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William Blake, Biography and Visits

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Paolozzi Newton, outside the British Library, based on a painting by Blake

Some people would now like to see a national anthem for England rather than Britain. The usual piece suggested for this anthem is the Jerusalem Hymn, the words of which are by William Blake: "And did those feet in ancient times/ Walk upon England's mountains green?/ And was the holy lamb of God/ On England's pleasant pastures seen?"

Ironically Blake was always a man to seek freedom from boundaries, national, mental, physical. These lines - which are from the preface of Milton - suggest that national boundaries are too small to hold the truth of life. Spirituality has no centre and no periphery, and in this sense, Jerusalem could exist in England's green and pleasant fields, or amidst its dark Satanic mills. Blake did not accept normal demarcations, and perhaps one of his poems would not be quite right as a national anthem! Or maybe it would be perfect, celebrating a place, and yet encouraging us to forget about such false divisions as national boundaries.

 

 

 

 

 

Golden Square, Soho

William Blake was born at 28a Broad Street, Golden Square, London on the 28th of November 1757. His father was a hosier, and the family was comfortable and middle class. From an early age William showed a head-strong, independent nature, and perhaps it was due to his unusual personality that his parents decided not to try and confine William to any kind of formal education. It seems his mother was happier with this arrangement than his father, who sometimes lost patience with their son. When at about the age of eight, William returned home and announced that he had seen angels hanging in the branches of a tree, James Blake was ready to try beating such notions out of the boy, and was only restrained by his wife. So William continued to go his own way, seeing his visions, thinking his intense thoughts, and reading the Bible, a book which was to have a profound and lifelong influence on him.

In August 1772 Blake became an apprentice to an engraver named James Basire. Basire's premises were at 31 Great Queen Street, London. The building no longer survives, but the brick houses on either side give an idea of how it would have appeared. Blake worked here for seven years, until he left aged twenty one to become a professional engraver. While Blake was training he was deeply affected by a task of engraving images at Westminster Abbey. While engaged in this work there is a record of an incident involving a boy from Westminster School. This boy is supposed to have "tormented" Blake to the point where Blake pushed the boy off a scaffold to the ground.

 

Somerset House

In 1779, having completed his training with Basire, Blake became a student at the Royal Academy at Somerset House near the Strand. Six years were spent at the Royal Academy, and Blake came to detest the views of the Academy's first president Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds wrote in his Discourses that the "disposition to abstractions, to generalizing and classification, is the great glory of the human mind". Blake's view of the world could not have been more different. He was to write in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite." This line incidentally gave Jim Morrison the name for his 1960s Californian rock group the Doors.

 

One year into his time at the Royal Academy Blake was walking up Great Queen Street on his way to Basire's shop. He was then swept up by a mob supporting the American Revolution, which rampaged along the street and attacked Newgate Prison. Blake seemed to have no plan to join what later became known as the Gordon Riots, but was caught in the passion of the moment, and apparently joined in the riot with great enthusiasm. He hated authority of all kinds, and would have been glad to support a cause such as American independence. It was in response to the Gordon Riots that a national police force was organised in Britain. So next time you see a policeman you might think of the Gordon Riots in which Blake took part, following his instinctive passion to oppose authority. You could visit the Clink Prison Museum in Southwark, site of the famous Clink Prison, which like Newgate, was stormed during the Gordon Riots.

In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman who would become his patron, and Catherine Boucher, who would become his wife. Blake had only just made a proposal of marriage to another woman, which had been rejected. When Catherine showed sympathy Blake pounced and asked her to marry him instead. The ceremony took place on 18th August 1782 at St Mary's Church, Battersea, the illiterate Catherine signing the marriage register with a cross. James Blake, grumpy as usual, did not think Catherine suitable for his son, and turned the couple out of the family home. But after finding lodgings in Soho, Blake began to teach his new wife to read, write and engrave, and she was to become an invaluable assistant to him.

In 1790 the couple moved to Hercules Buildings in Lambeth. Songs of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America, a Prophecy and The First Book of Urizen were written here. It was in Lambeth that William and Catherine would read Milton's Paradise Lost in the garden. The garden was imagined as Eden, and the couple would read naked, to give them a more intimate connection with the story! Lambeth is recalled in Blake's Milton:

 

Trembling I stood

Exceedingly with fear and terror, standing in the Vale

Of Lambeth: but he kissed me and wished me health,

And I became One Man with him, arising in my strength.

 

As in the famous lines from the opening of Milton where Jerusalem comes to England, seemingly ordinary places in London can become mythical, spiritual places. I think Blake really believed that his little garden behind a terraced house in Lambeth could be the Garden of Eden. Sadly the house and garden where all this happened no longer exists, having been demolished in 1918.

In 1800 the couple moved to Felpham, a little village near the West Sussex coast. To Blake's sorrow it was clear by now that they would never be able to have children. Blake had suggested using a concubine, but this idea had upset Catherine so much that he quickly forgot about it. The childless couple moved to Felpham to work on a commission to illustrate the works of poet William Hayley. Heaven seemed to follow from Lambeth and take up residence in Felpham: "Away to sweet Felpham for heaven is there. The ladder of Angels descends through the air. On the turret its spiral does softly descend. Through the village it winds, at my cot it does end" (from a letter to John Flaxman). It was in Felpham that Blake wrote Milton. His cottage where the ladder of angels ended survives, but is privately owned.

17 South Moulton Street (centre house)

In 1802 the couple returned to London, because Blake had tired of William Hayley, and also because of a fright involving charges of sedition, following an incident where Blake had pushed a soldier out of his garden. The Blakes lived at 17 South Moulton Street. This is the only London house owned by Blake to have survived. He wrote Jerusalem here, which he worked on for many years, from 1804 to 1820. But in spite of high hopes on leaving Felpham, heaven did not seem to follow the couple to South Moulton Street. In the later years of his life Blake was very poor, and recognition eluded him. In South Moulton Street he was forced to find heaven within himself, in the riches of spirit which he saw as making up for a lack of material wealth. Blake hoped that God had a mansion waiting somewhere for him. Ironically South Moulton Street is now one of London's most expensive shopping streets.

In 1821 there was another move, to Fountain Court on the Strand. Blake's poverty continued, and he described this, his last house, as a hole. The house no longer exists, but it stood, rather fittingly perhaps, behind the Coal Hole Tavern, which survives in a rebuilt form. If you stand on the steps behind the tavern you will be able to see the view of the Thames which Blake enjoyed. Perhaps he had a sense of escape looking at the Thames, shimmering "like a bar of gold". At Fountain Court Blake worked on his last commission, engravings for Dante's Inferno. He is supposed to have spent the last of his money on a pencil to allow him to continue this work, and was feverishly busy on engravings until the last day of his life, 12th of August 1827.

 

 

 

 

 

Memorial to Blake and his wife at Bunhill Fields

Blake was buried in the Dissenter's burial ground at Bunhill Fields, and today a memorial stands near his unmarked grave. Although Blake's unorthodoxy meant he wasn't going to make it into Poet's Corner in Westminster Abbey, a memorial to him was later placed in the Abbey. Bunhill Fields, which is best reached via Old Street Tube station, is a Poet's Corner for the outsider poets. John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe are buried here. It's a remarkably affecting place, quiet and green, with packed rows of gravestones in various sizes giving the sense of a huge and silent crowd. It is estimated that over 120,000 people were buried here. This was supposed to be the graveyard of outsiders, and yet there are so many people at Bunhill Fields that it seems more normal to be an outsider than someone who belongs. Bunhill Fields, a former mass burial ground for plague victims, or Poet's Corner at Westminster Abbey, Blake wouldn't have made a distinction. His spirit was free of such things. He once painted a famous picture of Isaac Newton, sitting on a rock, bent over awkwardly doing his measuring. In the picture Newton seems to be fading into the rock on which he is sitting. Now we know about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in which the observer is part of what he observes. A statue by Paolozzi based on the painting of Newton can be seen outside the British Library at St Pancreas.

If you're at the British Library you might also walk down to the British Museum nearby in Bloomsbury, and look at the collection of Blake's art work in the Department of Prints and Drawings.

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