Above: The new gravestone to William Blake, photographed a few days after being unveiled – still adorned with flowers, placed by those present at the ceremony.
William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827), English poet, painter and printmaker. Most people have heard of Blake. If you have not heard his name, you are probably familiar with the poem ’The Tyger’ – about a symbolic tiger representing the fierce force in the human soul – ’Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright’ etc. If the poem is not familiar either, you are likely to at least know some of the words of ‘Jerusalem’ – ‘And did those feet’ etc. Blake wrote both of those lines.
Blake was scarcely noticed during his lifetime, apart from other artists or writers who were his friends. Considered insane and largely disregarded by his peers, the visionary poet and engraver is now recognised among the greatest contributors to English literature and art. He lived almost all his life in London – mainly in the Soho area and also, for a time in Lambeth.
Blake died in poverty at his home in the Strand and was buried in Bunhill Fields – a Dissenters’ graveyard. Because the family had little money, his body was laid to rest in a common grave. He lies buried along with another seven bodies. His wife Catherine paid for Blake’s funeral with money lent to her by a friend. Catherine died four years later, in 1831 and was also buried in Bunhill Fields but in a separate common grave.
In the 20th-century the authorities created a turfed area on top of the common grave in which Blake was buried. A gravestone was then erected near that of Daniel Defoe, which stated that the position of Blake’s grave was ‘nearby’ where the stone stood. Due to recent research by Luis and Carol Garrido in 2010, the exact position of William Blake’s grave was calculated and a new stone was unveiled on Sunday 12 August 2018 – on the anniversary of the day Blake was buried. For such an important name in the world of poetry and art, it would seem only right and proper that a suitable gravestone should mark the grave. It was engraved by Lida Cardozo and included the words by Blake . . .
‘Here lies William Blake 1757–1827 Poet Artist Prophet’
‘I give you the end of a golden string
‘Only wind it into a ball
‘It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate
‘Built in Jerusalem’s wall’
After the unveiling, which was in the afternoon, a sunset vigil was held at which 191 candles were lit marking 191 years since Blake had been buried.
Above: A mural based on one of Blake’s paintings. It is mounted on a brick wall just around the corner from Hercules Road in Lambeth where he and his wife once lived.
Summary of Blake’s Life
William Blake was born over his father’s modest hosiery shop at 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, in Soho. His father came from a family in Rotherhithe and his mother was from yeoman stock in the straggling village of Walkeringham in Nottinghamshire. Blake grew up in modest circumstances with the his only teaching as a child being from his mother – as was common with most children of the day. While only a child, in 1765 Blake, aged eight, wandered from his home in Soho and claimed to have seen a vision of a cloud of angels in a great oak on Peckham Rye.
The young Blake was apprenticed to James Basire for seven years (1772-79), a line engraver who specialised in prints depicting architecture. Blake lived with Basire’s family at 31 Great Queen Street, near Lincoln’s Inn Fields. There Blake learned to polish the copperplates, to sharpen the gravers, to grind the ink, to reduce the images to the size of the copper, to prepare the plates for etching with acid, and eventually to push the sharp graver through the copper. He became so proficient in all aspects of his craft that Basire trusted him to go by himself to Westminster Abbey to make drawings of the medieval monuments. Three years of drawing those murals and monuments fed a fascination with history and medieval art.
On the completion of his apprenticeship in 1779, Blake began to work vigorously as an independent engraver. His most frequent commissions were from the great liberal bookseller Joseph Johnson. At first, most of his work was copy engraving after the designs of other artists. Blake also published engravings of his own designs, although mostly in very small numbers. One of the best known is ‘Glad Day’, also called ‘Albion Rose’ (designed in 1780, probably engraved in 1805). Even more ambitiously, he invented a method of printing in colour, still not clearly understood, which he used in 1795 to create his 12 great folio colour prints, including God Judging Adam and Newton. More publicly visible were Blake’s engravings of his enormous design of Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Pilgrims’ (1810), his 22 folio designs for the Book of Job (1826), and his seven even larger unfinished plates for Dante (1826–27). Only the Chaucer sold well enough to repay its probable expenses during Blake’s lifetime.
While pursuing his career as an engraver, in 1779 Blake enrolled as a student in the newly founded Royal Academy of Arts; he exhibited a few pictures there, in 1780, 1784, 1785, 1799, and 1808. His friends were artists such as the Neoclassical sculptor John Flaxman, the book illustrator Thomas Stothard, the sensationalist painter Henry Fuseli, the amateur polymath George Cumberland, and the portrait and landscape painter John Linnell.
There were few opportunities for a wider public to view Blake’s watercolours and his temperas. He showed work at the exhibition of the Associated Painters in Water-Colours (1812) and exhibited some pictures at the Royal Academy of Arts, but these works were greeted with silence.
In 1781 Blake fell in love with Catherine Sophia Boucher (1762–1831), the pretty, illiterate daughter of an unsuccessful market gardener from the village of Battersea. They were married in the local parish church of St Mary and the bride signed the marriage register with an ‘X’. Catherine’s family name suggests that she was of Huguenot descent. Blake taught Catherine to read and write, to draw, to colour his designs and prints, to help him at the printing press, and to see visions as he did.
Their first address (1782–84), as man and wife, was in Irving Street (then 22 Green Street) which runs off Leicester Square. In 1784 they moved to Broadwick Street (then called Broad Street) and in 1785 to Poland Street. In 1790 they moved to 13 Hercules Buildings, in Lambeth. None of the addresses listed above remain today. From 1800–03 Blake and his wife lived in a cottage at Felpham, in Sussex but in 1803 they returned to London – on the first floor of 17 South Molton Street. The building is still there. In 1821 they moved to Fountain Court, where Blake died in 1827. The site of that property was pulled down when the Savoy Hotel was built.
Blake poured his whole being into his work. The lack of public recognition sent him into a severe depression which lasted from 1810–1817, and even his close friends thought him insane.
Blake died in his cramped rooms in Fountain Court, the Strand, on 12 August 1827, aged 70. Catherine paid for Blake’s funeral with money lent to her by Linnell. Blake was buried in Bunhill Fields, a burial ground for Nonconformists but he was given a Church of England funeral service. Catherine died in 1831, just four years later, and was also buried in Bunhill Fields but not in the same grave.
Blake was christened, married, and buried by the rites of the Church of England but he had little time for organised Christianity. However, Blake was a religious seeker but not a joiner. He was profoundly influenced by some of the ideas of the Swedish theologian and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Essentially Blake loved the world of the spirit. For him, true worship was private communion with the spirit.