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William Blake was an artistic author of the 18th and 19th century, he wasn't very successful but made an impact on others, was inspired by visions and other authors of his time as well, and lived an honest and honorable life. Blake was a friend of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Thomas Paine. He was a part of London's intellectual circle though he was labeled an eccentric and sometimes worse, insane, or demented (William Blake 3A). He was known by few as a poet, painter, visionary mystic, and an engraver who illustrated and printed his own books. Blake proclaimed the rationalism and materialism of the 18th century. For a time he had joined the Swedenborgian Church of the New Jerusalem in London and thought Newtonian science to be superstitious nonsense (Liukkonen 5A). Blake rejected 18th century polish literature, he preferred the Elizabethan's (Shakespeare, Johnson and Spenser) and ancient ballads, both authentic and forged (The Gothic Life of William Blake 6A). There was little hint in his background that Blake would become a multi-faceted, iconoclastic poetic and artistic genius. His career was followed by mocking criticism and misunderstanding (Stern 7H); it was left to later generation to recognize his importance (Liukkonen 5B).
Blake was born in Soho, London on November 28, 1757 to James and Catherine Blake. The house of his parents was built on an old burial ground (Liukkonen 5B). In his early childhood years Blake spoke of having visions; at age four he said that he saw God "put his head to the window"; at age nine he said that he saw angels sitting a tree when he was walking down through the country side (Boucher 1A). He also told that he held conversations with Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel and other historical figures (Liukkonen 5D). Blake's first biographer, Frederick Tatham, wrote that Blake "despised restraints and rules, so much that his father dared not to send him to school". His parents tried to discourage his "lying" (Liukkonen 5C-5D). They had observed that Blake was different from other children, so they did not send him to a public or private institution. Instead they had home schooled him; he learned to read and write at home. They felt that his temperament and nervous disposition would hinder his progress in a more structured environment (Liukkonen 5C). James Blake, William Blake's father, was a successful hosier in London, who was attracted by the doctrines of Emmanuel Swedenborg and deeply opposed to the Court. Catherine Wright Blake (maiden name Armitage) was also a hosier (Liukkonen 5B-5C). William Blake showed an interest in and aptitude for drawing at a surprisingly young age. His parents entered him into Henry Par's Drawing School at the age of ten. Two years after that Blake had begun to write his own poetry. At 14 years of age he was apprenticed for seven years to an engraver of the Royal Society of Antiquaries by the name of James Basire (William Blake 3E), where he worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. Blake only returned to his family home to visit on Sundays (Liukkonen 5F). While in James Basire shop, Blake obtained all the tools that would help become a great artist. Often he was sent out to create sketches and drawings of statues, paintings, and monuments including those found in Westminster Abbey (William Blake 3E-3F).
After his seven year apprenticeship ended, Blake went on to study at the Royal Academy. He paid his way through by producing engravings for novels and catalogues, Blake drew from casts, life models and corpses, and he shared in the dream of founding a new English school of historical painting. One of his teachers had advised Blake to work with 'less extravagance and more simplicity' (The Gothic Life of William Blake 6B-6C). Not too long after, Blake left the royal academy because he found the atmosphere to restrictive to his artistic side and did not accept the theories and teachings of Sir Joshua who happen to be a predominant force at the institution (Stern 7K). He obtained a job after he left the Academy as an engraver from the publisher Joseph Johnson 1780 (William Blake 3G-H). Blake set up a print shop business in 1784 with a man by the name of James Parker. The business didn't last for the long though, by 1786 he was back working for Joseph Johnson. Johnson introduced Blake to the radical circle of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Joseph Priestley and Thomas Paine (Simkin 4B-4C). In 1800 Blake moved to Felpham in West Sussex. During his time in Sussex he commissioned for a man by the name of William Hayley, who was said to be a "patron of poets". Blake decorated his library with eighteen heads of poets and made the engravings for Hayley's a 'Life of Cowper' (Simkin 4G). He was delighted by the natural beauty that surrounded him Sussex and embarked on his new life their. Many commissions came his way during his time their. Blake produced plates for Hayley's ballad 'Little Tom the Sallor', and engravings for his ballads for and anecdotes relating to animals. But by 1802, Blake had become tired of the endless stream of trivial commissions from Hayley and his society members (The Gothic Life of William Blake 6P). He didn't plan on wasting his talents on painting a series of great poets' hand screens for his neighbor, Lady Bathurst. It is also interesting to note that he was also involved in producing early catalogs for Josiah Wedgwood, the famed maker of ceramics (Stern 7M).
People found it hard to classify Blake's work in one genre; he abhorred oppression in all its forms and focused his creative efforts beyond the five senses (William Blake 3B). The intense study of Gothic art and architecture appealed to Blake's aesthetic sensibility and allowed his penchant for the medieval to come out (William Blake 5E). Blake had been writing poetry for quite some time and first collection, Poetical Sketches, appeared to the world in 1783. His first collection of poems was followed by the publication of the 'Songs of Innocence' (1789) and 'Songs of Experience' (1794) (William Blake 3H). Each copy of the 'Songs of Innocence' was unique in its own was and the poems were never in the same order. It was not a commercial or critical success. His most famous poem was 'The Tyger', was a part of the 'Songs of Experience' (William Blake 5I-5J). It was typical that Blake's poems were long, flowing line and violent energy, combined with aphoristic clarity and moments of lyric tenderness. He was not blinded by conventions, but approached his subjects sincerely with a mind unblocked by the current opinions of others. This also caused others to proclaim him as an outsider. Blake approved of free love, and sympathized with the actions of the actions of the French revolutionaries sickened him. Blake engraved his prose work, 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell', in 1780. In this work he expressed his revolt against the established values of his time (William Blake 5J). His Even though he was busy with commissions he also took out times to create the engravings that would illustrate his own poetry, and he also printed them himself. In Blake's books 'The French Revolution' (1781), 'America: A Prophecy' (1793), and 'Visions of the Daughters of Albion' (1793), he developed his attitude of revolt against authority, combining political belief and visionary ecstasy (Simkin 4E-4F). 'The French Revolution" was printed anonymously and was one distributed to political sympathizers because Blake feared that he would be persecuted by the government (The Gothic Life of William Blake: 1757-1827 6H). His early poems were written when he was only twelve years old. Journalistic-social career were not open to him because he was apprenticed to a manual occupation at an early age.
Blake began to experiment with new engraving method in the late 1700s. His younger brother, Robert, became critically ill in the winter of 1787. As his brother died, Blake said that he saw his brother's spirit "rise up through the roof, clapping its hands for joy". Blake believed that his brother's spirit continued to visit him and later claimed that in a dream Robert taught him the painting method (Boucher 1F). He used it the 'Songs of Innocence" and other "illuminated" works and also of an acid-wash engraving system that he used in his illustrated works, including 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell'. 'Natural Religion', the first of his works appeared in 1788. The poetry and their illustrations were drawn in reverse on copper plates in an impervious liquid, and then the plain parts were eaten away with acid. After the prints were taken they were colored by hand (Simkin 4D-4E). The illustrations in his Prophetic Books had begun to grow ever larger and more colorful. It was then fore a logical step for him to adapt his printing-methods to produce full-scale paintings. In 1795 the production of a series of twelve large watercolor prints emerged, including 'Newton' and 'Nebuchadnezzar' and 'The House of Death'. The biographer Peter Ackroyd called it "the finest artistic statement of Blake's 'Lambeth Visions'." Richard Edwards, a bookseller, commissioned Blake to illustrate 'Young's Night Thoughts', a philosophical verse epic immensely popular in the late eighteenth century. Eventually, unfortunately, Edwards lost interest, and finally less that half the poem was published, with only forty-three engravings complete. Than Blake's friend, a sculptor by the name of John Flaxman commissioned him to do the poems of Thomas Gray (6B-N). In addition to that his most important patron, Thomas Butts, commissioned a series of Biblical paintings for him. But unfortunately, this was not enough to compensate for the price inflation and the depressed art market, which was caused by the war with France that was taking place at the time (The Gothic Life of William Blake: 1757-186O).
During his apprenticeship Blake was assigned to sketch the tombs at Westminster Abbey, exposing him to a variety of Gothic styles, from which he would draw inspiration throughout his career (William Blake 3F). He heavily influenced the Romantic poets with recurring the Old Testament's teachings in favor of the New. Blake's influence grew through Pre-Raphaelites and W.B. Yeats especially in London. His interest in legend was revived with the Romantics' rediscovery of the past, especially with the Gothic and medieval. As an artist Blake admired and studied the works of Raphael, Heemskerk, Durer, and Michelangelo. They were important influences to the fantastic and some what apocalyptic illustrations he created for his writings (William Blake 3C). But also, he was inspired by the artist James Barry and his grand historical paintings. He made friends with other young artists and was able to exhibit his own historical water colors. Blake had created mystical creatures that were inspired by Greek and Roman mythology including Los, who represented the poetic imagination; Albion, who represented England; and Orc, who embodied youthful rebelliousness (William Blake 3D). In the 1960s Blake was acclaimed by the Underground movement. An American rock group by the name of 'The Doors' took its name from Aldous Huxley's 'The Doors of Perception', which refers to a line in 'The Marriage of Heaven and Hell': "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite" (Liukkonen 5T). Two subjects create the backbone for Blake's books: religion and political theory. Blake took on all creative and commercial functions. He was the writer, the artist, the illustrator, the printer and the publisher of all his work. Even though Blake lived most of his life in London, he exerted a profound impact on future poets, artists, and musicians around the world. In his old age, Blake enjoyed the admiration of a group of young artist, 'The Ancients'. One of the members referred to him as "divine Blake", who "had seen God, sir, and had talked with the angels" (Liukkonen 5O).
William Blake got married in 1782 to an illiterate woman by the name of Catherine Boucher (Boucher 1D). They were married at St. Mary's, Battersea. After they were married they moved out of Blake's father's house to Green St., near Leicester Square. Not to long after, Blake's father passed away so they moved into the house next door of his house (The Gothic Life of William Blake: 1757-1827 6D). She was the daughter of a market gardener. Blake taught her to write, how to read, and also instructed her in draftsmanship. He taught her o draw and paint and how to use a printing press (Liukkonen 5G). After Blake had taught and trained her, she helped him print the illuminated that he is known for today. They had no children together; neither did any other of Blake's siblings. Blake's life in the realms of images did not please his wife. She once remarked: "I have very little of Mr. Blake's company. He is always in paradise." Before his death he drew a portrait of her saying, "you have ever been an angel to me" (Liukkonen 5G).
Blake's world was 18th century Britain. During that time and place the leading painters produced realistic renderings of historical scenes or battle pictures. Other highly successful artists painted what was the most loved of subject matter, which was the rolling country estates with horses the gentry raced or rode to the hunt. Blake's work would not contain any of those features that other artist's works did, and for that he paid the price. If one looked at Blake's paintings and watercolors they would readily understand why his art was neglected, dismissed or vigorously rejected throughout his life for decades. He was an eccentric whose sense of reality was overshadowed by his mystical visions and unconventional religious beliefs which were revealed in his work. Blake's religious beliefs probably seemed bizarre to his contemporaries. Casting himself as a philosopher and seer, he said that "All religions are one." meaning that the differences between religions were superficial. The colors in work scream with a flame-like quality. His men and Women look like creatures from outer space. And his image of God is that of an old man with "bristling looks and muscular arms" that further emphasize unreality. But as time progressed, people began to realize and admire the significance of Blake's work. Today his work is praised from every level of the establishment for its content and its unique quality of execution. T.S Elliot wrote in his essay on Blake that "the concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic and Blake only a poet of genius." After Blake had published 'Poetical Sketches', there was talk of raising a subscription to send him to study in Rome. Now with his appeal as a great artist now firmly in place, his originality and creative genius almost universally understood and appreciated, and his compelling story of a talent not recognized or compensated in his lifetime, Blake's reputation continues to grow.
In 1788, he invented an etching process. The process allowed him to print his texts and images in one operation on elegantly simple hand press. Experts today are not completely sure of the exact nature of the process he used, but they all agree that Blake was certainly a pioneer in this area of printing. Blake was able to master and fully the colors that he put into his art. He grounded his own colors and did so with very stringent specifications. The art that went unrecognized and scorned at is now considered to be impressing and wonderful. A major museum mounted a display of his drawings, watercolors and paintings. The Morgan Library of New York City drew on its large holdings of Blake's work, a treasury that is unequaled anywhere n the world. The museum built the exhibition around one of the most prominent books that Blake had ever published, "The Book of Job" (1805-1810). All twenty-one watercolors produced by Blake to illustrate this book are on the exhibit. The exhibit will also contain his drawings for some of John Milton's great poems, "L'Allegro" and "Il Penseroso" as well. It was the first major show of William Blake in the past decades. The first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1809. An exhibition of Blake's work was exhibited, but failed to attract any significant interest.
Since Blake was as much a craftsman as well as an artist, he believed it was essential for him to translate his artistic vision in the most complete and accurate as possible to the pages of his books. Even though his work did not gain much acclaim much acclaim or commercial success until long after his death. Although he had several patrons over the course of his life and produced voluminous works, he often lived in abject poverty. Blake's last years passed in obscurity, quarrelling even with some of the circle of friends who supported him. Among his later works are drawing and engraving for Dante's 'Divine Comedy' and the twenty-one illustrations to the 'Book of Job', which he completed when he was almost seventy years old. He never managed to get out of poverty due to his inability to compete with the fast engravers and his expensive invention that enabled him to design illustration and print words at the same time.
Blake was a unique, one of a kind author, engraver, and artist, though many people of his time opposed his work, his books and art are presumed to be famous and unique and influenced many upcoming artist, and even though he was not very successful he made an honest, independent living. He died at home on August 12, 1827. Since he was independent all through out his life, he left no debts behind. But since he and his wife had no money, she was unable to cover the expenses of his funeral. So, John Linnell, Blake's last patron, loaned his wife the money for his funeral. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the Dissenter's burial ground in Bunhill Fields, where his parents lie in London. Wordsworth spoke his funeral saying "There was no doubt that this poor man was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott." Four years later, his wife Catherine joined him in the same grave yard, though her grave was no where near her husband's. In 1957 a memorial to William Blake and his wife Catherine was erected in Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, London. Blake will go on to be remembered as a great artist, an imaginative individual, and a very creative man. Even though the people of his time took his work for granted and may have been unappreciative of his work he will still be remembered as one of the greatest artist of the eighteenth and nineteenth century.