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English art
concept art

English Concept Art

William Blake

 

 

William Blake

born: 28 Bond Street, London, England, 28 November 1757
died: 3 Fountain Court, London, England, 12 August 1827

English poet, engraver, printer, and artist.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

-- Blake in the Auguries of Innocence

 

The following biographical summary is a bit too long. However
the only excuse for that is that I couldn't find a satisfactory way to
shorten it. Maybe I should spend another month working on it. — ed.

Date Age Events
1767 9

William grows up in London and later described visionary experiences he had as a child in the surrounding countryside. He saw among other things "a tree filled with angels" at Peckham Rye and the prophet Ezekiel in a field.

Blake enters Henry Par's drawing school in the Strand.

1772 14

Apprenticed to the engraver James Basire.

The earliest engraving that scholars can attribute to Blake reflects his interest in early British history and legend. He later reworked and reprinted it with the title Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion (not shown here) and he dated it 1773.

1774 16

American Revolution starts

Blake helps to engrave the illustrations for a book by Jacob Bryant which attempts to reconcile pagan mythology with the Bible. In the book Bryant theorizes that the original monotheism of the old testament degenerated after the flood into various forms of sun worship, from which all the other pagan gods and heroes then descended. Bryant's ideas remained an influence on Blake throughout his life.

1776 18

America Declares Independence

Blake is vehemently against Deism (natural religion) which holds that there was a creator who walked away and left the world to fend for itself—the clockmaker model of God.

Blake believes in a personal God in which communication with the divine is possible. This is reinforced by visions of angels and prophets which he experiences throughout his life.

1779 21

On completion of his seven year apprenticeship with Basire, Blake enters the Royal Academy as an engraving student. His period of study there seems to have been full of conflicts and he soon leaves.

He has a violent dislike for Sir Joshua Reynolds, then president of the Royal Academy, and feels his talents are wasted. While still at the Academy he earns his living by engraving for publishers. He also paints independent watercolors. Despite his rejection of its teaching he retains an association with the Royal Academy throughout his life.

His friends include a group of young artists, among them the sculptor John Flaxman and the painter Thomas Stothard, as well as the famous French painter Henry Fuseli.

One of Blake’s earliest commercial prints are stipple engravings for Macklin of scenes by the French Rococo painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, whose work was known in England primarily through engravings. The stipple method uses patterns of tiny dots to represent the image. It is suited to Watteau's paintings, which emphasize color and tone over line. Blake would later express contempt for this emphasis on color over line.

Blake collects plaster casts and inexpensive prints from shops and auctions. He mostly buys prints of Raphael, Michelangelo, Giulio Romano, Albrecht Dürer. He is sure these out-of-style artists are superior to the current fashion of the late Baroque and Rococo.

 

There is No Natural Religion
about 1788
Copies G and I printed about 1795
page size: 13 x 16 cm
Pierpont Morgan Library
New York, NY, US

Blake: [book] There is No Natural Religion -- Title Page

Title Page

Blake: [book] There is No Natural Religion -- Page 5

Page 5

Blake: [book] There is No Natural Religion -- Therefore page

Therefore

 

The first books in which Blake makes use of his illuminated printing were There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One. In content they express the basic tenets from which Blake's religious theories grow. Blake in the books rejects logic in favor of the imagination. He challenges the contemporary view of the human mind based on Locke. He hates the prevailing rationalistic-materialistic philosophy and sees the industrial revolution as a disaster. He feels the superiority of imagination over the other “organs of perception”. Imagination, he believes, gives humans the means of perceiving the Infinite, or as he sees it God.

Blake was at odds with other English Eighteenth century revolutionaries, at his philosophical base. He hated deism, atheism, and materialism, and he had his own unconventional religious sense. He rejected organized religion.

 

1780 22 Exhibits watercolor "Death of Earl Goodwin" at the Royal Academy (not shown here).  
1782 24

He meets his wife, Catherine Butcher (or Boucher), the daughter of a market gardener, in Battersea. Having been rejected by another woman, Blake tells Catherine the story of his unsuccessful courtship; she pities him and loves him. He respond with affection. Despite objections from Blake's family that he is marrying below his station, they marry on 18 August at the church of St. Mary in Battersea and move to 23 Green Street in London.

Their marriage by all accounts is fairly happy. One of the few known arguments revolves around an argument between Catherine and Robert, Blake’s beloved younger brother who lived with them. Blake insisted she kneel down and apologize to Robert.

 
1783 25

First volume of poems: Poetical Sketches printed commercially, not printed by Blake. This was paid for by his friend Flaxman and the Rev. Anthony S. Mathew, who was a patron of the arts and letters. The preface states that the verses were written between Blake's 12th and 20th years.

Britain signs a peace treaty and acknowledges United States

 
1784 26

Blake's father dies.

Blake opens a print shop, at 27 Broad Street, with another engraver James Parker, who had also worked with him as an apprentice under Basire. Blake took his younger brother Robert to live with him as assistant and pupil. The business apparently did not survive long. Only two prints, Zephyrus and Flora and Calisto, with 15 other separate plates on mythological themes engraved by Blake after Stothard, seem to have been produced.

He exhibits two watercolors at the Royal Academy: A Breach in a City the Morning after the Battle and War Unchained by an Angel with Fire, Pestilence, and Famine Following, both (not shown here) depicted the destruction of war.

 
1785 27

The Blakes, along with Robert, move to 28 Poland Street. Since the partnership with Parker had failed, Blake did little commercial engraving over the next two years.

Blake exhibits four works: The Bard, from Gray and three drawings illustrating the biblical story of Joseph and his brothers. The latter pictures reflect an increasing interest in Old Testament subjects. (None of these are shown here.)

 
1787 29

In late January, Robert falls ill and in February he dies. William, who nursed him, collapses after Robert's death into a continuous sleep for three days and nights. He later said that at that time he had seen Robert's soul joyfully rising through the ceiling.

 
1788 30

A vision comes to Blake in which his brother Robert appears to him and reveals a method of engraving the text and illustrations of books without using a commercial printer.

During this same year Blake gets his biggest commercial project so far. The Boydells commission a large engraving of William Hogarth The Beggar’s Opera, Act III. The painting shows a scene from John Gay’s famous opera, the story of the highwayman MacHeath. The engraving takes Blake nearly two years to complete.

 

Hogarth: The Beggar's Opera

William Hogarth:
The Beggar's Opera

1789 31

Blake creates an illuminated book: Songs of Innocence (see below). It is a collection of short lyric poems and their accompanying designs.

Because illuminated printing does not require a heavy commercial press it allowed Blake to maintain control over the entire process of producing and marketing his books. Catherine, Blake's wife, helps him print and color his books.

Illuminated printing for Blake was not only an economic but also an aesthetic choice.

Outbreak of the French Revolution, the Bastille stormed.

 

 

Illuminated Printing

The method of printing described to him by his vision of Robert about a year after Robert's death Blake called “illuminated printing” in which, by relief etching, each page of the book was printed in monochrome from an engraved plate containing both text and illustration.

In standard intaglio etching the ink is applied across the plate and then the plate is wiped clean. The ink remains in the grooves in the plate. The printer's press pushes wet paper into the grooves picking up the ink. It requires much pressure to get a good clean impression—this requires an expensive press.

Using Blake's method the text is raised above the surface and can be inked without touching the body of the plate. This can then be printed without much pressure.

After printing pages were then usually colored with watercolor or printed in color by Blake and his wife, and bound together in paper covers. Alternatively several colored inks can be applied to the plate to create a multicolored image.

Most of Blake's works after The Poetical Sketches were engraved and “published” in this way. Mass production using this technique is out the question and so his books reached only a very limited public during his lifetime. Today Blake's illuminated books are among the world's art treasures.

This method of printing was foreshadowed by Blake's friend, George Cumberland who used a similar technique.

One of Blake’s first experiments in this medium was The Approach of Doom, a print based on one of Robert’s drawings (not shown here).

 

 

Songs of Innocence and Experience
1789 and 1794
Copy W
page size: 12 x 14 cm
Kings College
Cambridge, England

Blake: [book] Songs of Innocence and Experience -- Title Page

Title Page

Blake: [book] Songs of Innocence -- The Shepherd

 

The Shepherd

(from Songs of Innocence — 1789)

How sweet is the Shepherds sweet lot;
From the morn to the evening he strays:
He shall follow his sheep all the day
And his tongue shall be filled with praise.

For he hears the lambs innocent call.
And he hears the ewes leader reply.
He is watchful while they are in peace,
For they know when their Shepherd is nigh.

 

Blake: [book] Songs of  Experience -- The Tyger

 

The Tyger

(from Songs of Experience — 1794)

Tyger Tyger 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, & what art,
Could twist sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? and 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 water'd heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?

Blake: [book] Songs of  Experience -- London

London

(from Songs of Experience — 1794)

I wander thro' each charter'd street
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of Woe.

In every cry of every Man.
In every infants cry of fear.
In every voice; in every ban.
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackening Church appalls.
And the hapless soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new born infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.

 

 

The key symbol of Innocence is the Lamb; the corresponding image in Experience is the Tyger. The Tyger in this poem seems to be a symbol of force, sexual desire, and cruelty. The question of God's kindness to man is given in the final line, “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”

The poem “London” in Experience is an accusation of the corruption in modern life, the legal control of the individual by rules invented for the good of the authorities. Both modern copyright laws and paper money fall in this condemned category, though for Blake neither existed per se, however the ideas for both were common. And the poem conveys through the Harlot's curse (the call of sex for money) Blake's anguished vision of his, and our, money dominated society. This is not exactly a children's poem.

 

1790 32

Blake moves to Hercules Buildings, Lambeth.

Blake and Catherine start to attend the New Jerusalem Church of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). Swedenborg was a scientist, philosopher and spiritual explorer who wrote books that try to balance the relationship between Man, God, and Science. Blake read and annotated at least three of Swedenborg’s books.

But in the end Blake will not have any of it. He writes, prints and illuminates The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to put Swedenborg in his proper place.

1791 33

Tomas Paine's Rights of Man published

Blake associates with many of the English radicals during the 1790s.

Johnson employs him as a illustrator during the 1790s and this gives Blake an opportunity to meet some of the more prominent radical thinkers and writers in England. Johnson's friends included:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) attacked contemporary notions about women’s education and role in society.
  • William Godwin, the author of Political Justice (1794).
  • Thomas Paine, the author of The Rights of Man (1791-92).
  • Thomas Holcroft.
  • John Horne Tooke.
  • Joseph Priestley, the prominent chemist and radical.

As the story goes: Paine, is tipped off by Blake in 1792. He advises Pain to fly immediately, for William said “If you are not now sought I am sure you soon will be.” Paine takes the hint, grabs a ship to the United States, and finds he has just escaped in time.

On the other hand, Holcroft, Tooke and Priestley are tried on charges of high treason in 1794.

 

 

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

Copy F
printed about 1790
page size: 14 x 18 cm
Pierpont Morgan Library
New York, NY, US

This illuminated book is a discussion and criticism by Blake of Swedenborg's writing and spiritual ideas. It is meant to put Swedenborg in his proper place.

Blake starts it as a small pamphlet, but it quickly grows into a full satire with a mixture of prose and verse. It has scenes in both heaven and hell and a cast of characters that includes angels and devils, Old Testament prophets, John Milton, and Swedenborg himself.

The section titled Proverbs of Hell contains some of Blake’s best-known proverbs, such as“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”

 

Blake: [book] The Marriage of Heaven and Hell  -- title page copy D

Title Page from Copy D
1795
Library of Congress
Washington, DC, US

Blake: [book] The Marriage of Heaven and Hell  -- title page copy F

Title Page from Copy F
about 1790
Pierpont Morgan Library
New York, NY, US

Blake: [book] The Marriage of Heaven and Hell  -- page 21

Page 21 copy F

Blake: [book] The Marriage of Heaven and Hell  -- page 24

Page 24 copy F

 

 

1792 34 Blake's mother dies.
1793 35

Blake produces Visions of the Daughters of Albion and America. (See illustrations below.)

Blake's drawing Albion Rose also known as Glad Day or The Dance of Albion, a triumphant young male nude stands with outstretched arms before a glorious sunburst (see below).

Blake returns to illuminated printing after a three-year hiatus. America a Prophecy, the first of Blake’s prophecies, treats the American Revolution as an event with mythological as well as historical dimensions.

1794 36

Blake creates the Songs of Experience, Europe, The First Book of Urizon
Treason trials threaten English radicals including Blake.

In France, Robespierre is executed, and the Terror comes to an end.

 

Blake: Albion Rose (copy 1A)

Albion Rose [Copy 1A]
[or Dance of Albion or Glad Day]
about 1793
color etching; 27 x 20 cm
British Museum
London, England

 

This print uses color printing, where various color inks were put on the same plate, and then the impression was drawn. After the print dries Blake uses watercolor and ink to finish the picture.

 


 

America, A Prophecy and Europe, A Prophecy describe a series of battles fought out in the cosmos, in history, and in the human soul. The battles are between the conflicting forces of reason (Urizen), imagination (Los), and the spirit of rebellion (Orc).

America is a powerful short narrative poem giving a visionary interpretation of the American Revolution as the uprising of Orc, the spirit of rebellion. Europe, with brilliantly colored illustrations, shows the coming of Christ and the French Revolution of the late 18th century as part of the same manifestation of the spirit of rebellion.

The Book of Urizen (not illustrated here), is Blake's version of Genesis, the story of Creation. Here the Creator is not a beneficent, righteous Jehovah, but Urizen, a “dark power” whose rebellion against the primeval unity leads to his entrapment in the material world. (See the 1795 Blake picture of the Creation of an agonized Adam by Urizen, below.)

 

America, A Prophecy
1793

from Copy H printed 1793
page size: 18 x 24 cm
British Museum
Dept. of Prints and Drawings
London, England

Blake: [book] America, A Prophecy -- fronspiece     Blake: [book] America, A Prophecy --  title page

Frontispiece and Title Page

Blake: [book] America, A Prophecy --  page 8   

page 8

Blake: [book] America, A Prophecy --  page 18

page 18

 

 

Europe, A Prophecy
1794

from Copy B printed around 1794,
page size: 18 x 23 cm
Glasgow University Library
Glasgow, Scotland

Blake: [book] Europe, A Prophecy -- fontspiece     Blake: [book] Europe, A Prophecy -- title page

Frontispiece and Title Page

Blake: [book] Europe, A Prophecy -- page 6    Blake: [book] Europe, A Prophecy -- page 7

page 6 and 7

Blake: [book] Europe, A Prophecy -- page 15

page 15

 

Frontispiece of Europe
often called: The Ancient of Days

Blake: [book] Europe, A Prophecy -- fronspiece  copy E

Copy E
1794
Library of Congress
Washington, DC, US

Blake: [book] Europe, A Prophecy -- frontspiece copy H

Copy H
1795
Houghton Library
Harvard University
Cambridge, MA, US

Blake: [book] Europe, A Prophecy -- frontspiece copy K

Copy K
1821
Fitzwilliam Museum
Cambridge, England, US

 

This should give some idea of the variation between individual copies of Blake's Illuminated Books.

Tigertail is looking for a good high resolution version of Ancient of Days from Copy F from the New York Public Library. Copy F was being colored by Blake just before his death in 1827.

 


 

 

1795 37

Blake produces The Song of Los, The Book of Ahania, and The Book of Los.

Richard Edwards commissions Blake to illustrate Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, a long popular poem in blank verse. Over the next two years Blake produces 537 watercolor designs to fit in the large margins around rectangular blocks of Young’s text. The text would be set in a standard letterpress. It was big commercial project. (No examples available for reproduction here unfortunately)

 

Blake: Creation of Adam

Creation of Adam by Urizen
about 1795

Blake: Urizen Struggling 
in the Waters
 of Materialism

Urizen Struggling
in the Waters
of Materialism

from the Book of Unizen
about 1794

 

 

Blake: The Last Supper

The Last Supper
1799
Tempera on canvas, 31 x 48 cm
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, US

 

 

1796 38 Begins work on Vala or The Four Zoas
1797 39

Blake engraves forty-three designs for the first of four projected volumes of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts. The first volume is published. For this effort, Blake receives only twenty-one pounds for the first volume. Edwards goes out of business soon after and rest of the project is abandoned.

1798 40 Nelson defeats the French Fleet in the Battle of the Nile.
1799 41

Blake exhibits a painting at the Royal Academy. Thomas Butts becomes Blake's Patron.

After spending two years on the ill-fated Night Thoughts, Blake has difficulty finding work as an engraver. “I am laid by in a corner as if I did not exist,” he complains.

 

Blake: The Accusers of Theft
Adultery Murder

The Accusers of Theft
Adultery Murder
-- Second State
[Copy 2C]
[A Scene in the Last Judgment
with Satan's holy trinity:
The Accuser, The Judge, and The Executioner]

about 1796
Color etching + hand finishing
21 x 12 cm
National Gallery
Washington, DC, US

 

1800 42

Blake moves to Felpham, Sussex, near Chichester to work for William Hayley

William Hayley was a popular poet, the author of Essays on Sculpture, for which Blake engraved three plates, including a portrait of Hayley’s son Tom, a student of Flaxman.

The stay at Felpham begins auspiciously enough. Blake finds the place “more Spiritual than London,” as he wrote to Flaxman on his arrival: “Heaven opens here on all sides her golden Gates […] voices of Celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard & their forms more distinctly seen”.

1801 43

Union of Great Britain and Ireland

Blake works on commissions for Butts, while Hayley keeps him busy executing plates for his Life of Cowper, illustrating Cowper's Ballads, and even decorating Hayley's library with portraits of poets.

Blake draws many book illustrations for his own writing.

 

Blake: Evening

Illustration for
William Cowper's Poem
'The Task'
—Evening
about 1802
watercolor and chalk on wood
92 x 30 cm
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, US

 

Illustration for Haley's Poem:
The Horse

Illustration for Haley's Poem:
The Eagle

 

 

 

1803 45

Blake begins to resent Hayley’s insistence that he spend his time on Hayley's inventions at the expense of his own artistic and poetic endeavors. He believes, as he later writes in Milton, “Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies”. Hayley tries to be Blake's friend: he handles his financial interests, teaches him Greek and Latin, and worries about Blake's mental health.

Blake, undecided about leaving, holds long discussions with his angels and his brother's ghost about what to do. He finally decides, on their advice, to leave Felpham.

On 12 August, he finds a soldier, John Scolfield, in the garden and insists that he leave. The soldier refuses, the two argue, and in the end Blake evicts him by force.

On 17 September he and Catherine move back to London, renting rooms at 17 South Molton Street.

Scolfield accuses Blake of assault and sedition. He claims that Blake had damned the king. Blake is indicted on the charge of sedition in late October.

Blake spends the fall of 1803 uncertain of his fate. The penalties for sedition in England during the Napoleonic wars were severe.

1804 46

Hayley hires a barrister to defend Blake. The barrister gets Blake an acquittal on 11 January.

Blake begins to work to self-publish both: Milton, A Poem and Jerusalem. Both books were probably written during his time in Felpham. Blake spends most of the next six years putting the plates together.

Napoleon crowns himself Emperor of France

 

Blake: The Ghost of Samuel
 Appearing to Saul

The Ghost of Samuel
Appearing to Saul

about 1800
pen and ink with watercolor over graphite
32 x 34 cm
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, US

Blake: The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea
about 1805
pen and ink with watercolor over graphite
41 x 34 cm
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, US

 

 

Milton
A Poem in 12 books
To Justify the Ways of God to Man
The Author and Printer W. Blake 1804

Copy C
page size: 13 x 19 cm
New York Public Library
New York, NY, US

Blake: [book] Milton -- title page

Title Page

Blake:  [book] Milton -- page 8

Page 8

Blake:  [book] Milton -- page 29

Page 29

Blake: Page 32* of text from Milton  

Pages 32*

Blake: Illustration from Milton, page 33

Page 33

 

While the text for Milton was probably written in 1804, the finished book was probably put together in 1810/11. This is from the third, copy C, of four known copies of this book to exist. This copy is in the New York Public Library. It is printed in relief etching and white and black-line engraving, with separately applied watercolor and gray ink wash.

Milton describes Blake's visions and puts them not only in text form but in visual form as well. Blake upon entering his garden one evening saw Milton, in the form of a comet, enter his right heel (picture page 29 above). In other visions a girl comes to him and Milton emerges from Blake's heel to confront her.

The language of the book is difficult because Blake has created a pantheon of angels and spirits which personify forces he sees active in the world. He uses these to talk about his visions. This makes understanding his book difficult without studying Blake's personal religion carefully.

Note that in 1800 movable print technology was far advanced, as there had been hundreds of years of development. Blake could have used movable type for his text. However he reached back to emulate hand written manuscripts and chose hand lettered etched text. It was Blake's method of communicating with his reader.

However etched text is very difficult to do well. It works well for illustrations, but it does not create an easily readable text. The copy in the New York public library is 200 years old, and mild foxing is evident. However the real problem in reading the book is the original failure of the text printing.

As in most of the book images presented here Page 32* has been altered by removing the appropriate amount of yellow to correct for the aging of the paper, foxing has been removed, and the text has been enhanced to make reading Blake's words easier to read. Blake might not have approved of this later modification, however most people today would find the text hard enough to understand without suffering the problems of text decipherment.

 

 

Blake: The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun
about 1805
pen and ink with watercolor over graphite
41 x 34 cm
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, US

Blake: The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun -- version 2

The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun
about 1806-1809
Watercolor
34 x 42 cm
Brooklyn Museum
New York, NY, US

 

 

1805 47

Robert Cromek commissions Blake to illustrate Robert Blair’s The Grave. He pays Blake a small sum for about twenty designs, with the understanding that he would engrave fifteen for publication.

After seeing Blake’s etching of Deaths Door, Cromek changed his mind about letting Blake do the engraving. He saw the ruggedness produced by Blake’s innovative use of white-line etching as mere carelessness and decided to turn over the engraving of Blake’s designs to the more fashionable Louis Schiavonetti.

It is interesting to note that Blake’s name was known in the early nineteenth century as the artist of the Grave designs. Few knew about his other books.

Blake begins watercolors for the Book of Job.

1807 48

Portrait of Blake by Thomas Phillips shown at the Royal Academy.

Blake begins work on a commission from Cromek of what was to become his largest original separate plate, a one-by-three-foot intaglio etching of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims. Blake suspects Cromek of cheating him and refuses to give him the painting.

1808 49 Publication of The Grave with Blake’s illustrations engraved by Luigi Schiavonetti.

 

Blake: Title Page for
Robert Blair’s Poem: The Grave

Title Page for
Robert Blair’s Poem: The Grave
1808

“When the dread trumpet sounds, the slumbering dust,
Not unattentive to the call, awakes;”

Blake: Illustration for Robert Blair's Poem:
 The Grave

Another illustration for Robert Blair's Poem:
The Grave

 

1809 50

Blake exhibits Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims along with fifteen other paintings in his brother’s shop at 28 Broad Street. In the catalogue for an exhibition of his own work Blake accuses artists “who endeavor to raise up a style against Rafael, Mich. Angelo, and the Antique” of attempting to destroy art.

1810 51 Blake works on the engraving for Canterbury Pilgrims.
1811 52

Publication of William Blake, Artist, Poet, and Religious Reformer in Germany, the first critical study of Blake as an artist.

Blake places prints of his Canterbury Pilgrim intaglio etching in his brother's shop. This attempt to market and sell The Canterbury Pilgrims etchings does not do well. (See the illustration below.)

 

Blake: The Canterbury Pilgrims

The Canterbury Pilgrims [Copy 4BB]
printed about 1820-23
intaglio etching; 31 x 95 cm
Huntington Library
San Marino, CA, US

 

 

Blake: The Body of Abel Found
by Adam and Eve

The Body of Abel Found
by Adam and Eve

about 1825
watercolor on wood
32 x 43 cm

 

 

1813 53 On advice from his angels, Blake withdraws from society to work on his art, he still sees a few friends including George Cumberland. Blake is very poor and works at his art furiously.  
1816 56 Beginning of a long period of social unrest in England for social and political reform.  
1818 58

At this low point in his fortunes Blake meets John Linnell through George Cumberland Jr. Linnell introduces him to a new generation of artists who admire his work.

Linnell, a twenty-six-year-old landscape painter, won Blake’s friendship both by bringing him work—which he desperately needed—and by attempting to understand him on his own terms:
“I never saw anything the least like madness,” Linnell later recalled, “for I never opposed him spitefully as many did, but being really anxious to fathom if possible the amount of truth which might be in his most startling assertions I generally met with a sufficiently rational explanation in the most really friendly & conciliatory tone.”

The group of young followers of Blake that came with Linnell's friendship called themselves: “The Ancients,” They included John Linnell, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, and Frederick Tatham.

 
1819 59

Through Linnell, Blake met John Varley, a fellow artist and avid astrologer.

Blake began sketching for Varley a series of visionary heads. Blake said that these historical and imaginary figures appeared and sat for him. Varley encouraged Blake to record their features. By 1825, Blake had sketched over 100 of them, including Solomon, The Man who built the Pyramids, Merlin the magician.

The most famous visionary head, The Ghost of a Flea, was sketched and painted by Blake and later engraved by Linnell.

Blake: The Ghost of a Flea

The Ghost
of a Flea
about 1819-20
Tempera and gold
on mahogany
21 x 16 cm
Tate Gallery
London, England

1821 61

Blake's illustrations for Virgil's Aenead are published.

Blake is forced to sell his collection of old-master prints, and he moves to a three room flat at 3 Fountain Court, off the Strand, to reduce expenses.

 
1822 62 Blake, financially in disastrous shape, gets a distress payment from the Royal Academy.  
1823 63

Linnell commissions the Book of Job engravings.

Blake engraves twenty-one designs based mainly on watercolor illustrations of Job that he had done earlier for Butts.

 
1824 64

Blake begins work on 102 illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy commissioned by Linnell. Blake begins studying Italian to read Dante in the original.

In France Charles X becomes King after the death of Louis XVIII.

 
1825 65

In the final years of his life, Blake suffered from recurring bouts that he called “that Sickness to which there is no name.” He describes the symptoms in his letters: “Shivring Fits”, “a gnawing Pain in the Stomach”, “a deathly feel all over the limbs”. These appear to be consistent with biliary cirrhosis, which may be caused by prolonged exposure to the fumes produced when acid is applied to copper engraving plates.

First Railway opens in England.

 
1826 67 Publication of Book of Job engravings.  

 

Blake: Dante at the
Gates of Hell

Dante at the
Gates of Hell
about 1825
Illustration for
Dante's Divine Comedy

Blake: Francesca da Rimini

Francesca da Rimini
about 1825
Illustration for
Dante's Divine Comedy

Blake: Beatrice addresses Dante from her Chariot

Beatrice addresses Dante from her Chariot
about 1825
Illustration for
Dante's Divine Comedy

 

1827 68

Blake often visits Hampstead since Linnell had moved there in 1824, even though Blake considers the place unhealthy. In a letter to Linnell dated 3 July 1827, he mentioned a “relapse” of his sickness brought on, he thought, by a trip to Hampstead: “I find I am not so well as I thought […] I have been yellow accompanied by all the old Symptoms.”

Even in the last stages of his illness, Blake continued to work. One of his final projects was a colored print of the frontispiece of Europe commissioned by Tatham, Ancient of Days copy F, on which he was reportedly at work just three days before his death on 12 August 1827 in his rooms at 3 Fountain Court.

At his death a set of watercolor illustrations to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and an illuminated manuscript of Genesis were left unfinished.

To the Ancients (his circle of young friends) who followed Blake in his final years, even his death seemed beautiful. He died “in a most glorious manner”, Richmond wrote Palmer soon afterwards: “He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see and expressed Himself Happy hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ—Just before he died His Countenance became fair—His eyes brighten’d and He burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven.”

Blake is buried on 17 August 1827 in Bunhill Fields cemetery, joining his parents, aunt, and brother. The Ancients and his wife attend the burial.

   

After Blake’s death, Catherine lives first with Linnell in Cirencester Place, then, beginning in 1828, with Tatham until shortly before her death in 1831.

She continues to sell Blake’s works, most notably The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which brought a high enough price from the Earl of Egremont in 1829 to support her for the few years that remained.

After her death, Blake’s unsold works are left to Frederick Tatham, who reportedly destroys many of them.

 

 

Fredrick Tatum: William Blake

Frederick Tatham:
William Blake
about 1826

 

William Blake was not a normal well adjusted person. Most observers and critics can agree on that. The conflict between commentators arises when one of them calls Blake insane.

Most commentary on Blake, his poetry, and his art avoids confronting this issue and dealing with it openly. Somehow the feeling is that literary and artistic works produced by a sane individual are intrinsically better than those produced by a crazy person. Thus to talk about Blake's insanity diminishes his accomplishments.

But shouldn't art stand on its own? and our judgment not be jaundiced by what we know about the person that created it, but rather our evaluation should come only from our reaction to the words and images themselves? Not that it is bad to know about an artist; we just shouldn't let that knowledge color our view of their art.

Blake was able to live with his visions and hallucinatory experiences and integrate them into his normal life. Most defenders of Blake say this is not a characteristic of an insane individual. [In fact I believed this before I wrote this article and was deeply troubled by the inconsistencies in Blake's life. — ed] Besides they argue his wife apparently shared his insanity. Both of these arguments are fallacious. The medical evidence shows exactly the opposite. Some insane individuals do manage to integrate their insanity into their life, and occasionally people close to an insane individual may sympathize and join them in their insanity.

Another position Blake's defenders put forward is that Blake was really visited by visions from God. But then so are many schizophrenics. And maybe many of the prophets (present and past) who have conversed with God really have (or had) clinical schizophrenia.

The exact causes of schizophrenia are still unknown, but society now possesses drugs which tend to control schizophrenic symptoms. One wonders how different our society would be if these drugs had been in common use for the last three thousand years.

Schizophrenia doesn't necessarily incapacitate one, nor does it necessarily turn a sufferer violent. Blake was lucky in that way; society felt no need to confine him for the safety of others.

If clinical schizophrenia is defined by some well defined class of behaviors, then there is no question but that William Blake was from an early age until his death clinically schizophrenic. His wife elected to participate in his delusions rather than defy him. This was her nature from the very beginning of their relationship. After all she caught William on the rebound from a woman who rejected him. She soothed and tended him, which in turn won his love.

What is interesting about Blake is how deeply he affects us through his art, and how his art can bring us into communion with him. Blake's schizophrenia gave him experiences of universal truths that he managed to express in his poetry and art. These truths continue to make his art valuable.

 


English art
concept art

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2004-11-06