The son of a middle-class tradesman in London, William Blake received vocational training rather than a classroom education. Enrolled in drawing school at age 10 and apprenticed to a master engraver of book illustrations and prints by 15, a steady and predictable print shop career awaited. Blake’s personal artistic inclinations—nourished by the importance of books and reading in his family—developed in parallel and he began to write poetry around age 12. He later enrolled in the Royal Academy of Art to study painting, but dropped out after a year, finding the teachings incompatible with the direction of his work. Gradually, Blake merged his writing with visual media—prints, watercolors, and drawings—in a uniquely expressive form of illuminated poetry. He eventually established his own commercial printing shop, which allowed him the freedom to use his own printing presses and self-publish his lavishly illustrated volumes.
Blake’s dedication to his personal art was ambitious and uncompromising. He was drawn to epic themes that gave expression to his deeply held beliefs about the fallen condition of humanity, the pervasiveness of evil and oppressive forces, and states of spiritual and moral crisis. His works have make little reference to reality; they are images of a parallel cosmos held in Blake’s imagination. This alternate universe was fueled by his extensive reading of the Bible, mythology, Milton, and other literature but also reflected with his study of art history. During his training as an apprentice engraver, for example, he spent hours drawing the Gothic architecture of Westminster Abbey. There, he absorbed the lessons offered by the cathedral’s stylized forms, line, and symmetry, echoes of which can be seen in his art. Other sources—medieval illuminated manuscripts and the engravings of works by Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Albrecht Dürer he studied—also proved important sources to Blake.
His work’s originality and sometimes graphic content, as well as the eccentricity of his character led some of Blake’s peers to question his sanity and mental stability, according to contemporaneous accounts. The artist had visions of angels or spirits, the first of which occurred at age 10 when he saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars.” Such experiences were a source of inspiration for the artist and he recorded them in letters and writings.
Yet Blake did not live only in his own fantastical world. Much of his work responded to the events of the day. London in the final years of the eighteenth century had absorbed the foment of the American and French Revolutions, internal uprisings against class inequalities, and the transformations of the Industrial Revolution. Blake regarded such political and social shifts with suspicion, believing they foretold a coming apocalypse and subduing of humanity through new civic and technological orders.
Blake’s personal life was quiet. He married Catherine Boucher, who became his business partner and steadfast supporter. The couple did not have children. Blake found kinship with some artists of the day, including Henry Fuseli, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, but he had only a few steady patrons and died in a state of financial distress. Artists later in the century, especially the British Pre-Raphaelites and later the surrealists, found inspiration in Blake’s original and visionary art. Over the course of the twentieth century Blake assumed a place next to J.M.W. Turner and Constable as one of Britain’s greatest artists, his statue placed in the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey on the two-hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1957.