William Blake: biographical background

Birth and education

William Blake was born on November 28 1757 in London. He was the second of five surviving children of James and Catherine Harmitage Blake. His father sold gloves, stockings and haberdashery, making an adequate living for the family.

Blake did not attend school as a young child. He was allowed to wander freely in the city and the surrounding countryside. As a child, he began to have the visions that he would later use in his illustrations. His parents discouraged him from speaking about his visions of angels in trees or God's face at the window, believing he was lying.

Artistic talent

Blake’s parents recognised his artistic talent:

  • At the age of ten, he was enrolled in a drawing school run by James Pars
  • Four years later he became an apprentice with a master engraver
  • After completing his apprenticeship, he had a short period at the Royal Academy
  • He then began working as an engraver, illustrating books and periodicals.

Marriage and employment

In 1782, Blake married Catherine Boucher. When she married Blake she was illiterate, but she learned to read and write with his help. Eventually, she assisted him in drafting his work. They were childless.

In 1784, Blake went into the printing business with his younger brother Robert and another local engraver. Within three years, Robert died and the business failed. Blake then turned to copperplate etching, perfecting a technique that enabled him to produce both illustration and verse on a single page. This technique is used in his edition of Songs of Innocence and Experience.


In 1790, the Blakes moved out of London, then a much smaller city, to Lambeth. At that time this was a rural area. Here he began work on Songs of Experience. After ten years in Lambeth, the Blakes returned to live in London.


Blake was rarely out of financial difficulties. He was often dependent on demanding patrons who did not always understand or appreciate his interpretation of their wishes. This tended to increase his feeling of being a rejected prophet.

Blake illustration for Divine ComedyReputation and death

In his lifetime, Blake was primarily known as an artist rather than as a poet. His illuminated texts were self-published and only had a very limited range of readership.

Blake died on August 12 1827 while working on a set of illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy.