William Blake: Romantic visionary
Seeing the world in a way that made his contemporaries think him mad, Blake was a minor figure in his own time. Today, as Danny Bird reveals, he’s regarded as one of Britain’s greatest-ever artists and poets
When William Blake was just four years old, he saw God appear in a window. A few years later, he came across a tree teeming with angels on Peckham Rye. Visions such as these were an everyday occurrence for Blake, a man whose work blurred the barrier between lived reality and the spiritual plane. Largely overlooked during his lifetime and even dismissed as insane, Blake has latterly come to be seen as one of the foremost figures of the Romantic Age. It’s a reputation that rests both on the extraordinary imagery of his art and on his resonant poetry.
Born on 28 November 1757 in a room above his father’s hosiery shop in Soho, London, Blake’s parents, James and Catherine, were religious dissenters (Protestants opposed to the Church of England). He grew up in modest circumstances, receiving a rudimentary education at his mother’s knee – commonplace at the time and something the older Blake regarded as crucial to developing an unfettered imagination. In 1772, he was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire and learned his craft by sketching the monuments inside Westminster Abbey.
Inspiration from above
Blake became an independent engraver and a student at the Royal Academy in 1779. But his experience there only served to fuel his opposition to the mainstream art establishment. In 1782, he married Catherine Boucher. Their union was a long and blissful one. He taught her to read, to write after a fashion and to paint. She even shared in his visions and later claimed that he visited her every day after his death.
The early 1780s saw Blake establish himself as a printer in partnership with a fellow former Basire apprentice, James Parker. However, tragedy struck in 1787 when Blake’s beloved younger brother, Robert, died of tuberculosis. Keeping vigil at his bedside, the visionary artist claimed to witness Robert’s spirit ascend to the ceiling, “clapping its hands for joy”.
This moment was so profound that Blake credited his brother’s spiritual influence as the source of the ‘Illuminated Printing’ technique that would become his trademark. Claiming to have had the knowledge revealed to him via Robert’s spirit, Blake set out on his most productive phase as an artist. Painting his designs on copper using an acid-resistant liquid before the plate was etched and printed, this method enabled him to become his own printer, binder, advertiser and salesman.
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In 1789, he published the first of arguably his most famous anthologies, Songs of Innocence. Five years later, he paired it with Songs of Experience, thus “Shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. Blake ignored the vogue for landscapes and portraiture. Instead, his own visions began to consume him as an artist. Biblical mythology and British history were also key sources of inspiration. His talents attracted patrons and Blake would ultimately create hundreds of paintings, illuminating everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Dante’s Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost.
A deeply conscientious individual, political and social satire recurred in his work. Like many of his Romantic contemporaries, Blake supported the French Revolution, even donning a Phrygian cap, an ancient symbol of liberty, in solidarity. In 1800, the Blakes were living outside of London in the Sussex village of Felpham, supported by the gentleman poet William Hayley. As tensions with Napoleon’s France escalated, British troops were deployed to the south coast. One day in August 1803, Blake ejected a soldier from his cottage garden and was accused of having “damned the king of England”. Faced with a trial for sedition, the Blakes relocated to London, only for a court to acquit him the following year.
Obscurity and recognition
Blake’s retrospective exhibition of 16 temperas and watercolours in 1809–10 aimed to reach a wider audience. The highlight was The Ancient Britons, a 14ft-wide painting depicting King Arthur’s last battle. Sadly, the work has since been lost. Attendance was sparse and the exhibition itself gained notoriety through a scathing review by Robert Hunt, published in The Examiner. Hunt called the pictures “wretched” and Blake “an unfortunate lunatic”. As his notebooks and, in some readings, his poems reveal, Blake was devastated. He began to withdraw from public view, engraving fewer plates and sinking deeper into poverty.
By 1821, the Blakes were living in a two-room apartment on the Strand. His final patron, John Linnell, provided them with some comfort and Blake entertained a coterie of enthusiasts known as ‘the Ancients’. He died on 12 August 1827 and was buried in the nonconformist graveyard at Bunhill Fields. During the latter half of the 19th century, Blake’s contributions to literature and art were finally recognised. In 1916, Sir Hubert Parry put music to the preface of Blake’s epic poem Milton and, with later help from Sir Edward Elgar’s orchestration, Jerusalem became England’s unofficial anthem. Blake’s place in the national story was assured.
This article was first published in the August 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)