Born in Soho, London, on November 28th, 1757, the poet William Blake came into a Dissenter family. Largely educated at home by his mother, The Bible was the main source of Blake’s early influences. At four years old, Blake claimed he was experiencing visions. His friend, the journalist Henry Crabb Robinson, wrote that Blake once claimed to have seen God’s head appear in a window.
By the age of 10, it was clear that Blake had an incredible artistic talent, and he was enrolled at Henry Pars’s drawing school. When he was 14, he was apprenticed to an engraver, and by the age of 21, he was studying at the Royal Academy of Art and Design.
In August 1782, Blake married Catherine Sophia Boucher. Catherine believed in her husband’s visions, and encouraged his creative talents. The following year, Blake spread his artistic talents into the world of poetry, privately publishing a collection called Poetical Sketches.
In 1787 William’s brother Robert died from tuberculosis, aged just 24. This brought another vision to Blake, who said he saw his brother’s spirit ascend through the ceiling. The following year, Blake claimed it was Robert who, in yet another vision, told him to try a new method of printing his works, which Blake would call illuminated printing. This method of production allowed Blake to control every aspect of the production of his art. He used it to produce scenes from the works of Dante, Shakespeare and the Bible.
In 1800, Blake moved to the seaside village of Felpham to work with the poet William Hayley. While in Felpham, in August 1803, he found a soldier, John Schofield, on the property and removed him by force. Schofield accused Blake of assault and sedition, (meaning Damning the King). This was a serious crime, and it took a full year before Blake’s lawyers were able to get the charge acquitted. Also that year, Blake began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (a plate from which can be seen above), something that would take him until 1820 to fully complete. He then began to show art in exhibitions, but this work was met with scorn. Reviewers referred to Blake as “an unfortunate lunatic.” Devastated, Blake withdrew from society and sank and paranoia. Blake continued to sketch, however, and in 1819 he began a series of “visionary heads,” claiming that historical and imaginary figures had appeared and sat for him.
Sadly, although he remained artistically busy, it wasn’t until after his death on 12th August 1827, from an undiagnosed disease that he called “that sickness to which there is no name”, that William Blake was recognized as a major influence in the literary and artistic world. One of a number of great artists who have only come to appreciation posthumously, it could be argued that his greatest, visionary inspirations were, in his time, the greatest barrier to the success he deserved.
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.