William Blake once considered mad for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is highly regarded today for his expressiveness and creativity, as well as the philosophical and mystical undercurrents that reside within his work. His work has been characterized as part of the Romantic movement, or even "Pre-Romantic", for its largely having appeared in the 18th century.
Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the established Church, Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions, as well as by such thinkers as Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg.
Despite these known influences, the originality and singularity of Blake's work make it difficult to classify. One 19th century scholar characterised Blake as a "glorious luminary," "a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors."
William Blake was born in 28A Broad Street, Golden Square, London, England on 28 November 1757, to a middle-class family. He was the third of 7 children, two of whom died in infancy. Blake's father, James, was a hosier. He never attended school, being educated at home by his mother. The Blakes were Dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life.
Blake began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was then preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms, through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Durer. His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but was instead enrolled in drawing classes. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake was also making explorations into poetry, his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.
In 1782, Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron, and Catherine Boucher, who was to become his wife. At the time, Blake was recovering from a relationship that had culminated in a refusal of his marriage proposal. Telling Catherine and her parents the story, she expressed her sympathy, whereupon Blake asked her, "Do you pity me?" To Catherine's affirmative response he responded, "Then I love you." Blake married Catherine - who was five years his junior - on 18 August 1782 in St. Mary's Church, Battersea. Illiterate, Catherine signed her wedding contract with an 'X'. Later, in addition to teaching Catherine to read and write, Blake trained her as an engraver, throughout his life she would prove an invaluable aid to him, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes.
At this time George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake's work. Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published circa 1783. After his father's death, William and his brother Robert opened a print shop in 1784, and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. Johnson's house was a place of meeting for some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time in England: Joseph Priestley, scientist, Richard Price, philosopher, John Henry Fuseli, Mary Wollstonecraft, an early feminist, and Thomas Paine, American revolutionary. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the American and French revolution and wore a Phrygian cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in the French revolution.
Blake illustrated Original Stories from Real Life (1788, 1791) by Mary Wollstonecraft. They seem to have shared some views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage, but there is no evidence proving without doubt that they actually met. In 1793's Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment.
In 1788, at the age of 31, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, a method he would use to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and of course his poems, including his longer 'prophecies' and his masterpiece the "Bible." The process is also referred to as illuminated printing, and final products as illuminated books or prints. Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid in order to dissolve away the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief (hence the name).
This is a reversal of the normal method of etching, where the lines of the design are exposed to the acid, and the plate printed by the intaglio method. Relief etching, which Blake invented, later became an important commercial printing method. The pages printed from these plates then had to be hand-coloured in water colours and stitched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem.
Blake's marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death. There were early problems such as Catherine's illiteracy and the couple's failure to produce children. Gilchrist refers to "stormy times" in the early years of the marriage. Some biographers have suggested that Blake tried to bring a concubine into the marriage bed in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, but other scholars have dismissed these theories as conjecture. Blake taught Catherine to write, and she helped him to colour his printed poems.
The commission for Dante's Inferno came to Blake in 1826 through Linnell, with the ultimate aim of producing a series of engravings. Blake's death in 1827 would cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of the watercolours were completed, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Even so, they have evoked praise:
Dante watercolours are among Blake's richest achievements, engaging fully with the problem of illustrating a poem of this complexity. The mastery of watercolour has reached an even higher level than before, and is used to extraordinary effect in differentiating the atmosphere of the three states of being in the poem'.
Blake's illustrations of the poem are not merely accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise, or furnish commentary on, certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text. In illustrating Paradise Lost, for instance, Blake seemed intent on revising Milton's focus on Satan as the central figure of the epic, for example, in Satan Watching the Endearments of Adam and Eve (1808), Satan occupies an isolated position at the picture's top, with Adam and Eve centered below. As if to emphasise the effects of the juxtaposition, Blake has shown Adam and Eve caught in an embrace, whereas Satan may only onanistically caress the serpent, whose identity he is close to assuming.
In this instance, because the project was never completed, Blake's intent may itself be obscured. Some indicators, however, bolster the impression that Blake's illustrations in their totality would themselves take issue with the text they accompany: In the margin of Homer Bearing the Sword and His Companions, Blake notes, "Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost." Blake seems to dissent from Dante's admiration of the poetic works of the ancient Greeks, and from the apparent glee with which Dante allots punishments in Hell (as evidenced by the grim humour of the cantos).
At the same time, Blake shared Dante's distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power, and clearly relished the opportunity to represent the atmosphere and imagery of Dante's work pictorially. Even as he seemed to near death, Blake's central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante's Inferno, he is said to have spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching.
On the day of his death, Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried, "Stay Kate! Keep just as you are - I will draw your portrait - for you have ever been an angel to me." Having completed this portrait (now lost), Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses. At six that evening, after promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died. Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the same house, present at his expiration, said, "I have been at the death, not of a man, but of a blessed angel."
Since 1965, the exact location of William Blake's grave had been lost and forgotten, while gravestones were taken away to create a new lawn. Nowadays, William Blake's grave is commemorated by a stone that reads 'near by lie the remains of William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophia'. This memorial stone is situated approximately 20 metres away from William Blake's grave. The actual spot of Blake's grave is not marked. However, members the group Friends of William Blake have rediscovered the location of Blake's grave and intend to place a permanent memorial at the site.
George Richmond gives the following account of Blake's death in a letter to Samuel Palmer:
"He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ - Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten'd and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven."
Catherine paid for Blake's funeral with money lent to her by Linnell. He was buried five days after his death - on the eve of his forty-fifth wedding anniversary - at the Dissenter's burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where his parents were also interred. Present at the ceremonies were Catherine, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, Frederick Tatham and John Linnell. Following Blake's death, Catherine moved into Tatham's house as a housekeeper. During this period, she believed she was regularly visited by Blake's spirit. She continued selling his illuminated works and paintings, but would entertain no business transaction without first "consulting Mr. Blake". On the day of her own death, in October 1831, she was as calm and cheerful as her husband, and called out to him "as if he were only in the next room, to say she was coming to him, and it would not be long now".
On her death, Blake's manuscripts were inherited by Frederick Tatham, who burned several of those which he deemed heretical or too politically radical. Frederick Tatham had become an Irvingite, one of the many fundamentalist movements of the 19th century, and was severely opposed to any work that smacked of blasphemy. Sexual imagery in a number of Blake's drawings was also erased by John Linnell. Blake is now recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica. The Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour in Australia in 1949. In 1957 a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey, in memory of him and his wife.