The Letter The Performance  

leer William Blake, engraver, painter, poet, visionary (1757-1827)

Born in Broad Street, Golden Square, London, November 28, 1757. His father was a respectable hosier, and carried on his business there for 20 years. He was a strange dreamy boy, who took to wandering away to the fields and country lanes, and was fond of resorting to the picture sales by Langford in Covent Garden. When only 10 years of age he was sent to Pars's school to learn drawing. At 12 he was a poet, and has left verses written at 14, which have merit. Then it was determined that the young genius should be an engraver, and he was apprenticed to James Basire, the second and most talented of the name, and was sent to make drawings for his master from the antiquities in Westminster Abbey, and in the old edifice nourished his dreamy fancies. From 1779 to 1782, and onwards, he was employed engraving book illustrations, some from his own designs, but chiefly after Stothard, R.A. In 1783 he married Catherine Boucher, and the same year, assisted by his young friend Flaxman, he printed, in 74 pages, his "Poetical Sketches," some of which possess much sweetness: yet on the death of his father, in 1784, we find that, stimulated by the necessities of life, he opened a shop as printseller and engraver with James Parker, who was his fellow-apprentice. His shop was not a profitable undertaking, for having, in 1788, completed the first part of another poem, "The Songs of Innocence," he was without the means to publish it, and we are now first told of his visions. His thoughts were filled with this printing difficulty, when in the night his dead brother Robert stood before him, and revealed to him a process, which he adopted, spending for the materials half the few pence he possessed. This revealed process was not very recondite, and simply consisted in leaving in relief, by means of nitric acid, the letters written on a copper plate, so that they might be printed by a copper-plate printing-press, though the result was a very blurred, blotted work. By this original process, however, he multiplied the copies of his illustrated poem, and with the help of his wife, truly a helpmate, the songs were printed, tinted, and stitched into a book of 27 pages, and their occasional sale found the means of subsistence for the contented couple. This work was followed by the "Books of Prophecy," produced in the same manner.
Famous among his "Prophetic Books" are The Book of Thel (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790-93), The Book of Urizen (1794), America (1793), Milton (1804-8) and Jerusalem (1804-20).
He contributed some few works to the Academy Exhibitions - in 1780, "The Death of Earl Godwin;" in 1784 "A Breach in a City the Morning after Battle;" and "War unchained by an Angel: Fire, Pestilence, and Famine;" in 1785, three subjects from the history of Joseph; in 1799, "The Last Supper;" and in 1808, "Jacob's Dream" and "Christ guarded in the Sepulchre by Angels." In 1793 Blake removed to Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, and in the same year published his "Gates of Paradise," a small book for children, and the next year the "Songs of Experience," a sequel to the " Songs of Innocence," the two comprising 54 engraved plates; and "America, a Prophecy;" followed by "Europe, a Prophecy." Resuming his graver, in 1797 he commenced an illustrated edition of "Young's Night Thoughts," of which every page was a design, but he only published one number containing 43 plates. In 1800 a new life opened to Blake; he was induced by Hayley, the poet, who became known to him through the instrumentality of Flaxman, to come and live near him at Felpham, a small village on the Sussex coast; and here for a time he was happy, indulging in dreamy rambles, assisting Hayley as his "illustrator," and painting a few portraits. But Hayley's projects had no success, and his siciety became burdensome. Blake had at this time a vexations quarrel with a soldier who trespassed upon his premises, and from some angry words he used, was charged with sedition, and tried at the Quarter Sessions, where the charge could not be sustained. His visions then began to fail him, and in disgust he quitted his cottage, and returning after three years' absence to the Metropolis, lived nearly 17 years in South Molton Street. At Felpham he had illustrated some ballads by Hayley, and he afterwards designed 40 illustrations of Blair's "Grave," which were neatly engraved by Schiavonetti, and were greatly admired. Yet at this time he is said to have subsisted with his wife upon a few shillings a week. His "Canterbury Pilgrims," a large sheet engraving, full of character and talent, led to a bitter feud with his friend Stothard, R.A., who painted the same subject, the works of both showing some ponts of similarity, and both claiming the original conception. He also published his "Jerusalem," "Milton," and "Job," his last and best work, elaborately finished with the graver, and full of fine original thought. His latter days were passed in a back room in Fountain's Court, leading from the Strand. Here, surrounded by his books, his sketches, and manuscripts, his copper-plates and his materials, in poverty, but not, it is believed, in want, simple in mind and conduct, he died tranquilly, August 12, 1827, in his 70th year. He was laid in a common grave in the great Bunhill Fields Burial-ground near the north wall, the more exact situation of which is now lost. His works comprise his engravings, showing a fair knowledge of his art; his water-colour drawings, ranging from mere rude sketches to the most careful and elaborate finish; but all, like his writings, combining occasional ideas of great sweetness with wild and incomprehensible imaginings, incompatible with a sane mind. He early said he "acted by command. The spirit said to him, Blake, be an artist, and nothing else;" also, "I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want nothing whatever. I am quite happy." And at another time, "I should be sorry if I had any earthly fame, for whatever natural glory a man has is so much taken from his spiritual glory." His "Life," by Alexander Gilchrist, was published in 1863, and by A. C. Swinburne in 1868.
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