Blake embodied the Romantic ideal of independence by self-publishing his work and advocating the expression of individual perception, while rejecting the neo-classical canon of the Royal Academy. His highly idiosyncratic style is indebted to his admiration for the religious subject-pictures of Raphael (1483–1520), Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Of Blake’s contemporaries, he may be compared to the slightly older Swiss-born Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), whose melodramatic compositions dealing in the world of the literary imagination foreshadowed those of Blake. During his lifetime he had a modest yet zealous following, however his reputation has grown enormously since his death, influencing many writers and artists.
Blake studied drawing and was apprenticed to become an engraver. During the 1780s, while making a living producing etchings for books and prints, he began devoting himself to his private artistic practice. In the late 1780s he developed the technique of ‘illuminated printing’, fundamental to helping him self-publish his work. It was a complex etching system that allowed Blake to print image and text from a single copper plate. The technique required Blake to add an ink wash to the final product, making each print unique. The first complete book he published was Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789/94). It was a collection of his poems, a meditation on God’s duality, that of humanity and a critique of a changing England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution. Its style reflects many sources, particularly medieval manuscript illumination. It shows Blake’s desire to create a ‘gothic’ visual language to support his Christian spirituality, echoed later by the anti-industrial Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris (1834–1896) and John Ruskin (1819–1900). These hand-colored prints have a naïve quality which make them close to what is now called Outsider Art.
He produced a large series of books he called ‘prophecies’, combining his spiritualism with reactions to the political upheavals of his day. This included his epic poem Jerusalem (1804–20). Its themes were sin and redemption while reflecting on society’s ‘Satanic’ materialism. The work played an important role for later artists, not least Max Ernst (1891–1976), who is thought to have drawn inspiration from Blake for his own mythical universe.
Parallel to his own publications, Blake made drawings, watercolors and prints to accompany literary, historical and biblical texts, beginning with England’s most famous poem The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s–1400). Many of these illustrations are characterised by a drawing style which has an almost Michelangelesque propensity for exaggerated musculature and dramatic lighting. Some of his most accomplished works come from his Large Colour Prints series (1795–1805), such as Newton which inspired Eduardo Paolozzi’s eponymous iconic work (1995). After 1815, Blake became increasingly involved with the illustration of works such as the Book of Job, the Book of Revelations and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The intense fantastical and mystical qualities of these subjects appealed to Blake’s powerful imagination. Blake claimed to experience hallucinations that he would integrate into his works, such as his The Ghost of a Flea (ca. 1819–20), a figure that he claimed to have encountered in a vision.
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Books on William Blake
Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon (eds.), William Blake, exh. cat. London, 2019.
Martin Myrone and Christopher Frayling, The Gothic Reader: A Critical Anthology, London and New York, 2006.
Martin Myrone, ed., Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination, exh. cat. London, 2006.
Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, eds., William Blake, exh. cat. New York, 2001.
Martin Butlin, The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols. New Haven, 1981.
David Bindman, The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake, New York, 1978.
Martin Butlin, William Blake: A Complete Catalogue of Works in the Tate Gallery, London, 1971.
Geoffrey Keynes, Engravings by William Blake, the Separate Plates: a Catalogue Raisonné, Dublin, 1956.
Geoffrey Keynes and Edwin Wolf, William Blake’s Illuminated Books: A Census, New York, 1953.
Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake, rev. edn Princeton, 1947.