The Gothic Life of
William Blake: 1757-1827

Quite possibly the Greatest British Poet and Artist to Ever Live.
The Art History Archive - Gothic

William Blake may not fit into the role of what we consider to be a "modern goth"... but his poetry and art about sex, love, religion and especially death marks him as a goth within the Romanticist period of art.

He was a poet, an artist, a sexual liberator, a political activist and devoutly against the corruption within the Catholic Church. His art about Dante in particularly shows his allegories against the Catholic church and the politics of death.

See also the following sites about William Blake, Gothic Art & Romanticism:

  • William Blake's Ecofeminism
  • Masters of Gothic Romanticism
  • Romanticism
  • Gothic Art

    Thomas Phillips Portrait of Blake (1807) National Portrait Gallery.

    Poet, printmaker, visionary, the British artist William Blake (1757-1827) made work that is both profoundly personal and universal. Tate Britain is now presenting the most comprehensive exhibition of Blake's work ever held (9 November - 11 February 2001). The aim is to show Blake as an artist, as a poet and as a man.

    Blake saw himself as a medieval craftsman, not a sophisticated modern artist, and this part of the exhibition examines how the gothic world influenced his art, imagination and ideals.

    Blake did not become famous in his own lifetime. Only after his death did his fame spread wildly.

    The Life William Blake:

    Songs of Innocence, Copy F, pl.1, Frontispiece (1789) Yale Center for British Art, New Haven.

    Blake was born in 1757, and died in 1827, at the age of sixty-nine. His poetry and his art reflected his personal beliefs in sex, love, innocence, corruption, religion, ecology and the environment. Sex was not a sin in his mind, corruption was.

    William Blake was born on November 28, 1757 in London at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, where his father had a successful hosiery business. Since Blake was an unruly child his parents educated him at home instead of formal school. He spent his youth roaming about London and the countryside on the edge of town. He describes this in a song from his Poetical Sketches which he started writing at the age of thirteen:

    How sweet I roamed from field to field
    And tasted all the summer's pride

    At the age of about ten, Blake said that he saw his 'first vision' when, sauntering along on Peckham Rye, he looked up to see a tree filled with angels. According to the accounts Blake gave of his literary development, he was already reading the works of Milton and Isaiah as a child.

    Joseph of Arimathea Among the Rocks of Albion (1773) Fitzwilliam Museum.

    At the age of ten, Blake was sent to Mr Pars' drawing school in the Strand, where he copied plaster-casts of ancient sculptures. His father, unable to afford the cost of placing Blake as the pupil of a leading painter, took the prudent decision to apprentice him to an engraver at the age of fourteen. Blake's master, James Basire of Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn, was engraver to the London Society of Antiquaries. As a result, Blake was sent to Westminster Abbey to make drawings of tombs and monuments. Here he learned to love gothic art. He stood on the tombs to view them better and even made sketches when the grave of Edward I was opened.

    In his free time, Blake collected prints of then unfashionable artists such as Durer, Raphael, and Michelangelo. In literature too, he rejected eighteenth-century polish, preferring the Elizabethans (Shakespeare, Jonson and Spenser) and ancient ballads, both authentic (such as Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry), and forged (such as Macpherson's Ossian and Chatterton's Poems of Rowley).

    The Penance of Jane Shore(c. 1793) Tate.

    In August 1779, Blake was admitted to the Royal Academy (founded by the painter Sir Joshua Reynolds who was then its president). Paying his way by producing engravings for novels and catalogues, Blake drew from casts, life models and corpses, and shared in the dream of founding a new English school of historical painting.

    There was, however, friction between Blake and his teachers. Reynolds recommended that he work with 'less extravagance and more simplicity', while George Michael Moser, another teacher there, discouraged Blake's admiration for the 'old, hard, stiff and dry unfinished works' of Raphael and Michelangelo. On the other hand, Blake was inspired by the artist James Barry and his grand historical paintings. He made friends with other young artists and was able to exhibit his own historical watercolours.

    Blake married Catherine Boucher at St Mary's, Battersea in 1782. The newly-weds then moved out of Blake's father's house to Green Street, near Leicester Square. In the next year Blake's Poetical Sketches were published, and there was even talk of raising a subscription to send him to study in Rome.

    In the summer of 1784, Blake's father died. While the eldest son, James, took over the hosiery business in number 28, Blake and his wife moved into the next-door house at 27 Broad Street. There he set up in business as a print seller in partnership with James Parker. The partnership lasted only three years, and in 1787 Blake moved to a house around the corner in Poland Street. In the same year his beloved younger brother, Robert, died. Blake sat by him during his last illness, and claimed to see his spirit pass through the ceiling on its way to heaven.

    Blake said that the spirit of Robert came to him 'in a vision in the night' and revealed the secret technique for combining poem and picture on a single printing plate. In 1788, Blake started work on the first of his illuminated books using this method. His first efforts were in simple, chapbook style, but by 1789, The Songs of Innocence had been completed with Blake and his wife hand-producing the book. In the words of Blake's first biographer Alexander Gilchrist, they did everything 'except manufacturing the paper'.

    Portrait of William Blake by Catherine (c. 1785) Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

    Europe Title-page (1794) Glasgow University Library.

    Lambeth was still a village when Blake and his wife moved to No. 13 Hercules Buildings in 1791. A much larger house than any Blake had lived in before, it provided the light and space that he needed for his work. Blake now entered upon the most creative and productive period of his life.

    Blake's work had become more overtly political after the upheavals in France in 1789. His poem The French Revolution, though printed in 1791 by Joseph Johnson (publisher of Tom Paine's Rights of Man), was deemed too dangerous to actually publish. By this time, Blake already felt himself to be losing out to his contemporaries in the art world, and now he saw the door to public recognition closing. The 1793 co-publication of The Gates of Paradise, an emblem book for children, was Blake's last venture into commercial publishing. In October of the same year, Blake published his Prospectus a public advertisement of his recent works. The Prospectus was also a critique of the establishment and the difficulty of gaining reconition for artists who lacked 'the means to propagate such works as have wholly absorbed the Man of Genius'. Blake was literally taking matters into his own hands by producing his own work and offering it for sale at his home.

    The Prospectus advertised the illuminated prophetic books which had begun to pour forth from his press: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, a brief epic interspersed with proverbs, The Visions of the Daughters of Albion, an allegory about freedom, and America, A Prophecy, a mixture of history and myth, all date from 1793.

    There was no letting up in 1794, when The Songs of Experience (the pessimistic 'contrary' volume to The Songs of Innocence) was completed. In the same year Blake also published Europe, A Prophecy (an allegory of the political situation in Europe with warnings about the dire consequences of war), and The First Book of Urizen (his account of the origins of mankind and the natural world).

    The House of Death (c.1795) Tate.

    The illustrations in Blake's Prophetic Books had been growing ever larger and more colourful. It was therefore a logical step for him to adapt his printing-methods to produce full-scale paintings. The year 1795 saw the production of the series of twelve large watercolour prints, including Newton and Nebuchadnezzar and The House of Death (shown here), which biographer Peter Ackroyd calls 'the finest artistic statement of Blake's Lambeth visions'.

    In 1796, Richard Edwards, a bookseller, commissioned Blake to illustrate Young's Night Thoughts, a philosophical verse epic immensely popular in the late eighteenth century. Ultimately, however, Edwards lost interest, and finally less than half the poem was published, with only forty-three engravings from Blake's 500 watercolours. Blake's friend, the sculptor John Flaxman, commissioned him to illustrate the poems of Thomas Gray. In addition, Blake's most important patron the civil servant Thomas Butts, commissioned a series of Biblical paintings from him. However, this work was not enough to compensate for price inflation and the depressed art market, caused by the war with France.

    Work was scarce and life was hard, so it seemed like a stroke of luck when William Hayley, an eccentric gentleman poet, invited Blake down to live on his estate in Sussex. The Blakes were glad to leave the 'terrible desert of London' for 'sweet Felpham'.

    John Milton (1800-1803) Manchester City Art Gallery.

    Delighted by the natural beauty around him, Blake embarked on his new life in Sussex with great optimism. Blake received many commissions from his new patron, producing plates for Hayley's ballad Little Tom the Sailor, and engravings for his Ballads on Anecdotes relating to Animals and for his Life of Cowper.

    But by 1802, the situation had soured. Blake was tired of the endless stream of trivial commissions from Hayley and his society neighbours. He had no wish to waste his talents painting a series of great poets' portraits for Hayley's new library (see portrait of Milton above), or handscreens for his neighbour, Lady Bathurst. The next year Blake wrote a letter to his patron Butts stating that only in London that he could 'carry on his visionary studies...see visions, dream dreams'.

    To make matters worse, in August 1803 Blake had driven a soldier, Private John Schofield, out of his garden, allegedly uttering the treasonous words 'Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves.' Scheduled to be put on trial for sedition, Blake moved back to London in late 1803, thoroughly sick of his officious patron, of his damp cottage and of the law. He briefly returned to Sussex in early 1804 and was acquitted to the riotous approval of the court.

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  • Chaucer and the Nine-and-Twenty Pilgrims (c. 1808) Glasgow Museums: Pollock House, The Stirling Maxwell Collection.

    Blake's optimism about his return to London was ill-founded. At his new lodgings on the first floor of No. 17 South Moulton Street, he began work on the illuminated books, Milton and Jerusalem. However, commercial work proved even more elusive than it had before. 'Art in London flourishes,' he wrote, 'yet no one brings work to me'.

    When the publisher Robert Cromek approached him to both illustrate and engrave the poet Robert Blair's Grave, Blake's luck seemed to have taken a turn for the better. The disappointment was only the more intense, therefore, when Cromek ultimately chose the artist Schiavonetti to engrave Blake's illustrations instead of Blake himself. The Grave proved a success, but Blake received little financial reward. He now became increasingly paranoid and cantankerous, breaking off from most of his friends and patrons.

    In 1806, Cromek teamed up with the artist Thomas Stothard to produce a painting and engraving of Chaucer's Canterbury Pilgrims. Blake claimed they had stolen the idea from him and when Stothard's work was exhibited to great acclaim, Blake decided to hold a one-man exhibition centered around his own version of the Canterbury Pilgrims. Unfortunately, he could not afford to show his work in a fashionable part of town, so his exhibition was held in his brother's hosiery shop in May 1809. Almost no one came. The reviews were cruel, mocking Blake as 'an unfortunate lunatic whose personal inoffensiveness secures him from confinement', and dismissing his Descriptive Catalogue as 'a farrago of nonsense...and egregious vanity'.

    By 1810, Blake was impoverished and estranged from his friends and patrons. Indeed his first biographer entitled the chapter dealing with the period 1810-1817 'Years of Deepening Neglect'. But Blake continued to work, believing his Jerusalem, an epic about war, peace and liberty focused on London, to be his finest work.

    The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819) Tate.

    As Blake turned sixty, his work at last began to find passionate admirers among younger artists, such as the watercolourists John Linnell and John Varley. It was Varley who encouraged Blake to draw sketches of his 'spiritual visitants', of which the most famous is The Ghost of a Flea. Linnell, meanwhile, despite being over thirty years Blake's junior, commissioned works for himself, and helped Blake secure commissions from others. It was thanks to his influence that Blake made the woodcuts for Robert Thornton's schooltext of Virgil's Pastorals in 1821. And Linnell himself ordered a duplicate set of the watercolours of The Book of Job (originally produced for Thomas Butts) and commissioned the series of drawings from Dante's Divine Comedy in 1824.

    In 1821, Blake moved to a couple of rooms in Fountain Court, Strand, from which he could see the Thames. His young admirers called him 'The Interpreter', and confident in the judgement of posterity, he grew into a gentler and less angry man.

    In the spring of 1827, Blake fell ill. A friend at his deathbed said he died 'singing of the things he saw in heaven' on August 12 at the age of sixty-nine. He was buried in an unmarked grave in the dissenters' graveyard at Bunhill Fields. One of his last acts had been to draw a picture of Catherine, his loyal wife and helpmate, from his deathbed.

    Blake's Dante:

    In 1824, Blake's friend the artist John Linnell, commissioned him to make a series of illustrations based on Dante's Divine Comedy. Blake was then in his late sixties. A contemporary account informs us that he designed 100 watercolours of this subject 'during a fortnight's illness in bed'.

    Dante Alighieri (1800-1803) Manchester City Art Gallery.

    Here we present seven pictures from Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Each picture is accompanied by an explanation. This is your chance to learn not just about Blake, but also about the Florentine poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321).

    Dante running from the Three Beasts (1824-27) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia.

    The Divine Comedy opens with Dante lost in a dark wood in a fearful valley. Finally he sees a hill on which the sun is shining, and his heart fills with hope. But as he starts his climb, he is confronted by three beasts.

    First comes a leopard, that, while not really frightening him, does block his path. Then comes a ravening lion followed by a she-wolf. Dante is terrified and is losing all hope of climbing the hill when a man appears. It is Virgil, the Roman epic poet. He has been sent by Beatrice (the woman Dante loved and who inspired him to write) to lead him on a journey of discovery through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise.

    To explain the allegory: Dante, busied about the affairs of the world, has wandered from the path of righteousness. He tries to find the path back but is diverted by worldly pleasure (the leopard), worldly ambition (the lion), and by avarice (the she-wolf). Virgil, who represents reason, has come to lead Dante to Beatrice, who represents Divine revelation and the state of grace.

    Notice the Christ-like pose and appearance (diaphanous robes, flowing locks) of Virgil, and the exaggerated pose of the fleeing Dante. Notice also that the three beasts hardly look terrifying at all. Blake, in fact, seemed to have difficulties depicting wild animals. Compare, for example, the tiger in Songs of Experience).

    Inscription over the Gate (1824-27) Tate.

    Dante is being led by Virgil, the Roman poet, through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Here they are shown entering the Gate of Hell. Once inside, they shall first pass through the region where the souls of the uncommitted (those who lived their lives without doing anything notably good or bad) reside. They shall then be ferried by Charon across the river Acheron into Hell proper. Virgil is the right-hand figure in blue, Dante the left-hand one in grey.

    Notice how the greenery framing the outside of the gate contrasts with the bleak panorama of fire and ice inside. If you look carefully you can see tiny figures in torment on the hills. These successive hills represent the different circles of hell, where the souls of people guilty of different sins are punished in an appropriate manner. Those guilty of the sin of lust, for example, are buffeted about by the winds of passion and desire in the second circle.

    The Circle of the Lustful: Francesca da Rimini (1824-27) Birmingham City Art Gallery.

    In this circle people guilty of the sin of lust are whirled round and round in an unending storm. The storm, of course, represents irresistible passion. Among those being blown about are mythic and historical queens such as Helen of Troy and Cleopatra of Egypt. Dante, however, chooses to speak to Paolo and Francesca, famous lovers from Rimini.

    Francesca had been married to the brave, but physically deformed Gianciotto. She was reading an Arthurian romance with his better-looking brother, Paolo, when passion got the better of them. Gianciotto, enraged, murdered them both, for which he was consigned to the deepest circle of Hell (where Dante shall later meet him).

    Dante is so moved by this romantic tale that he faints, hence his position flat on his back. Notice that above Virgil's head a sun-like disc contains a sketch of a couple embracing, while the wind-blown lovers themselves seem to be flying up and out of the picture to freedom. Blake disapproved of Dante for depicting God as a vengeful judge, whose role was to inflict ingenious punishment (similar to his own Urizen), and these details are his subtle protest. As we can see in poems such as 'The Garden Of Love', Blake himself believed that suppressing desire was a far worse crime than yielding to it.

    Cerberus (1824-27) Tate.

    Cerberus is a monstrous three-headed dog who stood guard over Hades, the Hell of classical mythology. Here in the Divine Comedy he stands guard over the third circle of Hell. He is always hungry, and will only allow Dante and Virgil to pass after they have placated him by throwing earth into his three mouths. It is the gluttons who are punished in this circle. Their fate is to lie wallowing in the mud like pigs, pelted by an endless storm of hail and snow, in the very opposite of luxury.

    Compare this monster with those in Dante Running from the Three Beasts or Ghost of a Flea.

    The Simoniac Pope (1824-27) Tate.

    Simony is the sin of exploiting one's position in the church to make money, and the eighth Circle of Hell is a chasm containing the popes guilty of this sin. Their punishment is to be thrust upside down in a stone hole, with the soles of their feet on fire.

    This picture depicts Pope Nicholas III. Dante has just been ranting against the corruption of the church, and against Nicholas in particular. In response, Pope Nicholas has writhed in anger, causing an alarmed Dante to leap into Virgil's arms.

    Notice how Dante seems to have literally shrunk from fear. Notice also the blue-lighting that gives an atmosphere of unworldly horror to this dynamic picture.

    Beatrice Addressing Dante from the Car (1824-27) Tate.

    In this picture Dante (standing in the right hand corner) finally meets Beatrice, who is the crowned figure on the chariot. Beatrice was the love of Dante's life, and was the subject of his first collection of poems, Vita Nuova. She died when she was only 25 years old - hence her presence in the afterlife as the central figure of The Divine Comedy.

    Anxious that Dante had gone astray after her death, it was Beatrice who, in the scheme of the poem, arranged for Virgil to guide him through Hell and Purgatory. She is veiled but Dante nonetheless senses who she is and begins to tremble. Beatrice, however, represents more than love. In the scheme of the poem she is divine revelation and grace.

    Vision of the Deity (1824-27) Ashmolean.

    The rich and bright colours used here express Dante's double delight. He is reunited with his lady-love, and at the same time is experiencing a revelation of the divine.

    In Paradise Beatrice has replaced Virgil as Dante's guide. They are now close to God, and so nearly at the end of their journey.

    This picture shows the angels arranged in concentric circles of light around the deity. Beatrice explains to Dante that the closer to God they stand, the brighter and the more powerful they are. God at the center is depicted as a bearded old man resembling Urizen. The angels (somewhat like the staff in the hierarchy of a Japanese company) grow older as they get closer to God, although immediately beside Him are the younger Cherubim and Seraphim.

    Blake died while working on this commission, so this picture, which comes from the end of Dante's trilogy, remains an unfinished sketch. The loss is less than it might be since Blake (like Gustave Dore and other artists who have illustrated Dante) found that Purgatory and Paradise offer much less interesting subject matter than Hell with all its perverse and bizarre punishments.

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