Bad at mathematics and bored by the shop work, but displaying a rare gift for drawing, William Blake’s father first sent him to a drawing school, although against his principles since drawings belonged to the world of the Beast, and then apprenticed him to an engraver. At Henry Pars’ Drawing School he received encouragement to visit churches to observe art, at the time the only places where a student or a layman could see art. He was a fan of the 16th century Italians and engraver Albrecht Dürer, not in vogue at the time, and other students mocked him for his “mechanical taste.” But the headstrong student paid no heed and remained a lifelong admirer of great fresco artists like Raphael and Michelangelo – in opposition to oil painters like Rubens – who for him represented the pinnacle of the arts. “Copying correctly is the only School to the Language of Art,” he wrote, and it’s impossible to look at his gigantic, muscled, twisted bodies and not think immediately of Michelangelo’s ignudi or his cartone for The Battle of Cascina. Like many Renaissance artists, Blake believed drawing was the root of art; design and trace mattered more than colour; but then again he was an engraver. “Engraving is drawing on copper & nothing else,” he once wrote.
|Aristotele da Sangallo's copy of The Battle of Cascina|
|Los from Blake's Jerusalem|
A chronic creator of marginalia to all the books he read (whenever you tire of Blake the Visionary, Prophet and Poet of the Ineffable, and want to unwind with Blake the Funny Guy, his marginalia is the best!), his annotations on art reveal a lot about him. Years later when he enrolled at the Royal Academy and met Sir Joshua Reynolds, he was especially critical of his views on art. About his favourites he wrote, “I am happy I cannot say that Rafael Ever was from my Earliest Childhood hidden from Me. I Saw & I Knew immediately the difference between Raphael & Rubens.” About Michelangelo he related that he talked with his spirit, and sometimes with angels about him, which sounds right: if someone could talk with Blake about the great Florentine, that would be angels.
After studying under Henry Par, Blake’s father set about looking for a trade for him. This wasn’t an easy thing; first of all the master had to be paid upfront, and sums could vary from a few dozen pounds to over one hundred. It also involved signing a contract that would give full authority to the master over the boy; for 7 years, 7 days a week, Blake would be under his care: the master would have to house him, clothe him, feed him and teach him. So it was necessary to find the right master. James Blake originally opted for one William Ryland, then an engraver much in demand, who charged 100 pounds for pupil, a remarkable sum for a haberdasher to pay; it must be said, as the biography frequently shows, that when it came to spending money on his family, James Blake was never a miser. However Blake did not fancy him. “Father, I do not like the man’s face; it looks as if he will live to be hanged.” Indeed Ryland was nearly bankrupt, and in 1783 the authorities hanged him for forgery. When people call Blake a Prophet they’re not being clever; he really prophesied events. Instead of Ryland his father handed him over to James Basire, who charged only 52.10 pounds. Between 1772 and 1779 Basire oversaw Blake’s development into an engraver. He would forever remember and admire this teacher who taught him the trade that prevented him from starving in the worst moments of his life. An old-fashioned engraver in the style of Dürer, who disregarded mezzotint and stipple and lithography, he was a perfect match for Blake’s own austere and classic sensibilities. Blake remained averse to other techniques than traditional engraving, although he improved his own style with personal innovations. He forever engraved in what he called “the Style of Alb Durers Hist[o]ries & the old Engravers,” which earned him criticism since they were not in favour with the public. Bentley does a great job explaining the routine of an engraver, the methods, the tools, the predicaments. For instance I did not know, although it’s so obvious now, that Blake had to master mirror-writing, that is, he had to engrave in reverse so that when the print was taken from the plate the letters came right: basically taking prints off engravings is like printing text, the metal characters had to be arranged backwards for the text to appear properly printed. Bentley says that tiny mistakes are visible in the Illuminated Books; I must look out for them. During this period Blake made drawings of monuments in Westminster, fascinated by the Gothic style, and was much praised by contemporaries. Bentley also relates that in 1774 the authorities opened Edward I’s tomb in the Westminster Abbey, and invited Basire to capture the moment; the teacher instead sent Blake to engrave the moment, which means Blake was one of the few people given the privilege of seeing the monarch since the 14th century. The corpse, by the way, turned to dust when they removed the ligatures.
In 1779, although already proficient in drawing and engraving, Blake enrolled in the new Royal Academy (opened in 1769), and there he butted heads with some teachers who held views on art quite different than his. Just over 20, he was a lively, sociable student who enjoyed the company of his classmates. Bentley tells of an incident when he and a few friends rented a boat to visit Upnor Castle, on the shores of River Medway; unfortunately the soldiers guarding the old fortification took them for French spies, suspiciously making drawings of British defences, and detained them until the Royal Academy sent a professor confirming their identities. But those were gentle years: he was slowly finding work, was making friends, for a while courted success in elegant saloons and intellectual circles, and even got married. He wrote poetry at least since the age of 11, and around that time he sang about a “black-ey’d maid” called Kate; once again showing his powers of Prophecy, in the Summer of 1781 he did meet a black-eyed maid called Kate. Visiting Battersea, where he had family, he stayed at a place and was heard lamenting the misadventures of a girl called Polly who had broken his heart; as he narrated his sad story one of the daughters of the housekeeper took pity on him, and according to legend:
“Do you pity me?” asked Blake.
“Yes, I do, most sincerely.”
“Then I love you for that.”
“Well, and I love you.”
But before he could marry Catherine Boucher he needed money, so he asked her to wait a year while he improved his finances. In July 1872 he returned to Battersea, they married and she came with him to London. Although few records exist on Kate, or as he called her, his Shadow of Delight, she was crucial to him throughout his life; for one thing she stopped him from destroying his writings in his final, dark years, as melancholy consumed him; she also managed the household for him and was good with money, ordinary preoccupations that did matter much to this man who lived more time in Imagination than in the physical world. “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise,” she once said. Whenever their finances were bad she would say, “The money is going, Mr. Blake,” and Blake had to drop his designs and attend to the drudgery of work. He lived all his life with one constraint: he preferred to make original designs than engrave after other people’s drawings; however his own were never popular.
|Blake's drawing of Kate, circa 1805|
But in those early years he seemed to have a promising career ahead of him, in poetry and art. In 1883 the Poetical Sketches, a collection of juvenilia, came out, full of spelling mistakes attesting to his deficient studies but containing so many virtues that they garnered good reviews, although sales were bad. He also had friends working on his behalf. In 1884 the artist John Flaxman urged poet and art patron William Hayley to pay Blake’s trip to Rome to study; although this opportunity did not materialize, six years later Hayley became his patron. In London Blake attended soirées organized by well-to-do ladies, his songs impressed listeners and his friends did their best to promote him. Then he seemed on the cusp of success. In 1779, after leaving Basire, he found work for Joseph Johnson, a radical bookseller whose circle included William Goodwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Tom Paine. Blake himself supported the American and French Revolutions, called himself a “Liberty Boy” and “Son of Liberty,” terms of the time for those who wanted to change the political system, and publicly wore the Phrygian cap. This however did not prevent him from condemning France when the Terror started. Although political he was never interested in the physical world and abhorred public manifestations like protests and riots; he protested privately and preferred not to have anything to do with the world, fearing it could only distract him from the real needs of exploring his Imagination. When he had to say something, he usually put it into verse. His Songs of Experience burn with the indignation at the cruelty and tyranny he must have seen around him. He fumed at injustice and spoke out whenever he saw it, whether it be a boy being maltreated by an adult, or a man hitting a woman in the street. The poverty and child mortality of Songs of Experience were all around him, but he was also sensitive to the way the world, the Beast, produced misery; Bentley writes of how the St. James parish ran schools of industry like forced labour camps that instead of teaching turned children into slaves working for the institution’s profits. For Blake this was sign that State and Church could not be trusted, a sentiment that often reappears in his poetry.
The 1780s and 1790s were decades of new friendships, technical developments and spiritual discovery. Around 1791, after his good friend Flaxman left to Italy, Blake met and befriended the bizarre artist Henry Fuseli, of whom he wrote, “he is not naturally good natured but he is artificially very ill natured.” Fuseli later became a Keeper at the Royal Academy and like many friends did his best to improve Blake’s financial situation by offering him work and suggesting him to others in need of an engraver. He also explored spiritually. “Like many serious Dissenters, Blake was a persistent searcher for spiritual truth. He did not expect to find it in the established Church, but it might be found almost anywhere, else, only in volumes of theological speculation but in philosophy, in literature, in hymns and in great art.” Around that time Flaxman had joined a Swedenborg reading group – incredible such a thing ever existed! – and introduced Blake to this thinker; in 1789 he joined them for discussion. At first enthusiastic and admiring of Swedenborg’s insights about the spiritual world, he joined and later abandoned New Jerusalem Church, which had his teachings as its doctrine, since he saw too much of the official church it in. Of course nothing could really suit such a volatile and individual man like Blake; he detested systems and was always in pursuit of the individual. He detested systematization, for did he not write, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man's; I will not reason and compare: my business is to create?” He was also not a believer in Doubt, especially the scientific doubt becoming popular in his time: “He who shall teach the Child to Doubt/ The rotting Grave shall neer get out.” As such his poetry, starting around this time, shows great concern with intellectual freedom, breaking the “mind-forg'd manacles,” and releasing himself from the matter that blinded him to the Eternal Truths - “He could not take their fetters off for they grew from the soul” – and he believed this could be only achieved through Art rather than Science. “Blessed are those who are found studious of Literature & Humane & polite accomplishments. Such have their lamps burning & such shall shine as the stars...” His definition of prophet is also worth mentioning: “Prophets in the modern sense of the word have never existed[.] Jonah was no prophet in the modern Sense for his prophecy of Nineveh failed[.] Every honest man is a Prophet... a Prophet is a Seer not an Arbitrary Dictator,” he wrote. Is it clearer now? Maybe not. Blake liked obfuscation, difficulty, and antinomies. “... You ought to know that What is Grand is necessarily obscure to Weak men. That which can be made Explicit to the Idiot is not worth my care...” Ah, now that explains things better.
Songs of Innocence came out in 1789 and remained more successful than Songs of Experience (1794). For a long time they sold in separate volumes, and we should not worry too much about their alleged symmetry. Poems from Innocence had already appeared in An Island in the Moon (1784; a book known only after his death). Obviously people preferred the cheerful, sing-song tone of the former poems, instead of the sombre, pessimistic tone of the latter. In spite of that “The Tyger” had a special place in everyone’s estimations, at least in Blake’s small circle of friends (ironically Samuel Coleridge, one of the first persons to proclaim his genius, did not know what to make of this poem: “I am perplexed – and have no opinion.”)
These decades saw him start exploring contradictions, as we can see in one of his last comprehensible poetry books, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. For him oppositions were necessary for life and creativity. Inspired by Lavater’s aphorisms, Blake composed his own pithy sayings, although much different in tone from the Christian self-help guru: “Exuberance is beauty;” “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom;” “Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd.” I confess this weird book remains one of my favourites by Blake; one turns to any page and finds a delightful sentence: “I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise; this they do with a confident insolence sprouting from systematic reasoning.” This is also where Blake starts laying the foundations of his mythology; for him angels were unimaginative and devils the embodiments of creativity; this puts into perspective what he said about Milton, that he’s of “the Devil's party without knowing it!" He was praising him; Milton was one of his favourite poets, and he made engravings for Paradise Lost.
In 1790 he and Kate had moved from Popland Street to Lambeth, across the Thames, where he saw the ghost that influenced the famous Ghost of the Flea picture. By the way, for him a ghost was something seen by the “gross bodily eye,” whereas the vision was seen by the mental eye. In his new abode, called Hercules Buildings, he composed and printed his Prophetic Books. But before he had to invent Illuminated Printing. Their creation posed some technical difficulties: etching a picture begins with copying the design in reverse into paper, then etch with a needle the design again on a wax-covered copperplate. Blake wasn’t happy with this because it interfered with spontaneity; he wanted to draw and write original designs directly into the plate. “The ideal was to be able to draw on copper as freely as on paper or canvas,” says Bentley, “and this was not possible in England in the eighteenth century.” What he really meant to say is, this was not possible for mere mortals; but Blake was not a mere mortal. Like so many things in his life, Blake got through this problem thanks to a vision. According to him one day the spirit of his dead brother Robert appeared to him in a dream and revealed the secret to create the Illuminated Printing; next morning Blake woke up, tried the experiment and found a super-medium that allowed him to draw and write directly onto the copper. If I understand Bentley correctly, no one’s exactly sure what the secret medium was, although it involved adapting pre-existing techniques; the details died with Kate.
And with this problem taken care of he created Europe: A Prophecy, America: A Prophecy, The Book of Los and other nightmares for college students of English Literature. “The Prophecies Blake wrote in 1794 and 1795 are deeply interfused with politics and with his proliferating myth. The world depicted is one of almost hopeless torment; an understanding of the origins of evil, of the cause of the mind-forged manacles, does not lead to liberation. For Blake, the 1790s are a decade of doom.” Remember that France’s Terror started in 1792; the Revolution did not destroy the Empire, Wolf and Lion did not cease. What I think is that next I have to read David V. Erdman’s big study on Blake’s time, Blake: Prophet Against Empire. A solid acquaintance with his era seems indispensable to understand him.
But while he was writing his best poetry and finding steady work as an engraver, and perhaps entertaining notions of material success, he was also coming to realize that his unique vision would not suit his contemporaries. As early as 1785 his artwork put on public display received its first negative review; one figure, wrote a reviewer, “appears like some lunatic, just escaped from the incurable cell of Bedlam; in respect of his other works, we assure the designer, that grace does not consist in the sprawling of legs and arms.” Ha, sprawling of legs and arms, he meant he did not like Blake’s artwork heavily influenced by Michelangelo, who loved to submit his models to sinuous, twisted, backbreaking poses. Blake’s aesthetic was not of his time; nor was his poetic vision for that matter, as he would discover in very unflattering terms.
But more next Monday.
But more next Monday.