William Blake (1757 - 1827)
Being asked for his autograph on one occasion, William Blake, the great English artist-poet, whom Wordsworth pronounced "mad, but with something in his madness which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott," signed this epitaph: "Born 28th Nov. 1757 in London, and has died several times since." To a mutual friend who offered to introduce Blake to Wordsworth the former expressed his thanks strongly, saying, "You do me honor. Mr. Wordsworth is a great man. Besides, he may convince me that I am wrong about him. I have been wrong before now."
Visiting England during the lifetime of both Blake and Wordsworth, the German painter Gotzenberger has left on record: "I saw in England many men of talent, but only three men of genius - Coleridge, Flaxman and Blake; and of these Blake was the greatest."
Blake was most scantily educated in the rudiments of reading and writing; arithmetic also may be taken for granted, but it is not recorded. He himself was never a believer in formal education, contending that it curbed imagination and killed inspiration. He began drawing very early, becoming, as a biographer says, "at ten years of age an artist, and at twelve a poet." He copied prints in his boyhood and haunted art salesrooms; his parents, more especially his mother, seem to have encouraged this artistic turn.
In 1767 he was sent to a drawing school in London, where he had the opportunity of studying from the antique, but not from the life. At auctions he bought engravings low, but with a discriminating eye; a Durer, or after, a Raphael or a Michel Angelo, none of whom was popular in England at the time. But, as W. M. Rossetti notes, "the little lad Blake already moved intellectually within his own insight, as a planet within its own orbit." In later life Blake declared, "I am right; others who differ with me are wrong," and it seems to have been his attitude from the beginning.
At fourteen Blake was apprenticed to an engraver, and the engraving branch of art was that which he followed ever afterwards as his regular calling. He next studied in the Antique School of the Royal Academy, under a master named Mosher, who figures in this anecdote: Young Blake was examining some prints from Raphael and Michel Angelo in the Academy library when Mosher extolled in their stead the works of Rubens and Lebrun . "These things that you call finished," cried Blake, "are not even begun; how then can they be finished?" Another anecdote concerns an interview he had with Sir Joshua Reynolds, to whom he was submitting some designs for his opinion. Sir Joshua recommended less extravagance and more simplicity, and urged Blake to correct his drawing. This Blake seemed to regard as an affront never to be forgotten. "No doubt," writes Rossetti, "the censure of the drawing of so severe and forcible a draughtsman as Blake, coming from one of so much loose facility as Reynolds, was particularly galling, notwithstanding their great difference in age and professional standing."
In the same year that Blake first began exhibiting in the Royal Academy he became disappointed in love, and confiding his distress to the daughter of his landlord, she expressed her pity for him. "Do you pity me?" asked Blake. "Yes, I do most sincerely." "Then I love you for that." "And I love you," responded the damsel, who a short time later signed her mark in the marriage register and for forty-seven years was "an angel on earth" to William Blake, whose work had little enough sympathy during his lifetime.