Background: William Blake was born on 28 November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick St.) in Soho, London.
Education: Blake started engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities purchased for him by his father, a practice that was preferred to actual drawing. Within these drawings Blake found his first exposure to classical forms through the work of Raphael, Michelangelo, Marten Heemskerk and Albrecht Dürer. His parents knew enough of his headstrong temperament that he was not sent to school but instead enrolled in drawing classes. He read avidly on subjects of his own choosing. During this period, Blake made explorations into poetry; his early work displays knowledge of Ben Jonson and Edmund Spenser.
On 4 August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street, for a term of seven years. At the end of the term aged 21, he became a professional engraver. No record survives of any serious disagreement or conflict between the two during the period of Blake’s apprenticeship but Peter Ackroyd’s biography notes that Blake later added Basire’s name to a list of artistic adversaries—and then crossed it out This aside, Basire’s style of engraving was of a kind held to be old-fashioned at the time, and Blake’s instruction in this outmoded form may have been detrimental to his acquiring of work or recognition in later life.
After two years, Basire sent his apprentice to copy images from the Gothic churches in London (perhaps to settle a quarrel between Blake and James Parker, his fellow apprentice). His experiences in Westminster Abbey helped form his artistic style and ideas. The Abbey of his day was decorated with suits of armour, painted funeral effigies, and varicoloured waxworks. Ackroyd notes that “…the most immediate [impression] would have been of faded brightness and colour”. In the long afternoons Blake spent sketching in the Abbey, he was occasionally interrupted by boys from Westminster School, one of whom “tormented” him so much that he knocked the boy off a scaffold to the ground, “upon which he fell with terrific Violence”. Blake beheld more visions in the Abbey, of a great procession of monks and priests, while he heard “the chant of plain-songand chorale.”
On 8 October 1779, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy in Old Somerset House, near the Strand. While the terms of his study required no payment, he was expected to supply his own materials throughout the six-year period. There, he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens, championed by the school’s first president, Joshua Reynolds. Over time, Blake came to detest Reynolds’ attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of “general truth” and “general beauty”. Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the “disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind”; Blake responded, in marginalia to his personal copy, that “To Generalize is to be an Idiot; To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit”. Blake also disliked Reynolds’ apparent humility, which he held to be a form of hypocrisy. Against Reynolds’ fashionable oil painting, Blake preferred the Classical precision of his early influences, Michelangelo and Raphael.
Achievements: Blake returned to London in 1804 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804–1820), his most ambitious work. Having conceived the idea of portraying the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Blake approached the dealer Robert Cromek, with a view to marketing an engraving. Knowing Blake was too eccentric to produce a popular work, Cromek promptly commissioned Blake’s friend Thomas Stothard to execute the concept. When Blake learned he had been cheated, he broke off contact with Stothard. He set up an independent exhibition in his brother’s haberdashery shop at 27 Broad Street in Soho. The exhibition was designed to market his own version of the Canterbury illustration (titled The Canterbury Pilgrims), along with other works. As a result he wrote his Descriptive Catalogue (1809), which contains what Anthony Blunt called a “brilliant analysis” of Chaucer and is regularly anthologized as a classic of Chaucer criticism. It also contained detailed explanations of his other paintings. The exhibition was very poorly attended, selling none of the temperas or watercolours. Its only review, in The Examiner, was hostile.
The commission for Dante’s Divine Comedy came to Blake in 1826 through Linnell, with the aim of producing a series of engravings. Blake’s death in 1827 cut short the enterprise, and only a handful of watercolours were completed, with only seven of the engravings arriving at proof form. Even so, they have evoked praise:
Blake’s illustrations of the poem are not merely accompanying works, but rather seem to critically revise, or furnish commentary on, certain spiritual or moral aspects of the text.
Because the project was never completed, Blake’s intent may be obscured. Some indicators bolster the impression that Blake’s illustrations in their totality would take issue with the text they accompany: In the margin of Homer Bearing the Sword and His Companions, Blake notes, “Every thing in Dantes Comedia shews That for Tyrannical Purposes he has made This World the Foundation of All & the Goddess Nature & not the Holy Ghost.” Blake seems to dissent from Dante’s admiration of the poetic works of ancient Greece, and from the apparent glee with which Dante allots punishments in Hell (as evidenced by the grim humour of the cantos).
At the same time, Blake shared Dante’s distrust of materialism and the corruptive nature of power, and clearly relished the opportunity to represent the atmosphere and imagery of Dante’s work pictorially. Even as he seemed to near death, Blake’s central preoccupation was his feverish work on the illustrations to Dante’s Inferno; he is said to have spent one of the very last shillings he possessed on a pencil to continue sketching.