The third son of the five children of James Blake and his wife, Catherine, Blake was born near Golden Square, Soho, in London, on 28 November 1757. He entered Henry Pars' drawing school in the Strand at the age of ten, was writing poetry by the age of twelve, and by the time he was twenty had produced some of the finest lyrical poetry in the English language. In 1772 he was apprenticed for seven years to the successful engraver James Basire, who employed him between about 1774 and 1775 on drawing medieval tomb sculpture in Westminster Abbey for Richard Gough's Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain. In 1779 Blake was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools as an engraver, and he first exhibited there in 1780 a painting of an historical subject.
In 1782 Blake married Catherine Butcher or Boucher; there were no children. After the death of his father in 1784 he set up a print shop next door to his birthplace with James Parker, a fellow apprentice of Basire. Blake was obliged for long periods of his life to make his living as a reproductive engraver, and he was regarded as such by most of his contemporaries.
In 1788 Blake developed a process of etching in relief that enabled him to combine illustrations and text on the same page and to print them himself, thus ensuring complete independence of thought and expression. Four illuminated books appeared between 1789 and 1794. Many of his large independent color prints, or monotypes, were done in 1795. From 1795 to 1797 he produced over five hundred watercolors for an edition of Edward Young's Night Thoughts, of which only one volume was published.
In 1799 Blake was commissioned by Thomas Butts, a minor civil servant, to paint fifty small Biblical subjects, which he executed in tempera. Butts, his single most important patron, seems to have bought the bulk of his output until at least 1810. In 1800, mentally exhausted, Blake moved to Felpham, near Chichester, at the invitation of the poet William Hayley, who offered him inconsequential employment for three years; there he regained a spiritual calm and was deeply affected by the study of Milton. Returning to London he began Jerusalem in 1804, a project he worked on continually until his death, and executed for Butts a large number of watercolors of Biblical subjects, including illustrations to the Book of Job. Between 1809 and 1810, enraged at being cheated by the publisher Cromek, Blake held an exhibition of his work, predictably a total failure with the critics and the public, at his brother's house in Soho, his birthplace.
Neglected and in poverty, Blake was introduced in 1818 to John Linnell, who became his second major patron, commissioning a succession of works--including the engravings to the Book of Job (1823-1826), Blake's most popular work, and a set of illustrations to Dante's Divine Comedy (1824-1827)--and who made regular payments to him until his death. In spite of Linnell's patronage, Blake was in considerable financial distress during his later years, and was obliged in 1821 to sell his entire collection of prints to Colnaghi's. In 1822, at Linnell's insistance, he was the recipient of a grant from the Royal Academy. He died of gallstones at his home in Fountain Court, Strand, London, on 12 August 1827.
[Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1992: 12-14.]
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