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William Blake

From Academic Kids

William Blake (November 28, 1757August 12, 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker, or "Author & Printer," as he signed many of his books.

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William Blake (1807)
Contents

Early career

Blake was born at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, London into a middle-class family. He was from earliest youth a seer of visions and a dreamer of dreams, seeing "Ezekiel sitting under a green bough," and "a tree full of angels at Peckham," and such he remained to the end of his days. His teeming imagination sought expression both in verse and in drawing. At ten years old, he began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities, a practice that was then preferred to real-life drawing. Four years later he became apprenticed to an engraver, James Basire. After two years Basire sent him to copy art from the Gothic churches in London. At the age of twenty-one Blake finished his apprenticeship and set up as a professional engraver.

In 1779, he became a student at the Royal Academy, where he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens. He preferred the Classical exactness of Michelangelo and Raphael.

In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron. In the same year he married a poor, illiterate girl named Catherine Boucher, who was five years his junior. Catherine could neither read nor write and signed her wedding contract with an X. Blake taught her reading and writing and even trained her as an engraveress. At that time, George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake's work.

Illustration: The archetype of the "creator" is a familiar image in the illuminated books of William Blake. Here, Blake depicts an almighty creator stooped in prayer contemplating the world he has forged. The  is the third in a series of illuminated books, hand-painted by Blake and his wife, known as the "Continental Prophecies", considered by most critics to contain some of Blake's most powerful imagery.
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Illustration: The archetype of the "creator" is a familiar image in the illuminated books of William Blake. Here, Blake depicts an almighty creator stooped in prayer contemplating the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books, hand-painted by Blake and his wife, known as the "Continental Prophecies", considered by most critics to contain some of Blake's most powerful imagery.
Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published circa 1783. After his fathers death, William and brother, Robert, opened a print shop in 1784 and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. At Johnson's house he met some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time in England, including Joseph Priestley, scientist; Richard Price, philosopher; John Henry Fuseli, painter whom he became friends with; Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist; and Tom Paine, American revolutionary. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the American and French revolution and wore a red liberty cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in the French revolution.

Mary Wollstonecraft became a close friend, and Blake illustrated her Original Stories from Real Life(1788). They shared similar views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage. In the Visions of the Daughters of Albion in 1793 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 thirty-one, Blake began to experiment with "relief etching", which was the method used to produce most of his books of poems. Blake wrote in a letter that the method was revealed to him in a dream of his dead brother, Robert. 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. The pages printed from these plates then had to be hand-colored in water colors and stiched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for four of his works: the Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem. Each of his illuminated books was thus a unique work of art and a radical break with not only traditional book printing but the traditional means of presenting poetic and philosophical discourse. Blake seems to have believed, or rather hoped, that self-published books could liberate the artist and author from the tyranny of censorship by Church and State but its time-consuming nature meant that his most personal and prophetic works reached a minute audience in his lifetime.

Later life

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Blake's A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows

Blake's marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death. There were early problems, however, such as Catherine's illiteracy and the couple's failure to produce children. At one point, in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, Blake suggested bringing in a concubine. Catherine was distressed at the idea, and he dropped it. Later in life, the pair seem to have settled down, and their apparent domestic harmony in middle age is better documented than their early difficulties.

Later in his life Blake sold a great number of works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend in need than an artist. Geoffrey Keynes, a biographer, described Butts as 'a dumb admirer of genius, which he could see but not quite understand.' Dumb or not, we have him to thank for eliciting and preserving so many works.

About 1800 Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex (now West Sussex) to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a mediocre poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton: a Poem (which was published later between 1804 and 1808). The preface to this book included the poem And did those feet in ancient time, which Blake decided to discard for later editions. This is ironic, because as the words to the hymn Jerusalem, this is now one of Blake's most well-known if not well-understood poems.

Slavery was abhored by Blake, who believed in racial and sexual equality, with several of his poems and paintings expressing a notion of universal humanity: "As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various)". He retained an active interest in social and political events for all his life, but was often forced to resorting to cloaking social idealism and political statements in protestant mystical allegory. His constant vision for humanity was rebuilding "Jerusalem" on earth, a uniting of the physical and spiritual sides of human nature, free of economic exploitation, with people able to develop the full potential of their being. Blake rejected all forms of imposed authority, indeed was charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King in 1803, but was cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges.

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Blake's Newton as a divine geometer (1795)

Blake returned to London in 1802 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804-1820). He was introduced by George Cumberland to a young artist named John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the 'Shoreham Ancients'. This group shared Blake's rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. Blake benefited from this group technically, by sharing in their advances in watercolour painting, and personally, by finding a receptive audience for his ideas.

At the age of sixty-five Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. These works were later admired by John Ruskin, who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt.

William Blake died in 1827 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields, London. In recent years, a proper memorial was erected for him and his wife.

He died while still hard at work. His last work was said to be a sketch of his wife.

A truly pious and loving soul, neglected and misunderstood by the world, but appreciated by an elect few, Blake led a cheerful and contented life of poverty illumined by visions and celestial inspirations. Perhaps his life is summed up by his statement that "The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself."

English writer, Peter Marshall, in William Blake: Visionary Anarchist (1988), described Blake as:

"a revolutionary anarchist, looking back to the gnostic heresies of the Middle Ages and anticipating modern anarchism and social ecology. With William Godwin, he stands as a great forerunner of British Anarchism".

Blake Prize for Religious Art

The Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour in Australia in 1949.

Works

"Illuminated Books":

Works by other authors illustrated by Blake:

Books on William Blake

Works inspired by Blake

References

External links

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