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: William Blake


Marie C. Lehr



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
William Blake
London 1757-1827
Poet, Painter and Engraver
The present exhibition of Blake's inventions to the Book of Job makes it possible to become acquainted with an artist of unusual worth and one who, owing to a certain obscurity and isolation in which he loved, is little known. His fame as a poet and seer—the spiritual intensity of his art, after nearly a century, is still only appreciated by a comparatively few lovers of art. In America, until recently Blake's fame as a painter rested chiefly on the enthusiastic testimony of a few capable witnesses; his reputation as a designer was better known through the series of illustrations to the Book of Job. These engravings, done a few years before his death, show Blake at his best and give a good idea of the direction which Blake's genius takes. They also show that he not only was a man of wonderful ideas and inspirations, but that he knew how to express them. He himself never had any doubt of his own greatness as an artist. In speaking of his art he said, "The value of my work is visionary or imaginative." Several anecdotes of his childhood show from his earliest years a strong mystical tendency.His biographers tell us that he was a dreamy child, fond of wandering in the country by himself. At the age of four the boy believed that he had seen God "put his forehead to the window." At the age of eight or ten, while out in the country near Dulwich, he saw a tree amongst whose branches glistening angels clustered and sang. When he told his father what he had seen he narrowly escaped a flogging for what that matter-of-fact man could not but consider a deliberate invention on the child's part. The incident was a foreshadowing of the poet-painter's life. All through his life to the end he claimed to be holding converse with the spirit of men like Moses, Socrates, Homer, Dante and other famous men. When questioned about these visions, he said: "You can see what I do, if you choose. Work up your imagination to the state of vision and the thing is done." His nature made it impossible to submit to the regular academic training, and, no doubt, by depending almost entirely upon himself he preserved his own personality in all its vital energy. He used his pencil early and showed so much talent that his parents, although poor, sent him to Pars' drawing school, about the only school of its kind at that time in London. It was one of the happy circumstances in his life that his father did not attempt to throw any hindrance in the way of his becoming an artist. Most men observe with considerable anxiety any traces of special inclination to the pursuit of art shown by their children, because of the great uncertainty which no doubt attaches to the calling. As a matter of fact, at no time of Blake's life did his professional work bring him more than the plainest living. Many times he was in actual want for the bare necessities of life. His father encouraged him in his work by buying casts to copy, and gave him occasional pocket money with which to purchase prints and drawings. With this little fund the boy haunted print shops on the lookout for bargains. He showed his independence of thought by selecting prints and drawings by Michelangelo, Romano, and Durer, artists whom he admired, rather than those which were popular with art students at that time.But Blake's father could not afford to let his talented son continue the education of a painter, so at the age of fourteen, with the view of getting a trade by which he could earn his daily bread, he apprenticed him to James Basire, an engraver of good standing, who held the position of engraver to the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries. Before going to Basire an attempt had been made to have him enter the work shop of Ryland, then engraver to the King, but the transaction did not go through, to the evident satisfaction of the boy, for upon leaving the shop he said: "Father, I do not like the look of that man's face, it looks as if he will live to be hanged." By a singular coincidence, Ryland was tried for forgery ten years later and sentenced to be hanged. Basire was a kind master, but his work was hard and dry, formal in character and wholly lacking in inspiration and imagination. However, he thoroughly grounded Blake in the technique of engraving and probably helped him with an experimental knowledge of certain mechanical processes which he used later in multiplying his own designs. It seems that he did not get along well with the other apprentices at the shop, and, to stop the frequent quarrels which he had with them concerning matters of intellectual argument, he was sent to make drawings of the monuments in Westminster Abbey and other London churches. This was another fortunate instance in his life, for in making these drawings he became acquainted with some of the masterpieces of Gothic art, which no doubt left a deep impress upon his imagination. Gothic art entered into him and became a part of him, and memories of Gothic form and ornament can be found all through his designs.At twenty, after his apprenticeship with Basire was ended, he entered the Academy schools where he took special delight in studying Michelangelo and Raphael. In 1782, at the age of twenty-five, he married Catherine Bouchier. The marriage was an unusually happy one. Of humble origin, and practically no education, for at the time of her marriage she was unable to write, she possessed those rare qualities which enabled her to take a keen interest in all that Blake did and to become a great help to him in his work. Her one aim seems to have been to live up to the high standard of plain living and high thinking with which he inspired her. Allan Cunningham in his life of Blake, 1830, said of her:
She seemed to have been created on purpose for Blake; she believed him to be the finest genius on earth; she believed in his verses; she believed in his designs; and to the wildest flights of his imagination she bowed the knee, and was a worshipper. She set his house in good order, prepared his frugal meal, learned to think as he thought; she found out the way of being happy at home, living on the simplest of food, and contented in the homeliest of clothing. It was no ordinary mind which could do all this; and she whom Blake emphatically called his 'beloved' was no ordinary woman. She wrought off in the press the impressions of his plates—she colored them with a light neat hand—made drawings much in the spirit of her husband's compositions, and almost rivaled him in all things save in the power which he possessed of seeing visions of any individual living or dead, whenever he chose to see them.
Blake had difficulty in finding publishers for his poems and books illustrated by his own designs so was forced to reproduce them himself by etching the text and the designs in relief, and afterwards coloring the impressions by hand. Among the books done in this manner are "Songs of Innocence," "Gates of Paradise," "Songs of Experience," "The Prophetic Daughters of Albion," "Jerusalem," and many others. The income from the sale of these books during his life was hardly enough to keep poverty away. These same books now are among the great rarities and are highly prized by collectors. Besides these prophetic books he also made illustrations in watercolor, and other mediums, to Dante, Milton, and the Bible.He never wavered from his faith, being by nature a poet, dreamer and enthusiast. Toward the end of his life poverty which had knocked at the door for many years now came in to live with the Blakes. It was at this time, when 65 years old, that Blake executed the remarkable series of engravings of the Book of Job—Inventions to the Book of Job, as he called them. Blake had made two series of watercolor illustrations of this poem earlier in life, one series for Mr. Butts and the other for Mr. Linnell. It was from the latter friend that he received an order to do the series of engravings. The business arrangement was such that Blake was insured his living expenses while he was engaged upon the engraving, a condition which freed him from the necessity of turning aside his thought from the work at hand. These designs are now accepted not only as Blake's masterpiece in engraving, but as one of the world's masterpieces in illustration. Blake found in the Book of Job a congenial theme for illustration. In his interpretation he shows a fine grasp of the dramatic conception involved in the book. The designs have a beauty and strength, a certain elemental quality that requires no explanation. Attention is called to the borders which surround these subjects—decorative, thoughtful and always in keeping with the subject itself.To understand Blake's work it will help to keep in mind the chief characteristics of his genius exhibited all through his life; a great imagination and a peculiar sensitiveness to all spiritual things. What one finds in Blake will depend largely upon the character of one's own vision.By a rare chance, opportunity was recently presented to the trustees of The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts to obtain a copy of the Inventions in superb condition, the plates from which are shown in the Print Gallery.Referenced Works of Art
  1. Plate from the Book of Job, William Blake
  2. Plate from the Book of Job, William Blake
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Source: Marie C. Lehr, "William Blake," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 8, no. 8 (November, 1919): 58-60.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009