United Kingdom • 1757−1827

Biography and information

William Blake (born November 28, 1757, London – died August 12, 1827, London) is one of the greatest anglophone poets who also ranks among the most original visual artists of the Romantic era.

William Blake's artistic style. Painting was the main purpose of William Blake's life. His materials were watercolours and paper, not the fashionable oil on canvas, and he painted subjects from the Bible and British history instead of the portraits and landscapes that were in vogue. And increasingly his subjects were his own visions.

A long list of Blake's complex works, both artistic and poetic, shows relentless energy and drive. It is impossible to summarise his career – he was a combination of extremes, mirroring the political turmoil of his era. Blake experienced two revolutions, American and French. Therefore, it is not surprising that he viewed civilisation as something inevitably chaotic and contradictory. Blake was considered insane and largely disregarded by his peers. It is only in retrospect that we can appreciate his work and unravel its complex and allusive sources.

Famous paintings by William Blake. Nebuchadnezzar, Jacob's Ladder, Newton, The Creator, The Night of Enitharmon's Joy (Hecate)

God in the window

William was the third of six children born of Catherine Wright Armitage Blake, and fathered by a hosier James Blake. They had another promising artist in the family – William's brother Robert – the poet’s favourite, and at times even his alter ego. The children grew up in modest circumstances and received teaching at their mother’s knee. Later, William Blake wrote: "Thank God I never was sent to school."

Visions were commonplaces to Blake, and his life and works were intensely spiritual. Journalist Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that at the age of four the young artist saw God’s head appear in a window, and later the prophet Ezekiel under a tree in the field and "a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars." Robinson reported that Blake spoke of visions "in the ordinary unemphatic tone in which we speak of trivial matters". Of the faculty of Vision the artist had had from early infancy he thought that "all men partake of it – but it is lost by not being cultivated".

Since childhood Blake wanted to be an artist, that desire was quite unusual at the time for someone raised in a family of small businessmen. What's more interesting is that his father indulged him. The boy hoped to be apprenticed to some artist of the newly formed and flourishing English school of painting, but the fees proved to be more than the parental pocket could withstand.

In 1772, 15-year-old William went with his father for an interview to the successful and fashionable engraver William Wynne Ryland, whose fee was "more attainable". However, the boy interposed an unexpected objection: "Father, I do not like the man's face: It looks as if he will live to be hanged!" Eleven years later, Ryland was indeed hanged – for forgery – one of the last criminals to suffer on the infamous gallows.

The young Blake was ultimately apprenticed to James Basire, a highly responsible and conservative engraver. For seven years Blake spent with Basire, he became so proficient in all aspects of his craft that the master trusted him to go by himself to Westminster Abbey to copy the marvellous medieval monuments there. The copies were intended for one of the greatest illustrated English books of the last quarter of the 18th century, Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain.

Robert's secret

On the completion of his apprenticeship in 1779, Blake began to work vigorously as an independent engraver. At first most of his work was copying engravings after the designs of other artists, but later he started receiving commissions to engrave his own designs. Blake’s style of designing, however, was so extreme and unfamiliar, portraying spirits with real bodies, that one review in The British Critic (1796) called them “distorted, absurd,” and the product of a “depraved fancy”.

In subsequent years, Blake, among other things, made enormous designs of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, his 22 folio designs for the Book of Job, and his 7 even larger unfinished plates for Dante's Divine Comedy. Though only the Chaucer sold well enough to repay its probable expenses during Blake’s lifetime, these are agreed today to be among the greatest triumphs of line engraving in England.

In 1781 Blake fell in love with Catherine Sophia Boucher, the pretty, illiterate daughter of an unsuccessful market gardener from the farm village not far from London. The couple married one year later and it was a highly satisfactory marriage. Blake taught his wife to read, write, draw, and to colour his designs and prints. She helped him at the printing press, and saw visions as he did. Catherine believed implicitly in his genius and his visions and supported him in everything he did with charming credulity. After his death she lived chiefly for the moments when he came to sit and talk with her.

One of the most traumatic events of Blake’s life was the death of his beloved 24-year-old brother, Robert, from tuberculosis five years after the artist's marriage. At the end, Blake stayed up with him for a fortnight, and when Robert died Blake saw his “released spirit ascend heavenward through the matter-of-fact ceiling, clapping its hands for joy,” as the artist's biographer Alexander Gilchrist wrote.

Blake claimed that in a vision Robert taught him the secret of painting his designs on copper in a liquid impervious to acid before the plate was etched and printed. This method, which Blake called “Illuminated Printing,” made it possible for Blake to be his own compositor, artist, printer, binder, advertiser, and salesman for all his published poetry thereafter, from Songs of Innocence to Jerusalem.

Dragoon Schofield

While pursuing his career as an engraver, in 1779 William Blake enrolled as a student in the newly founded Royal Academy of Arts. The majority of his commissions were watercolours and some of them – temperas. The artist created a lot of illustrations, but most of them were visible only on the private walls of their unostentatious owners. Blake’s art and his livelihood were thus largely in the hands of a small number of connoisseurs whose commissions were often inspired as much by love for the man as by admiration for his art.

Blake’s first really important commission was to illustrate every page of Edward Young’s popular and morbid long poem Night Thoughts – a total of 537 watercolours. However, the ambitious and inexperienced young bookseller neglected to advertise the book (maybe because he was already preparing to go out of business) and the work turned out to be commercial failure. After that, Blake accepted an invitation from the poet William Hayley to move with his wife to the little seaside farm village of Felpham in Sussex. There happened another significant episode in his biography.

On August 12, 1803, Blake found one of the dragoons, named John Schofield, lounging in his garden and perhaps tipsy. Blake asked him to leave and, on his refusal, took him by the elbows and marched him down the street to the inn. In revenge, Schofield together with his comrade Private John Cock claimed that Blake had “Damned the King of England.” Blake was forced to find bail and was bound over for trial for sedition and assault. With the support of Hayley and the lawyer whom he had hired, Blake was, according to one of the newspapers, "by the Jury acquitted, which so gratified the auditory, that the court was, in defiance of all decency, thrown into an uproar by their noisy exultations". He later incorporated his accusers and judges into his poems Milton and Jerusalem.

Unlucky madman

There were few opportunities for a wider public to view Blake’s watercolours and his temperas. He showed work at the exhibition of the Associated Painters in Water-Colours and exhibited some pictures at the Royal Academy of Arts, but these works were greeted with silence. The artist organized an exhibition of 16 watercolours and temperas in the family hosiery shop and at home on Broad Street. The most ambitious picture in the exhibition was The Ancient Britons depicting the last battle of the legendary King Arthur. The painting was said to have been 4.3 metres wide by 3 metres tall – the largest picture Blake ever made, is now lost and is known only by descriptions. "Figures full as large as Life", "masterpiece," and "his greatest and most perfect work" – that's all we know about it.

In his Descriptive Catalogue of Pictures, Blake wrote that the works on display were "copies from some stupendous originals now lost…[which] The Artist having been taken in vision into the ancient republics, monarchies, and patriarchates of Asia, has seen". Blake also inveighed against fashionable styles and artists, such as Peter Paul Rubens – whom he called "a most outrageous demon" and "that infernal machine called Chiaro Oscura" (a technique of shading called chiaroscuro).

Only a few people saw the exhibition, perhaps no more than a couple dozen, but they included Robert Hunt, who wrote the only printed notice of the exhibition published in the family weekly The Examiner. The critic described the pictures as "wretched", the Descriptive Catalogue as "a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity," and Blake himself as "an unfortunate lunatic, whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement". Few more destructive reviews have appeared in print, and Blake was devastated. He got very few commissions and sank deeper into poverty.


Blake’s last years, from 1818 to 1827, were comfortable and productive as a result of his friendship with the artist John Linnell. He also met the young painters George Richmond, Samuel Palmer, and Edward Calvert, who became his disciples, called themselves “the Ancients,” and reflected Blake’s inspiration in their art.

Blake died in his cramped rooms in the centre of London, on August 12, 1827. He was buried in a burial ground for Nonconformists, but he was given the beautiful funeral service of the Church of England. It is interesting that although the artist was christened, married, and buried by the rites of the church, he did not for the last forty years attend any place of Divine worship. In his Vision of the Last Judgment Blake wrote that "the Creator of this World is a very Cruel Being," and in his Gates of Paradise, he addressed Satan as "The Accuser who is The God of This World." He loved the world of the spirit and abominated institutionalized religion.

Blake was scarcely noticed in his own lifetime and the press reviews of his work were almost offensive. However, his death was followed by a flurry of obituaries, and in the following three years there appeared brief lives of him in books by John Thomas Smith and Allan Cunningham, and in 1863 there was published Alexander Gilchrist’s two-volume Life of William Blake, "Pictor Ignotus". Since then, Blake has been considered a major figure in English poetry and art.

In the 20th century, Blake’s appeal became worldwide. There have been major exhibitions of his art in London, Philadelphia, Paris, Antwerp, Zürich, Hamburg, New Haven, Toronto, Tokyo, Barcelona, Madrid and New York City. Blake’s influence has been traced in the works of authors as diverse as William Butler Yeats, Bernard Shaw, David Lawrence and many others. His works have served as inspiration for an enormous number of musical composers and pop musicians.

Author: Vlad Maslov