​William Blake

Biography for ​William Blake

He was born in London in 1757 into a family of five children. His father, James Blake, was a hosier. Even as a child, Blake experienced visions of biblical themes such as angels and prophets. He was educated at home until he was eleven and then sent to a drawing school.

He completed the school in 1772 and then spent the following seven years as an apprentice to the engraver James Basire. In 1779, he began studying engraving at the Royal Academy.
Blake married Catherine Boucher in 1782. She was a poor, illiterate young woman whom he soon taught to read and write, as well as to aid him in his drawings.

1783 saw the appearance of Blake's first book, Poetical Sketches. The volume consisted of poetry and prose pieces, and just forty copies were published to distribute to friends. Its verses are now acclaimed for their lyricism and originality.

Blake was deeply grieved in 1786 when younger brother Robert died of consumption at age 19. At his death, Blake experienced a vision in which he saw his joyful brother ascending to heaven. From this time on, he felt that his brother's spirit dwelt with him and gave him inspiration concerning his engraving methods. In this way, his brother gave him the idea to etch drawings and poems on the same copper plate, a novel idea. This led to Blake's illuminated tractates in the form of All Religions Are One (1788) and There is No Natural Religion (1788).

Blake was drawn to the mystic philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg during this period. In 1789, he participated in the first General Conference at Swedenborg's New Jerusalem Church in London. Blake would later draw on Swedenborg's work in his own writing, while also criticizing certain tenets with which he disagreed.

Ever working on his illuminated prints, Blake published his masterful The Book of Thel (1789) and Songs of Innocence (1789). Both consisted of poems accompanied with colorful engravings. Blake's satirical The Marriage of Heaven and Hell appeared in 1790, the title being a reference to Swedenborg's earlier Heaven and Hell (1758).

Although compelled to spend much of his time earning his living as a commercial engraver, Blake was constantly working on a steady stream of illuminated volumes. These included Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), America: A Prophecy (1793), Europe: A Prophecy (1794), The Song of Los (1795), and The Book of Ahania (1795).

Blake was a lifelong resident of London who only lived outside the city from 1800 to 1803. During these years, he lived in the Sussex coastal town of Felpham, where he served under the patronage of the poet William Hayley. 

After returning to London, he began working on two of his epic masterpieces, Milton: A Poem (1804-1820) and Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804-1820). The latter is the most richly-decorated of Blake's works, with illustrations on nearly every one of its 100 plates.

Blake exhibited sixteen of his paintings in 1809 and 1810 but failed to draw any public attention. Throughout his life, his work would remain unrecognized. It would not be until after his death that he would be known as one of the greatest early figures of Romanticism, whose illuminated prints would be recognized as highly original.

In the final years of his life, Blake published Illustrations of the Book of Job (1825) and Illustrations of Dante (1827). Blake died in London in 1827 while still hard at work on his Dante series.


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