The Underappreciated William Blake
circa 1800: English mystic, poet, painter and engraver, William Blake (1757 - 1827) and his wife Catherine (1762 - 1831). Original Publication: From a sketch by William Blake. Source: (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Williams Blake was a writer and artist of the 19th Century. While his work was largely disparaged in life and many of his contemporaries believed him to be insane, he is now considered among the most influential figures of the Romantic Period.
Blake was born in the Soho District of London on November 28, 1757. He was one of seven children born to James and Catherine Blake, though sadly two of his siblings died in infancy. Blake began experiencing visions at a young age. At four, he claimed to have seen God “put his head to the window.” At nine, he saw the prophet Ezekiel sitting under a tree filled with angels. These visions alienated him from other children and, as a result, he received the bulk of his early education at home.
Blake expressed an interest in art at the age of ten and his parents enrolled him in Henry Pars’s drawing school. He began writing poetry around age twelve. Due to the high cost of art school, he took a job as an apprentice to an engraver at the age of fourteen. One of his assignments involved sketching the tombs and monuments of Westminster Abbey. This Gothic influence would be evident in his later works. His apprenticeship lasted seven years after which time he briefly attended the School of Design at the Royal Academy of Arts.
Blake began working as a journeyman copy engraver in 1779, completing projects for book publishers. In August of 1782, he married Catherine Boucher. She was illiterate at the time, but Blake taught her to read and write, as well as how to color and draw, and it was with her help that he published his Poetical Sketches in 1783. Unlike Blake’s parents who had doubted his visions, Boucher believed in them and Blake helped her to experience them as well. The couple had no children, but they were married for forty-five years.
Blake also taught his younger brother Robert drawing, painting, and engraving, but Robert grew ill and died in 1787. In yet another vision, Blake watched Robert’s spirit ascend through the ceiling while “clapping its hands for joy.” He also claimed Robert’s spirit continued to visit him and even taught him the printing method, which he called “illuminated printing.” He used this method to publish many of his works, including Songs of Innocence, which he published in 1789 and later followed with Songs of Experience in 1794 – combing the two works under the title Songs of Innocence and of Experience: Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul. In both works, the text and drawings were printed from copper plates and Blake would finish the pictures with watercolors.
In 1800, poet William Hayley invited Blake to move to the seaside village of Felpham to work as his protege. Blake accepted and lived there for three years. During that time, he experienced legal difficulties after being falsely accused of assault and sedition by a trespassing soldier whom he’d forcefully removed from his property. After being acquitted in January of 1804, Blake returned to London.
Blake displayed his watercolors at the Royal Academy in 1808 and at his brother James’s house in 1809, but the response was devastatingly negative. At the same time, his poetry was unknown to most, though he was read by both Coleridge and Wordsworth, who considered him a genius and a madman, respectively. Blake was undeterred, however, and continued his artistic endeavors. He wrote and illustrated Jerusalem from 1804 to 1820. Between 1823 and 1825, he did engravings for an illustrated book of Job and Dante’s Inferno. In 1825, he was commissioned to illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy, but the task was left unfinished due to his death in 1827 of an undiagnosed disease. Also left incomplete were watercolor illustrations to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and an illustrated Book of Genesis.
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