William Blake

Portrait of William Blake by T. Phillips, c. 1800
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

William Blake was born in London in 1757, one of six children of a hosiery merchant. He was an imaginative child, “different” from the beginning, so he was not sent to school, but educated at home. He talked of visionary experiences from a very early age: at 10, he saw a tree filled with angels when he was wandering the countryside just outside town. He later claimed to have read Milton as a child and he began writing “Poetical Sketches” at 13. He was also interested in painting and drawing in childhood, but his parents could not afford art school, so he was apprenticed to an engraver at the age of 14.

Blake’s Training as an Artist

The engraver to whom Blake was apprenticed was James Basire, who had made engravings of the work of Reynolds and Hogarth and was official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. He sent Blake to draw the tombs and monuments at Westminster Abbey, a task which brought him to his lifelong love of Gothic art. When his 7-year apprenticeship was complete, Blake entered the Royal Academy, but did not stay long, and continued to support himself making engraved book illustrations. His Academy teachers urged him to adopt a simpler, less extravagant style, but Blake was enamored of grand historical paintings and ancient ballads.

Blake’s Illuminated Printing

In 1782, William Blake married Catherine Boucher, an illiterate farmer’s daughter. He taught her reading and writing and draftsmanship, and she later assisted him in creating his illuminated books. He also taught drawing, painting and engraving to his beloved younger brother Robert. William was present when Robert died in 1787; he said that he saw his soul rise through the ceiling at death, that Robert’s spirit continued to visit him afterwards, and that one of these night visits inspired his illuminated book printing, combining poem text and engraved illustration on a single copper plate and hand-coloring the prints.

Blake’s Early Poems

The first collection of poems William Blake published was Poetical Sketches in 1783 — clearly the work of a young apprentice poet, with its odes to the four seasons, an imitation of Spenser, historical prologues and songs. His most loved collections were next, the paired Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), both published as handmade illuminated books. After the upheaval of the French Revolution his work became more political and allegorical, protesting and satirizing war and tyranny in books like America, a Prophecy (1793), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793) and Europe, a Prophecy (1794).

Blake as Outsider and Mythmaker

Blake was definitely outside the mainstream of art and poetry in his day, and his prophetic illustrated works did not garner much public recognition. He was usually able to make his living illustrating the works of others, but his fortunes declined as he devoted himself to his own ideas and art rather than to what was fashionable in 18th century London. He had a few patrons, whose commissions enabled him to study the classics and develop his personal mythology for his great visionary epics: The First Book of Urizen (1794), Milton (1804-08), Vala, or The Four Zoas (1797; rewritten after 1800), and Jerusalem (1804-20).

Blake’s Later Life

Blake lived the last years of his life in obscure poverty, relieved only a little by the admiration and patronage of a group of younger painters known as “The Ancients.” William Blake fell ill and died in 1827. His last drawing was a portrait of his wife Catherine, drawn on his deathbed.

Books by William Blake

  • Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience (facsimile edition with introduction by Richard Holmes, Tate Publishing, 2007)
  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (CD-ROM edition, pages embellished with pop-up commentary and annotations, narrated by Stuart Curran, Octavo, 2003)
  • William Blake: The Complete Illuminated Books (reproductions from the Blake Trust, with introduction by David Bindman, Thames & Hudson, W.W. Norton & Co., 2001)
  • The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake (ed. David Erdman, with commentary by Harold Bloom, revised edition, Anchor, 1997)
  • Blake’s Illustrations for the Book of Job (Dover Publications, 1995)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: A Facsimile in Full Color (Dover Publications reprint, 1994)