William Blake (28 Nov 1757 – 12 Aug 1827), artist, poet and philosopher, is perhaps easier to admire than understand. The breadth of his vision, the tortured eloquence of his craftsmanship and the bloody-mindedness of his daily life all speak of an intellect wrestling with fantastic worlds that boil and fester within.
Artistically he was influenced by Raphael, Michelangelo and Dürer but his mental life was informed by the political, social and philosophical forces that broke from the moorings of enlightenment (and its strict codes of reason and order), fuelling the bloody revolutions of America and France.
Blake’s most productive years stretched from 1788 to 1820, covering the span of the French revolution and its bloody aftermath. This is the period when Beethoven was at the height of his own powers (initially writing the Emperor Symphony for the cultural hero that was Napoleon before disillisuion set in), when the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge and Keats sought refuge in the pastoral and the organic, when Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein. During this period of muscular Romanticism, Blake was a contemporary (and friend) of Thomas Paine, that fiery spirit of liberty whose publication ‘Common Sense’ inspired the momentum of the American Revolution and whose Rights of Man offered stout resistance to the criticism of the French Revolution and its battle against the corrupt, unjust and pernicious structures of the aristocracy. Unlike a Shelley or a Byron, Blake was not a handsome man and regarded by many as insane, but he was firmly attached to a London intellectual society that explored the limits of liberty and revolutionary thought.
For Blake, this went further than most. He was poor, almost determinedly so, and lacked commercial success, acquiring only slight acknowledgement of his peers. His religious convictions were strong, but unorthodox. He struck hard at the embers of the enlightenment, in his poetry and his paintings, fighting for imagination and personal freedom. His visionary zeal manifested itself through his methods (his paintings exhibit a rough, organic feel, with much of his work using a unique mix of egg compound instead of oils) and the homogeneity of his purpose. His illuminated books, written and exquisitely illustrated by him, are perfect executions of this single-mindedness, with the meaning and themes of the words expressed through the flowing lines of decoration, illustration and the fluid style of the written text itself. His bold style revealed both the organic textures of the real world around him, and the power of the underlying forces in life.
Blake, Revolution and Religion
Blake had a complicated relationship with God. He created a Yaweh-like figure called Urizen (Your Reason) whose purpose was to enslave the free spirit of humankind into the prison of the body. In later Prophetic Works Urizen became the Satan figure, reflecting the disillusionment of all revolutionaries when the great libertarian Napoleon began to gather totalitarian powers and generally behave like a misbegotten monarch. For Blake though Jesus was the pre-eminent figure of his belief system, Jesus the Imagination, a symbol for oppressed and suffering, a liberating force for freedom. In Blake’s paintings for his books on America and Europe these great continents were anthropomorphised and illustrated in chains, straining to be free of tyrannical order, reason, with Jesus as the revolutionary saviour.
The Influence of Blake
However as with many of his Romantic era companions, Blake was an uncompromising idealist, an artist in its deepest and fullest sense, a vessel of agony and conviction, gripped by forces beyond his understanding, but still consumed by them. This is the fate of all true artists, however appreciated their work is in their own lifetime, and drives modern artists too, such as Jeffrey Catherine Jones.
As a follower of the fantastic in all its forms I see Blake’s ghost in the muscular paintings of Frank Frazetta, the bold illustrations of Barry Windsor Smith, the all-encompassing power of Jim Starlin’s cosmic Captain Marvel graphic novels, but it is hard to match the scale of agonies suffered by a man who is said to have used his last shilling to buy more brushes to complete his last painting, one of a series of watercolour illustrations for Dante’s Inferno.
For more on Blake see here.
- A comprehensive site on the life and works of William Blake please see here.
- For very good essay on Blake’s ‘grain of sand’, see here.
- To see some of his works in the flesh, please go to Tate Britain. Their website features a number of the paintings they own: they are magnificent.
- To view the intimate complexity of his writings and illustration, take a look at facsimiles of his work, published by Thames and Hudson. Good places to start are The Marriage of Heaven and Hell; The Songs of Experience; The First Book of Urizen; Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion. You can buy these from Amazon or Abe Books for anything out of print.
And here are some of powerful examples of Blake’s art: The image at the head of this post is plate 18 from the First Book of Urizen. Below is a slider with the following images:
- Ancient of Days (Urizon imposing order on the free spirit of mankind, measuring the precise extent of creation with his compass)
- Elohim Creating Adam (the agonised human spirit being imprisoned in the human body)
- Two views of The Great Red Dragon
- Illustration from Europe a Prophecy
- Illustration from America a Prophecy
- The Descent of Christ;
- Illustration from Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion
- Illustration from America a Prophecy
- Los, from Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion.
Some other links of interest on this website include: