London, at the time of William Blake’s birth on November 28, 1757, was a city of contraries. Blake’s birthplace, 28 Broad Street, was near fashionable Bond Street and Golden Square, an elegant oasis of a park, but also, as has been observed, within sight of almost every sort of evil in eighteenth century London. Within walking distance of the crowded city were miles of green fields and hedgerows, hills and heaths, and quiet villages. Innocence and experience were, so to speak, almost on Blake’s doorstep from his earliest years. Here, too, were the sites of his early visions. At four, he said he was frightened by God peering in the window at him. Later, he reported seeing a tree full of angels and angels with the haymakers in the fields.
Though his father, James Blake, a respectable hosier, came close to thrashing him for falsehood when he spoke of the tree full of angels, he was sensitive enough to listen to the boy’s request not to be sent to school. In 1768, at the age of ten, Blake was sent to Henry Pars, the best drawing teacher in London, and the senior Blake was not only able to afford the tuition but also to purchase casts for study at home and to give his son pocket money to purchase prints and drawings. Amused and impressed by his serious young customer, whose preference for Michelangelo, Raphael, Giulio Romano, Albrecht Dürer, and Martin Helmskerk, among others, ran counter to the taste of the time, the printseller often gave young Blake a special bargain.
In 1772, at age fourteen, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire, a somewhat old-fashioned but highly reputable engraver. Blake was thereby provided with a trade by which he could earn his living while pursuing his art. Engravers were much in demand for book illustrations; making plates from drawings, paintings, and sculpture was excellent training in draftsmanship. In 1774, Basire sent Blake to Westminster Abbey to make drawings for Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain (1786, 1796). There, Blake developed a love of the Gothic and of linear drawing. He also had several visions in the Abbey. After completing his apprenticeship, Blake began to study at the recently founded Royal Academy (1769), where he first exhibited some of his work in 1780. In 1782, he married Catherine Boucher, whom he taught not only to read and write but also to assist him in making prints and to help illuminate his books.
Blake’s education was not confined to the visual arts. He read George Champman’s translations of the works of Homer, Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and Northern Antiquities (1770), and the works of Edmund Spenser, William Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, John Dryden, Thomas Gray, Edward Young, Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, Voltaire, and Samuel Johnson, studying them with care and vigorous disagreement, as well as works by his contemporaries Thomas Paine, William Godwin, William Cowper, William Wordsworth, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and a number of mystical writers, especially Emanuel Swedenborg, Philippus Aureolus Paracelsus, and Jakob Böhme. John Milton and, above all, the Bible were major influences, and Blake taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, and Italian. Drawing he had done from earliest childhood; at twelve, he began to write verses. In 1783, poems he wrote between the ages of twelve and twenty were published in Poetical Sketches. In them, there are occasional glimpses of the mature Blake.
In July, 1784, Blake’s father died, and in October of that year Blake opened a print shop in partnership with James Parker. In 1785, the business failed, and the Blakes moved to less expensive lodgings. Blake’s beloved younger brother Robert lived with them, dying in 1787, at age nineteen, of consumption. Blake nursed him, without sleep, for two weeks, and as his brother died, Blake saw his spirit ascend. From then on, Blake claimed to communicate regularly with Robert, on one occasion receiving from him a highly complex and original method of engraving the plates for his illuminated books. Continuing with engraving to support himself and Catherine (they never had children), he also began to experiment with illuminated printing. In 1789, Blake published Songs of Innocence.
This was not publication in the modern sense of the word. Blake and Catherine produced the books from start to finish. Following Robert’s advice, Blake wrote the text and outlines on the plate with acid-impervious material and then had acid eat away the plate so that the material to be printed was in high relief. A plate to be engraved had to be polished and cleaned with great care in order not to scratch the copper. For the printing, the Blakes ground the colors and mixed the ink. Then, the sheets were printed, one at a time, laid to dry, and carefully hand-colored, with almost no two alike. For most of his regular engraving commissions, Blake did fine etching on copper by hand. Sometimes he used acid, but the finest effect required all handwork. This exacting and arduous process was Blake’s major source of income, requiring an amount of persistence and hard labor rather contrary to the outlook of a visionary, which he would “curse and bless” at once for its difficulty and for the beauty and perfection of the results.
Another of the contraries in Blake’s life was his involvement in the world about him. Although he was a solitary man, given to visions, he became acquainted, largely through his work for the publisher Joseph Johnson, with many of his more famous contemporaries, including Paine, Joel Barlow, Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. He illustrated the latter’s Original Stories from Real Life (1788). Blake also became acquainted with many current works of literature, philosophy, and science, illustrating, among others, Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (1791).
In 1791, Johnson set Blake’s prose work The French Revolution in type, but the work was never printed and survives only in a set of proof sheets. In many quarters, the French Revolution and its sympathizers were looked upon with suspicion and, after the Reign of Terror in 1793, with horror. Living, as he did, in the heart of London, Blake was very aware of the reality of political and economic injustice. There were many trials for sedition, and the atmosphere of political unrest and suspicion was to continue at least until the English defeat of France, her traditional enemy, at Waterloo in 1815. Even in 1791, it was not surprising that Johnson should have had second thoughts about publishing Blake’s work.
Blake’s output as a writer and artist was extensive. He left more than thirty major works, many of them lengthy, among the most outstanding of which are The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790), America: A Prophecy (1793), Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience (1794), The First Book of Urizen (1794), Europe: A Prophecy (1794), The Song of Los (1795), Milton: A Poem (1804-1808), Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820), and the unfinished The Four Zoas (1797-1807). He made well over eight hundred engravings, including those for his masterpiece, The Book of Job (1826); paintings illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678); and individual paintings and drawings, some of which he exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1780 and 1808. Much of his artwork survives, thanks to the efforts of Thomas Butts, who early saw the value of Blake’s art, becoming his patron and purchasing a number of works. The first major modern exhibitions of his work began in the late nineteenth century.
By 1795, Blake was having difficulty finding engraving commissions; his style was out of fashion. William Hayley, a minor poet, seemed to offer a solution, inviting the Blakes to come to Felpham, on the English Channel, commissioning him to illustrate his own work, A Series of Ballads (1802), and undertaking to find other commissions for him....