Portrait of William Blake (1807) by Thomas Philipps
William Blake (1757-1827) was an English artist, poet, philosopher, who created a unique form of illustrated verse and was one of the most remarkable figures of the Romantic period. His poetry, inspired by mystical vision, is among the most original, lyric, and prophetic in the language. One of the most singular and gifted of all British artists. His uniqueness lies in his importance as a figure in literature as in art.
The son of a hosier, Blake was born November 28th, 1757, in Soho, London, where he lived most of his life. Largely self-taught, he was widely read, and in his poetry shows the influence of the German mystic Jakob Boehme, of Swedenborgism. As a child he wanted to become a painter. He was sent to drawing school, at age 14 and then apprenticed to an engraver James Basire. From childhood he possessed visionary powers. The engravings of Joseph of Arimathea (characteristically based on a figure by Michelangelo), done at age 16, show him already using a personal symbolism. Thus he expressed already a mystical philosophy. Blake came to know Michelangelo and Durer through engravings. His apprenticeship (1772-1779) to the engraver James Basire (1730-1802) was followed by attendance at Royal Academy Schools (177901780). For James Basire he made drawings of monuments in Westminster Abbey and other London churches. This led him to study Gothic art and intensified his love of linear design and formal pattern. His relations with Reynolds in the Royal Academy Schools were painful and later he was to find more sympathetic sprits in Stothard, Flaxman, Fuseli and Barry. After the Roayal Academy Schools he set himself up as a reproductive engraver which became the source of his livelihood. Blake in the 1780’s worked as a commercial engraver and in 1787 he became engrossed in new methods of printing only. He illustrated poems, which he characteristically claimed were revealed to him in a vision, by his brother Robert, who had recently died.
Blake’s artistic reputation rests upon the visionary quality of his illuminated books and watercolours. Also upon his experimental printmaking which occupied him and his time left over from daily business. Blake’s method was a very unusual technique of printing. His method was finally achieved in 1788, and was the novel form of etching or relief etching and printing. Text and design were applied to a copper plate by stopping out the parts to be printed and etching away the rest of the surface. The first of Blake’s major works using his methods of illuminated printing in which handwritten text and illustration were engraved together to form a decorative unit was his Songs of Innocence (1789), see Figure 1. This was his first successful book and showed flowing rococo lines. He continued with this medium into old age and continually expanded its range of effect – usually adding colour by hand sometimes by colour printing.
Figure 1. Front plate of Songs of Innocence (1789).
William Blake married Catherine Boutcher who was an illiterate he taught to read and write. Eventually they moved to and settled in Lambeth where he engraved his principal work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1789-90), see Figure 2. Blake’s originality springs from his religious attitudes and his conception of the artist as prophet in Old
Figure 2. Front plate of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1789-90).
Testament tradition. prophets granted the divine insight to see the vanity of the world in its eternal perspective. Having the obligation to show mankind the way to redemption. Blake insisted at all times on the primary of spiritual vision over the material observation. On seeking a form of discourse which might appeal to and yet transcend all the senses. Such ideas lay behind Blake’s search for a method integrating text and design by a printing process. Blake thus aimed to reach a wider public for his prophecies. However, his arcane language, mysterious and apocalyptic imagery, did not have wide appeal.
The few copies of his illuminated books were usually bought by his fiends such as Flaxman. Flaxman and Fuseli gave him encouragement. Later Thomas Butts and Linnell bought from him extensively. Also Egremont. Blake’s ‘Great Task’ was a lonely one. His art before 1800 is sometimes close in style, if not deeper in meaning, to that of many leading figures in the Royal Academy – especially Barry, West, Fuseli, and he was bitterly hostile to Reynolds. After 1800 his art parallels, in its sacramental nature, the work of some of his contemporaries, Otto Runge and the Nazarenes.
After 1799 he is unremarkable except for the first appearance of his only conventionally printed poems, such as Poetical Sketches (1783). With encouragement of admirers such as Romney and Flaxman he exhibited historical and biblical watercolours at the Royal Academy. In 1787 a severe emotional and religious crisis was precipitated by the death of his younger brother Robert. Out of this unhappy period came the illuminated books. From 1793 to 1796 he worked on a series of prophecies, the Lambeth Books beginning with America a Prophecy. Complex and densely written these books are a kind of personal bible and they attempted to “…incorporate the experience of revolution into the spiritual and mythological history of mankind.” (Bindman, 1998). Adorned with visual images of great power even though they rarely illustrate the text directly.
At the end of the 1790’s Blake evolved a colour printing technique used in 6 or 7 copies of his Book of Urizen (1794) and in 12 large colour prints of 1795 of which 11 are in the Tate Gallery, London. A series of exhibition works of extraordinary energy and urgency in which mysterious forms enact sublime dramas in a seemingly limitless space. In 1796 he worked on a series of 537 watercolours which were illustrations for Young’s Night Thoughts. In 1799 Butts commissioned about 50 small paintings in ‘fresco’ (Blake’s term for tempera painting) which made up a biblical cycle. They are notable for an eclecticism derived largely from the study of Old Master paintings in the Orleans Collection. These initiate a change towards more devotional and Gothic style which is also seen in later watercolour commissions from Butts. These later pictures show a widening range of expression that reaches a culmination in designs for the Book of Revelation, now in Washington’s National Gallery. From this series see The Number of the Beast is 666 is in the Rosenbach Museum and Library, Philadelphia, (Figure 3).
Figure 3. The Number of the Beast is 666 (circa 179-98).
In 1800 Blake returned to prophecy. Between 1800 and 1803 he was in Felpham in Sussex. There he worked for the poet William Hayley and began to reformulate his mythological History of Man in two final books. with his Milton a Poem (begun in 1804) and Jerusalem (begun in 1804). Jerusalem, see Figure 4, was his masterpiece of illuminated printing. The former gives Milton a decisive role in Blake’s prophetic endeavour and Jerusalem spans the history of the human spirit through Albion the Ancient Man – both a human and national archetype.
Figure 4. Plate 4 from Jerusalem (circa 1804)
The purposeful development of his creative work after 1800 belied the reality of his working life in which continual setbacks occurred to his hopes of finding a public. This culminated in an unsuccessful public exhibition in 1809. For this he wrote a brilliant but erratic apologia for his art entitled A Descriptive Catalogue. The failure of this exhibition and his own bitterness inaugurated a long period of isolation and poverty. He found refuge in a luminous series of watercolour illustrations to Milton’s Poems. These are now in Manchester, Whitworth, Boston, Cambridge, the Fitzwilliam. They contain an intimate commentary on the poet’s attitudes and are executed with an exquisite and, given Blake’s hostility to materialism, have unexpected sensitivity to nature.
In 1818 Blake was rescued from obscurity by Linnell who, with the Shoreham painters, commissioned work and found patrons. Linnell persuaded Blake to make an engraved edition of the watercolours he had made in 1805 for the Book of Job (Pierpoint Morgan, New York) and published in 1825. He was also commissioned for a series of one hundred watercolours to illustrate Dante and now in the Tate Gallery. This work remained unfinished on his death. Blake has reservations about Dante’s theology. The watercolour technique is freer and more atmospheric than ever before and reveals his continuing imaginative vitality and ability to learn from others – in this case from the landscape watercolour school.
In his later years Blake had a modest celebrity. The friends of his later years kept his memory alive until his rediscovery in 1830 – mainly by Rossetti, and Alexander Gilchrist (his first biographer). His Victorian admirers saw him in varying degrees as exemplar of spiritual heroism, plus poetic lyricism, artistic dedication and inspired craftsmanship. In the 20th century there has been elucidation of his prophecies, a coming to terms with his visual imagination. However, much remains to be done in placing his religious ideas with the English Dissenter tradition.
There is no mistaking the voice of William Blake, the painter poet and “…most important of visionaries>” (Vaughan, 1994). Blake has always been a paradox and even today opinion on him is divided. Was he either curious eccentric or most profound spirit of his age? Blake gives the illusion of being formed apart from his age. Yet his vision was forged in the language of his peers. Blake was not the only prophet to emerge in the wake of revolution. Apart from the faith healers and spiritualists, e.g., Mesmer, Louterbourg, there were Millenarians – e.g., Joanna Southcott (1750-1814), a religious fanatic claiming the gift of tongues and who pronounced herself the woman in Revelation 12. She even thought herself pregnant with the second Messiah or Shiloh shortly before hear death from dropsy. Generally there was a yearning for the spiritual first expressed by the Swedish divine Emmanuel Swedenborg, which led to a Rosicrucian revival and Freemasonry.
Much to connect Blake with such movements shows his paintings and writings to be part of a visionary message, often issued as illuminated prophetic books. In these he developed a personal mythology. Blake offered no patent cures or formulae for salvation. All he did offer was “…the revelation of an artists insight.” (Vaughan, 1994). Blake appreciated that creativity was nothing to do with the rational. Unlike Swedenborg he did not attempt to align mysticism with the Enlightenment – thus “Talent thinks, genius sees.”. He laid little importance with Christ’s miracles – for Blake the message of Christ lay in his challenge to authority, acting “…from impulse, not from rules.” (Vaughn, 1994). Blake reached back to the subversive spirit of primitive Christianity, before the faith became an established religion. He therefore drew inspiration the same way the radical millenarians did. For Blake the spirit had been preserved through art. He made real his vision by writing –
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
and a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
and eternity in an hour.”
For Blake experience must come through seeing and holding, the action of the senses, which are “…the chief inlets of the soul.” Blake therefore rejected the intellectual separation of mind and body and so was anti-dualist. The visible must be recognised in a Neo-Platonic sense as one manifestation of a greater unity. All his prophetic books involve contemporary situations. Jerusalem, his most ecstatic, is full of London references. London was Blake’s earthly reality.
The writings and paintings of Blake’s work have been described as naïve. He found archaic man and the child nearest the divine. His approach was archetypal and studies ancient myths to discover primal meanings. His point of departure was admiration for ‘primitive’ poetry that had led to revaluation of Homer and Hesiod. The bards who preserved the legends of Greece before they were debased by civilisation. He was therefore concerned with discovering original purity. Europeans were turned back to early history, the epics of Dante and the Niebelungenlied. Also the fictive Gaelic bard Ossian whose sagas were prefabricated by James MacPherson (1762-1763).
Ossian fulfilled the 18th century’s highest expectations of the primitive. Ossian heroes were courageous, courteous, and better behaved than the protagonists of the Iliad. Their religion was more natural and based directly on elemental spirits. In the 1770’s Ossian was famous throughout Europe. The hero of Goethe’s Herther (1774) preferred to Homer, so did the ‘primitifs’ of David’s studio. Napoleon’s house of Malmaison was decorated with his own Ossian’s Legends, e.g., Anne-Louis Girodets’s Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the Fallen French Heroes Generals (1800-1802), see Figure 5. Also Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres emphasised the inspirational side with his Dream of Ossian (1813), see Figure 6. The format and metre of the Ossianic Sagas were adapted by Blake for his own prophetic books, and he copied their primitive flavour not the stories.
Figure 5. Ossian Receiving the Ghosts of the Fallen French Heroes. Anne-Louis Girodet (1800-1802). Source: Public domain.
Figure 6. Dream of Ossian. Jean Auguste Domnique Ingres (1813). Source: Public domain.
Blake limited his painting techniques in keeping with the primitive and naïve aspects of his own poetry. Explicitness of outline was preferred to the effects of colour, and illusionism of oil painting was rejected in favour of a simulation of tempera. Therefore creating a hardness of style. Highly suspicious of the antique Blake came to see Grecian art as mechanical so “Grecian art is mathematical form, Gothic art is living firm.” (Vaughan, 1994). Blake regarded the virtues of classical sculpture as pale copies “…from greater works of the Asiatic Patriarchs.” (Vaughan, 1994). He sought to rediscover some such archetype when adopting the figure of Skiron from the Temple of the Winds for the figure of the creator in Elohim Creating Adam (see Figure 7).
Figure 7. Elohim Creating Adam. Source: Public domain.
Blake’s career in material terms was modest. The son of a London hosier he trained as an engraver and attended the Royal Academy Schools. He later described this as “…having spent the vigour of my youth and Genius under the Oppression of Sir Joshua and his gang of Cunning Hired Knaves without employment.” (Vaughan, 1994). In the 1780’s he exhibited at the Royal Academy some watercolours of historical in a gentle linear style. This placed him in the company of more imaginative academicians such as Barry, and Fuseli. At this time Blake was found in fashionable intellectual circles with such radicals as Godwin and Wollstonecraft. He was reputed to be the man who persuaded Tom Paine to leave England when his Rights of Man (1791) and the Songs of Experience (1794). His Songs of Innocence, with its flowery rococo lines is an affirmation of his belief in natural human goodness. Man is seen as the embodiment of the Divine Image, full of love, mercy, and peace.
In The Sick Rose the design shows the fatigue of the deep red bloom as it weighs the weakened stem to the ground. See Figure 8. At the same time events in France inflamed hostility to radicalism in England so Blake went into semi-retirement and rented a small house in Lambeth. Disillusionment led him to question
Figure 8. The Sick Rose. Source: Public domain.
his former assumptions and he “…saw the traditional concepts of good and evil as distinctions that attempted to blot out what could not be comprehended.” (Vaughan, 1994. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), see Figure 9, he sought to abolish the division between good and evil. It is here the devil who asserts that ‘Energy is Eternal Delight’. Evil becomes for Blake the primal urge. Like the 17th century mystic Jacob Boeme he believed it was
Figure 9. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793). Source: Public domain.
oppression, brought about by earlier laws, that caused this libidinous force to be considered evil. The prophetic books deal with the repression of energy seen as
Figure 10. Europe Supported by America and Africa. Source: Public domain.
political in America (see Figure 10), and social in Urizen (see Figure 11), and sexual in The Visions of the Daughters of Albion (see Figure 12).
Figure 11. Urizen 1(793). Source: Public domain.
Figure 12. Visions of the Daughters of Albion. Source: Public domain.
A series of large prints demonstrate clouding the spirit by materialism, therefore Newton becomes an oppressor who dissects the world with his dividers. God, the Father is also oppressive. God is the law-giver who sundered Heaven and Hell by expulsion of the Devil. Blake called God by his first biblical name of Elohim and shows him virtually dragging Adam into existence. These works are contemporary with Carsten’s Night with her Children and, see Figure 13, “…show a
similar creation of monumental vigour by the compression of bold figures into a tight space.” (Vaughan, 1994).
Figure 13. Night and her Children, Sleep and Death (1794), by Asmus Jacob Carstens. Source: Public domain.
Carstens and Blake drew upon the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo for their figure morphology. Unlike Carstens though, Blake also drew upon Michelangelo’s Renaissance humanism. The 1790’s were darker years followed by three years at Felpham between 1800 and 1803. Blake then returned to Lndon but was no more accepted than before. His only one man show in 1809 was in his brother’s house and was dismissed as nonsense. Blake however felt a new inner peace and his interest turned from oppression to salvation. This was the message behind Jerusalem on which he worked for the next twenty years.
When Blake died he was working on another project for Linnell – the illustrations for the Divine Comedy of Dante. His pictorial commentary responds to the imagination that was liberated in Dante as he passed through Hell. Dante’s return to the conventional church in Heaven is lamented by Blake. As Dante is led by Virgil through the circles of Hell they are shown clothed respectively in red and blue – the colours of feeling and imagination, essential for the poet. In these watercolours Blake’s Michelangelesque prints have become completely imbued with flickering colours plus Gothic linearity so that “…the whole appears as a trance-like rhythm of energy.” (Vaughan, 1994).
Such scenes as the The Lovers Whirlwind (Hell in Dante’s Inferno), see Figure 14, from the conclusion of Blake’s career “…who always insisted on the strength and clarity, the super-reality of the visionary”. Blake died as he had lived, praising the Lord. His latter days of joy and of steadfastness are the most compelling scenes of his achievement.
Figure 14. The Lovers Whirlwind (1824-27). Source: Public domain.
In the existential terms that he laid down he succeeded in reconciling the contraries of heaven and hell, that had been sundered by the law-givers. Blake had survived isolation and degradation with his resistance and receptiveness unimpaired.
References and sources used.
Bindman, D. (1998). British Art. Thames & Hudson, London.
Blake, W. (1994). The Works of William Blake. Wordsworth Editions Ltd, London.
Morton, A. L. (1952). The English Utopia. Lawrence & Wishart, London.
Treuherz, J. (1996). Victorian Painting. Thames & Hudson, London.
Vaughan, W. (1994). Romanticism and Art. Thames & Hudson, London.
Vaughan, W. (1999). British Painting. The Golden Age. Thames & Hudson, London.