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Most people probably think of William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827) as a slightly whack-a-doodle British poet and painter. But he was so much more than that. He was a slightly whack-a-doodle British craftsman, inventor, engraver, printer, and self-publisher, among many other things.

Blake believed that every human being had a “poetic genius” within them, something that was systematically destroyed by the single-minded needs of institutions, such as the State and the Church (think: drones in a hive). He was certainly a living embodiment of what could happen if you fought against some of this institutional indoctrination and unleashed some of that creative potential. Although he was basically laughed at during his lifetime, sold next to nothing of his artistic work, and he and his wife barely ate and kept a roof over their heads, he remained incredibly prolific, literally working until the day he died. He invented a number of new art techniques, such as illuminated printing (a kind of freeform engraving which allowed the artist to paint resist media directly onto copper plates) and a form of fresco painting (a failed experiment in bringing a fresco technique to conventional painting using tempera paints mixed with carpenter’s glue).

Blake came of age during an exciting, tumultuous time (see: American and French revolutions) and at a time when an expanding trade-class was on the rise in Britain. Blake was trained as a traditional engraver and was a printer, and throughout his life, he remained very proud of his tradecraft and always saw himself as a tradesman. It was also a time in which art in Britain was expanding beyond the academy and the collections of the wealthy. Artists, such as water colorists, fed up with lack of respect and support for their media, began their own art societies and mounted their own shows. The only show that Blake ever did, in 1809, was a solo one, held in a bedroom above his brother’s hosiery shop in Soho (the home in which Blake was born). The fact that he addressed his books and catalogs “To The Public” and “For Public Inspection” was quite a revolutionary gesture at a time in which only the aristocracy was supposed to understand or care about art.

To those who don’t spend a lot of time teasing out the deeper meanings in Blake’s work, much of it can come off as “distempered” (to quote the only review of his show), apocalyptic, impenetrable, and just plain nutso. He was certainly an intense and complex character who felt an urgency to alert the world to a discovery he thought he’d made: The limitless potential of the human imagination to render the world paradisaical (and the risk that the scientific and industrial revolution might kill a lot of that potential). An overly simplistic and romantic notion perhaps, but certainly a thought, a dream, that remains as relevant today as it did at the turn of the 19th century.

“The Foundation of Empire is Art & Science Remove them or Degrade them & the Empire is No More — Empire follows Art & Not Vice Versa as Englishmen suppose.” — Wm. Blake

More:
See my article on William Blake from MAKE Volume 17, in the digital edition