Hired to Depress: A Digital Scholarly Edition of William Blake's Annotations to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses

Childhood, education, and apprenticeship, 1757-1779

Blake was born on 28 November 1757 at 28 Broad Street, Soho, London, the third son of James Blake (1723?–1784), a hosier, and his wife, Catherine, née Wright (1723–1792), the widow of Thomas Armitage. Blake had four brothers, James (1753–1827), John (b. 1755, d. before 1760), Robert (1762?–1787), and John (1760–1800?), and one sister, Catherine (1764–1841). Records at St James's, Piccadilly, note the baptism of a Richard Blake in 1762, but this may be an error for Robert. Only James, who continued the family business, and Catherine played roles in Blake's adult life. The younger John was apprenticed to a baker but ran away to ‘enlist as a Soldier & died’ (Tatham in Bentley, Records, 509). 
Blake was born into the class of London shopkeepers and artisans known for its hard work in pursuit of financial security and a tendency toward independent opinions in religion and politics. His mother had been a member of the Moravian church while married to Armitage. She left that sect shortly before marrying James Blake on 15 October 1752, but their children's early education may have been shaped by Moravian concepts and customs.

Little is known about the outer circumstances of Blake's childhood, but the special character of his inner life made itself apparent at an early age. When walking on Peckham Rye, aged ‘eight or ten perhaps’, he beheld ‘a tree filled with angels’ (Gilchrist, 1.7). On another occasion ‘his mother beat him for running in & saying that he saw the Prophet Ezekiel under a Tree in the Fields’ (Tatham in Bentley, Records, 519). At about this same time, Blake showed an interest in the pictorial arts. While still a youth, he began sketching and attending auctions to acquire old and then unfashionable prints after artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Dürer. The intertwining of extrasensory perception and artistic expression continued throughout Blake's life and is integral to his concepts of mind, art, and religion.

Blake's father disapproved of his son's reports about angels in trees, but he was supportive of William's ambitions in the arts, buying for his young connoisseur casts of antique sculpture for copying with pencil or pen. When ten years old Blake began to attend a drawing school directed by Henry Pars—apparently his first contact with formal education. His character and interests indicated that Blake would become an artist; his family's finances would dictate the first step toward such a career.
At the age of fourteen it was time for Blake to begin an apprenticeship. A ‘painter of Eminence’ (Tatham in Bentley, Records, 510)—or, according to Gilchrist, the fashionable engraver William Ryland (1.13)—was first considered as a master, but the fee was too high for the family purse. The Blakes settled instead on James Basire, an old-fashioned line and stipple printmaker who practised the ‘mixed method’ of preliminary etching followed by engraving. William was apprenticed to Basire on 4 August 1772 for a bond of 50 guineas. Blake probably lived for the traditional period of seven years with his master at 31 Great Queen Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields.

Blake learned from Basire the profession he would practise throughout his life. Gaining the necessary skills involved a good deal of drudgery preparing copperplates and replicating the abstract linear patterns of Basire's graphic technique. Blake mastered his craft quickly—given the 1773 date he later inscribed on ‘Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion’, a plate based on a figure by Michelangelo. The print's competent conventionality gives no hint of Blake's later graphic innovations.

In addition to providing professional instruction, Blake's master introduced him to the intellectual life of London. Basire was engraver to the Royal Society and the Society of Antiquaries, and Blake assisted in the execution of many plates for them. He probably also worked on engravings for Jacob Bryant's A New System, or, An Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774–6), which influenced Blake's later excursions into syncretic myth-making. From these projects, and possibly from authors and publishers who visited Basire's shop, Blake learned about the natural sciences, philology, and archaeology.
Beginning in 1774, Basire sent Blake to Westminster Abbey to make drawings of its medieval monuments and wall paintings for later engraving. This assignment, which probably lasted on and off for three years, may have been prompted by a desire to separate Blake from fellow apprentices and thereby end a quarrel with them (Malkin in Bentley, Records, 422). Blake's earliest known drawings record the opening of the coffin of Edward I on 2 May 1774. Later efforts are careful copies of the effigies and tombs of monarchs; many were subsequently engraved in Basire's shop (some probably by Blake) as book illustrations. The sculpture filling the abbey ‘appeared as miracles of art, to his Gothicised imagination’ (ibid., 423) and shaped Blake's lifelong interest in early British history and medieval art.

This page has paths:

This page references: