William Blake

English poet, painter, illustrator and printmaker, an outstanding figure in what later became known as romanticism, now renowned for his visionary work in words and images and for his opposition to the academic priorities of his time, particularly those taught by Reynolds.

The son of a London hosier, he attended a drawing school at the age of ten but also studied prints and plaster casts to acquire the language of high art.

Working for an engraver from 1772, his main task was to draw the Gothic tombs of Westminster Abbey. In 1779 he began to study in the Royal Academy Schools and soon after to exhibit watercolours on historical and biblical subjects in Royal Academy exhibitions. Through artist friends such as Flaxman and Fuseli, Blake became part of a circle of educated people who helped to publish his early poems. He also associated with politically progressive men and women such Tom Paine, William Goodwin and Mary Wollstonecraft.

He developed a method of making line prints with added colour that he used to accompany some of his own writings: he published his Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), with handwritten text and handcolored illustrations, done by a process he called ‘illuminated printing’. Reading the mystical writings of Swedenborg, Bohme and others and using their teaching with his understanding of Christianity and of the revolutionary propositions debated in his country and put into practice across the Channel, he developed his own religious and philosophical system, expounded and illuminated in books such as The Book of Thel (1789), America; A Prophecy (1793), Urizen and Europe: A Prophecy (1794), all published by himself in this manner.

Between 1800 and 1816 he produced a great number of water-colours illustrating parts of the bible and of Milton. He also developed his own version of the medieval technique of tempera painting as a means of making large, independent prints on biblical, Shakespearian and other subjects, taking only three or four prints from tempera on board and then adding line and color by means of ink and watercolors.

These impressed no-one when he exhibited the results in 1809. The painter Linnell, who with Palmer and others formed part of a circle of young artists about him. known as the “Ancients’, commissioned drawings for the Book of Job (1821-26) and watercolors for Dante’s Divine Comedy (1824-27).

Thought eccentric, even mad, because of his fierce and at times inelegant variations on formal themes derived from ancient art, from his especial hero Michelangelo whose work he knew from engravings, and from medieval and sometimes Eastern art, partly because of his singular rhetoric and elaborate private symbolism, most of all for his compulsion to teach the world anew about good and evil, Blake was largely forgotten until Rossetti and other Pre-Raphaelites recognized in him an inspired, inspiring rebel.

It is in the 20th century that he was hailed as a genius and a soothsayer, a forerunner of ‘flower-power’ and other campaigns for an alternative society based on primitive principles close to human physical and spiritual needs. His example has influenced several British artists, especially in the Neo-Romantic phase, and has also powered modern English poetry.

He claimed to be guided by supernatural forces in his life and work; two hundred years later his work, though still in many respects obscure as well as forceful, seems prophetic in its social and primitive religious pronouncements. The Tate Gallery and the British Museum in London own many of his finest works; high quality facsimiles of his images, with and without texts, have been published since the 1920s.

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