to do what he could to help his son realize his full potential. At the age of ten the boy was sent to a drawing school in the Strand (a part of London known as a place of entertainment, but which was also the home of many publishers and print shops). Meanwhile, William was cultivating his own artistic taste by constantly attending the different art sale rooms. He was strongly opinionated about what he liked, and was called "the little connoisseur." He began to collect printed copies of pictures by Michelangelo, Raphael, Dürer, and Heemskerk.

As a young man he was apprenticed to James Basire, a respected engraver, and he worked there for seven years. His apprenticeship had a great influence on his artistic education, and made him a skilled engraver. Almost all of his artistic output was in the form of engravings. At the end of his apprenticeship, he attended the school of the Royal Academy, where he continued his early study of antique art. Here, for the first time, he had the opportunity to draw from live models.

Not much is known of Blake's artistic education. We do not know if he ever systematically studied painting. He began using water colors on his own, and probably taught himself.

While he was still an apprentice, he married Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a market gardener who was his landlord and friend. He taught her to read and write, and trained her to engrave. She helped him to hand-color his illustrations throughout his life. They remained happily married until his death.

Blake had already become acquainted with some of the rising artists of his time, and now he began to meet literary people. At the Rev. Henry Mathew's home in Rathbone Place, he used to recite and sometimes sing poems he had written, and it was through the influence of Rev. Mathews that his first volume of poetry, called Poetical Sketches, was published in 1783.

William Blake had been educated as an engraver, but this book introduced him to the world as an artist who was also a gifted poet. He continued to publish his unique poems with his own original designs for the rest of his life.

In 1787, the Songs of Innocence were published. This book is remarkable for the beauty of both its verse and design, as well as the way the two were combined and expressed by the artist. Blake became his own printer and publisher. He engraved on copper, using a process he devised himself, and included engravings of both the text of his poems and the surrounding decorative design on the same plate. After the pages were printed from the copper plates, he colored them in by hand. Blake produced a work of fresh and living beauty in a way that had never been done before.

In spite of the distinct and beautiful quality of this book, it attracted very little attention. Perhaps that's not so surprising, considering the painstaking way in which it was created. But William Blake, never one to adapt himself to please the public, continued to produce other books of the same kind.

Blake was a stubborn individualist and visionary whose writings can't be judged by ordinary rules. The Songs of Experience, published in 1794 as a companion to the earlier Songs of Innocence, are mostly intelligible and coherent, but in these intervening works of "prophecy," as he called them, we see the first public glimpse of the part of his character and of his genius that made others wonder if he was completely sane. The question of whether Blake was or was not completely sane is still debated, but there is no doubt that he was sometimes under the influence of illusions that can't be explained. Much of his writing seems so unintelligible that there's no logical coherence. He clearly saw visions.

By 1796 Blake was actively employed as an illustrator. Richard Edwards, a bookseller in London, wanted to publish a new edition of Edward Young's Night Thoughts, and Blake was chosen to illustrate the work. The plan was to publish the work in nine parts, but only the first part, which including forty-three designs by Blake, was ever printed. These designs were engraved by Blake himself. Not only are they beautiful works of art in themselves, but Blake used his own peculiar system to associate each illustration with the text. Even today, the book is better known because of Blake's illustrations than for Young's poems.

Soon after the publication of this book, Blake was introduced to the poet William Hayley, and at Hayley's suggestion, he moved to Sussex. Hayley was planning to write a biography of William Cowper, and wanted Blake to illustrate it and keep him company. Blake lived in Sussex for three years. This was partly pleasant and partly inconvenient to Blake, and it apparently didn't help the progress of his art. One of the inconveniences was when he was tried for treason because of a rumor started by a soldier after Blake made him leave his garden. But even more inconvenient was his increasing irritation with William Hayley.

In 1804 Blake returned to London and began work on his most ambitious project--a book called Jerusalem which contained his own mythology mixed with his prophetic visions. He also worked on illustrations for The Book of Job.

He was working on prints to illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy when he died in 1827. When he saw his wife, Catherine, weeping at his bedside, he said to her, "Stay Kate! Keep just as you are--I will draw your portrait--for you have ever been an angel to me."

After William Blake died, his faithful wife continued to sell his artwork. She died four years later.

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