WILLIAM BLAKE Biography - Other artists & entretainers


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William Blake (November 28, 1757 - August 12, 1827) was an English poet, painter and printmaker, or “Author & Printer", as he signed many of his books.


Early career
Blake was born at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, London into a middle-class family. He was from earliest youth a seer of visions and a dreamer of dreams, seeing “Ezekiel sitting under a green bough,” and “a tree full of angels at Peckham,” and such he remained to the end of his days. His teeming imagination sought expression both in verse and in drawing. At ten years old, he began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities, a practice that was then preferred to real-life drawing. Four years later he became apprenticed to an engraver, James Basire. After two years Basire sent him to copy art from the Gothic churches in London. At the age of twenty-one Blake finished his apprenticeship and set up as a professional engraver.


In 1779, he became a student at the Royal Academy, where he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens. He preferred the Classical exactness of Michelangelo and Raphael.


In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron. In the same year he married a poor, illiterate girl named Catherine Boucher, who was five years his junior. Catherine could neither read nor write and signed her wedding contract with an X. Blake taught her reading and writing and even trained her as an engraveress. At that time, George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake’s work.


Blake’s first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published circa 1783. After his fathers death, William and brother, Robert, opened a print shop in 1784 and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. At Johnson’s house he met some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time in England, including Joseph Priestley, scientist; Richard Price, philosopher; John Henry Fuseli, painter whom he became friends with; Mary Wollstonecraft, feminist; and Tom Paine, American revolutionary. Along with William Wordsworth and William Godwin, Blake had great hopes for the American and French revolution and wore a red liberty cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in the French revolution.


Mary Wollstonecraft became a close friend, and Blake illustrated her Original Stories from Real Life(1788). They shared similar views on sexual equality and the institution of marriage. In the Visions of the Daughters of Albion in 1793 Blake condemned the cruel absurdity of enforced chastity and marriage without love and defended the right of women to complete self-fulfillment.


In 1788, at the age of thirty-one, Blake began to experiment with “relief etching", which was the method used to produce most of his books of poems. Blake wrote in a letter that the method was revealed to him in a dream of his dead brother, Robert. The process is also referred to as “illuminated printing,” and final products as “illuminated books” or “prints". Illuminated printing involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid in order to dissolve away the untreated copper and leave the design standing. The pages printed from these plates then had to be hand-colored in water colors and stiched together to make up a volume. Blake used illuminated printing for four of his works: the Songs of Innocence and Experience, The Book of Thel, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Jerusalem. Each of his illuminated books was thus a unique work of art and a radical break with not only traditional book printing but the traditional means of presenting poetic and philosophical discourse. Blake seems to have believed, or rather hoped, that self-published books could liberate the artist and author from the tyranny of censorship by Church and State but its time-consuming nature meant that his most personal and prophetic works reached a minute audience in his lifetime.


Later life
Blake’s marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death. There were early problems, however, such as Catherine’s illiteracy and the couple’s failure to produce children. At one point, in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, Blake suggested bringing in a concubine. Catherine was distressed at the idea, and he dropped it. Later in life, the pair seem to have settled down, and their apparent domestic harmony in middle age is better documented than their early difficulties.


Later in his life Blake sold a great number of works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend in need than an artist. Geoffrey Keynes, a biographer, described Butts as ‘a dumb admirer of genius, which he could see but not quite understand.’ Dumb or not, we have him to thank for eliciting and preserving so many works.


About 1800 Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex (now West Sussex) to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a mediocre poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton: a Poem (which was published later between 1804 and 1808). The preface to this book included the poem And did those feet in ancient time, which Blake decided to discard for later editions. This is ironic, because as the words to the hymn Jerusalem, this is now one of Blake’s most well-known if not well-understood poems.


Slavery was abhored by Blake, who believed in racial and sexual equality, with several of his poems and paintings expressing a notion of universal humanity: “As all men are alike (tho’ infinitely various)". He retained an active interest in social and political events for all his life, but was often forced to resorting to cloaking social idealism and political statements in protestant mystical allegory. His constant vision for humanity was rebuilding “Jerusalem” on earth, a uniting of the physical and spiritual sides of human nature, free of economic exploitation, with people able to develop the full potential of their being. Blake rejected all forms of imposed authority, indeed was charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King in 1803, but was cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges.


Blake returned to London in 1802 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804-1820). He was introduced by George Cumberland to a young artist named John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the ‘Shoreham Ancients’. This group shared Blake’s rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. Blake benefited from this group technically, by sharing in their advances in watercolour painting, and personally, by finding a receptive audience for his ideas.


At the age of sixty-five Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. These works were later admired by John Ruskin, who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt.


William Blake died in 1827 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields, London. In recent years, a proper memorial was erected for him and his wife.


He died while still hard at work. His last work was said to be a sketch of his wife.


A truly pious and loving soul, neglected and misunderstood by the world, but appreciated by an elect few, Blake led a cheerful and contented life of poverty illumined by visions and celestial inspirations. Perhaps his life is summed up by his statement that “The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself.”


English writer, Peter Marshall, in William Blake: Visionary Anarchist (1988), described Blake as:
  “a revolutionary anarchist, looking back to the gnostic heresies of the Middle Ages and anticipating modern anarchism and social ecology. With William Godwin, he stands as a great forerunner of British Anarchism".


Blake Prize for Religious Art
  The Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour in Australia in 1949.


  “Illuminated Books":
  c.1788: All Religions are One, There is No Natural Religion
  1789: Songs of Innocence, The Book of Thel
  1790-1793: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
  1793: Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America: a Prophecy
  1794: Europe: a Prophecy, The First Book of Urizen, Songs of Experience (The sequel to Songs of Innocence, with many of its poems intended as counterpoints from the Fallen world to those in the first book, this was Blake’s only Illuminated book to achieve even limited success in his lifetime. It includes the poems The Tyger and The Sick Rose)
  1795: The Book of Los, The Song of Los, The Book of Ahania
  c.1804-c.1811: Milton: a Poem
  1804-1820: Jerusalem: The Emanation of The Giant Albion
Never seek to tell thy love


Works by other authors illustrated by Blake:
  1788: Mary Wollstonecraft, Original Stories from Real Life
  1797: Edward Young, Night Thoughts
  1805-1808: Robert Blair, The Grave
  1808: John Milton, Paradise Lost
  1819-1820: John Varley, Visionary Heads
  1821: R.J. Thornton, Virgil
  1823-1826: The Book of Job
  1825-1827: Dante, The Divine Comedy (Blake died in 1827 with these watercolours still unfinished)


Books on William Blake
  Jacob Bronowski (1972). William Blake and the Age of Revolution. Routledge and K. Paul. ISBN 0-710-07277-5 (hardcover) ISBN 0-710-07278-3 (pbk.)
  Jacob Bronowski (1967). William Blake, 1757-1827; a man without a mask. Haskell House Publishers.
  S. Foster Damon (1979). A Blake Dictionary. Shambhala. ISBN 0-394-73688-5.
  Northrop Frye (1947). Fearful Symmetry. Princeton Univ Press. ISBN 0-691-06165-3.
  Peter Ackroyd (1995). Blake. Sinclair-Stevenson. ISBN 1-85619-278-4.
  E.P. Thompson (1993). Witness against the Beast. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-22515-9.
  Victor N. Paananen (1996). William Blake. Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8057-7053-4.
  George Anthony Rosso Jr. (1993). Blake’s Prophetic Workshop: A Study of The Four Zoas. Associated University Presses. ISBN 0-8387-5240-3.
  G.E. Bentley Jr. (2001). The Stranger From Paradise: A Biography of William Blake. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-08939-2.
  David V. Erdman (1977). Blake: Prophet Against Empire: A Poet’s Interpretation of the History of His Own Times. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-486-26719-9.
  James King (1991). William Blake: His Life. St. Martin’s Press. ISBN 0-312-07572-3.
  W.J.T. Mitchell (1978). Blake’s Composite Art: A Study of the Illuminated Poetry. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-691-01402-7.
  Peter Marshall (1988). William Blake: Visionary Anarchist ISBN 090038477


Works inspired by Blake
  Tyger, an album by electronic music artists Tangerine Dream, features a number of William Blake poems set to music.
  Red Dragon, a novel by Thomas Harris, whose title refers to Blake’s painting The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun. After the success of Harris’ earlier novel, The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon was again made into a film (Manhunter being the first).
  Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an album by the Norwegian musical group Ulver from 1998, utilizes the complete text of the Blake poem lyrically.
  The Songs of Innocence and Experience have been set to music by Ralph Vaughan-Williams. Albums using them as lyrics include Greg Brown’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience” and Jah Wobble’s “The Inspiration of William Blake". Allen Ginsberg also released an album of Blake songs.
  A series of poems and texts chosen by Peter Pears from Songs of Innocence, Songs of Experience, Auguries of Innocence, and The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was made into the song cycle, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, by Benjamin Britten in 1965.
  The Sick Rose from Songs of Experience is one of the poems by several authors set to music by Benjamin Britten in Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings.
  Spring, by Finn Coren
  The World of Tiers books by Philip Jose Farmer
  Quotations from Blake form the climax of Jerry Springer - The Opera
  Dead Man, a film written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, features a character named William Blake and includes many references to Blake’s work.
  Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!, a novel by Kenzaburo Oe
  Love’s Secret Domain, an electronic album by Coil, quotes Blake numerous times in the lyrics. The title track is also a reinterpretation of The Sick Rose. Various other albums by Coil carry many Blake references and allusions.
  The book The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley draws its title from a line in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. The title of Huxley’s book, in turn, inspired the naming of the rock band The Doors.
  The Amber Spyglass, the third book from the collection His Dark Materials, by Phillip Pullman, has several quotations from Blake’s works.
  The Chemical Wedding album by Bruce Dickinson.