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Zoamorphosis

Infant Joy: The early life of William Blake
William Blake was born on this day in Soho, London in 1757. This excerpt from Divine Images gives an account of his early life.

From Divine Images: The Life and Work of William Blake.


A brown granite tower stands on the spot where William Blake was born. Built in 1966 by Stillman & Eastwick-Field to house shops, offices and flats, William Blake House in Broadwick Street stands on the site of 28 Broad Street where William, the third son of James and Catherine Blake, was born on November 28, 1757. That terrace house was demolished in 1965 to make way for high-rise accommodation and the street renamed: a plaque notes his birth at this location in Soho, and some of the old buildings that survive on Broadwick Street give an idea of what the family home, where he lived until 1782, would have looked like.

Blake’s parents were married on 15 October, 1752, at the church of St George Hanover Square. The church had been built after the parish of St George was established in 1724 to accommodate the growing population in the city, in an area that included some of the most fashionable parts of London such as Belgravia and Mayfair. Catherine Blake (née Wright) had previously been married to Thomas Armitage before she married James, and her new husband took over the hosiery and haberdashery shop at Broad Street that had previously been run by the Armitages. Despite previous assertions that Blake’s family may have had links to dissenting traditions such as the Muggletonians, a movement which had grown from the Ranters during the English Civil War and which opposed philosophical reason more recent research has offered a stronger link between Blake’s mother, Catherine, and the Moravian Church. The Moravians, formally known as the Unitas Fratrum (”Unity of the Brethren”) took their name from Protestant exiles who had fled from Moravia to Saxony in 1722, with roots dating back to fifteenth-century Bohemian reformation led by Jan Hus. The followers of Hus, who wished for mass to be celebrated in the vernacular as well as reforms such as the abolition of indulgences, were some of the earliest Protestants in Europe, predating Martin Luther by fifty years.

Some of those living in Moravia fled their Catholic homeland and established themselves on the estates of a German nobleman, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf: under his protection, the Moravians established missions as far afield as the Americas, Africa and the Far East and had established a congregation in England by 1742. Much more than this simple congregation, however, the pietism that these German missionaries brought with them was to have a profound effect on the eighteenth-century evangelical revival, inspiring Wesley among others with their faith.iii As Keri Davies observes, the marriage of the Blakes and baptism of their children in Anglican churches - but later burial of family members at Bunhill fields - suggests that the family originally participated in the rites of the Church of England then may have become part of a dissenting congregation. The Moravians had been recognised by Act of Parliament as an episcopal and thus sister church, but their places of worship had to be licenced as Dissenting Chapels. As such, “they were and then again were not Dissenters... Accordingly, one could be an Anglican and a Moravian at the same time - and it turns out that a majority of the English brethren were and remained loyal members of the Church of England.” In these circumstances, Blake would have been accustomed to an evangelical upbringing in which God’s agency in everyday life was very much expected, in contrast to the cooler, Latitudinarian tendencies of the established Anglican Church. Later in his life, he would call such distant attitudes Deism and, as we saw in the introduction, it very much affected his vision of Urizen, the tyrant god of reason.

William was baptised at St James’s Church, Piccadilly, the parish church in an area that had only recently been developed into what G.E. Bentley, Jr. describes as a “solidly bourgeois” neighbourhood. By all accounts, Blake’s early childhood was a happy one: the biographer Stanley Gardner observes that “William had chosen his parents well”, not least because they took the enlightened view that their son would not benefit from education at school and thus taught him at home. While contemporaries bemoaned his lack of formal education, he avoided the drilling in the classics that would have stultified his imagination, for all that it often left him at a disadvantage among his later, upper-class patrons and customers. Nor did his parents discourage his more unusual perceptions of the world around him.

In letters and accounts recorded by his earliest biographers, Blake and his acquaintances spoke of visions from an early age, such as when he saw God putting his head to the window of the family home, or angels in the trees at Peckham Rye. The stories and incidents from this period that survive are largely drawn from Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake. Gilchrist also recorded how the young boy’s artistic talents were recognised by his parents, so that at the age of ten he 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 visual tastes, if not his literary ones), as well as prints of famous paintings. The young William was given an allowance by his father to build up a collection of prints and books, developing an appreciation of literature as well as art what was to have a lasting effect upon him.

Blake’s lifetime saw a radical period of change across Britain, its colonies and Europe. In 1760, George III was crowned as King of Great Britain and King of Ireland, his accession being acclaimed by politicians of all parties, although political tensions and a perceived preference for the Tories would soon end that period of accord. Unlike his two predecessors, George III spoke English as his first language and although he would eventually become King of Hanover, he never visited the country of his forebears. The new king came to the crown during the Seven Years’ War, a global conflict between the powers of Europe which would end with British victories against France in 1763, but which also placed great strain upon the kingdom’s finances. What is more, those financial difficulties led to increasing tensions with the largest of Britain’s colonies across the Atlantic in North American, which would eventually boil over into full revolution. As well as immense – even catastrophic – change abroad, the United Kingdom itself was to be transformed during the reign of George III. London grew relentlessly, containing more than a million inhabitants when the first census was conducted in 1801 – a very different place to the city of Blake’s childhood, when the capital had been much smaller and more rural than it would become in the nineteenth century.