The year was 1757. A boy was born in Soho, London, into a working class family. But his destiny was to become a famous poet and painter. The times were exciting and romantic. The period between 17 and 19 century in Europe is called “Enlightenment” and it is a new era, marked by incredible development of science, technology and machinery. The Enlightenment was promoting ideas “centered on the sovereignty of reason and the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government.” Wikipedia
The arts were reflecting on the ideas and ideals of the time. The artists were amazed by the new scientific discoveries and the new freedom of expression. The period of the late 1700, when William Blake flourished as a poet and painter, is called Romanticism. Although he was humble enough to never refer to himself as “a poet and a painter”. He preferred to call himself “a craftsman” and he thought all painters should call themselves craftsmen and not think of themselves as any better than that.
As the other romantic artists, he was equally fascinated by the nature and by the human beings in their material, but also emotional, psychological and spiritual expression.
Blake was influenced by the Bible since he was very young and this strong influence always remained a source of inspiration for him, bringing spirituality into his life and works. When he was only 4 years old, Blake started to have visions, and his friend and journalist Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that “Blake saw God’s head appear in a window when Blake was 4 years old”. He had another vision, of the prophet Ezekiel, who was under a tree ‘filled with angels.’ Blake’s visions always played an important role in the process of creating his visual art and poems.
The Age of Enlightenment was a time when science started to explain a lot about the world, but Blake was worried that science would explain everything and then people might stop believing in God. His belief that the imagination is the most important element of human existence opposed to Enlightenment ideals of rationalism and empiricism. Due to his visionary religious beliefs, he didn’t share the Newtonian view of the Universe. Like his peers in the world of Romantic literature – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelly. Blake never liked the contemporary culture of the industrialization, neither the mechanization and intellectual minimalism, brought by that culture. Blake thought that imaginative insight was the only way to reveal the reality, otherwise wrapped up in the vale of the rational thought, stating that ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.’
A very strong believer in liberty and freedom for all, especially for women, he created controversy with his views on Church and state. Blake’s childhood was marked by his unusual spiritual visions, but at the age of 14 he followed a usual path as an engraver’s apprentice. Also around the age of 14, Blake started to collect prints of artists who were not very popular at that time, such as Durer, Raphael and Michelangelo. In the catalogue for an exhibition of his own work in 1809, nearly 40 years later, in fact, Blake would criticized artists ‘who endeavour to raise up a style against Rafael, Mich. Angelo, and the Antique.’ He didn’t accept 18th century literary trends, and preferred the Elizabethans (Shakespeare, Jonson and Spenser) and ancient authors instead.
Blake’s first book, Poetical Sketches, written between 1769 and 1777, was never published. Copies of the book were printed with the help of his friends. From then on, he published his books with his own engravings. In 1779, at age 21, Blake completed his seven-year apprenticeship and became a journeyman copy engraver, working on projects for book and print publishers. Also preparing himself for a career as a painter, that same year, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art’s Schools of Design, where he began exhibiting his own works, but he didn’t fit in, as he disagreed with the ideas of Academy’s founding members.
Blake’s influence and ideas are very strong, even to present day but nevertheless, it was difficult for him to make a living from his work. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, whom he thought to read, write and paint. She became his companion and helped him to accomplish his projects.
Through his paintings, prints and writing Blake created a real mythical world similarly to Dante and his Divine Comedy. Blake is an unique artists not only among the artists of the 18th century, but also amongst the artists of any time, because he had the ability to amalgamate his writing and his painting together into a unique creative process. He used innovative creative techniques to combine image and text in single compositions. Blake was an amazing visual artist but also one of the most radical poets of the early Romantic period. Through original techniques such as his ‘illuminated printing’ He was able to adapt his craft to meet the demands of his creativity.
In his poems and paintings Blake created his own mythology; his imagination gave birth to deities such as Urizen,Los,Enitharmion and Orc. In his view the destiny of the humanity in the era of the great revolutions depended on and was determined by the battles between reason and imagination, lust and adoration, chaos and order represented by the deities, brought to life by his imagination.
Of all his siblings (there were 5 of them in the family who survived infancy) Blake was particularly close with his brother Robert, who suffered from tuberculosis and died In 1787 at the age of 24. Blake was devastated by the death of his beloved brother, but he allegedly saw the ascending of his brother’s spirit at the moment of his death and this was a joyful and a very special spiritual moment, which had a huge influence on Blakes later poems.
Next year Blake saw a vision of his brother who gave him a new printing method, called by Blake “illuminated printing” and used by him for the printing of his further works. The method allowed him to control every aspect of his art production. Blake was already an established engraver but he started receiving orders to paint watercolours, for example he painted scenes from Dante, Shakespeare and the Bible
In 1800, the poet William Hayley invited Blake to move to the little seaside village of Felltham and work for him. Blake accepted the invitation. Later the relationship between Hayley and Blake worsened and in 1804 Blake and Catherine moved back to London. William Blake created his own printing technique called relief etching. Relief etching is a method of etching in which the parts of the design that take the ink are raised above the surface of the plate rather than incised into the plate (as in conventional etching). The design is drawn on the plate in an acid-resisting varnish.
Jerusalem is one of the prophetic books written and illustrated by Blake. He worked on it from 1804 to 1820 and it is the poet himself believed this was his masterpiece. He also showed work at exhibitions (including Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims and Satan Calling Up His Legions). Unfortunately, his art was not understood at that time and there were no many reviews published. In one of them, which was extremely negative, the reviewer called the exhibit a display of ‘nonsense, unintelligibleness and egregious vanity,’ and even called Blake ‘an unfortunate lunatic.’ Understandably, Blake was disappointed in the lack of attention and the negativity of the critics and as a result he withdrew more and more and didn’t expect to be succeed.
From 1809 to 1818, he engraved few plates (there is no record of Blake producing any commercial engravings from 1806 to 1813). He also sank deeper into poverty, obscurity and paranoia. In 1819, however, Blake began sketching a series of ‘visionary heads,’ claiming that the historical and imaginary figures that he depicted appeared and sat for him. By 1825, Blake had sketched more than 100 of them, including those of Solomon and Merlin the magician and those included in ‘The Man Who Built the Pyramids’ and ‘Harold Killed at the Battle of Hastings’; along with the most famous visionary head, that included in Blake’s ‘The Ghost of a Flea.’ Remaining artistically busy, between 1823 and 1825, Blake engraved 21 designs for an illustrated Book of Job (from the Bible) and Dante’s Inferno. In 1824, he began a series of 102 watercolour illustrations of Dante—a project that would be cut short by Blake’s death in 1827.
In the final years of his life, William Blake suffered from recurring bouts of an undiagnosed disease that he called ‘that sickness to which there is no name.’ He died on August 12, 1827, leaving unfinished watercolour illustrations to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and an illuminated manuscript of the Bible’s Book of Genesis. In death, as in life, Blake received short shrift from observers, and obituaries tended to underscore his personal idiosyncrasies at the expense of his artistic accomplishments. The Literary Chronicle, for example, described him as ‘one of those ingenious persons … whose eccentricities were still more remarkable than their professional abilities.’
When William Blake began orchestrating his first solo exhibition in London in March 1809, showcasing what he thought were his most important works of art, he hoped the world would instantly hail him as a British Raphael or Michelangelo. But it was a career turning point of a very different kind. Blake’s art show, at his brother’s shop in Soho, was a critical flop which precipitated a crisis of confidence. Only one critic turned up to give it a stinking review and even his friends were baffled by the 16 works on show. The opening night was such a blow to Blake’s ego that he retreated from public life and became very depressed because of the state-of-the-art world. Martin Myrone, curator of William Blake: The 1809 Exhibition, said the impact on Blake’s self-confidence was devastating. ‘In putting on this show he wanted to present himself as a painter like the great Renaissance fresco painters, with ambitions to paint large scale. He imagined that some of these small works would eventually be reproduced as 100ft-high images in palaces and on altar pieces in cathedrals.
He and his work could have been entirely forgotten because he was very different from every other artist at that time. But the Pre-Raphaelite artists, who came to prominence in the mid–1800s, loved Blake’s work and thought of him as a true visionary. Since then he has become an important figure in British art.
Ancient of Days is a name for God in the Book of Daniel. It is published in 1794. The Ancient of Days is made by etching with Indian ink, watercolour and gouache on paper, it is 23.2 × 17 cm. It shows Urizencrouching in a circular design with a cloud-like background. His outstretched hand holds a compass over the darker void below. The Book of Daniel, also called The Prophecy of Daniel, a book of the Old Testament found in the Ketuvim (Writings), the third section of the Jewish canon, but placed among the Prophets in the Christian canon. The first half of the book (chapters 1–6) contains stories in the third person about the experiences of Daniel and his friends under Kings Nebuchadrezzar II, Belshazzar, Darius I, and Cyrus II; the second half, written mostly in the first person, contains reports of Daniel’s three visions (and one dream). The second half of the book names as author a certain Daniel who, according to chapter 1, was exiled to Babylon. The Ancient of Days is quite a dark and gothic but also visionary painting. It’s also a print and is composed of warm colours with a dark hue. When it comes to the composition, the old man in the print who represents god is in the centre of the print as he is the main focus.
Newton was made in 1795 and repainted in 1805. It is 46 cm x 60 cm. Newton is a painting and print made by etching with Indian ink, watercolour and gouache on paper. In this work Blake portrays a young and muscular Isaac Newton, rather than the older figure of popular imagination. He is crouched naked on a rock covered with algae, apparently at the bottom of the sea. His attention is focused on a diagram which he draws with a compass. Blake was critical of Newton’s reductive, scientific approach and so shows him merely following the rules of his compass, blind to the colourful rocks behind him. The most dominant colour in this painting is blue with a black hue. The young man who represents Newton is in the centre of the painting as the main focus.
This painting is created in 1786. Pencil and water colour were used to create it and it is 48 cm x 68 cm. This illustrates Titania’s instruction to her fairy train in the last scene of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Hand in hand, with fairy grace, Will we sing and bless this place. Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the fairies, are on the left. Puck, the perplexer of mortals, faces us. The fairies Moth and Pease blossom are easily identifiable. Unlike a lot of other works of William Blake, this one is dominant in light colours and doesn’t have one person in the centre of the image as the main focus but has multiple people or perhaps fairies taking up the majority of the space in the image.
The exhibition does a good job of connecting to the cultural and social themes of that era. He was working-class, the son of a shop owner and there is a good reason for identifying him as a part of the English tradition of working- class protest and the emerging class-consciousness of the late-18th and early 19th century: an artist version of the Socialists. He lived at the time of the French and American revolutions when in England thinking radically could get you arrested. He was never successful. His belief in mental freedom would certainly have got him into trouble if it was more well known.
One problem with the exhibition however is that William Blake’s work is all about atmosphere. There is an intimacy to Blake’s paintings which means his work is not meant to be presented on the massive scale of the Tate show. One good thing about the exhibition is that the walls were painted in a dark vibrant colour and the lights were dimmed which is how William Blake’s paintings are supposed to be presented. Another thing that was done wrong in the exhibition is that the curators put their focus on making the audience know about Blake’s business practices and the life in that era far more then helping the audience understand Blake’s way of thinking, because ultimately that’s what’s most important as it helps us understand what messages he was trying to convey through his art.
William Blake was underestimated and not understood as an artist and as a poet during his life time and his contemporaries proclaimed him mad for his views, Nowadays he receives his due recognition and was announced by Johathan Jones: ‘far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced’. His visionary approach to art and writing made his name known far beyond the borders of his own time and country. His ideas sound up to date more then ever before and his art inspires many contemporary artists.