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The Notebook of William Blake - Introduction

Image of the front cover of William Blake's notebook
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The Notebook of William Blake

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. Blake wrote and sketched in this notebook, which came into his possession after his brother's death in 1787, for 30 years.

The closely-filled pages give a fascinating insight into Blake's compositional process, allowing us to follow the genesis of some of his best-known work, including:

A Poison Tree (N114)
Infant Sorrow (N113)
London (N109)
The Tyger (N109, N108)
The Sick Rose (N107)
The Chimney Sweeper (N103)

We have rotated folios N98 to N115 for ease of viewing.

We have followed the late David V. Erdman in showing how Blake's verses were edited and rewritten, along with his numbering of the folios (pages).The transcriptions are based on Erdman, David V., with the assistance of Donald K. Moore, The Notebook of William Blake: A Photographic and Typographic Facsimile (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973). British Library Add. MS 49460

William Blake
William Blake was born in Soho, London, on 28 November 1757. He was the third son of James Blake, a successful hosier, and his wife Catherine. He was regarded by many of his contemporaries as a lunatic, and the question of his supposed insanity dominated consideration of him for generations. It was not until the end of the 19th century that his work began to be appreciated by scholars. Since then his reputation as a poet and artist has continued to grow.

Blake was educated at home by his mother, before being sent, at 10, to Henry Pars's drawing school on the Strand. During this period, supported by his father, he scoured the dealers and auction houses of London for old prints and engravings, acquiring such a reputation that he was known by one dealer as his 'little connoisseur'.

His childhood was also filled with long, solitary walks through London, and it was on one of these journeys that he witnessed a vision of angels in Peckham Rye. The young, highly spiritual child claimed to have seen:

'A tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough with stars.'

This was not the only time that the young Blake reported visions. On another occasion he told his mother he had seen angelic figures walking among the haymakers while they worked - but such fierce imagination did not find favour with his down-to-earth father, who accused him of telling lies.

Apprenticeship to Basire
Although Blake's singular artistic vision was apparent from a young age, at 14 he was apprenticed to an engraver - James Basire — with whom he lived for seven years. While working for Basire, and possibly as a result of a dispute with his fellow apprentices, Blake was sent to spend some considerable time drawing the monuments and paintings of Westminster Abbey. This experience fostered his taste for the Gothic, and apparently prompted further visions.

The Royal Academy
In 1779, when Blake's apprenticeship with Basire finished, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Arts, one of just 25 students chosen each year. He was influenced not only by the lectures he attended - in particular those given by the painter James Barry - but also by his contemporaries, who included the young artist Thomas Stodhard and the sculptor John Flaxman.

In August 1782, one year before the publication of his first collection of poems, 'Poetical Sketches', Blake married Catherine Boucher. Catherine is thought to have been illiterate when she married, as she signed her marriage certificate with an 'X'. Blake helped her to learn to read and write, as well as training her as an engraver. Catherine was a steadfast companion to Blake throughout his life, assisting in the printing of his books, and showing unstinting faith in his work.

Printing Techniques
Following his father's death in 1784, Blake - in partnership with Catherine and with a former fellow apprentice to Basire, James Parker - established a print shop. He purchased a wooden rolling press for 40 pounds which allowed him to experiment with different printing techniques. It is probable that he was assisted by his beloved younger brother, Robert, an artist and student at the Royal Academy who may have lodged with the Blakes. When Robert fell ill with consumption (tuberculosis) in late 1786, it was Blake who almost single-handedly took care of him. Robert's death in February 1787 greatly affected Blake, who subsequently retired to bed and later claimed to have fallen into an unbroken sleep for three days and nights.

Robert's presence stayed with Blake, who claimed that the inspiration for a novel method of engraving was revealed to him by his brother in a vision, a year after his death. Blake subsequently developed a technique known as 'relief etching'. This allowed him to write his text directly onto a copper plate, at the same time as adding the accompanying design or illustration. He wrote on the plate (in reverse) in acid-resistant liquid, so that when this was then covered in acid, the acid etched away the uncovered areas of the plate. This left the text and design in relief, ready to be inked and then placed on his rolling press. In practical terms, this process removed the need to send his work out to costly printers. More significantly, the method allowed Blake to compose text and images at the same time from the same plate, a symbolic union of his twin creative forces. Blake himself praised 'a method of printing which combines the painter and the Poet' as 'a phenomenon worthy of public attention'. The first of what he later called his 'illuminated books' appeared in 1788.

Blake's 'Notebook'
This small notebook (159 x 197mm; 58 leaves) contained a few of Robert's drawings when it passed to his brother upon his death, and Blake was to treasure it as a reminder of Robert throughout his life. It was also, however, a practical work book that Blake filled with sketches and drafts of poems, and which now provides an enthralling insight into the composition of some of Blake's most well-known and highly-regarded works.

It is believed that Blake first used the notebook in February 1787, starting from the front and entering a series of pencil emblems, framed in the centre of each recto page, under the tentative title 'Ideas of Good and Evil'. Blake's series of emblems in this notebook record man's journey from birth to death, and may well have been prompted by his reaction to Robert's own premature death. From this series, Blake was to select 17 designs that he engraved and published in a small volume entitled For Children: The Gates of Paradise (1793).

At around the same time, having reached the end of the book, Blake turned it upside-down, and used these pages to transcribe fair copies (later heavily annotated) of earlier drafts of poems, many of which would appear in Songs of Experience (1794). When he started to enter these poems, some of the pages were already covered with sketches for an aborted edition of illustrations of John Milton's Paradise Lost. Some of these sketches were preserved, while others were overwritten. Although Blake mostly worked in this notebook between 1792 and 1794, he kept it with him throughout his life. He picked it up again to draft further poems at the front from 1801, and was still composing as late as 1818.


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