William Blake (1757-1827) is England's most visionary poet and visual artist. Son of a London hosier, Blake saw his first vision ("a tree filled with angels") at age seven, while walking across Peckham Rye, near London. He was enrolled in drawing school at age 10, and apprenticed from 1772-79 to the London fine arts engraver James Basire, who set Blake to copying the sculpture and ornament of old London monuments, in particular Westminster Abbey. Blake also enrolled at the Royal Academy Schools in 1779 and exhibited watercolors there the following year, but he came to detest the opinions and paintings of the Academy president, Sir Joshua Reynolds (calling him "a man hired to depress Art"). By 1780 he was working for the radical publisher Joseph Johnson, engraving political and literary works. Blake married Catherine Butcher (Boucher) in 1783, who became his lifelong apprentice, assistant, guardian and best friend. His early Poetical Sketches (1783) were printed at the expense of John Flaxman and the Reverend A.S. Mathew. His early printed books, using a method Blake said was revealed to him in a vision of his dead brother Robert, were designed to appeal to a range of political and literary readers by combining poetic text and images on the same engraved plate, tinted by hand with watercolor: Songs of Innocence (1789), The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (c.1790), America (1793), Songs of Experience (1794), and the The Song of Los (1795). Blake advertised these books and other engravings for sale in a prospectus of 1793, but at such low cost that he lived in near poverty during these years, suffering from chronic nervous anxieties, alternating bouts of irritability and grandiosity, and a growing reputation as a dilatory, unreliable worker and a religious crank. He was better known for his illustrations to the works of other writers, including Edward Young's Night Thoughts (for which he made over 500 watercolor studies), twelve large color prints on Biblical themes (c.1795), and over 100 episodes from the Bible (c.1799-1805) commissioned by his most important and loyal patron, the civil servant Thomas Butts (1757-1845). In 1800 Blake moved to Felpham (near Chichester, Sussex), to work on library portraits and ballad engravings for the wealthy amateur poet William Hayley. Rankled by Hayley's condescending mentoring, struggling against depression, and terrified by an argument with a British soldier that led to his being charged with sedition, Blake left Felpham for London late in 1803. Acquitted of sedition in 1804, Blake turned with new energy to publishing his mature spiritual mythology in large engraved books: The Four Zoas (1807), Milton (c.1810), and Jerusalem (c.1820). He produced commission illustrations of Robert Blair's The Grave, Milton's Paradise Lost and an ambitious vision of The Last Judgment (all published in 1808), and admired the work of the Swiss priest turned royal academician Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). The failure of his year long exhibition (1809-10) at the home of his brother James pushed him into a decade of despondent obscurity, but he found friendship and generous patronage in 1818 when he met the prosperous English painter John Linnell (1792-1882). Linnell introduced Blake to John Varley and John Constable, and formed (with Samuel Palmer and other artists) a small brotherhood of Blake admirers called "The Ancients." Blake was working on Linnell's commission to illustrate Dante's Divine Comedy when he died at home in 1827, at age 70.



Throughout his career, Blake used watercolors to tint the illustrations and text of his engraved books, which he made by etching away the whites of the copper plate rather than the inked areas (not unlike the method used in woodblock printing). But what is common to all Blake's engraved and painted works is not his interest in coloring but his emphasis on drawing: "he who pretends to be either a Painter or an Engraver without being a Master of drawing is an Imposter." Oberon, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing (c.1785, 48x63cm) is unusual among Blake's works — a scene from the Shakespearean play A Midsummer Night's Dream — but it shows Blake's drawing at its most graceful and endearing. Blake has combined details described in different passages of the play to enrich the final scene, in which the fairies and their train "dance it trippingly ... hand in hand with fairy grace." The ring of dancers is captured in a flowing line that reminds us of Matisse's much later work, and the lively Puck (holding up bones that he uses to beat the time) acts as an emotional bridge to the regal spectators Oberon and Titania. By modeling Puck after an ancient Roman statue of a dancing faun, giving the fairies perfect human proportions, and minimizing the effect of oversized leaves in the background, Blake emphasizes the spirit of festivity rather than the fairy world. Although the tonal contrasts are well judged and the color accents pleasing, this is a tinted ink wash drawing in the style common at the end of the 18th century; in fact, it may have been painted to be engraved for a printselling partnership Blake entered in 1784.

In his mature years, Blake was still using watercolors over graphite or ink drawings, and for the traditional purpose of engraving them as prints. But Blake's approximately 100 completed illustrations of Dante's Divine Comedy show an extraordinary degree of visual imagination and careful craftsmanship. Blake had already read at least parts of Dante's poem by 1790, but he read it again, both in Italian and in the recent English translation by H.F. Cary, when he received Linnell's commission in 1825. The Whirlwind of Lovers (c.1826, 38x53cm) presents the scene in Canto V of the Inferno in which Dante meets the spirit of Francesca da Rimini, who committed adultery with her brother in law, Paolo. Overcome with grief at their story of thwarted love, Dante has fainted at the feet of his underworld guide, the Roman poet Virgil, as a whirlwind of other sinful lovers writhes around them. Rather than simply illustrate the story, Blake has reinterpreted it in both subtle and obvious ways. In all the illustrations Dante is clothed in red (symbol of the passions) and Virgil in blue (symbol of the imagination), corresponding to Blake's mythology that the imagination must guide our passions through the torment of the earth. More obviously, Blake put the spirits of Francesca and Paolo within the brilliant, heavenly light over Virgil's head, rather than in the whirlwind with the other condemned souls: though technically sinners, he allows them the salvation of their love. This watercolor was one of only seven from the Dante series that Blake also engraved; the story of Francesca da Rimini became one of the most popular episodes from Dante among 19th century artists and poets.

Blake's restless experimentation with printing techniques, and application of watercolor paints, is well represented by a series of large prints on Biblical themes made in 1795 (some were reprinted around 1805). Often called "color printed drawings," Blake inscribed several with the word "fresco," although he probably meant to highlight their use for public religious edification rather than imply they were made with plaster. Although the details of Blake's methods remain unclear, prints such as Elohim Creating Adam (1795, 43x54cm) were likely made by creating a strong line drawing in ink on a large firm sheet of absorbent millboard, then roughly painting the areas within this outline with an oily paint (sometimes mixed with chalk). Sheets of paper were pressed against this plate before the paint had dried, transferring the colored image to the paper with a frescolike mottling and unevenness (visible at the top of the image). Once dried, these prints were lightly coated with a glue sizing, then further colored with watercolors, and the black outlines clarified and elaborated with pen and ink. This method of making prints was much faster and simpler than cutting a large copper plate; it also introduced random textural and color variations in each print, and allowed changes in the coloring or design as the paints on the millboard were refreshed for new prints. Blake hoped the prints would contain "colours...as beautiful and as permanent as precious stones," and they have a marvelously exalted spirit. In the figure, Blake shows the Old Testament God infusing life into the prostrate figure of Adam with one hand, and with the other clutching the clay of which Adam is made. A serpent tail coils around Adam as a prefigurement of his fall, yet Elohim's incomparable expression, and the enormous golden sun rising behind him, assert Blake's belief in the glory of creation and the assurance of salvation to those who live not in fear but in love and inspiration.

The best single overview of Blake's life and art is the recent exhibition catalog William Blake by Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips (Tate, 2000). All of Blake's engraved books have been published in exact color matching and actual size, with extensive critical commentary and transcription of the engraved text, in the six volume series Blake's Illuminated Books under the general editorship of David Bindman (Princeton University Press, 1991-95). The complete set of Dante watercolors is presented with a critical introduction in William Blake: The Divine Comedy by David Bindman (Bibliothèque de l'Image, 2000). Martin Hardie's Water-Colour Painting in Britain: I. The Eighteenth Century (Batsford, 1967) contains an excellent chapter on Blake's art and technique. The biographical study Blake as an Artist (Phaidon, 1977) by David Bindman delves the connections between Blake's iconography, his poetical books, and his sublime mythology of Urizen, Los, and Albion.