English poet, painter, and engraver, who created a unique form of illustrated verse; his poetry, inspired by mystical
vision, is among the most original lyric and prophetic in the language.
Blake, the son of a hosier, was born November 28, 1757, in London, where he lived most of his life. Largely
self-taught, he was, however, widely read. As a child, Blake wanted to become a painter. He was sent to drawing
school and at the age of 14 was apprenticed to James Basire, an engraver. After his 7-year term was over, he
studied briefly at the Royal Academy, but he rebelled against the aesthetic doctrines of its president, Sir Joshua
Reynolds. Blake did, however, later establish friendships with such academicians as John Flaxman and Henry
Fuseli, whose work may have influenced him. In 1784 he set up a printshop; although it failed after a few years, for
the rest of his life Blake eked out a living as an engraver and illustrator. His wife helped him print the illuminated
poetry for which he is remembered today.
As was to be Blake's custom, he illustrated the Songs with designs that demand an imaginative reading of the
complicated dialogue between word and picture. His method of illuminated printing is not completely understood.
The most likely explanation is that he wrote the words and drew the pictures for each poem on a copper plate, using
some liquid impervious to acid, which when applied left text and illustration in relief. Ink or a color wash was then
applied, and the printed picture was finished by hand in watercolors.
Blake has been called a preromantic because he rejected neoclassical literary style and modes of thought. His graphic
art too defied 18th-century conventions. Always stressing imagination over reason, he felt that ideal forms should be
constructed not from observations of nature but from inner visions. His rhythmically patterned linear style is also a
repudiation of the painterly academic style. The influence of Michelangelo is especially evident in
the radical foreshortening and exaggerated muscular form in one of his best-known illustrations, popularly known as
The Ancient of Days, the frontispiece to his poem Europe, a Prophecy (1794).
Much of Blake's painting was on religious subjects: illustrations for the work of John Milton, his favorite poet
(although he rejected Milton's Puritanism), for John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, and for the Bible, including
21 illustrations to the Book of Job. Among his secular illustrations were those for an edition of Thomas Gray's
poems and the 537 watercolors for Edward Young's Night Thoughts—only 43 of which were published.