William Blake


28 November 1757 to 12 August 1827

Blake in 1807 (Thomas Phillips)

And did those feet, in ancient times

Walk upon England’s mountains green

And was the Holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen

And did the countenance divine

Shine forth upon those crowded hill,

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among the dark satanic mills

Blake’s Ancient of Days







In an age of school league tables and continuous educational testing it is interesting to note that William Blake never went to school and was educated by his mother.  Also he was born and died in London and in his entire life, only once travelled more than a day’s walk from the capital.  He is, nevertheless recognised as one of England’s great visionaries and a hugely significant figure in the development of poetry and the visual arts of the Romantic Age.  This despite the fact that his genius as a poet, painter and printmaker was to a large extent unrecognised during his lifetime.  In fact his opinions led to him being considered mad by his contemporaries.

The poems; “A New Jerusalem” and “Tiger, tiger” are two of the most familiar in the English language while his apocalyptic visions make his engravings familiar to all.

In a letter to Thomas Butts, dated April 25, 1803, Blake writes:  Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy'd, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv'd & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends.

Blake is esteemed for his expressiveness and creativity, and for the philosophical and mystical undercurrents within his work and has been called "the greatest artist Britain ever produced".   Blake respected the bible but had little respect for the for the Church of England, which considered him iconoclastic.  He was greatly influenced by the revolutionary spirit of the age, especially the American and French revolutions, and the work of such thinkers as Jacob Boehme and Emanuel Swedenborg.


This Monument stands close to Blake’s

unmarked grave in London

His painting have been categorised as part of the Romantic movement but others consider that his talent was so unique it could not be so classified. The scholar William Rossetti characterised him as a "glorious luminary" and as "a man not forestalled by predecessors, nor to be classed with contemporaries, nor to be replaced by known or readily surmisable successors." 

In the words of Ed Buryn, creator of the William Blake Tarot:  “William Blake's art and ideas represent a tested vision of life That is eternal and yet fresh. Especially today, with our neo-Romantic renewal of interest in artistic, emotional, visionary, and transcendental views of reality, Blake's works blaze forth with extraordinary depth and ability to inspire.”  Further, while Blake was apparently unaware of both the Tarot and the mystical revolution of the time which paralleled both the American and French revolutions, ‘Blake mystically required a deep and comprehensive view of life, and thus began to develop his own spiritual system in accordance with his famous dictum: "I must create a system or be enslav'd by another man's."’

The first of the large iron foundries which heralded Victorian industrialisation, such as the Carron works in Coalbrookdale, date from around 1780.  There was an air of optimism which belied the often inhuman conditions of work and the lives of poor families.  Even the working classes were more concerned about machinery taking their jobs than about the conditions.

The only people who saw through the false optimism surrounding the birth of the industrial age were the poets.  Blake thought that the mills were the work of Satan:  “Oh Satan, my youngest born ... thy work is eternal death with Mills and Ovens and Cauldrons”.



TIGER! Tiger burning bright

In the forests of the night

What immortal hand or eye

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?


In what distant deeps or skies

Burnt the fire of thine eyes?

On what wings dare he aspire?

What the hand dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, and what art,

Could twist the sinews of thy heart?

And, when thy heart began to beat,

What dread hand? And what dread feet?


What the hammer? What the chain?

In what furnace was thy brain?

What the anvil? What dread grasp

Dare its deadly terrors clasp?

When the stars threw down their spears,

And watered heaven with their tears,

Did he smile His work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?


Tiger! Tiger! Burning bright

In the forests of the night,

What immortal hand or eye

Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?




William Blake was born on November 28, 1757 at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, London, England on 28 November 1757, the third of seven children, two of whom died in infancy.   His father, James, was a hosier.  The family were Dissenters, and are believed to have belonged to the Moravian Church. Blake was influenced very early in life by the bible and it would remain a source of inspiration throughout his life. 

Rather than being sent to school, William was educated at home by his mother and enrolled in drawing classes.  His father purchased Greek antiquities for him and he made engravings of these (rather than drawings) and at the same time, received early exposure to the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Durer et al.  He was also reading avidly and becoming familiar with the work of, among others, Ben Johnson and Edmund Spenser.

Blake was greatly influenced by departed friends and especially the loss of his brother: “I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.”


     The Great Red Dragon and the

    Woman Clothed with Sun (1805)

He became apprenticed to the engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street On 4 August 1772, for a term of seven years.  Although there is no record of any serious conflicts with his mentor during this period, Basire was an “old school” engraver – some said old-fashioned - and though William no doubt learnt much of technique during this time, Basire did little to inspire him artistically. 

However, when William was posted to copy images from the Gothic churches of London he found a great source of inspiration, particularly at Westminster Abbey, where the with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies and varicoloured waxworks contributed greatly to the formation of his style.  Amusingly, it is believed that Basire sent him on this assignment at least partly because the animosity between Blake and his other apprentice, James Parker, was driving him nuts.  Blake’s visions in the Abbey included a great procession of monks and priests and he heard "the chant of plainsong and chorale".

Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (1786)

He was enrolled as a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand, on 8th October 1779.  He rebelled against the style of the school's first president, Joshua Reynolds and especially Reynolds’ admiration of "general truth" and "general beauty". Reynolds considered that "disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind"  Blake responded to this with: "To generalize is to be an Idiot; to particularize is the alone distinction of merit".  Blake preferred instead the classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.

In 1782, Blake met John Flaxman, who became his patron.  Blake lived in poverty for much of his life and relied heavily on the patronage of other artists.

At this time he met Catherine Boucher, five years his junior, while recovering from the rejection of his proposal of marriage in a previous relationship.  Catherine and her parents were sympathetic, whereupon Blake asked her, "Do you pity me?"  She replied in the affirmative to which he responded, "Then I love you."

Catherine was illiterate and signed her wedding contract, at St. Mary's Church, Battersea on 18 August 1782, with an 'X'. During their marriage Blake not only taught Catherine to read and write but also trained her as an engraver.  They were mutually supportive and Catherine held up William’s spirits through his many misfortunes.  They were a devoted couple until his death forty five years later.

Catherine, by William Blake, 1805

Blake believed in racial and sexual equality and hated slavery, believing: " ~ all men are alike (tho' infinitely various) ~".

In a poem narrated by a black child, white and black bodies alike are described as shaded groves or clouds:

When I from black, and he from white cloud free,

And round the tent of God like lambs we joy,

I'll shade him from the heat till he can bear

To lean in joy upon our Father's knee;

And then I'll stand and stroke his silver hair,

And be like him, and he will then love me.


Blake considered that: “All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors:

            1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.

            2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul.

            3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.”


However, he considered that:  “the following Contraries to these are True:

            1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age.

            2. Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.

            3. Energy is Eternal Delight.”


If he had been Antichrist, Creeping Jesus,

He'd have done anything to please us:

Gone sneaking into the Synagogues

And not used the Elders & Priests like Dogs,

But humble as a Lamb or an Ass,

Obey himself to Caiaphas.

God wants not man to humble himself





There are books by the cartload on or by William Blake.  Here is a small selection:

Samuel Foster Damon                               A Blake Dictionary (Revised Edition).                                                                        Brown University Press

Saree Makdisi                                             William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s.                                                                                                                                              2003

Thomas J. J. Altizer                                  The New Apocalypse: The Radical Christian Vision of William Blake.                                                                                                                   2000

William Blake                                             Proverbs of Hell, via The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake.                                                                                                               1982

Gerald Eades Bentley Blake                   William Blake: The Critical Heritage.                                                                        London: Routledge & K. Paul

Dominic Baker-Smith                               Between Dream and Nature: Essays on Utopia and Dystopia.                                                                                                                                     1987

Christopher B. Kaiser                               Creational Theology and the History of Physical Science.                                                                                                                                          1997


© Ken James 2009