Some consider him England’s greatest ever artist but it is an opinion far from universally shared, and his legacy remains as controversial today as he was conflicted in his own lifetime. Indeed, he was always too much of a maverick to be anything but a genius.
William Blake was born in Soho on 28 November 1757, the son of a hosier which was not a lucrative profession by any means but his family appear to have been affluent enough to indulge their son’s love of art and books. Even so, he had little in the way of any formal education and like many autodidacts with an inquisitive mind the views he developed were often contrary to the accepted norms of the time and he was always more sceptical of the taught than he was the learned.
In 1772, aged fifteen he was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire where he was sent to sketch London’s many Gothic Churches spending endless and not always happy hours within the confines of Westminster Abbey and other such places that provided less quiet contemplation than might have been expected.
Having completed his apprenticeship as an engraver in 1779 he studied fine art at the Royal Academy where he opened a printing shop which brought him into contact with many of the leading radicals in the city.
In 1782, he wed Catherine Boucher, the illiterate daughter of a market gardener on the rebound from an earlier failed relationship which despite its somewhat unpromising beginnings and his own unorthodox views on the institution of marriage which he often referred to as a form of slavery with an unnatural monogamy at its core, was to be a long and happy one. The following year he published his first book of poetry.
Blake is often thought of as a radical but his politics were never coherent and he participated in the anti-Catholic and essentially reactionary Gordon Riots before later embracing and then rejecting the ideals of the French Revolution which he decided had simply been the replacement of one, oppressive orthodoxy for another.
In truth, he always opposed the abuse of power and it seemed to him that those who wielded it were invariably corrupted by it regardless of their fine words and any professed ideals. So despite being a vocal critic of slavery and indeed of war he was never truly trusted either by the radicals or the political establishment.
The one constant in his life from birth was the Bible and it was both his inspiration and his guiding star but its interpretation was all his own and many people considered his work profane, even blasphemous.
He had little time for orthodox religion believing it negated passion and removed joy from the world. God, he said, had provided mankind with a passion that was to be, expressed, and even indulged:
“Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed and governed the passions or have no passions but because they have cultivated its understanding.”
He claimed to have had visions all his life, to be in direct communication with God, to have visited Heaven and to be always accompanied by angels but he also feared that Satan walked the Earth. So he took instruction from Angels and sought comfort in conversations with the dead:
“I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than they were apparent in our mortal part.”
Some, among them the poet William Wordsworth, merely thought him mad.
Though Blake was not renowned for his verse during his lifetime but rather for his engravings and the beauty of his many illuminated manuscripts it is for a poem untitled but known to us as Jerusalem that he is best remembered today.
Since it was put to music by Sir Hubert Parry in 1915, Jerusalem has become the unofficial anthem of England:
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?
And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my bows of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my spear: O cloud unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from Mental Fight
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
Blake is often associated now with the Romantic Poets but unlike Byron, Shelley and the others his work has a dark fatalism which like his art rich in symbolism and Biblical allegory has an intensity of anguish and desire that is often uncomfortable but can rarely be ignored.
He didn’t dream – he had visions and nightmares.
William Blake died on 12 August 1827, singing hymns late into the night, in the presence of his wife, and accompanied it is said by a chorus of angels.
An Allegory of Peace
Body of Christ Borne to the Tomb
Christ Blessing the Children
Book of Job
Eve Naming the Birds
Oberon, Titania, Puck, and the Fairy Dancers