Blake: What paintings of visions come
A poet and painter,
William Blake is considered to be a man who gave back Britain
a sense of identity, at a time when the French and American Revolutions
were doing the same in those countries. But above all, Blake was
a mystic, a visionary, with at least one foot in the Otherworld
– if not more.
Blake is probably most famous for the opening verse of his “Auguries
of Innocence”: “To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your
hand, And eternity in an hour.” The verse formed one of
the centrepieces of the Tombraider movie about Lara Croft at the
height of her fame; it was probably an hour even Blake would not
have been able to prophesize.
The verse was Blake’s rephrasing of “as above, so
below”, expressing Blake’s adherence to the notion
of correspondences. He shared with the Hermetics that if one could
really see, everything was double, micro- and macro-cosmic. To
this, he added, that “without contraries there is no progression”.
Ackroyd begins his biography of Blake by stating that “in
the visionary imagination of William Blake there is no birth and
no death, no beginning and no end, only the perpetual pilgrimage
within time towards eternity.”
The future, as the opening verse might suggest, was Blake’s
obsession – but so was the past, as the future would restore
the glories of the past. Blake not so much romanticised, but “mythicised”
the past, especially Celtic-megalithic Britain and the Druids,
a past that he had labelled “Albion” and which was
largely seen as a Garden of Eden – but British in nature.
had not arrived at this framework by reading, even though he was
influenced by those who had written about Atlantis; primarily,
Blake had experienced. Since childhood, Blake had visions, which,
unlike most people, stayed with him throughout life – if
not grew in their intensity. He believed that this gift was innate
with all, but he had merely retained it beyond childhood.
His first important vision apparently happened when he was eight
or ten, around 1766-1768, at Peckham Rye, near Dulwich Hill, and
it was a tree filled with angels. When his father tried to thrash
William for talking about this, the mother intervened; and it
was she rather than the father who whipped him, when he told his
parents about an encounter with Ezekiel.
is remembered as a poet and painter, but in his time, he was not
considered to be an artist. When he became apprenticed in 1772,
his master engraver was James Basire, who lived on No. 31 Great
Queen Street, opposite the Masonic Grand Lodge. Quite a few of
Blake’s friends would enter Freemasonry, though there is
no record that Blake ever joined. Blake’s biographer Peter
Ackroyd states that Blake never joined any organisation, but according
to the lists of grandmasters of the Druid Order, Blake was a grandmaster
from 1799 till 1827. Of course, such lists are often grand claims
with little substantiation. Still, when he lived at No. 28 Poland
Street, between 1785 and 1790, the “The Ancient Order of
the Druids” convened merely a few yards down from Blake’s
house, in an ale-house apparently established by the Order itself.
Too close for comfort?
But perhaps even if Blake wasn’t, he should have been, for
he was greatly interested in the Druids and must be seen as one
of the great contributors to reintroducing the Celtic-megalithic
dimension into British culture. Blake spoke of Albion, England’s
great, mythological past, ruled by Druids. To quote Peter Ackroyd:
“All his life, Blake was entranced and persuaded by the
idea of a deeply spiritual past, and he continually alluded to
the possibility of ancient lore and arcane myths that could be
employed to reveal previously hidden truths.” Already at
that time, the Welsh bards met on Primrose Hill and it was a site
for which Blake had great affinity, mentioning it in some of his
Blake had read Stukeley’s Abury on the supposed Druid temples
of Avebury and Stonehenge. Blake, together with many like-minded
people, would transform the history of Britain and direct it into
the Celtic direction, away from its Roman foundations and focus.
Blake believed that “The Egyptian Hieroglyphs, the Greek
and the Roman Mythology, and the Modern Freemasonry being the
last remnants of it. The honourable Emanuel Swedenborg is the
wonderful Restorer of this long lost Secret.”
At one point, Blake also created an alchemically-themed tarot
deck. When he learned that it was to be used by Varley and Hockley
as a “key” for the Diogenes’ occult operations,
Blake, realizing that the Diogenes represented the “chartered”
forces of the establishment, got Samuel Palmer to disperse the
cards. Hence, there may be truth to the statement that Blake never
joined any organisation, as perhaps he was a serial non-joiner
of organisation, preferring to be an individual.
lived at the time of the French and American Revolutions and was
a great fan of both; he knew Thomas Paine. Blake wore a red liberty
cap in solidarity with the French revolutionaries, but despaired
with the rise of Robespierre and the Reign of Terror in the French
revolution. He lived at a time when towns were society was entering
the Industrial Age, with factories appearing in the landscape.
He felt the landscape became a vision of hell and Mankind the
subject of a new form of self-imposed slavery. But above all,
he also understand that in these times of change, with Revolutions
in America and France, Britain needed to have a new vision of
the future and the past, and it is here that Blake’s role
in history is perhaps at its most important.
was a Londoner and it was London, not some romantic place near
a river in the countryside, that was the site of his visions.
In his visions, he saw a different London than all those other
people that ran through its streets. Blake saw London as a heavenly
city; he saw angels, souls, prophets. Hence, to him, London was
a “Heavenly London”, a “Jerusalem”, one
of his best known poems. In 1916, at the height of the Great War,
C. Hubert H. Parry would set it into music, to become known as
the hymn “Jerusalem”, a key ingredient in every Last
Night of the Proms and to some, almost like a second national
anthem, often used as such for sporting occasions. Indeed, upon
hearing the orchestral version for the first time, King George
V said that he preferred it over the national anthem.
The poem itself was inspired by an apocryphal story that Jesus
accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to the English town of Glastonbury.
Mixed with legends of Troy, it created a powerful mythology that
inspired Britain to see itself as holding a special role in the
destiny of the world; as such, he gave a new vision to an old
Blake, England may have been Jerusalem, but, specifically, for
Blake, time did not exist and he therefore looked to the distant
past and the distant future, to see a London of utter bliss, the
“Heavenly Jerusalem” spoken off in the Bible. He seemed
to have a particular affinity for the London Stone, London’s
foundation stone, where he had quite a few visions of this “Jerusalem”.
On Primrose Hill, a site cherished by the early modern Druids,
he had a vision of the “Spiritual Sun”, which he compared
to the true light, the light of the Imagination.
Blake is therefore frequently seen as a mystic, but this is not
totally accurate. He deliberately wrote in the style of the Hebrew
prophets and apocalyptic writers and envisioned his works as expressions
of prophecy, following in the footsteps of Elijah and Milton.
To be absolutely precise, he believed himself to be the living
embodiment of the spirit of Milton. Blake’s Jerusalem was
written as a preface to Milton. Here, John Milton, returns from
heaven and encourages Blake to develop his relationship with dead
writers. The poem is apocalyptic in its setting and deals with
the union of the dead and the living.
is here that we begin to see the real Blake – or try to
find out who the real Blake was. It is known that Blake felt that
most of his art – whether poems or paintings – were
merely representations of what he saw or knew in that other world.
For example, Blake is credited with inventing a specific type
of printing, but according to Blake, it was his brother Robert,
following his death, who came to Blake in the night and explained
to him the method of illuminated printing that he was to make
his own. Most of Blake's paintings (such as "The Ancient
of Days") are actually prints made from copper plates, which
he etched in this method. He and his wife coloured these prints
with water colours. Thus each print is itself a unique work of
As to his poems, some have seen these as automatic writing, dictated
by beings from the otherworld, and written down by Blake, the
scribe. Biographer Mark Schorer even states that Blake “went
as far in the direction of the automatic as it is possible to
go and remain poetry”.
The central question, of course, is whether it was real –
or imagined… though for Blake the latter was real too. Hence,
perhaps we should ask whether it was real or a hallucination,
a mental aberration. Some, in his own time, have said that he
suffered from hallucinations, others that he was just mad. William
Wordsworth wrote: "There was no doubt that this poor man
was mad, but there is something in the madness of this man which
interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron and Walter Scott."
of the scenes in Blake’s art show landscapes as we know
it. All his backgrounds are “eternal”, like darkness,
or stars. Blake the painter does not do shepherds in a landscape
or baby Jesus. Instead, he tackles subjects such as “the
ghost of a flea”, or a portrait of Newton.
“Ghost of a Flea” was the result of his vision of
a flea and its statement that human souls sometimes resided in
fleas, as a punishment for past lives. One friend was there when
Blake had a second vision of the flea, at which point he would
sketch him in more detail: “here he is – reach me
my things – I shall keep my eye on him. There he comes!
His eager tongue whisking out of his mouth, a cup in his hands
to hold blood and covered with scaly skin of gold and green.”
Again, for Blake, seeing such ghosts was not at all upsetting;
it was but one in a series of supernatural visitors, including,
apparently Satan – the true devil – “all else
are apocryphal”. Late in life, Crabb Robinson had a conversation
with Blake, in which he asked: “You use the same word as
Socrates used. What resemblance do you suppose is there between
your spirit and the spirit of Socrates?” Blake answered:
“The same as between our countenances. I was Socrates…
a sort of brother. I must have had conversations with him. So
I had with Jesus Christ. I have an obscure recollection of having
been with both of them.” Indeed, it was Blake himself who
said "I can look at the knot in a piece of wood until it
using Christian imagery repeatedly, Blake was a mystical prophet,
not a biblical prophet. He saw the Bible as a very long poem.
For Blake, a more genuine bible were the writings of Emmanuel
Swedenborg. Blake’s friends nevertheless said he did not
see himself as his disciple, but more like a fellow visionary.
But Blake had to – and did – use Christian imagery.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is one of his books, a series
of texts written in imitation of biblical books of prophecy, but
expressing Blake's own intensely personal Romantic and revolutionary
beliefs. The book describes the poet's visit to Hell, a device
adopted by Blake from Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost.
As several others of his works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
revealed the mysticism of Swedenborg.
is probably his most famous painting, in which the physicist is
cast in the role of the Great Architect of the Universe –
revealing a strong influence of Freemasonry. Foreshadowing Dali,
who would claim to be the first painter of the world of quantum
physics, Blake seems to have been the first painter of the world
of physics. But his mind was definitely quantum physical, if not
even more modern. He is centuries ahead of Rupert Sheldrake when
Blake writes that “Matter, as wise logicians say, cannot
without a form subsist, and form, say I, as well as they, must
fail if matter brings no grist.” Did he reject Newton and
the scientific approach? In life, Blake did not object to reason,
but did not submit to its authority, seeing it merely as the agent
of a partial truth. Indeed, speaking on consciousness –
which he labelled Imagination – he stated that it was not
subject to matter, echoed in one of his other famous sayings "If
the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear
to man as it is, infinite.”
what would death be like for a man who felt death did not exist?
At six o’clock in the evening on August 12, 1827, after
promising his wife that he would be with her always, Blake died.
Gilchrist reports that a female lodger in the same house, present
at his expiration, said, "I have been at the death, not of
a man, but of a blessed angel." George Richmond gives the
following account of Blake's death in a letter to Samuel Palmer:
“He died ... in a most glorious manner. He said He was going
to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed
After his death, his wife Catherine continued selling his works.
In fact, his first book, Poetical Sketches (1783) was the only
one published conventionally during his life. She said that her
husband would appear daily to her, sit for some hours with her
and advice her on how to run the business. It was no different
than Blake’s relationship had been with his dead brother,
whom, Blake stated, appeared to him often for a period of many
years after his death.
Hence, it seems, Blake was true to himself when he stated that
"The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence
itself." Blake considered memory to be an aspect of time,
and hence what Christianity labelled the “Fallen World”.
For him, “Salvation” were imaginary states, where
he could transcend time, to look upon “our ancient days
before this Earth appeared in its vegetated mortality to my mortal
having known the leading lights of his time, Blake’s fame
would be post-mortem. Still, in life, he had said that “I
should be sorry if I had an earthly fame for whatever natural
glory a man has is so much detracted from his spiritual glory.
I wish to do nothing for profit. I wish to live for art. I want
nothing whatever. I am quite happy.”
In life, Blake claimed that Milton had appeared to him several
times. Others have stated that he had gone as far as to think
that he was a reincarnation of Milton. Either way, his poem Milton
is often seen as his achievement of the state of mystical union,
his “spiritual glory”, with the remainder of his work,
Jerusalem, the illustrations for the Book of Job and Dante, as
the retention of it.
But just like Mozart left his Requiem unfinished, so did Blake
die before completing his illustrations of Dante’s Inferno
– the voyage into death. The commission for Dante's Inferno
came to Blake in 1826, but his death in 1827 meant that only a
handful of the watercolours were completed.
Blake, it would not have mattered. He had, it seems, achieved
his personal ambition in life and completed his spiritual quest.
What had he learned? “These states exist now. Man passes
on, but states remain for ever; he passes through them like a
traveller who may as well suppose that the places he has passed
through exist no more, as a Man may suppose that the states he
has passed through exist no more. Everything is eternal.”
He added: “This world of imagination is the world of eternity…
There exist in that eternal world the permanent realities of everything
which we see reflected in this vegetable glass of nature.”
Hence, Milton had died, but he still existed; so did Jesus; so
did – would – Blake. As above, so below. As before,
so after. As in life, so in death. There was only Eternity, in
a grain of sand, a knot, or a flower, his paintings, or poems,
or in Blake himself.