English painter, poet and print-maker, William Blake (b. 28 November 1757 – d. 12 August 1827) was largely unrecognised during his lifetime. He was born in Soho, London, the third of seven children; and left school at the age of ten. He was later to continue his education at home by his mother.
Drawn towards art, Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities and classical forms through to the works of Raphael and Michelangelo. It was during this time that Blake made explorations into poetry.
Despite joining the Royal Academy in 1779, Blake despised its director Joshua Reynolds. During his 6 year tenure, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by Reynolds. Although Blake came to detest Reynolds’ attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of “general beauty” he exhibited on six occasions between 1780 and 1808.
Left: Antaeus Setting Down Dante and Virgil in the Last Circle of Hell (illus. from “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri). Blake has used pen and ink; and watercolour over pencil and black chalk; with sponging and scraping to achieve this outcome.
Blake met and married Catherine Boucher on 18th August, 1782 at St Mary’s Church, Battersea. Despite her illiteracy, Blake taught her to read, write and become an engraver. Thereupon she became an invaluable aid, helping to print his illuminated works and maintaining his spirits throughout numerous misfortunes. In turn, she helped him colour his printed poems.
In 1788, aged 31, Blake experimented with “Relief Etching,” a method he used to produce most of his books, paintings, pamphlets and poems. The process is also referred to as “illuminated printing.” This involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations appeared alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid to dissolve the untreated copper and leave the design standing in relief. This is the reversal of the usual method of etching, where the lines of the design are exposed to the acid; and the plate printed by the intaglio method.
Blake used illuminated printing for most of his well-known works, including his more famous written poems: “The Lamb”, “The Tyger” and “Songs of Innocence and of Experience”, as well as “The Book of Thel” and “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.”
In 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 minor poet. It was in this cottage that Blake began Milton from 1804-1808. The preface to this work includes a poem beginning “And did those feet in ancient time“, which became the words for the anthem “Jerusalem“.
Blake returned to London in 1804 and began to write and illustrate “Jerusalem” which became his most ambitious work; having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”
Jerusalem was the last and the longest of Blake’s Prophetic Books. It tells of the struggles of Albion and his female counterpart Jerusalem; and their fall and final redemption through Christ. Here Vala, shown crowned, represents the fallen Jerusalem overcome; and incarcerated in the fiery depths of absolute despair. Her companions are Hyle, and Skofeld.
The commission for Dante’s Divine Comedy came to Blake in 1826 with the aim of producing a series of engravings. Blake’s death in 1827 cut short this enterprise, and only a handful of watercolours were completed; and because of this, Blake’s intent may be obscured. It is said that Blake’s central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante’s Inferno; where he is said to have spent one of his last shillings on a pencil to continue sketching.
On the day of his death, on 12 August, 1827, Blake worked relentlessly on his Dante series. Eventually, it is reported, he ceased working and turned to his wife, who was in tears by his bedside. Beholding her, Blake is said to have cried,
“Stay Kate! Keep just as you are
I will draw your portrait
for you have ever been an angel to me.“