William Blake

​​‘Poet Artist Prophet’ says the stone laid by the Blake Society on William Blake’s grave in Bunhill Fields, London. Unusually, Blake was equally a writer and a visual artist. In their original form his most celebrated poems are extraordinary combinations of poetry and design, printed, hand-coloured and published in extremely limited runs by Blake and his wife, Catherine.

Born in 1757, in the midst of the ‘Age of Reason’, and as the Industrial Revolution was gathering steam, Blake worked all his life as a jobbing engraver, illustrating and engraving other artists’ illustrations for prints and books. He was profoundly religious and politically radical, and his poetry and artworks marry spiritual and social concerns, viewing the eternal via the contemporary events of Georgian London, and vice versa.

In his earlier poetry, in particular Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake is capable of communicating profound and challenging moral truths through apparently simple verse. His later poetry is an attempt to create his own mythology from the ground up, and consequently demands a little more of its readers (and more than Blake’s contemporaries were able or prepared to give). As Blake’s character Los, the Eternal Prophet says in Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, “I must Create a System, or be enslave’d by another Mans / I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create”.

Blake’s mature poetry imagines fallen humanity as Albion, a sleeping giant divided into warring psychic components, the Four Zoas, and as such predicts modern psychological models of the fractured or unbalanced psyche. But his vision is ultimately a hopeful one, a cosmic narrative which culminates in humanity’s return to unfallen, eternal existence, and which stresses the centrality of Human Imagination as, literally, Divine.

1757 – 1827

Blake’s Life


Blake was born on 28 November at 28 Broad Street in Soho, London, above the family hosiery shop. As a boy he saw God at a window of his home and a tree full of angels on Peckam Rye. He continued to see visions all his life.


He was apprenticed to engraver, James Basire and lived at his premises in Great Queen Street for the next seven years. Blake was often sent to Westminster Abbey to sketch the royal tombs and monuments, an early influence on his taste for the Gothic.


Blake set up as an independent engraver and enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy. Blake’s experience there set him on a path of opposition to the mainstream art establishment, epitomised by the RA’s founding president, Joshua Reynolds.

Blake married Catherine Boucher at St Mary’s Church, Battersea, and they moved to Green Street. The Blakes’ marriage was a long and apparently happy one. Catherine became an invaluable aid in printing and colouring Blake’s designs. Blake published Poetical Sketches, a collection of early lyric poems and literary imitations. This was the only ‘conventional’ un-illuminated volume of Blake’s poetry released in his lifetime.

After the death of his father Blake bought a printing press and set up a print shop with James Parker (another former apprentice of Basire) at 27 Broad Street, next to the family home. Blake wrote An Island in the Moon, an unpublished conversational farce that gently ridicules the pretensions of his social crowd.


After dissolving the partnership with Parker, William and Catherine moved to Poland Street.

Blake’s beloved younger brother, Robert died. At the moment of death Blake apparently saw his spirit rise towards the ceiling “clapping its hands for joy”. Soon after Robert appeared to him in a dream and gave to William the secret of a new form of relief printing.

The first fruits of this ‘Illuminated Printing’ technique were All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion.

This began an astonishing period of productivity for Blake. He published Songs of Innocence, which was later paired with Songs of Experience (1794), thus contrasting “The Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”, followed by The Book of Thel.
Blake printed The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. In part a satirical reaction against the influence of Swedish mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, it is also a freewheeling cosmic fantasy and trove of infernal proverbs. The Marriage is Blake at his most provocative, humorous and quotable. The Blakes moved to Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, where they would remain for the next decade. The books that followed are often now referred to as ‘The Lambeth Prophecies’.
The first of the ‘Lambeth Prophecies’ was Visions of the Daughters of Albion, in which Blake explored contemporary issues of female emancipation, slavery and sexual freedom. America a Prophecy was actually a reaction to the French Revolution and its contemporary aftermath. America introduced Orc, the fiery spirit of rebellion and Urizen, his oppressive, rationalist enemy. Blake would expand and explore this cast of allegorical characters in the subsequent Lambeth books, including Europe: a Prophecy and The [First] Book of Urizen.
Blake produced twelve large colour prints. Among the largest prints he ever produced, they include some of his best known standalone images, including Newton and Nebuchadnezzar.

At around this point Blake began work on Vala, or The Four Zoas. It remains an unpublished manuscript covered in scrawls, deletions and sketches, but it became the creative crucible for his later epics, Milton a Poem and Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion.


Blake began a series of paintings for civil servant Thomas Butts. Butts would go on to be one of Blake’s most important patrons, for whom he would produce many paintings on biblical themes as well as Paradise Lost and other poems by Milton.

The Blakes moved to Felpham in Sussex so that William could work for the gentleman poet, William Hayley. This was the only time that Blake would live outside of London. Though he began Hayley’s various projects with great enthusiasm Blake soon began to resent his situation.

After ejecting a soldier, John Scolfield, from the garden of his cottage, Blake was charged with sedition. He was acquitted the following year but, while anxiously awaiting trial, William and Catherine moved back to London, settling in South Molton Street.


Blake was commissioned to illustrate Robert Blair’s ‘Graveyard poem’ The Grave but during production he was replaced as engraver. The experience was deeply unhappy for Blake but nevertheless his illustrations for The Grave (engraved by Schiavonetti) were the work for which he was best known in his lifetime.


Blake made a last attempt to win over the contemporary art world with a one-man show at 28 Broad Street (now his brother’s house and shop). Unfortunately, few attended and the only review savaged Blake’s paintings as “the wild effusions of a distempered brain”.

Blake printed the first copies of Milton a Poem, his lavishly illustrated epic. The poem is in part a visionary processing of Blake’s challenging time in Felpham, (perhaps unfairly) casting Hayley as Satan, and imagines the poet Milton returning to earth to correct his errors.
Blake met John Linnell, who would prove to be a great friend and important patron in his final decade. Linnell introduced him to John Varley, with whom Blake would enjoy late-night visionary ‘life drawing’ sessions, sketching ‘Visionary Heads’ including deceased kings, biblical characters and the demonic Ghost of a Flea.
Blake printed the first copies of Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion, illustrated with beautiful, frightening and strange images. Its four books, over 100 pages, are the last iteration of his apocalyptic myth of Albion, the Four Zoas and their emanations and spectres.
Linnell secured a commission for Blake to illustrate Thornton’s translation of Virgil’s Pastorals, an unusual and beautiful venture into wood engraving. The Blakes moved to Fountain Court, a meagre two-room apartment off The Strand, and their last home together. Blake was befriended by ‘The Ancients’ a group of idealistic, young artists including Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert and Frederick Tatham who revered him as ‘The Interpreter’.
Blake began a series of drawings and paintings of Dante’s Divine Comedy. This was the first of the two Linnell compositions that occupied Blake’s final years.
The other was The Book of Job. This series is a stark masterpiece of uncoloured, intaglio engraving, with the biblical story subtly reinterpreted to fit Blake’s theology.

Blake died at Fountain Court on 12 August. According to George Cumberland “Just before he died His Countenance became fair – His eyes brighten’d and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven”. He was buried in the dissenters’ graveyard at Bunhill Fields. Catherine lived another four years but apparently Blake would visit her on a daily basis.