My Daily Art Display today looks at the life and works of one of England’s most controversial artists. He was not just an artist, illustrator and printer, he was also a renowned poet. The controversial nature of this person derives from what he drew and wrote about and his beliefs. My featured artist today is William Blake, the writer of prophetic works which are termed works of mythopoeia. Mythopoeia is the act of making or creating mythologies. In the case of Blake, they are stories of artificial mythology, which he himself created, such as Vala and The Four Zoahs where he would introduce us to characters with the strangest names, such as Enitharmon, Albion and Urizen. I suppose to draw a present day parallel to his type of work we should think of Tolkien’s Middle Earth sagas or C S Lewis’s tales of Narnia. What is probably a little bit more bizarre and daunting about William Blake was that from a very early age he believed in visions and told people about his regular sightings of angels and other heavenly bodies which he was able to communicate with.
I have put together a short biography of the man and split over this and my next blog. There have been numerous books written about him and when you read them you will see that he trod a very fine line between sanity and insanity. He was never vigorously condemned during his lifetime by the Church or by his contemporaries. The reason being it was probably due to him being looked upon as a harmless eccentric who had few followers and therefore his beliefs would never gain hold and therefore never pose a threat.
Catherine Wright Armitage married her first husband, Thomas Armitage, a hosier, in 1746. Catherine and her husband had one son, also named Thomas, but he died in 1751, when he was just five years of age. Ten months after the death of her son, Catherine’s husband died. The following year, 1752, Catherine married James Blake. They were to have seven children, the third of whom, William, was born in 1757. William Blake was to grow up to become one of the great English poets and painters and an influential figure in the history of both the poetry and visual arts of the Romantic Age.
William Blake did not receive any formal education but he received home tuition from his mother. In 1867 at the age of ten he attended William Shipley’s Academy in the Strand where he received drawing lessons from Henry Pars. Historians would have us believe that both his mother and father were Dissenters, members of a religious body who have, for one reason or another, separated from the Established Church. They were members of the Moravian Church and later fervent followers of the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Blake had a strong religious upbringing. Even at the early age of four Blake would tell his parents about the visions of God and angels he had experienced. His strict religious background would influence Blake for the rest of his life and was to be an inspirational stimulant for his artwork in the future.
Just before his fifteenth birthday William Blake was indentured for seven years as an apprentice to James Basire, engraver to the Royal Society of Antiquaries. He spent a lot of his time during his apprenticeship copying images from the Gothic churches in London as well as Westminster Abbey and this time in his life was to prove inspirational to the young artist and would shape his future artistic style. Again, as was the case when he was a young child, he would talk about religious visions he had whilst working amongst the religious icons.
In 1779 on completion of his apprenticeship he became a professional engraver and he enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools at Somerset House as an engraver. He exhibited his first work, a watercolour entitled The Earl of Goodwin, at the Academy the following year. Although he exhibited further works during the 80’s and 90’s, he turned against the establishment denouncing it as a fraud. In 1780 hegoes to work for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson carrying out commercial engravings. He was to have a long association with Johnson and through him would meet the likes of the Swiss artist, Henry Fuseli, the writer and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the American revolutionary Thomas Paine. It was during that time that Blake became involved in the Gordon Riots, an anti-Catholic protest which lead to wide spread rioting and looting in London. That year he was also arrested as a French spy when he and some fellow artists were on a sketching trip by boat on the River Medway. It took the pleas from members of the Royal Academy to get them all released.
In 1782, aged 25, William Blake married Catherine Boucher, who was the daughter of a market gardener. She was five years his junior and illiterate. We know this as their wedding certificate still exists and she signed her name with an “X”. They set up home in Leicester Fields in London close to where sir Joshua Reynolds, the President of the Royal Academy lived and William taught her to read and write as well as the art of engraving. In this same year, Blake’s father dies and leaves his son a small inheritance which enables him to go into partnership with a fellow Basire apprentice, James Parker, and together they set up a print shop. However the collaboration does not last long and the partnership breaks up after a year. Blake’s younger brother Robert comes to live with William and helps him in the print shop. Two years later in 1784, Robert falls ill and despite the loving and constant attention given to him by his older brother, he dies.
William Blake is very affected by the death of his brother and in his biography of Blake, entitled Life and Works of William Blake, Alexander Gilchrist quotes the artist’s words :
“…I converse daily & hourly in the Spirit & See him in my remembrance in the regions of my Imagination. I hear his advice & even now write from his Dictate…”
In 1789 Blake set about producing an illuminated book of his poems entitled Songs of Innocence. The poems and artwork were reproduced by copperplate engraving and coloured with washes by hand. Five years later in 1794 he bound these poems with a set of twenty-six new poems in a volume entitled Songs of Innocence and of Experience Showing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul.
I will leave off the biography of William Blake at this point in his life just before he moves away from London and will conclude his life story in my next blog.
For My Daly Art Display today I am featuring the colour monotype print by William Blake entitled Nebuchadnezzar. This comes from Blake’s Large Colour Prints collection. This collection of Blake’s twelve large colour prints, which he first designed and completed in 1795, are now considered to be his greatest works as a pictorial artist. Their inspirational imagery and the printmaking technique Blake used to create them evolved out of his illuminated books of 1790-95. It is thought that Blake drew an outline of the design on the printing matrix, painted on it areas of gum- or glue-based pigments, and then printed individual impressions on damp paper in his rolling press. It is thought that then Blake and his wife Catherine added ink and watercolour to the impressions. There were no more than three impressions of any one of the twelve designs in existence. The one we see before us today was reprinted around 1805 and there was added more hand outlining and tinting to the original impression. In all there were four copies of this work. One can be found in the Tate Britain, one in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and one in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The fourth copy is missing.
So what is the picture all about? The bible tells the story of Nebuchadnezzar in book of Daniel (4:33) stating:
“…The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws…”
Blake’s biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, wrote in his book of 1880 entitled The Life and Works of William Blake , describing what we are looking at as:
“…“the mad king crawling like a hunted beast into a den among the rocks; his tangled golden beard sweeping the ground, his nails like vultures’ talons, and his wild eyes full of sullen terror. The powerful frame is losing semblance of humanity, and is bestial in its rough growth of hair, reptile in the toad-like markings and spottings of the skin, which takes on unnatural hues of green, blue, and russet…”]
The original depiction of Nebuchadnezzar by Blake dates back to plate number 24 of his book The Marriage of Heaven and Hell which he created between 1790 and 1793 and which was a series of texts and illustrations which expressed Blake’s own intensely personal romantic and revolutionary beliefs. The book was published as printed sheets from etched plates and contained a mixture of prose, poetry, and illustrations.
Welcome to the strange world of William Blake.