William Blake (28 November 1757–12 August 1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, Blake is now considered a seminal figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age. His prophetic poetry has been said to form "what is in proportion to its merits the least read body of poetry in the English language". His visual artistry has led one modern critic to proclaim him "far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced". Although he only once journeyed farther than a day's walk outside London during his lifetime, he produced a diverse and symbolically rich corpus, which embraced the imagination as "the body of God", or "Human existence itself".
Considered mad by contemporaries for his idiosyncratic views, Blake is held in high regard by later critics for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work. His paintings and poetry have been characterized as part of both the Romantic movement and "Pre-Romantic", for its large appearance in the 18th century. Reverent of the Bible but hostile to the Church of England, Blake was influenced by the ideals and ambitions of the French and American revolutions, as well as by such thinkers as Jakob Böhme and Emanuel Swedenborg.
Despite these known influences, the singularity of Blake's work makes him difficult to classify. The 19th century scholar William Rossetti characterised Blake as a "glorious luminary," and as "a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors."
Historian Peter Marshall has classified Blake as one of the forerunners of modern anarchism, along with Blake's contemporary William Godwin.
The archetype of the Creator is a familiar image in Blake's work. Here, the demiurgic figure Urizen prays before the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books painted by Blake and his wife, collectively known as the Continental Prophecies.William Blake was born in 28 Broad Street, London, England on 28 November 1757, to a middle-class family. He was the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy. Blake's father, James, was a hosier. William never attended school, and was educated at home by his mother Catherine Wright Armitage Blake. The Blakes were Dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. The Bible was an early and profound influence on Blake, and would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life.
Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was then preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer. His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but was instead enrolled in drawing classes. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake was also making explorations into poetry; his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.
Apprenticeship to Basire
On 4 August 1772, Blake became apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for the term of seven years. At the end of this period, at the age of 21, he was to become a professional engraver. No record survives of any serious disagreement or conflict between the two during the period of Blake's apprenticeship. However, Peter Ackroyd's biography notes that Blake was later to add Basire's name to a list of artistic adversaries—and then cross it out. This aside, Basire's style of engraving was of a kind held to be old-fashioned at the time, and Blake's instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his acquiring of work or recognition in later life.
After two years Basire sent his apprentice to copy images from the Gothic churches in London (it is possible that this task was set in order to break up a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice), and his experiences in Westminster Abbey contributed to the formation of his artistic style and ideas; the Abbey of his day was decorated with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies and varicoloured waxworks. Ackroyd notes that "the most immediate would have been of faded brightness and colour". In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the Abbey, he was occasionally interrupted by the boys of Westminster School, one of whom "tormented" Blake so much one afternoon that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, "upon which he fell with terrific Violence". Blake beheld more visions in the Abbey, of a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard "the chant of plain-song and chorale".
The Royal Academy
On 8 October 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school's first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds' attitude toward art, especially his pursuit of "general truth" and "general beauty". Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the "disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind"; Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that "To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit". Blake also disliked Reynolds' apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds' fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Blake's first biographer Alexander Gilchrist records that in June 1780, Blake was walking towards Basire's shop in Great Queen Street when he was swept up by a rampaging mob that stormed Newgate Prison in London. They attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes, set the building ablaze, and released the prisoners inside. Blake was reportedly in the front rank of the mob during this attack. These riots, in response to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholicism, later came to be known as the Gordon Riots. They provoked a flurry of legislation from the government of George III, as well as the creation of the first police force.
Despite Gilchrist's insistence that Blake was "forced" to accompany the crowd, some biographers have argued that he accompanied it impulsively, or supported it as a revolutionary act. In contrast, Jerome McGann argues that the riots were reactionary, and that events would have provoked "disgust" in Blake.