When I think about William Blake, I instantly think of the film “Red Dragon” – you know the one where the character Francis Dolarhyde is obsessed with the painting and kills his family to try and gain the same strength as the creature depicted. The film was inspired by the book “Red Dragon” by Thomas Harris and was a lead into the Hannibal Lector stories. While this is where the majority of us will recognise the work from, Blake was more than just a painter, he was also a poet and a printmaker, who turned his back on formalised religion and created his own personal complex mythology.
Blake was largely unrecognised in his own lifetime, but now is considered a seminal figure of history for his written word and artistic vision of the Romantic age.
Blake was born on the 28th November 1757 and died on the 12th August 1827. He grew up in Soho and started engraving Greek figures from drawings that his father had purchased for him. This was his first introduction to the classical form. At the age of ten, his parents realised his headstrong personality and rather than sending him to school, enrolled him in drawing classes at the Pars school of drawing in The Strand and he avidly read on subjects of his own choosing.
In 1772, Blake became an apprentice to an engraver, James Basire. At the age of 21, he became a professional engraver. While no records survive of any conflicts between Blake and Basire, it would appear that for a time Basire was on Blake’s adversary list, although it was later crossed out. This could be that Black approached Basire about his outdated engraving methods of the linear form – which he favours over the modern stippling form. This could have been what damaged Blake’s recognition in his later years.
At one point during his apprentice days, Blake was sent to copy images from Gothic churches around London. The images which he created from Westminster Abbey, had a profound effect on his artistic style.
During 1779, Blake became a student of the Royal Academy. Here he rebelled against the what he considered as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, which we championed by the President of the school at the time – Joshua Reynolds. Blake started to despise Reynolds, feeling that he was a hypocrite and opposed his general attitude towards art. While there was a general discord between Reynolds and Blake, this didn’t stop Blake submitting work to be exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1780 and 1808.
In 1782, Blake met Catherine Boucher, who he recounted to her, and her parents, his recent heart break over a refused marriage proposal. Once he had told his story, he asked Catherine “Do you pity me?”, when she answered yes, Blake told her that he loved her. Catherine was five years younger than Blake, and they married in the same year. When they married Catherine was illiterate, but Blake taught her to read and write, and later taught her engraving. Catherine became invaluable to Blake as she assisted with is work and bolstered his spirits and his ego through moments of doubt.
Blake’s first collection of poems were published in 1783, and in 1784, he opened a print shop and started working with a radical publisher Joseph Johnson. In 1791, Blake illustrated the second edition of Mary Wollstonecraft’s book “Original Stories from Real Life” and he found that they shared views on sexual equality.
From here he started to use the technique of relief etching also known as illuminated printing, which is a process of using cooper plates and acid to create templates. These where then hand coloured after the printing process. He also worked in engraving, which he realised was the missing link between art and commerce, allowing artists to reach a mass audience.
In 1800, Blake got a job illustrating a book for a minor poet called William Hayley. This meant that he moved out of London and to a cottage in Felpham. In this cottage, Blake also started working on his epic poem “Milton”, which he would work on until 1808.
Over time Blake became disillusioned with his new patron, believing that he was not interested in the true artistry of his work, but in the “drudgery of business”. Blake’s issues with authority came to a head in 1803 when he got in an altercation with a soldier John Schofield. Blake was charged with assault as well as stating seditious and treasonous words against the King. Blake was reported to have said “Damn the King. Soldiers are all slaves”. While Blake was acquitted of the charges, he later depicted Schofield in forged manacles.
Blake returned to London in 1804, and started work on his most ambitious work “Jerusalem”. His idea was to portray the characters from Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales”. Blake approached a dealer called Robert Cromek. Cromek new that Blake was far too eccentric to produce a popular work, so commissioned the piece with Blake’s friend Thomas Slothard. When Blake heard what had happened, he broke off the contract with Slothard and set up an independent exhibition in his brother’s haberdashery shop in Soho. The exhibition was poorly received and met hostile criticism.
It was around the same time that Blake aired his views about the Royal Academy, calling it a fraud and stating, “To generalise is to be an idiot”.
In 1826 Blake received a commission to illustrate “Dantes Divine Comedy”, the aim was to produce a series of engravings, but this was cut short by Blake’s Death in 1827. Only 7 plates had been sent over for proofing. Despite only being a handful of completed works for this project, they earned praise, as they were seen to add a commentary to the text or a higher spiritual meaning.
Blake died on the 12th August 1827. He had been working relentlessly on the Dante project. Laid in bed, he tuned to his wife Catherine, and said that he wanted to draw her as she had been an angel in his life. Once the drawing was completed (it has since been lost), he downed tools and began to sing hymns. He promised his wife that he would be with her always, and then died at 6pm.
His wife paid for his funeral from money lent to her by John Linnell, who was a close friend. He was buried in a shared plot five days after his death, the day before his forty fifth wedding anniversary.
Catherine continued to sell Blake’s work, and believed that she was regularly visited by his spirit and she would not undertake any business transactions without consulting with Mr Blake.
Catherine died in 1831, and she was calm on the day of her death, calling out to Blake as though he was in the next room that she was coming to join him.
After Catherine’s death, Blake’s work was left in the hands of Fredrick Tatham. Tatham again continued to sell his work, but later joined the fundamentalist Irvingite Church. Under the influence of the church, he burned any works by Blake that was deemed heretical. It is not exactly known how many manuscripts were burned, but before his death, Blake had told a friend that he had written twenty tragedies all as long as “Macbeth”.
William Michael Rossetti also burned works by Blake that he felt were lacking in quality; John Linnell removed any works that had any sexual imagery. While a great deal of his work was destroyed, other friends managed to preserve some things which were not created for publication, such as his personal notebooks and “An Island on the Moon”.
Blake’s work demonstrated a rebellion against authority and organised religion as well as demonstrating an attitude towards class power. A key early work that demonstrated this was “The Marriage between Heaven and Hell” where the devil is represented as a hero who is rebelling against a false authority. “Jerusalem” and “Milton” concentrate more around redemption through self-sacrifice and forgiveness rather than the structured and rigid authoritarianism of organised religion.
Blake was truly ahead of his time, turning his attentions to free love and expressions of self-research into what he truly believed in. While this meant that his contemporaries saw him as completely mad, Blake was nothing but true to himself.
One of his surviving works was “The Ghost of a Flea” created in 1819-1820. This was after a discussion with painter/astrologer John Varley about odd dreams that he was having. Varley encouraged Blake to paint one of them, and the result was this picture.
The result was a human embodiment of a flea performing on a stage. It is seen as part vampire, part reptile and part flea. It is drinking from an acorn cup full of blood. The anecdote and the painting became very well-known but was goes a miss is the links to folk lore and fairy iconography of the time. His dreams full of fantastic creations which many misunderstood.
Blake’s work was all but forgotten after he died, until Alexander Gilchrist started work on his biography in 1860. The book transformed Blake’s reputation and made him extremely popular, especially to the Pre-Raphaelites. While his popularity increased, it was not truly understood until the twentieth century, where changes in thoughts around religion and sexual equality were starting to be embraced.
It is easy to say that someone is mad when you don’t truly listen to their views and beliefs. Blake was just born to an era who could never comprehend his free-thinking ways.