Part 1: Early Life

William Blake's portrait
Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Gift of Charles J. Rosenbloom, B.A. 1920

William was the third son of James and Catherine Blake. James Blake had been apprenticed as a draper, and is typically held to have been a Dissenter with liberal political sympathies (Stranger 3). Catherine Blake (née Wright) had previously been married to Thomas Armitage before she married James Blake.

Blake’s parents were married on 15 October 1752 at St George’s, Hanover Square, and James Blake took over the hosiery and haberdashery shop previously run by the Armitages. Recent research (Davies 2006, Schuchard 2006) indicates that Catherine Blake had been a member of the Moravian church before her marriage to James, a pietist tradition that emphasised love between its members and others. Despite previous assertions that Blake’s family may have had links to the Muggletonians (Thompson 1993), the Moravian connection is currently held to be the strongest possible source for some of Blake’s radical religious ideas in later life.

The Blakes were living at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square when Catherine gave birth to William, who was christened at the parish church of St James, Westminster. The area where the Blake was born had only recently been developed in what Bentley (Stranger 33) describes as a ‘solidly bourgeois’ neighbourhood, and by all accounts William’s childhood was a happy one, his parents taking the enlightened view that such a boy would not benefit from education at school and so teaching him what they could at home.

In letters and accounts recorded by his earliest biographers, Blake spoke of visions from an early age, such as seeing God put his head to the window or angels in the trees at Peckham Rye. What few stories and incidents survive from this period are largely drawn from Alexander Gilchrist, including the vision of the Peckham angels (Life 6). He early demonstrated an aptitude for art as a young boy and at the age of ten was enrolled in the Drawing School of Henry Pars. Training mainly consisted of copying plaster casts of Greek and roman models (thus shaping Blake’s neoclassical tastes in the form of art, if not his politics), as well as prints of famous paintings. The young William was given an allowance to build up a collection of prints and books, developing a taste for literature that was to affect his later career.

Apprenticeship to James Basire

Blake's engraving for James Basire
King Sebert and King Henry III. Illustration for James Basire, Yale Center for British Art

At the age of 14, William was apprenticed to the engraver James Basire at 31 Great Queen Street, near Covent Garden, his father apparently having heeded a warning from his son that an earlier potential master, William Wynne Ryland, had a face that “looks as if he will live to be hanged” (Life 11-12). Ryland was indeed hanged for forgery in 1783.

Blake was apprenticed to Basire from 1772 to 1779 and lived at Basire’s home during that period. Basire was engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, and the style of line engraving that he taught Blake was considered old fashioned in the late eighteenth century in comparison to innovative techniques such as stipple engraving and mezzotint.

As a draughtsman with a degree of skill, Blake was trusted to make accurate copies and within two years was preparing sketches in Westminster Abbey for a commission on Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments of Great Britain, amongst his earliest surviving drawings. In the second year of his apprenticeship, he produced his first known engraving, entitled “Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion”. During this time Blake also continued to write poetry and met James Parker, another of Basire’s apprentices. Although the two did not get along to begin with (Parker, aged 22, was the junior apprentice), they later became friends and partners in a print shop.

After completing his apprenticeship with Basire, Blake applied to be a student at the Royal Academy in June 1779, submitting “The Death of Earl Goodwin” the following May for exhibition. It was during this time that Blake made some of his most long-lasting and important friendships with other artists, including John Flaxman and George Cumberland.

1780 was a year of turbulence: following an Act of Parliament in 1778 to ease conditions for Catholics, Lord George Gordon, President of the Protestant Association, stirred up sentiment against the Act which erupted in nearly a week of rioting in June. The rioters defied the authorities, looting the city and attacking Newgate Prison, and Gilchrist reported a story of Blake being caught up in the events:

That evening, the artist happened to be walking in a route chosen by one of the mobs at large, whose course lay from Justice Hyde’s house near Leicester Fields… bound for Newgate. Suddenly, he encountered the advancing wave of triumphant Blackguardism, and was forced (for from such a great surging mob there is no disentanglement) to go along in the very front rank, and witness the storm and burning of the fortress-like prison, and release of its three hundred inmates. (Life 30)

The houses of rich catholics as well as churches were attacked, as were the Bank of England and home of the Lord Chief Justice, and Newgate Prison was largely destroyed. The army was called out on 7 June and, at the end of two days of restoring order during which soldiers killed about 285 and injured many more, the ringleaders were arrested. Twenty-five of them were hanged and Gordon was charged with high treason but found not guilty.

During the violence that took place on those days it seemed for a brief period that the authorities had lost control over the city, and even the former radical, John Wilkes, lost support after he ordered his men guarding the Bank of England to fire on the crowd.

Marriage to Catherine & Poetical Sketches

Catherine Blake
Portrait of Catherine Blake by George Richmond. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

After an encounter with a young woman who called him a fool when he complained after seeing her with another man (which incident, according to Gilchrist, cured him of jealousy), Blake lodged for a time in Battersea at the home of William Boucher (or Boutcher, according to Frederick Tatham). There he met Catherine Sophia Boucher, the youngest of nine daughters and four brothers, who later claimed to have instantly recognised her future partner as soon as she saw him (Stranger 63-4).

William and Catherine were married on 18 August, 1782, a marriage that was to last for forty-five years. As a member of such a large and poor family, Catherine’s formal education appears to have been largely non-existent (she marked the parish register with a cross). Blake taught her to read and write, as well as drawing, engraving and the preparation of colours to help him in his work: during his working life Catherine was to provide invaluable help in preparing the printed works, and during the early 1780s Blake was starting to receive his first commercial commissions. After the death of his father in 1784, he started a print business with his former fellow apprentice, James Parker.

It was about the time of his marriage that Blake was introduced to the Reverend Anthony Stephen Mathew and his wife, Harriet Mathew, who held regular salons at their home. Here Blake sang many of his songs, and in 1783 the Mathews were amongst the group that helped print his first collection of verse, Poetical Sketches.

Some 50 copies were probably printed, without binding and little in the way of proof-reading, for distribution among friends. Eleven copies bear corrections and revisions made by Blake. The collection is divided into two sections: “Miscellaneous Poems” consists of lyric poetry in the form of songs, eulogies and ballads, while the second part is dominated by an unfinished drama in the style of Shakespeare, “King Edward the Third”, and also includes prologues to two further dramas, “King Edward the Fourth” and “King John”, as well as several prose poems, “The Couch of Death”, “Contemplation” and “Sampson”.

In these early pieces, Blake displays strongly the influence of contemporaries such as the poetry of Ossian, the gothic style, and the pastoral style of James Thomson’s The Seasons. However, the strong sense of Elizabethan rhythms and sensibilities in much of the lyric poetry, as well as his confident handling of some of the cadences of Shakespearian blank verse, marked Poetical Sketches as possessed of original talent. As Bentley observes, “had he written nothing more, Blake would deserve our remembrance” (Stranger 46).

The collection received a little attention during Blake’s lifetime, with copies being given away by Blake’s friends to figures such as William Hayley and some of the “Songs” being reprinted by Benjamin Heath Malkin, though many contemporaries probably agreed with the Reverend Mathew’s preface that the “Sketches were the production of untutored youth” (E846). Allan Cunningham praised “King Edward the Third” and wrote that while the non-dramatic poems were “rude sometimes and unmelodious”, they were also “full of fine thought and deep and peculiar feeling” (cited in BR 629).

For Alexander Gilchrist, by contrast, the poems were a great example of Blake’s prodigious talent and originality, writing in the Life:

’Tis hard to believe these poems were written in the author’s teens, harder still to realize how some of them, in their unforced simplicity, their bold and careless freedom of sentiment and expression, came to be written at all in the third quarter of the eighteenth century: the age “of polished phraseology and subdued thought” – subdued with a vengeance. (Life 20)



Page created April 8, 2018. Last edited April 15, 2018.