November 28, 2012
In his 1920 biography, “William Blake,” Gilbert Chesterton wrote:
William Blake was the son of a fairly prosperous hosier, “and it is certainly remarkable to note how many imaginative men in our island have arisen in such an environment. Napoleon said that we English were a nation of shopkeepers; if he had pursued the problem a little further he might have discovered why we are a nation of poets. Our recent slackness in poetry and in everything else is due to the fact that we are no longer a nation of shopkeepers, but merely a nation of shop owners.”
William Blake was born on Nov. 28, 1757, in London, England. He was a shopkeepers’ son, and he had little formal education. His mother taught Blake at home, primarily using the Bible, and Blake’s art and poetry reflected a unique relationship with religion.
When he was 14, Blake started a seven-year apprenticeship with noted engraver James Basire in London. Basire primarily engraved maps and antiquarian illustrations, and, according to biographer Peter Ackroyd, in his later years Blake became bitter over Basire’s criticism of his non-traditional approach to art.
When he completed his apprenticeship, Blake began studying at the Royal Academy, where Joshua Reynolds was president and lecturer. Blake exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy from 1780 until 1808, but he was not an admirer of Reynolds, as demonstrated in this verse from his “Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds’s ‘Discourses:’”
Degrade first the Arts if you'd Mankind degrade,
Hire Idiots to Paint with cold light & hot shade:
Give high Price for the worst, leave the best in disgrace,
And with Labours of Ignorance fill every place.
It is Blake’s disdain for orthodoxy that both kept him from being well regarded during his lifetime and made him celebrated once “discovered” by critic William Michael Rossetti. In 1848, Rossetti was one of the co-founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who were determined to reform art by ridding it of “any thing or person of a commonplace or conventional kind,” as Rossetti wrote in the Brotherhood’s literary magazine, “The Germ.” The Pre-Raphaelites thought that Reynolds and other artists like him had corrupted art by making beauty rather than truth the object.
Blake’s issue with Reynolds, the Church of England, and other institutions was their hypocrisy. Blake was educated with the Bible, but not by the Church, and Blake thought that it was lacking in compassion and forgiveness in favor of preaching duty and obedience; that it was focused on promoting its interests and not the plight of the poor.
Without the constraints of convention, Blake’s poetry, painting and engraving revealed his mystical visions. As biographer Chesterton wrote, in his less than restrained style, about Blake’s first work, “Songs of Innocence:” “In an age of enfeebled poetic style … Blake, unaided by any contemporary influence, produced a work of fresh and living beauty … Each page of these poems is a study of design, full of invention, and often wrought with the utmost delicacy of workmanship.”
Blake’s early focus was theistic, reconciling his vision of God, but as his work matured it reflected a growing personal mythology and symbolism that was rooted in his belief that the body and soul were inextricably intertwined.
Blake’s other unconventional ideas, for the time, were his thoughts on marriage, which he viewed as legalized prostitution, sexual equality, and sexuality, which he thought the Church repressed as a method of control.
Blake published 16 illuminated books, six book of poetry, and illustrated ten major works, including John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” Mary Wollencraft’s “Originial Stories from Real Life,” and the Book of Job, considered his masterpiece. He died on Aug. 12, 1827, without finishing the engravings for John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”