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William Blake

After finishing the articles about our distinguished English poets and Greek philosophers who are featured in the old Octagon library, I discovered in our rare book collection another English poet many of you will know doubt know, especially if as a child you read his famous poem The Tyger. Well, I found Blake sitting on a shelf looking down on an old furniture Bible. I would like to talk about the two together and the importance they bring to our literature, and to show another side of William Blake and his works. A blog by Anne Marie Mcharg Rare Books and Special Collections Assistant.

Illustrated manuscript of page 2 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell titled the Argument

The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, 1790, William Blake page 2 [Ref. ND497.B6 BLA]

Early Life

William Blake was born on 28 November 1757 in the heart of London, in Broad Street, now called Broadwick Street in Soho. His father, James, was originally from Ireland and was a hosier by trade and they were a family of moderate means. William was the third of seven children. Even though the Blakes were English Dissenters, or Separatists (protestant Christians who had separated from the Church of England during seventeenth and eighteenth century), William was baptised at St. James’ church Piccadilly.

His childhood was peaceful and idyllic. By the age of ten he had left formal education to be home schooled by his mother Catherine Blake. As a child Blake wandered the city streets and could easily escape into the surrounding countryside. It was noted by his biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, that on one of his rambles William was startled to see a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars”.

His parents encouraged his artistic talents and a year later they enrolled him in Henry Par’s drawing school in the Strand. It was a great expense and so when he was fourteen, his father sent him to take up an apprenticeship to a master engraver, William Ryland. Unfortunately, William did not like Ryland, and said to his father, “I do not like this man’s face it looks as if he will live to be hanged”. His grim prophecy came to pass twelve years later.

During this time while he was learning his chosen trade, he was reading books on the great artists and writing poetry of his own. His verses then were simple, fresh and beautiful, but often also full of sadness at the cruelty and evil of life. In 1772 William started an apprenticeship with the engraver James Basire of Great Queen Street for a term of seven years.

Royal Academy

When he came of age at twenty-one, Blake left Basire’s apprenticeship and enrolled as a student at the newly formed Royal Academy on the eighth of October 1779. Under the rules of the Academy, while he was not required to pay for his tuition, he was expected to buy his own materials throughout the six-year period. William was not at all pleased and thought it was a ridiculous rule, so he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters of that era such as Rubens and Joshua Reynolds.

Over the years Blake grew to dislike Reynold's attitude towards art, especially his pursuit of “general truth and general beauty”. Another point of Blake’s antagonism with Reynolds was the fact that he did not put his ideas into practice whereas Blake certainly did. Despite this Blake exhibited at the Royal Academy his work on six different occasions between the years 1780-1808.

Gordon Riots

In the summer of 1780 the month of June, riots broke out across London in part caused by the anti-Catholic preaching of Lord George Gordon and by resistance to continued war against the American Colonists. At this time, Blake was walking towards Basire’s shop in Great Queen Street one day, when he got caught in a large mob that stormed Newgate Prison. The mob attacked the prison gates with shovels and pickaxes and set the surrounding buildings ablaze.

The riots, in response to a parliamentary bill revoking sanctions against Roman Catholicism, became known as the Gordon Riots and provoked a flurry of legislation from the government of George III, and the creation of the first police force. The scenes Blake had witnessed stayed with him, and he produced two powerful works in response to them, America a Prophecy in 1793 and Europe a Prophecy in 1794.


On the 18 of August 1782, Blake married a poor illiterate girl, Catherine Boucher, at Saint Mary’s Church Battersea. The parish registry shows that Catharine signed her wedding contract with an X. Blake taught her to read and write, and later tutored her in draughtsmanship.


Blake was a committed Christian who was hostile to the church of England, and organised forms of religion. However, it is said that at the age of four, he saw God “put his head to the window” and at nine he saw “a tree full of angels”. These visions increased over his lifetime, and the world of angels and dreams made their way into his artistic work and poetry, as can be seen in some of the items in our collection such as:

William Blake's illustrations of the Book of Job : the engravings and related material with essays, catalogue of states and printings. Commentary on the plates and documentary record

Colour versions of William Blake's Book of Job designs from the circle of John Linnell : facsimiles of the New Zealand and Collins sets and the Fitzwilliam plates : with an essay by Bo Lindberg

On the morning of Christ's Nativity : Milton's hymn / with illustrations by William Blake and a note by Geoffrey Keynes

Illustrations to the Bible : a catalogue compiled by Geoffrey Keynes

The marriage of heaven and hell

Poetical Writings

After his marriage Blake’s first collection of poems Poetical Sketches was printed, but not published, around 1783. This was written between 1769-1777. Just forty copies were printed in 1783 with the help of Blakes friends John Flaxman and the reverend Anthony Stephen Mathew at the request of his wife Harriet Mathew.

The book was never published for the public, the copies were given as gifts to close friends and family. Of the forty copies fourteen were accounted for at the time of Geoffrey Keynes census in 1921. Eight more of the copies had been discovered by the time of Keynes The Complete writings of William Blake in 1957. In March of 2011, a previously unrecorded copy was sold at action in London for £72,000.

Relief etching

In 1784, after his father’s death, Blake started a print shop at 27 Broad Street, next door to the family home and took his younger brother Robert with him as an assistant and pupil. The business did not do well and eventually they moved out.

Early in 1787 Robert fell ill and in February he died. Throughout this William nursed his beloved brother devotedly. Later he said that he had seen Robert’s soul rising through the ceiling, “clapping his hands with joy”. Blake also said his brother appeared to him in a vision and revealed a method of engraving the text and illustrations of his books without having recourse to a printer. This method was Blake’s remarkable invention of what he called “illuminated painting” in which via a special technique of relief etching, each page of the book was printed in monochrome from an engraved plate containing both text and illustrations.  

The pages were hand-coloured with watercolour by Blake or his wife. These were bound together in paper covers and sold for prices ranging from a few shillings to ten guineas.  All of Blake’s works after the Poetical Sketches – except The French Revolution and those that remained in manuscript form – were engraved and “published” this way, and so reached only a limited public during his lifetime. Today Blake's corpus of illuminated books of works with their dynamic designs and glowing colours are among the world’s art treasures.

The first books that used this new method were two little tracts: There is no natural religion, and All religions are one. They contain the seeds of practically all the subsequent development of his thoughts. Immediately following these tracts came Blakes masterpieces in an astonishing outburst of creative activity: Songs of Innocence and The Book of Thel. Both were engraved in 1793. We also hold The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, from a similar time, with vivid and beautiful illustrations.

Sussex Home

In 1800, Blake moved his family to Felpham in West Sussex to take up a new job illustrating the works of an up-and-coming poet William Hayley. While he was here Blake began his new work, Milton, the title page dated 1804 but he continued for four years with this work until 1808. The preface to this work includes a poem beginning “And did those feet in ancient time”, which has become one of the world's best-known hymns and is often sung at the last night of the Proms. It soon became clear to Blake that he and his new patron did not see eye to eye and slowly Blake began to resist Hayley as “the mere drudgery of business”.

Final Years

Towards the end of his life, Blake lived just off the Strand in Fountain Court, where the Savoy now stands. He continued with his outpouring of writing and pictorial art. In 1820-21 he produced his only wood engravings, the beautiful illustrations to R.J. Thornton’s Pastorals of Virgil which had a profound effect on Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert who were prominent artists. Even more influential was the series of 22 watercolours inspired by The Book of Job made originally for Thomas Butts and later engraved for John Linnell, which became some of Blake’s most successful and best-known pictures.


It was said that on that day of his death 12 August 1827 Blake was still working on his Dante series.  It was reported he ceased working and turned to his wife who was in tears by his bedside. Blake had said to have cried out, “Stay Kate: Keep just as you are- I will draw your portrait – for you have been an angel to me”, Having completed the portrait Blake laid down his tools and began to sing hymns and verses. At six in the evening, after promising his wife he would be with her always, he died. He was buried in Bunhill Fields. No stone marked his grave but in 1927, a tablet was erected on the spot and in November 1957 on the bicentenary of his birth a bronze bust of him by Sir Jacob Epstein was placed in Westminster Abbey.

A blog by Anne Marie Mcharg Rare Books and Special Collections Assistant.



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