William Blake

Portrait of William Blake

William Blake was an English poet, painter and printmaker and although he was largely unknown during his lifetime he has come to be known as a seminal figure in the history of Romanticism. He was born in Soho, London on 29th November 1757 and died there on 12th August 1827 aged 69.

Major Works

“The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. 1793: 
“Songs of Experience”. (1794) 
“Jerusalem”. (1820) 
“Dante’s Divine Comedy”. (1824) 

Biography Timeline

William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square in Soho, London, England. He was the second of five children to James, a hosier, and Catherine. He was taught by his mother and the Royal Academy Schools in London.

1767: Birth of his favourite brother, Robert on 4th August. It was around this time that he had his first vision of angels sitting in the trees as he walked across Peckham Rye.

1769: He begins writing poems at the age of twelve.

1772: He is apprenticed to the engraver James Basire in Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London on 4th August.

1779: He is admitted to the Royal Academy Schools on 8th October (then located at Somerset House) as an engraver.

1780: He exhibits for the first time at the Royal Academy of Arts. On the 6th June he gets caught up in the mob liberating Newgate Prison during the Gordon Riots and is “borne aloft by the crowd”. He begins a series of engravings for the radical commercial publisher Joseph Johnson.

1782: His brother Robert is also admitted to the Royal Academy Schools as an engraver. On 18th August he marries Catherine Boucher, a poor illiterate girl and daughter of a market gardener, at St. Mary’s Church, Battersea. He moves in with his new wife at 23 Green street, Leicester Fields, London, not far from Sir Joshua Reynolds. (The first President of the Royal Academy).

1784: His father dies and is buried on the 4th July. Blake sets up a print shop with a former colleague at Basire’s although only two prints are published before the partnership dissolves.

1785: He exhibits four works at the Royal Academy during May.

1787: He looks after his youngest brother Robert during the final weeks before he dies of consumption (tuberculosis).

1788: He produces first works using his method of relief-etched illuminated printing which idea he said came to him with a vision of his dead brother Robert.

1789: William and Catherine sign a declaration on 13th April that they believe in the religious doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg however he never actually joins the church and later goes on to attack its views in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. He publishes the “Songs of Innocence”.

1791: The first part of his “The French Revolution” is printed for Johnson but the whole project is quickly abandoned due to the political climate. He completes engravings for Mary Wollstonecraft’s book “Original Stories from Real Life”.

1792: Death of his mother.

1793: His prospectus of engravings and illuminated books for sale is published on 10th October.

1795: He designs and produces his first large colour prints.

1797: He is commissioned by Flaxman to illustrate Thomas Gray’s “Poems” for his wife.

1800: He moves to a cottage at Felpham, near Bognor Regis in West Sussex on 18th September.

1803: He throws a soldier, called John Scholfield, out of his garden and is reported to have cursed the name of King George the Third and is arrested for sedition.

1804: In January is acquitted at the sedition trial in Chichester which is held in the Guildhall. He decides to move back to London afterwards and takes up residence at 17 South Molton Street, near Oxford Street.

1808: He produces illustrations to John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. He completes “A Vision of the Last Judgment” for a commission by the Countess of Egremont.

1809: An exhibition is held of his own work at 28 Broad Street in the house of James, his brother, during May. He is described in “The Examiner” newspaper by Robert Hunt as “an unfortunate lunatic”.

1810: His exhibition is extended to June. Stodhard’s rival painting about Geoffrey Chaucer and the Canterbury pilgrims causes a breach in their friendship.

1816: He is included in “A Biographical Dictionary of the Living Authors of Great Britain and Ireland”.

1818: He is introduced to John Linnell in June who becomes an important patron. On the 12th September Linnell introduces him to the painter John Constable. He is also introduced to Samuel Palmer and other artists who later form the group “The Ancients”.

1820: The first copies of “Jerusalem” are produced.

1823: He has his life mask taken by James Deville on 1st August. Linnell commissions illustrations to the “Book of Job”.

1824: Linnell commissions him to illustrate Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.

William Blake died on 12th August 1827 at 3 Fountain Court, London, England. One of the witnesses said just before he died he burst out singing of the things he saw in heaven. He was buried at Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, City Road, Finsbury, London, England. (Visitors to this day place pennies on the headstone in a tradition which is said to be money to pay the ferryman across the River Styx to heaven). Catherine became Linnell’s Housekeeper after his death.

Further Information

Please see Britain Unlimited’s William Blake page for further information.

Examples of paintings, drawings and engravings from the Blake Archive.