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William Blake (1757-1827) (SE)

William Blake 1757-1827

William Blake 1757-1827

William Blake was educated at Henry Pars’s drawing school and apprenticed to the engraver James Basire, a member of the Society of Antiquaries, at the age of fourteen. In 1779, he enrolled himself as painter at the Royal Academy. Blake never completed his studies but exhibited a number of his paintings at Royal Academy exhibitions in the 1780s and mounted his own exhibition in 1809. Blake was friends with Henry Fuseli and John Flaxman, admired the work of James Barry, identified Michelangelo, Dürer and Raphael as his main influences and rejected the styles and working methods of the Flemish and Venetian schools, most notably those of Rembrandt and Titian.

By the time Blake met John Linnell (1792-1882), he had also published his poetry, invented illuminated printing, produced a long list of prophetic books and illustrated the works of other writers. Blake was in charge of the whole process of creation, illustration and publication. In the late 1810s he was completing his major epic poems Milton and Jerusalem.

n 1818, after many years of silence and neglect during which he almost completely withdrew from public life, Blake entered another very creative phase in his life. Linnell’s artistic influence cannot be overestimated, because Linnell, who was also an accomplished etcher and engraver, may have introduced or perhaps encouraged Blake to experiment more with a mixed method. Blake had the seven-year training of a copy-engraver, but the way in which he handled crosshatching in the Illustrations to Job speaks of a more fluid style which consciously imitates the effect of etching.

Linnell supported Blake by buying his works, commissioning him to do the Illustrations of the Book of Job as well as Dante’s Divine Comedy and introducing him to some of his friends who commissioned him to do work for them. Blake illustrated, for example, Robert John Thornton’s edition of Virgil’s Pastorals (1821).  Linnell also introduced Blake to John Varley, with whom he collaborated on the Visionary Heads, and to young artists, such as Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert, George Richmond, and Frederick Tatham. They founded the group ‘the Ancients’ and regularly met with Blake at his home in Fountain Court.

Blake was ill when he was working on the Book of Job and never finished the engravings to the illustrations to Dante. Though severely ill in his final years, Blake continued to work, while growing weaker and weaker. On 3 July 1827, about six weeks before his death, he wrote to Linnell in what was to be his final letter to his friend and fervent supporter: “I find I am not so well as I thought I must not go on in a youthful Style – however I am upon the mending hand to day & hope soon to look as I did for I have been yellow accompanied by all the old Symptoms.” (Gilchrist, p. 379) Though optimistic, he did not recover.

While on his deathbed Blake completed a beautifully coloured copy of The Ancient of Days for Frederick Tatham but his death broke off work on the illustrations to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Genesis. Linnell and Tatham looked after his widow Catherine who died in 1831. Those who met her remarked upon her loving devotion and belief in her husband. Blake’s friends also told Gilchrist, Blake’s Victorian biographer, that the plates which showed Job and his wife sitting next to each other reminded them of William and Catherine Blake in their little flat at Fountain Court. (Gilchrist, p. 335) Job’s poverty would certainly have mirrored Blake’s because he had often been in dire need of money.

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Last updated: 14 March 2013

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