William Blake is famous today as an imaginative and original poet, painter, engraver and mystic. But his work, especially his poetry, was largely ignored during his own lifetime, and took many years to gain widespread appreciation.
The third of six children of a Soho hosier, William Blake lived and worked in London all his life. As a boy, he claimed to have seen ‘bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars’ in a tree on Peckham Rye, one of the earliest of many visions. In 1772, he was apprenticed to the distinguished printmaker James Basire, who extended his intellectual and artistic education. Three years of drawing murals and monuments in Westminster Abbey fed a fascination with history and medieval art.
In 1782, he married Catherine Boucher, the steadfast companion and manager of his affairs for the whole of his chequered, childless life. Much in demand as an engraver, he experimented with combining poetry and image in a process he invented himself in 1789, which used different ways of printing. Among the spectacular works of art this produced were ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, ‘Visions of the Daughters of Albion’, ‘Jerusalem’, and ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’.
Although always in demand as an artist, Blake’s intensely felt personal mythology, derived from radical ardour and the philosophy of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, led to wild mental highs and lows, and later in life he was sidelined as being close to insanity. On his deathbed, he saw one last glorious vision, and ‘burst out in Singing of the things he Saw in Heaven’.
Alexander Gilchrist, Life of William Blake
, ed. by Ruthven Todd (London: J M Dent, 1945), p. 353.