Part 2: Illuminated Printing & Revolutionary London

In 1785, the Blakes moved from 27 Broad Street to 28 Poland Street: the house was about the same size, but the couple would no longer be sharing with the Parkers although by this time William’s younger brother Robert was living with them.

Songs of Innocence title page, 1789. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Shortly after the move, however, Robert began to display the signs of advanced tuberculosis and, by the beginning of 1787, was extremely ill. For a fortnight William tended him and he died in February, aged 24. This made a deep and lasting impression on the older brother (then 29), and biographers such as Bentley have remarked on the change that took place in Blake’s outlook from this point onwards – a psychological change that was to be reinforced by the dramatic events of the French Revolution two years later.

Throughout the late 1780s, Blake as a commercial engraver with an interest in publishing his own work was considering ways of producing texts that could be reproduced relatively cheaply and easily. Despite the fact that many of Blake’s illuminated books became expensive, hand-finished objects, at least part of the early motivation to experiment with relief etching was to find a wider market for his own poetry.

Whereas conventional intaglio etching burns lines into copper with acid, relief etching works by masking out the lines to be printed and then burning away the surrounding copper plate, producing raised lines similar to those in woodblock printing. Its disadvantage was that it could not be used to produce such fine lines as with intaglio, but pages could be designed that included text and image much more easily and rapidly.

Blake began experimenting with one-off plates before producing two short tracts, All Religions are One and There is No Natural Religion, probably in 1788. His first masterpiece, however, was to appear the following year with publication of Songs of Innocence, followed by The Book of Thel, a short work that indicated the style of poetry Blake was later to pursue in the so-called prophetic books.

Stedman's Narrative
William Blake (1757-1827) after John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), “A Negro Hung Alive by the Ribs to a Gallows” from vol 1 of Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Joseph Johnson was a bookseller based at St Paul’s Churchyard, a Unitarian sympathetic to liberal social and political causes who published authors such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Joseph Priestley and Erasmus Darwin. Between 1779 to 1786 he was ‘one of the chief employers of Blake’s graver’ (Stranger 108), and through association with Johnson the young artist came into contact with some of the most important liberal and radical figures of his day although, as Bentley observes, he was unlikely to have been a regular guest at Johnson’s weekly genteel gatherings. Johnson was even to have been publisher of Blake’s poem The French Revolution, although only one of the projected six books survives. Possibly Blake simply failed to complete the commission, or the Government reaction after 1791 made publication too dangerous.


One of the most important acquaintances at this time that Blake did make through Johnson was Captain John Gabriel Stedman, himself an artist and poet, who had served in Surinam to put down a slave revolt. The journal he kept there, published by Johnson under the title Narrative, of a five years’ expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America (1796), included plates engraved by Blake, some of which are among the most powerful depictions of the effects of slavery at the time.

Another friend of Johnson was the artist Henry Fuseli (born Johann Heinrich Füssli in Switzerland in 1741). Blake was commissioned by Johnson to produce a series of engravings based on Fuseli’s designs, including those for Johann Caspar Lavater’s Aphorisms on Man (1788) and Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1791, 1795). Blake admired Fuseli’s art and character greatly and was seen by several contemporaries as a more eccentric pupil of the Swiss artist.

The Blakes & Swedenborgianism

Through his friendship with John Flaxman, Blake was introduced to the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish scientist and engineer who, in his fifties, experienced spiritual revelations that he believed enabled him to understand the true nature of creation. In 1788, Blake bought copies of Swedenborg’s works and, in April 1789, with Catherine attended a meeting in which a new Swedenborgian church was to be established.

William and Catherine signed a set of thirty-two propositions for the New Jerusalem Church, including the assertion that “The Old Church… is dead” and that “True Christianity exists only in the New Church” (BR 51-2). Blake was clearly impressed, at least initially, by the ideas expressed by Swedenborg, but divisions began to emerge within the New Church around the meaning of marriage. Blake himself became disillusioned with both Swedenborgianism and the discipline of the New Church (there is no evidence that he ever attended a church again), and the results of this disillusionment gave rise to one of his most radical works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790).

The Marriage almost certainly began as a more limited anti-Swedenborgian pamphlet, reflecting Blake’s boisterous rejection of the religious tenets of Emanuel Swedenborg, but developed into something much more ambitious in its satirical attacks on the foundations of religious and political orthodoxy. Using Swedenborg’s writings as his base, Blake inverts the traditional relations of heaven and hell to argue that hell and its devils are the dynamic drivers of a better conception of human spirituality centred on revolutionary energy rather than restrictive reason. After beginning with a series of propositions that appear to echo but also parody those found in There is No Natural Religion and All Religions are One, the narrator moves through a series of astonishing and daring scenarios and interludes in which important cultural texts and figures such as the Bible and John Milton are read in their infernal, rather than angelic, sense. A series of “Memorable Fancies” offer satirical views of religion, philosophy and politics via the narrator’s encounters with various angels and devils.

Despite his disagreements with Swedenborg, who he came to see as offering merely the same restrictions of old religion in a new form, he retained a long-lasting respect for the Swedish mystic and in later years apparently came to view Swedenborg’s writings as having been corrupted by his followers.

The Lambeth Prophecies

Lambeth Palace
View of Lambeth Palace, c. 1790. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

In 1790 the Blakes moved from Poland street south of the river Thames to Lambeth, which at this time was largely open fields, renting a spacious house and garden, 13 Hercules Buildings. It was at this house that the apocryphal story recorded by Gilchrist took place, where visitors to the Blake’s found them as naked as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden (Life 97).

Lambeth was also the scene of a period of intense activity resulting in a series of illuminated works that have since become known as the Lambeth Prophecies. While the Marriage had been infused with the spirit of revolutionary politics prompted by the outbreak of revolution in France, these books of the 1790s explicitly dealt with social and political upheavals in a new light. In texts such as Visions of the Daughters of Albion (1793), America a Prophecy (1793), Europe a Prophecy (1794) and The First Book of Urizen (1794), Blake also introduced the personal mythology that was to become an important feature of his art, with figures such as Orc, Los and Urizen engaged in titanic struggles in this new form of poetry.

In America, after a ‘Preludium’ in which Orc, the spirit of revolution, encounters the shadowy daughter of Urthona and copulates with her, the main poem proceeds to an account of the American Revolution in a highly distinctive style that was to be typical of Blake’s illuminated books. The American revolutionaries, led by George Washington, are confronted by the repressive forces of Britain symbolised by Albion’s Angel, also identified with Urizen. After a conflict during which America would be lost, the fierce actions of Orc drive back the British and the prophecy ends with his fires extending to Europe. These events are continued in Europe, which outlines the eighteen hundred years that constitute the “night of Enitharmon’s joy” (5.1, E62), a dream period in which men are given up to female dominion and ‘Woman’s love is Sin’ (E62) and culminating in the events of the French Revolution.

Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Songs of Innocence and of Experience, 1794. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Blake’s best-known work from this period, however, is Songs of Innocence and of Experience. The addition of Songs of Experience transformed the perception of Blake’s original Songs of Innocence in order to show “the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul”. Several of the later poems directly reflect those in the earlier collection, sometimes sharing the same title such as “Holy Thursday” and “The Chimney Sweeper”, while others echo their counterpart, such as “The Divine Image” and “The Human Abstract”. The later collection includes some of Blake’s most famous and powerful lyrics, such as “The Tyger” and “The Sick Rose”. Whereas Songs of Innocence concentrates on a world of child-like freedom and artlessness, Songs of Experience often exposes that view as gullible and limited. Innocence without experience is ignorant and often foolish, but without innocence experience itself simply becomes cynicism that is incapable of making revolutionary change in the world.

Despite Blake’s hopes for illuminated printing as a means of reaching a wider market, these early prophecies were still time-consuming to produce and did not sell particularly well, so that after 1795 he did not return to the format for nearly a decade. Part of the reason for this was almost certainly the obscurity of Blake’s style, but by mid-1790s London had become a much more dangerous place for anyone with revolutionary sympathies. “Church-andKing” mobs attacked notable radicals across the country, and the government led by William Pitt passed the Treasonable and Seditious Practices Act (which defined as high treason any conspiracy to overthrow the constitution) and the Seditious Meetings Act (whereby any meeting of more than fifty people had to be approved by a magistrate). These two acts, the so-called “Gagging Acts”, became law in 1795, having a severe effect on free speech in Britain during the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.



Page created April 8, 2018. Page updated April 15, 2018.