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William Blake (November 28, 1757- August 12, 1827) was an English poet, mystic, painter and printmaker, or "Author & Printer," as he signed many of his books. He is considered one of the last great Gothic artists.
Blake was born at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, London, England into a middle-class family. His artistic talent was noticed and encouraged from an early age. At ten years old, he began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities, a practice that was then preferred to real-life drawing. Four years later he became apprenticed to an engraver, Henry Basire. After two years Basire sent him to copy art from the Gothic churches in London. At the age of twenty-one Blake finished his apprenticeship and set up as a professional engraver.
In 1779 he became a student at the Royal Academy, where he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens. He preferred the Classical exactness of Michelangelo and Raphael.
In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron. In the same year he married a poor illiterate girl named Catherine Boucher, who was five years his junior. Coincidentally Catherine was also his mother's name. Catherine could neither read nor write and even signed her wedding contract with an X. Blake taught her reading and writing and even trained her as an engraver. At that time, George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake's work.
Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published circa 1783. His first foray into illuminated printing, a technique that became his hallmark, was made in 1788 with the book There is no Natural Religion. This was made by a colour printing process developed by Blake himself. His famous works Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience followed soon after. He became a friend of the painter John Henry Fuseli.
Illustration: The archetype of the "creator" is a familiar image in the illuminated books of William Blake. Here, Blake depicts an almighty creator stooped in prayer contemplating the world he has forged. The Song of Los is the third in a series of illuminated books, hand-painted by Blake and his wife, known as the "Continental Prophecies", considered by most critics to contain some of Blake's most powerful imagery.
Blake had an idiosyncratic view of his Christian religion. In 1789 William and Catherine joined the Swedenborgian New Church. He believed that the truth was learned by personal revelation, not by teaching. What he called his 'visions' were perhaps hallucinations, experiences that he allowed to guide his life. It was these that gave him such a strong and uncompromising belief in his own artistic direction, but also led others to call him eccentric or even mad.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Blake began to develop his own mythology, which included a pantheon of characters such as Orc, a messiah and Urizen, a cruel Old Testament-style god. Blake loved Milton's work and Blake tried, as Milton had, to create his own definitions of heaven and hell. This desire to recreate the cosmos is the heart of his work and his psychology. His myths often described the struggle between enlightenment and free love on the one hand, and restrictive education and morals on the other. Blake believed himself a prophet of a New Age, and his identification with free love and democracy has helped to make him a hero of many modern artists. The poet W. B. Yeats admired Blake's spiritualism and helped to popularise him in the 20th century.
Blake's marriage to Catherine remained a close and devoted one until his death. There were early problems, however, such as Catherine's illiteracy and the couple's failure to produce children. At one point, in accordance with the beliefs of the Swedenborgian Society, Blake suggested bringing in a concubine. Catherine was distressed at the idea, and he dropped it. Later in life, the pair seem to have settled down, and their apparent domestic harmony in middle age is better documented than their early difficulties.
Later in his life Blake sold a great number of works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend in need than an artist. Geoffrey Keynes, a biographer, described Butts as 'a dumb admirer of genius, which he could see but not quite understand.' Dumb or not, we have him to thank for eliciting and preserving so many works.
The Last Judgement is a work in which Blake sums up and illustrates all the mythology that he has created.
About 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 mediocre poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton (which was published later between 1804 and 1808). The preface to this book included the poem And did those feet in ancient time.
Blake returned to London in 1802 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804-1820). He was introduced by George Cumberland to a young artist named John Linnell. Through Linnell he met Samuel Palmer, who belonged to a group of artists who called themselves the 'Shoreham Ancients'. This group shared Blake's rejection of modern trends and his belief in a spiritual and artistic New Age. Blake benefited from this group technically, by sharing in their advances in watercolour painting, and personally, by finding a receptive audience for his ideas.
He died while still hard at work. His last work was said to be a sketch of his wife. Perhaps Blake's life is summed up by his statement that "The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself."
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