An extract from the brilliant new biography of poet, artist and visionary William Blake
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William Blake was "Born 28 Nov 1757 in London & has died several times since", as he wrote in a young friend's autograph album in 1826, the year before his actual death. The son of a Dissenter, Blake was apprenticed at 14 to an engraver, James Basire. An early assignment, to make drawings of Westminster Abbey, was to have a profound effect on Blake, introducing him to Gothic art. In 1782 he married Catherine Boucher, who was sympathetic to his visions (a friend described her as the "maddest of the Two") and devoted to his needs. Ackroyd acknowledges: "Without Catherine Blake none of the great works of her husband would have appeared." In 1789 Blake published Songs of Innocence, using his engraving skills brilliantly to marry text and image; two years later he added Songs of Experience, including the famous poem "The Tyger". In 1793 the Blakes moved to Lambeth, where he began work on the Prophetic Books. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, circa 1790, contains his celebrated sayings "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom" and "If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite". Blake died neglected and poor, despite friendships with Henry Fuseli, William Godwin, Thomas Paine and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and with a variety of long-suffering patrons.

This edited extract begins in 1779, when Blake, at 22, started at the Royal Academy Schools, and seemed set for a conventional career as an artist.

THE ROYAL Academy Schools were situated in Old Somerset House, off the Strand. Tuition was free and some 25 aspiring scholars were chosen each year by a formal system. A month before he completed his apprenticeship Blake submitted a drawing to the members of the Academy, and at the same time was obliged to provide a testimonial from an established artist.

He had been working on various historical compositions for some time, no doubt with a view to producing one for this occasion, but the name of his sponsor has not survived. His submission was approved and in August 1779 he was admitted as a probationer for three months. In that period he was obliged to work in the Antique School, or Plaister Academy, where he was asked to produce a complete and technically accurate anatomical drawing of a human figure. He was successful; on 8 October of that year he was enrolled as "Blake William - 21Yrs 28th last Novr. Engr.", and given an ivory ticket of admission for a period of six years. Although he paid no fees, he was asked to provide his own materials.

The Royal Academy had high artistic aims and, in the words of its President, Sir Joshua Reynolds, the purpose of its teaching was to instil the notions of "ideal beauty" and "intellectual dignity"; that is why any taint of commerce or trade was considered unbecoming, and, although Blake was admitted as an "Engr.", professional engravers themselves were not allowed to become Academicians. As one acerbic contemporary put it, "the Royal Academy was founded, consisting of members who had agreed to withdraw themselves from various clubs, not only to be more select as to talent, but perfectly correct as to gentlemanly conduct".

Whatever the political and social motives of the Academy may have been, the aesthetic ones were clear enough - to train scholars in the ideals of classical art, to instil in them a true talent for drawing and its allied skills, and to promote the idea of a national school of historical painting.

After he had proved his proficiency in the Antique Gallery, Blake was allowed to move down to the Life Gallery. Here, a male or female nude was placed in an appropriate sculptural attitude, perhaps even imitating the pose of the statuary in the entrance hall beyond; the model stood upright, or sat upon a cushion, in front of a semi-circle of students.

The classes began in the late afternoon, so the scholars could earn their living during the day and, according to the rules of the Academy, "While the Visitor is setting the Model, the Students shall draw Lots for their Places ... As soon as any Student, hath done Drawing or Modeling, he shall put out his Candles and while Drawing or Modeling, he shall be careful to keep them under the Bells."

Some life studies by Blake have survived, but the practice was not to his taste. He once told a friend that in Westminster Abbey "he early imbibed the pure & spiritual character of the female expression & form"; once he had found art, he had no taste for nature. In fact he found life drawing "hateful" and "looking more like death, or smelling of mortality". Blake himself wrote, at a later date, that "As to a modern Man stripped from his load of cloathing, he is like a dead corpse." It is paradoxical that a young man who would soon be proclaiming the virtues of sexual energy should also be disgusted by the physical medium of its transmission.

But it may simply be that his distaste was fostered by William Hunter's disquisitions on anatomy in the Lecture Room on the first floor - here, it is reported, he would sometimes display the corpses of criminals recently executed at Tyburn. But Blake learned something from these naked exercises: he learnt the musculature of the human form, and in a work such as "Nebuchadnezzar" his Academy training is seen to best advantage.

Joshua Reynolds himself was, according to Oliver Goldsmith, "gentle, complying and bland", an artist whose fashionable taste and orthodox aesthetic would have meant little or nothing to Blake. In the first address or "discourse" to the students that Blake heard, Reynolds extolled the idea of "general beauty" and the pursuit of "general truth", while going on to say that "we perceive by sense, we combine by fancy, and distinguish by reason ... the beauty of which we are in quest is general and intellectual".

The address lasted only ten minutes or so, but it would have been quite long enough for Blake. His later annotations to Reynolds' Literary Works are filled with indignation and disgust, but the source of his anger can be located in these student days. He was also scathing about Reynolds's professions of humility; indeed Blake considered humility be a form of hypocrisy, an attitude that throws an interesting light on his own temperament.

Reynolds: I felt my ignorance, and stood abashed.

Blake: A Liar he never was Abashed in his Life & never felt his Ignorance.

Reynolds: I consoled myself by remarking that these ready inventors are extremely apt to acquiesce in imperfection.

Blake: Villainy a Lie.

Reynolds: But this disposition to abstractions ... is the great glory of the human mind.

Blake: To Generalize is to be an Idiot To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit - General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess.

Reynolds: The great use in copying, if it be at all useful, should seem to be in learning to colour.

Blake: Contemptible.

Reynolds: But as mere enthusiasm will carry you but a little way . . .

Blake: Damn the Fool, Mere Enthusiasm is the All in All!

Blake remembered one moment in the company of the great and famous President. Reynolds: Well, Mr Blake, I hear you despise our art of oil painting.

Blake: No, Sir Joshua, I don't despise it; but I like fresco better.

This is an interesting remark, given that Reynolds's oils were the fashion of the day: "fresco" was the term used for the productions of the great masters of water-based paint and tempera, rather than oil, who worked within the ideal outlines and contours of spiritual form. Oil was a later and more sensuous medium, which, according to Blake at least, was too fluid and indeterminate. Eventually Blake came to believe that single- handedly he had revived the art of fresco painting.

It has been suggested that he disliked oil painting simply because he was not proficient at it. But this is to mistake his own commitment to quite another kind of art: in the two years before he joined the Royal Academy his imagination had been established upon the recognition of pure line and clearly defined form. His understanding of art, as well as his belief in artistic gift, rested on the certainties of the engraving and the "Gothic" style. Oil was too bluffed, too muddy, too indistinct. We must imagine a young man coming to the Schools with a vigorous attachment to a style that was shared only by a few radical painters of the day. It not "old-fashioned", but it was unfashionable.

AT THIS time, Blake and all his friends were committed political radicals. England was at war with America, but that conflict, prosecuted by Lord North and George III, was unpopular. England was also at war with France, and there was a threat of rebellion in Ireland; the government was being accused of corruption, while food riots occurred sporadically in London. These were the conditions in which the political radicalism of Blake's friends was being fostered, and the ardour of youth was exacerbated by a general urban political culture that considered the king and the king's government to be obtuse, uncertain and wretchedly incompetent. Blake is said to have professed himself always "a `Liberty Boy', a faithful `Son of Liberty'; and would jokingly urge in self-defence that the shape of his head made him a republican".

In fact he had worked within a radical milieu all his life. His parents were of old city stock characterised by its republican attitudes and, even while he was an apprentice, he had worked on engravings for the radical Memoirs of Thomas Hollis. He had been accustomed to the movement of urban politics since childhood, from the mobs who for a while controlled London with the cry "Wilkes and Liberty!" to the supporters of the "Sons of Liberty" then attacking British soldiers in the United States. Radicalism could take various forms, however, from the middle-class revolutionaries (who at a slightly later date would include Wordsworth and Coleridge) to the urban debating clubs and the "underground" societies practising or preaching their own forms of subversion.

The nature of Blake's radicalism was perhaps not clear even to Blake himself; it would have been a natural and almost instinctive stance, which would require neither apology nor explanation. But the fact that he never joined any particular group or society suggests that his was, from the beginning, an internal politics both self-willed and self-created. In later life he managed to combine an intense visionary belief in brotherhood and the human community with that robust and almost anarchic individualism so characteristic of London artisans during this period. It is likely in these first years, however, that his radicalism was an aspect of his own imaginative and brooding temperament; it helped to give him an identity, and thus assuage his fears of the world, at the same time as it complemented his own visionary experiences.

These were generally dangerous and uncertain times, and the revolutionary spirit of the capital manifested itself in days of rioting and what Gibbon called "dark and diabolical fanaticism". Blake was caught up in the general madness, and the images of fire and havoc that pervade his poetry may spring in part from the terrible destruction of the city which he witnessed. It began with a parliamentary Bill designed to relieve Roman Catholics of certain ancient penalties and disabilities; it was then that Lord George Gordon and his Protestant Association set up a cry of "No Popery!", which left "every man, woman and child in the streets panic struck, the atmosphere red as blood with the ascending fires".

On Friday 2 June 1780, at around midnight, the rampaging mobs invaded Broad Street and Golden Square; the Bavarian Chapel and the house of the Bavarian ambassador were put to the torch and pillaged, while there was a pitched battle between the mob and militia in Broad Street itself. There is an engraving of the scene, by James Heath after Francis Wheatley, which shows houses being plundered among pillars of smoke, the drunken staggering in disarray, bloody fighting on the ground amid fires while the injured are dragged away - "Howlings & hissings, shrieks & groans, & voices of despair" no more than a few yards from Blake's house. Soon the ostensible aim of the rioters was lost in the general confusion and slaughter; it was as if all the anger of the London mob, restless for so long under the yoke of King and Parliament, had found a terrible fruition.

On the Tuesday evening, 6 June, Blake was walking down Long Acre towards the shop of his old master in Great Queen Street when suddenly he was swept up by a wave of advancing rioters who rushed down Holborn towards the Old Bailey and Newgate Prison. On this occasion the mob consisted of the more disruptive elements in London - apprentices, servants and even criminals joined in the general pillage. Then, outside the barred entrance of Newgate prison, Blake witnessed the scenes of burning and devastation that are so vividly depicted in Charles Dickens's Barnaby Rudge - the huge gates were attacked with pickaxes and sledgehammers, and soon the prison was enveloped in flames. The prisoners shrieked and screamed, because they were in imminent danger of being burned alive, until the rioters clambered over the walls and literally tore off the roof above their heads. They were dragged out, or crawled, from the prison, their fetters clinking on their legs before they reached blacksmiths in the vicinity. The cry went up as they poured out, screaming and blaspheming, "A clear way! A clear run!"

George Crabbe was another poet who witnessed the scene, and described the rioters "rolled in black smoke mixed with sudden bursts of fire - like Milton's infernals who were as familiar with flame as with each other". When the house of a vintner by Fetter Lane was put to the torch, the mob lay in the gutter and drank the streams of burning spirit until they expired.

It is reported that Blake was "forced to go along in the very front rank" and witness the destruction of Newgate, but other observers, such as Crabbe, seem to have been able to move around of their own accord. It is much more likely that Blake went along with the mob willingly, perhaps impulsively, and, when he saw the fire and heard the screaming, he stayed out of panic or curiosity. He was fortunate, however, in not being recognised by any of the soldiery once the disturbances were crushed in the following week: he might have been hanged, and in the days after the riot had been quelled he would have seen many young men of his own age strung up at the scenes of their supposed crimes.

BLAKE exhibited his initial work, "The Death of Earl Goodwin", only eight months after joining the Royal Academy Schools. This first confident step testifies to his early ambition, and he was no doubt pleased by George Cumberland's notice in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser that it was of "good design, and much character". But he exhibited no work at the Academy for the next three years, since in that period he began work as a professional engraver.

He was living in the family house at Broad Street while studying at the Schools, and it was necessary for him to earn a living and help to support his parents. His first commercial work was completed in August 1780, less than a year after he had joined the Academy; it was after a design by Thomas Stothard on a Shakespearian theme, and is the earliest example of what would become a close collaboration between the two men. He was to engrave a good deal of Stothard's work; in his relationships with Stothard and other artists, however, Blake was implicitly the subsidiary part of the creative process.

Over the next few years he finished some 57 commercial engravings; he copied fencers for Fencing Familiarized and little children for An Introduction to Mensuration, he engraved sylvan scenes for Ritson's Songs and a rotunda for An Introduction to Philosophy. But his most intensive early commercial work was for editions of the Bible, where the influence of Raphael upon his style is appropriately strong. By these means he could return to the world of biblical allegory and spiritual reality that he had known since childhood, and was given the opportunity of designing one of his own plates. Nevertheless commercial work was mere methodical routine. He knew all the techniques from his days as an apprentice with with James Basire, and although he often produced work of grace his practice is never really more than competent.

Yet this was the trade to which he would be always bound.There were advantages to it, since he could never have survived upon his art alone, but he had entered a life of continual labour in which he was forced to work within strictly defined limits and to carefully formulated rules. Truly he was "The labourer of ages in the Valleys of Despair!" He completed some 580 plates within his lifetime, all of which had to be produced by a faithful and sometimes even simple-minded literalism. If we think of hatching and cross-hatching as a form of net or web that defines an object, then we may be able to hear in Blake's verse something of his weariness at the drudgery of his professional life: "I taught pale artifice to spread his nets upon the morning / My heavens are brass my earth is iron ..."

And so Blake laboured over the metal plates, scratching in regularised lines with his "iron pen", using compass and rule to mark the outlines of his work, subduing himself to the shallow product of another's imagination.

In his later life he was known only as an engraver, a journeyman with wild notions and a propensity for writing unintelligible verse. He laboured for his bread, eccentric, dirty and obscure. He was part of the first great period of commercialism and mass manufacture in English history, and he was one of its first casualties.

! `Blake' by Peter Ackroyd will be published by Sinclair-Stevenson on 11 September at pounds 20.

! On Thursday 14 September at 6.30pm Peter Ackroyd lectures on `Blake and London Radicalism' at the Clore Gallery Auditorium, Tate Gallery, Millbank, London SW1, tickets pounds 5/pounds 3 concs.

TICKET OFFER: The first 30 readers to contact the Events Secretary, Tate Gallery will receive a free ticket. Tel 0171 887 8758 between 10am-5pm, weekdays.

! The illustrations in this article are taken from the six-volume complete Collected Edition of Blake's Illuminated Books, each with full text and commentary, published by Tate Gallery Publications.