‘Poet Artist Prophet’ says the stone laid by the Blake Society on William Blake’s grave in Bunhill Fields, London. Unusually, Blake was equally a writer and a visual artist. In their original form his most celebrated poems are extraordinary combinations of poetry and design, printed, hand-coloured and published in extremely limited runs by Blake and his wife, Catherine.
Born in 1757, in the midst of the ‘Age of Reason’, and as the Industrial Revolution was gathering steam, Blake worked all his life as a jobbing engraver, illustrating and engraving other artists’ illustrations for prints and books. He was profoundly religious and politically radical, and his poetry and artworks marry spiritual and social concerns, viewing the eternal via the contemporary events of Georgian London, and vice versa.
In his earlier poetry, in particular Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake is capable of communicating profound and challenging moral truths through apparently simple verse. His later poetry is an attempt to create his own mythology from the ground up, and consequently demands a little more of its readers (and more than Blake’s contemporaries were able or prepared to give). As Blake’s character Los, the Eternal Prophet says in Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, “I must Create a System, or be enslave’d by another Mans / I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create”.
Blake’s mature poetry imagines fallen humanity as Albion, a sleeping giant divided into warring psychic components, the Four Zoas, and as such predicts modern psychological models of the fractured or unbalanced psyche. But his vision is ultimately a hopeful one, a cosmic narrative which culminates in humanity’s return to unfallen, eternal existence, and which stresses the centrality of Human Imagination as, literally, Divine.
1757 – 1827
He was apprenticed to engraver, James Basire and lived at his premises in Great Queen Street for the next seven years. Blake was often sent to Westminster Abbey to sketch the royal tombs and monuments, an early influence on his taste for the Gothic.
Blake set up as an independent engraver and enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy. Blake’s experience there set him on a path of opposition to the mainstream art establishment, epitomised by the RA’s founding president, Joshua Reynolds.
After the death of his father Blake bought a printing press and set up a print shop with James Parker (another former apprentice of Basire) at 27 Broad Street, next to the family home. Blake wrote An Island in the Moon, an unpublished conversational farce that gently ridicules the pretensions of his social crowd.
After dissolving the partnership with Parker, William and Catherine moved to Poland Street.
The first fruits of this ‘Illuminated Printing’ technique were All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion.
At around this point Blake began work on Vala, or The Four Zoas. It remains an unpublished manuscript covered in scrawls, deletions and sketches, but it became the creative crucible for his later epics, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion.
Blake began a series of paintings for civil servant Thomas Butts. Butts would go on to be one of Blake’s most important patrons, for whom he would produce many paintings on biblical themes as well as Paradise Lost and other poems by Milton.
After ejecting a soldier, John Scolfield, from the garden of his cottage, Blake was charged with sedition. He was acquitted the following year but, while anxiously awaiting trial, William and Catherine moved back to London, settling in South Molton Street.
Blake was commissioned to illustrate Robert Blair’s ‘Graveyard poem’ The Grave but during production he was replaced as engraver. The experience was deeply unhappy for Blake but nevertheless his illustrations for The Grave (engraved by Schiavonetti) were the work for which he was best known in his lifetime.
Blake made a last attempt to win over the contemporary art world with a one-man show at 28 Broad Street (now his brother’s house and shop). Unfortunately, few attended and the only review savaged Blake’s paintings as “the wild effusions of a distempered brain”.
Blake died at Fountain Court on 12 August. According to George Cumberland “Just before he died His Countenance became fair – His eyes brighten’d and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven”. He was buried in the dissenters’ graveyard at Bunhill Fields. Catherine lived another four years but apparently Blake would visit her on a daily basis.