William Blake (1757-1827)

William Blake's father was a hosier, and Blake was apprenticed at the age of 14 to learn the profession of engraving. Throughout his life, he remained dependent on commercial reproductive engraving for much of his livelihood. He briefly studied drawing at the Royal Academy schools, but never had any further formal training as an artist.

It is one of the mysteries of the creative imagination that Blake was to become one of the greatest English poets and artists, and that he devised a unique method of self-publishing that enabled him to combine written text and illustration on the same page. The resulting books, which he printed and coloured himself with the aid of his wife, sold in tiny numbers to a circle of friends and admirers and were otherwise hardly known in his lifetime. But, following their 'rediscovery' by Rossetti and his circle in the mid-nineteenth century, they have become some of the most admired monuments of English romantic art.

Blake lived much of his life in considerable poverty, and was considered eccentric, if not mad, because he firmly believed that he was in direct communication with a spirit world. Many of his poems remain extremely difficult to interpret as he invented a private mythology. However, his most famous work, the Songs of Innocence and Experience of 1793, are among the most direct and simple poems in the English canon.

The British Museum has the largest collection of Blake's books in existence, and can show all sides of his art.

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