William Blake

William Blake

English painter and literati William Blake was never famous during his lifetime but he did become so after his death. Today, scholars and artists consider him as a formidable figure of the Romantic period, especially in defining the meaning of poetry of his generation. Some art critics would even claim that Blake his is by far the best artist that the English country has ever produced.

In 21st century Britain, Blake ranked 38th of the 100 Greatest Britons according to a poll conducted by BBC. There is no doubt about Blake’s significant contributions to the arts as it shaped the UK Romantic age even though it did not happen during his lifetime. One reason for this (to happen) was because of his eccentric views that his contemporaries of that time thought he was insane.

What they did not seem to appreciate was Blake’s thorough expressiveness and undeniable creativity. His art works including his poetry have been significant in laying the foundations for the advent of the Romantic era. But he never had it easy for he was a bit arbitrary about his political and religious beliefs. At first, he supported the goals of both American and French Revolutions but only to reject the beliefs of these political movements afterward.

Nevertheless, for William Rossetti, Blake was such a “glorious luminary” because he brought enlightenment and raised awareness to the English people. Some of his most famous works are as follows:

Visual Arts

  • Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)
  • The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy (1795)
  • The Lovers’ Whirlwind
  • Book of Thel (1789)
  • The Ghost of a Flea (1820)

Poetry

  • Songs of Innocence (1789)
  • Sons of Experience (1794)
  • Poetical Sketches
  • Jerusalem (1820)

Early Life

Born on November 28, 1757, William Blake grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in 28A Broad Street, Golden Square, London, England. He was the third child of the seven off-springs of his parents. His father was a seller of garments for the legs and feet.

However, although his family was financially capable, he was never sent to a formal school during his childhood days. He was privately tutored by his mother at home; thus, he had little influence from an outsider until one day his father gifted him sketches of Greco antiquities. Since then, he took interest in the classical works of the masters. He studied the works of Albrecht Durer, Raphael, Marten Heemskerk, and Michelangelo.

At a young age, Blake was already temperamental which prompted his parents to not send him to a formal school but instead opted to sending him to drawing workshop. While growing up, he had also developed a keen interest in poetry. He found inspiration from the works of Edmund Spenser and Ben Johnson, which provided him an insight to his future works.

Early Training

William Blake was 14 when he entered the engraving studio of James Basire. He would spend the next seven years of his life with the mentor whose studio was located at the Great Queen Street. So he was 21 when he graduated from his apprenticeship and pursued an independent career as an engraver.

William Blake was an engraver by profession. It would become his constant source of income throughout his life but he was more famous for his poetry collection and book illustration. In 1779, he got accepted to the Royal Academy in Strand. He stayed at the Old Somerset House while finishing up his education.

There, he showed how critical he can be when it comes to painting styles and art theories presented by his colleagues, particularly Joshua Reynolds. Blake exchanged an argument with Reynolds, who was the academy’s president at the time, regarding his views on the art as an excellent way to pursue universal truth and beauty.

On the defense, Blake followed his logic that making generalization of things is fallacious, and the only to give where credit is due is by particularizing a work. He was also not fond of Reynold’s humble image because he thought it was an insincere act of the president who took a lot of pride in his fashionable painting, which he introduced to the academy.

For the Royal Academy, he submitted several works on six annual exhibitions beginning 1780 to around 1808. There he also made friends with George Cumberland, John Flaxman, and Thomas Stothard.

Early Career

William Blake was off to starting a lifetime partnership with Catherine Boucher in 1782. He served as his wife’s mentor in learning how to read and write as well as engraving. This enabled Boucher to become a skilled assistant to her husband, playing an instrumental role in the success of Blake’s illustrated books and other publications.

After his marriage, Blake immediately started working on Poetical Sketches, his first major work consisting of a number of poems. The book was then printed by 1783 which somehow established his reputation in the arts circle. In 1787, a significant event in his life took place, when he had a vision of his already dead brother encouraging him to develop a new technique of illuminated engraving. His vision showed him to draw or print the design and words in reverse on a plate enclosed with an acid-proof material. This method served him well in most of his engravings.

In 1787, Songs of Innocence was produced by the English poet and he followed this with another collection called Songs of Experience (1794). These collections are apparently lyrical by form and tone but it’s the ability of the poet to show how innocence can be altered by bitterness brought by unfortunate circumstances.

Illuminated Etchings

By the time he reached 31, he would have executed relief etchings which is the terminology artists use to call his new engraving method. The new method helped him become a quite in demand engraver in the city. His works such as The Book of Thel, Jerusalem, and The Marriage of Heavena and Hell were the first to undergo this method, which went well fortunately.

Circa 1800: A Series of Controversies

In 1800, Blake went to Sussex to work with the poet William Hayley. The said poet wanted to help Blake become more profitable with his job. But the way Hayley criticized his works prompted him to reject the so-called help.

Blake had also worked on his allegorical interpretation of John Milton’s metaphysical essays and poems. He particularly liked the part where Milton left heaven and returned to Earth, some kind of resurrection. He was accused of being treasonous with his sentiments, though, but was later on judged not guilty by the court.

During the mid-1800 Blake moved back to London to produce some more paintings, poems and engravings. However he also met some fraudulent clients, one of which was the design he made for The Grave, a poem by Blair. In 1809, he proposed a project through an exhibition in 1809, in which he expressed the desire to paint frescoes on the walls of public buildings but only to get heavily criticized for it.

Probably, it was because of these misfortunes that led William Blake to support the political beliefs and ideals of the major revolutions at the time. He became so inspired by it that he produced The Four Zoas (instinct, reason, passion, and imagination), a prophetic story that explains the root of evil among mankind, which he identified as the man’s faculties.

Advanced Years

Towards the early 1810 to 1820, William Blake’s career went sour. Although he was still able to produce designs for L’Allegro and Il Penseroso by John Milton. He even wrote The Everlasting Gospel in 1818 but the public’s support of his works went on a downward spiral.

Good thing in 1818, he recovered from this temporary setback and decided to work for Fountain Court. He was provided with a group of artists younger than him to be able to produce a series of books with illustrations.

Two of his last important works were the Book of Job and Dante. Linnell contracted Blake to make an illuminated etching of Dante’s Inferno; however, due to his old age he was unable to finish it and he succumbed to death afterward.

During William Blake’s dying hours, he was still able to mutter to his wife sweet words inspiring her to stay strong. Blake died of old age in August 12, 1827 in London, England. His wife would soon follow him by 1831.

The manuscripts that Blake had left were given to Frederick Tatham, but he decided to burn some of those to ashes for he believed those were too radical and blasphemous. It is worth mentioning that Tatham was a fundamentalist, a supporter of the Catholic Apostolic Church which emerged during the 19th century. Hence, it was natural for him to reject any work that was deemed blasphemous at the time.

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