William Blake ‘The Painter Poet’

taking the tuileries palace painting by jacques bertaux, french revolution 1789

WILLIAM BLAKE (1757-1827)

One of the most distinctive of all English artists, William Blake was a brilliant poet as well as a great painter. A fiercely independent man, he started his career as a commercial engraver, but in his thirties began illustrating his own poems. He soon created a completely personal style and an original technique that perfectly expressed the full intensity of his visionary experiences.

Blake is now recognized as one of the giants of the Romantic period, but in his lifetime his genius was appreciated by only a small circle of admirers. He had few patrons and much of his life was spent in poverty. But lack of material success was of little consequence to Blake - he was completely dedicated to his work and lived in the world of the imagination and the spirit, rather than the world of the flesh.

william blake portrait


The Visionary Engraver

Blake spent most of his life working as an engraver in London. He was always poor, but derived strength from a happy marriage, deep political convictions, and an exceptionally rich spiritual existence.

William Blake was born on 28 November 1757 at 28 Broad Street, off Golden Square in London. He was the second child of a fairly prosperous hosier, and the family occupied a spacious old house in a district made up of private houses and respectable shops. Blake's father positively encouraged his son's artistic leanings. He bought him a few plaster casts, gave him pocket money to buy his own prints, and sent him, at the age of ten, to Henry Pars' drawing school in the Strand, then the best and most fashionable preparatory school for young artists. Here he learned to draw by copying plaster casts of classical statues.

When the time came for Blake to be apprenticed, his father was unable to afford the cost of his entrance to a painter's studio, and anyway, he wanted his son to have the security of a craft. And so, for a premium of 50 guineas, he arranged for Blake to join the workshop of James Basire, master-engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

picture of westminster abbey

Westminster Abbey:
During his seven-year apprenticeship to the engraver James Basire, Blake often made drawings in Westminster Abbey. According to his earliest biographer, this 'kindled a fervent love of the Gothic which lasted throughout his life.

william blake portrait by his wife

Blake by his wife:
Catherine Blake made this pencil drawing of her husband shortly before his death. It shows Blake as she remembered him 'in his fiery youth'.


Blake worked under Basire for seven years, becoming himself a master of all the techniques of engraving, etching, stippling, and copying. He helped Basire with his engravings for books, among them Jacob Bryant's famous New System of Mythology, which introduced him to the world of ancient religions and legends. Another profound influence was the study he made, at Basire's suggestion, of Gothic architecture and sculpture in Westminster Abbey and other old churches in London. Blake's lifelong love of Gothic art dates from these visits to the Abbey.

After his seven-year apprenticeship, Blake set out to earn his living as an engraver. He continued to live in his father's house and worked on commissions for such publications as the Ladies' Magazine. He enrolled as a student at the newly founded Royal Academy, but could not tolerate the life drawing he was required to do there. According to him, 'copying nature' deadened the vigor of his imagination.

In 1782, at the age of 25, Blake married. His wife, Catherine Boucher, was the illiterate daughter of a Battersea market gardener, and this choice of partner did not please his father. The couple moved to a house in nearby Green Street, but two years later Blake's father died and William and Catherine returned to Broad Street, living at No. 27, next door to his old home. They were joined by Blake's younger brother, Robert, who became a pupil as well as a member of the household.

For two and a half happy, though not financially successful years, this much-loved brother was Blake's professional and intellectual companion. Then, tragically, Robert fell ill and died, leaving Blake broken-hearted. He nursed him so selflessly that he is said to have gone without sleep for a fortnight. At the moment of his death, Blake claimed he had seen the released spirit ascend heavenward, clapping its hands for joy.' He continued to communicate with his brother's spirit throughout the rest of his life, deriving much comfort from their conversations, Blake also communicated freely with angels and other Biblical figures.

william blake painting of the abbey monuments

The Abbey monuments:
This colored drawing is one of a series Blake made in 1775; they were used as the basis for engraving illustraring the Abbey's monuments, published in 1780.

a picture of landoner, soho william blake house

A Londoner, born and bred:
Blake was born in this spacious Cornerhouse in Soho, where he lived until he was 25. Two years later he set up a small print-selling shop next door to his old home.

After Robert's death, Blake moved to a house in Poland Street, Soho, where he struggled to fulfill the few commissions that came his way. He was too unworldly in his commercial dealings and too proud in his relations with clients to make himself rich. In his politics, he was then extremely radical and took to wearing a red bonnet when the French Revolution broke out. As both a man and an artist, he was a visionary whose imaginative world was far more splendid and inspiring than anything he discovered in the real world. Above all, he was a deeply religious man, for whom everything possessed its own spiritual essence and life.

In 1788 Blake made his first experiments with 'illuminated printing', which is combining words and images together on a single copper plate. For some time he was unable to hit on a technique that was both cheap and suitable, and it worried him badly. Then, one day his dead brother appeared to him in a vision and gave him explicit directions, which he promptly put into action. They proved to be perfect for his needs. Using this method, he printed copies of Songs of Innocence the following year and taught Mrs Blake how to bind them.

In 1794 he wrote and illustrated his Songs of Experience, which betray a much bleaker and more pessimistic outlook. It is believed that he never issued them separately, but always combined them with Songs of Innocence in order to show the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul,' as he put it on the title page. Helped by his wife, he continued to make and colour sets of the prints as they were commissioned by his customers until the time of his death.

taking the tuileries palace painting by jacques bertaux, french revolution 1789

The French Revolution, 1789:
As a young man, Blake welcomed the French Revolution, and even wrote a poem celebrating it. He maintained his hatred of the monarchy throughout his life.

Blake's Soho

Blake lived most of his life in the district of Soho, in the West End of London. Built in the 18th century, this has consistently been home for craftsmen, artists, and writers - among them Canaletto and Shelley as well as Karl Marx and the critic William Hazlitt.

Today Soho is best-known as a red-light district and the centre of London's Chinatown, but in Blake's time, it was a typical urban mixture of grand houses - in the squares - and terraces for artisans' families. There was also a workhouse in the district.

Soho Square :
In Blake's day, Soho Square was an elegant residential area not far from open fields. Blake lived nearby, first in the family home on Broad Street (now Broadwick Street), then with his wife on Green Street, and later on Poland Street.

picture of soho square, broadwick street


Sometime after the death of his mother in 1790, the Blakes had left Poland Street and moved to 13 Hercules Buildings in Lambeth. This was evidently a pretty terrace house with a strip of garden behind, in which Blake allowed a wandering vine to grow unpruned and form a little arbour. Here, according to legend, a friend once discovered Mr and Mrs Blake wearing nothing but helmets and reading aloud from Paradise Lost. In any case, the seven years they spent in Lambeth were happy and productive. It was in this house, in 1795, that Blake designed the magnificent series of colour prints, including God Judging Adam, which are generally thought to mark the high water of his genius as a print-maker.

By and large, Blake was not lucky in his patrons, but there was one man who never failed him - Thomas Butts, a civil servant and art collector. Blake referred to him as 'my employer', but in fact he seems to have left Blake free to follow his creative impulse. He simply placed a standing order, as it were, asking for 50 small pictures at a guinea each. Blake was able to confide in Butts and was a frequent visitor to his house, which by the end of Blake's life overflowed with his pictures.

William Hayley, a country gentleman, and minor poet were another of Blake's patrons. He commissioned Blake to engrave plates for his proposed life of the poet William Cowper and invited the Blakes to move to Felpham in Sussex to be near his own residence. In 1800 Blake left London for the first time to begin what he later called his 'three years' slumber on the banks of the ocean'. At first, Blake thought his new cottage a little paradise, and both he and Catherine loved to go for walks, exploring the countryside.

picture of william blake home in felpham sussex

A country interlude:
Blake and his wife moved to this idyllic cottage in Felpham, Sussex in 1800. They rented it for three years at £20 per annum, until a fracas with a uniformed soldier sent them hurrying back to London.

william blake painting of the ghost of a flea

Visionary powers:
Blake claimed that he was frequently visited by spirits and angels. The Ghost of a Flea (c.1819) is a blood-curdling record of one of his most bizarre visionary experiences. According to his friend John Varley, this extraordinary monster visited Blake twice.

view of the strand painting by caleb robert stanley

The Strand:
Fountain Court was just off the Strand - an area Blake knew from his drawing school days.


Blake was overwhelmed by the beauty of nature, but he did not take up landscape painting, nor did he ever see nature in anything other than visionary terms. 'Everything is human! Mighty! Sublime! he wrote. During this period he not only communed with his daughters of inspiration', who descended from the tops of trees to talk with him, but he also discovered that the vegetable world was inhabited by fairies. 'Did you ever see a fairy's funeral, madam?' he asked an astounded lady at a party and proceeded to describe one he had witnessed the previous night.

Meanwhile, his relationship with Hayley was not proving easy. He worked loyally at the jobs he was given but found them imaginatively unrewarding. By 1802 he was getting restive and would probably have fallen out with Hayley if events had not intervened. In the summer of 1803, Blake had a fight with a soldier who had been sent to cut the grass in his garden. Blake, who was opposed to the war against France, was reported as saying, 'Damn the King, and damn all his soldiers, they are all slaves.' He was tried for assault and sedition. Hayley managed to get him acquitted, but Blake had to leave Felpham.

He was now 45. On his return to London, he chose to live in South Molton Street, but could only afford to rent one floor of a house. Here he lived for the next 17 years, mostly in poverty. He brought back from Felpham his long poem, Milton, which he claimed had been dictated to him by his angels, with some assistance from Milton himself. He set about etching plates for this book and also began work on his engravings for Jerusalem, a book which he continued to enlarge until as late as 1820. In the end, he illuminated only one copy.

For the next ten years, Blake's life is difficult to trace. He lived in obscurity, continuing to write - and paint, but selling very little except his watercolors to Butts. However, in the summer of 1818, his life was radically changed by meeting John Linnell, a young portrait and landscape painter, who began to pay him regular sums of money in exchange for a large part of his output. Linnell also introduced him to a group of young admirers, including Samuel Palmer, the painter who came closest to inheriting Blake's visionary inspiration, and John Varley, a landscape painter who was fascinated by astrology and readily swallowed Blake's accounts of his visionary experiences.

william blake painting of the spirits of fountain court

The Spirits of Fountain Court:
From 1821 until his death in August 1827, Blake lived at No.3 Fountain Court. This atmospheric picture shows the sparse furnishings of his bedroom - and, hovering over the bed, Blake's spirit visitors.

The Patron's Reward

In 1809 Blake held an exhibition at his brother's shop in Soho, showing his new painting, the Canterbury Pilgrims, together with 15 other pictures. Subscribers were invited to order engravings, but not one order was taken. His ever-faithful patron Thomas Butts bought the Canterbury Pilgrims - one of Blake's masterpieces - for just £10.

portrait of thomas butts

The loyal patron:
The minor civil servant Thomas Butts filled his house with Blake's pictures.

william blake painting of canterbury pilgrims

Canterbury Pilgrims :
Blake's painting shows a scene from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. The procession presents a picture of 'universal human life'.

picture of william blake grave

The final resting place:
Blake died in poverty, aged 69, and was buried in an unmarked grave in Bunhill Fields. Not until 100 years later was this tombstone erected in his memory.


In 1821 the Blakes moved to no. 3 Fountain Court, off the Strand, a house owned by his brother-in-law. Although they still lived in very poor circumstances, he seems to have been much happier here. He continued to be an object of veneration to his younger friends. Samuel Palmer went so far as to kiss the threshold whenever he called. And Linnell commissioned Blake, at the age of 65, to make 22 magnificent engravings illustrating The Book of Job, paying him £5 per plate.

Linnell also proposed the second masterpiece of Blake's last years, his illustrations for Dante's Divine Comedy. He worked on these until his death, completing over 100 large designs, but engraving only seven plates.

A friend who visited him during his last days recorded that, after finishing a piece of work, 'his glance fell on his loving Kate, no longer young or beautiful, but who had lived with him in these and like humble rooms, in hourly companionship, ever ready helpfulness, and reverent sympathy, for now, 45 years. "Stay!" he cried. “Keep as you are! you have ever been an angel to me: I will draw you!" This was his last work and, sadly, it has been lost. Blake died at Fountain Court on 12 August 1827. To the last, he sang his own songs of praise and joy.


The Power of the Imagination

An engraver by trade, Blake developed original techniques to illustrate his own poems - and those of Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante - with images of strange and unusual power.

William Blake was unique in being almost as great a poet as he was a painter, and it is not absurd to say that for a while he painted his poems and wrote his pictures. From the start, he was intent on developing his own personal symbolism, both in words and pictures, but by the end of his life, his poetic world had become highly complicated and difficult to interpret. For this reason, his later poetry is not much read today. His art, however, retained a brilliant clarity and simplicity, though his mystical references are sometimes obscure.

Blake's apprenticeship to James Basire gave him the chance to study the engravings of Old Masters, most notably Michelangelo and Raphael. Their influence, spiced with a fashionable interest in the horrific, is to be seen in his earliest engravings. But it was his taste for medieval art, stimulated by his Visits to Westminster Abbey, which showed most strongly in Songs of Innocence (1789), his first truly original work, not only as a painter and poet but also as a printer.

The printing method Blake used - which he believed had been revealed to him by his dead brother - had the advantage of being cheap, although it called for an exceptional degree of skill and patience. First, he laboriously transferred the text of his poem, in reverse of course, onto a prepared copper plate. Then he added his design and marginal decorations. When these images had been 'etched' into the plate by the use of acid, he made a print, using one or sometimes two tinted inks. Finally, he added his watercolor 'illumination' to the page, with a pen or paintbrush.

This extraordinary method turned each copy of Songs of Innocence into a separate work of art, for Blake was able to vary the color range from volume to volume. Early copies have the translucent delicacy of a rainbow, while some later copies are more jewelled and glow with gold paint. In 1794, using the same technique, he added Songs of Experience and thereafter always printed the two sets of Songs as a single book. The designs for Experience are noticeably more severe and dark, matching the grimmer character of these poems.

song of innocence and song of experience pages by william blake

The art of illumination:
These 'illuminated' pages come from Blake's Songs of Innocence, published in 1789, and its sequel, Songs of Experience, which appeared in 1794. They combine words and images in a way that recalls medieval manuscripts, but Blake's intensity of vision is completely personal. He finished each copy of the book by hand, so no two copies are identical.

tittle page jerusalem by william blake

The title page of Blake's most famous poem is dated 1804, but he worked on the illustrations until about 1820.

visionary heads, canute sketch by william blake

One of a series of 'visionary heads' Blake drew in 1819-20 for the painter John Varley, who was keenly interested in astrology and the supernatural.

william blake painting of satan, sin and death

Satan, Sin, and Death (c.1807):
The power and imaginative grandeur of Milton's Paradise Lost made a strong appeal to Blake. This watercolor illustration shows the crowned Satan about to fight with Death when Sin intervenes, telling him Death is their son.

william blake painting of pity

Pity (c.1795):
This print, which Blake finished in watercolour, was inspired by a line from Shakespeare's Macbeth - 'Pity, like a naked newborn babe'.


Meanwhile, Blake had been experimenting with a new method of print-making, using thick pigments of his own invention based on carpenter's glue. He claimed that this secret had been revealed to him by Joseph, the carpenter father of Jesus. And in 1795 he composed a series of 12 large colour prints, which were not associated with any text. Their bold images, clear-cut forms and rich texture put them among his finest works.

These prints of 1795 draw their subject matter from a bewilderingly wide range of sources, including the Old and the New Testaments, Shakespeare and Milton. Nevertheless, Blake evidently conceived the series as a whole. The clue to their precise meaning still lies buried in his writings, though it is generally thought that each print represents a stage in the Fall of Man, as Blake saw it. Thus, Newton shows man as a slave to pure reason, unenlightened b a state of mind hated by Blake.


All his life Blake fought against whether it took a political, form. What he valued above all and its power to liberate the human spirit from its earthly confinement. Throughout his work, humanity under many different guises struggles to escape from the tyranny of Urizen, who is always depicted as a ferocious, bearded old man, a symbol of both the authoritarian father and God, the unfeeling creator of systems and laws. Opposed to him is Jesus, the Imagination', otherwise called 'the God within', who reigns in every human soul.

Blake set himself the impossible task of creating a visual symbolism with which to express his spiritual visions, which owed nothing to ordinary existence. It is perhaps for this reason that some of the finest work he did towards the end of his life was inspired by visions other than his own - especially those of the Bible writers and of Dante. His engravings for The Book of Job amount to a new interpretation of Job's character: he created some unforgettable images for this series, especially the fearsome Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils. And, as the critic John Ruskin noted, Blake was able to surpass even Rembrandt in rendering the effects of glaring, flickering light.

william blake last painting of mr. cumberland

Blake's last design:
The final engraving Blake completed, in 1827, was a visiting card for his friend George Cumberland. Although tiny (only three inches long) it is full of vitality.

satan smiting job with sore boils painting william blake
satan smiting job with sore boils painting william blake

Satan Smiting Job with Sore Boils (c.1826):
Blake simplifies the forms of the human body and creates bold contrasts between different shapes and textures. The detail shows mounds of thick, twisted hair set against Job's sinewy flesh. Blake often returned to the same theme, and this is the final and most powerful version of a subject he had treated twice before.

Blake's last years were occupied by his illustrations of Dante's Divine Comedy. This series was to have been engraved too, but he died having finished only seven plates. However, he did draw over 100 large designs, some of them painted in glowing watercolors. These beautifully delicate paintings display a new sensuousness and variety of moods; they provide a fitting climax to a career of ceaseless and fiercely independent creativity.

To sum up Blake's work, one cannot do better than quote his own words: 'The imagination is not a State: it is the Human existence itself.'


The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve

In one of his finest paintings. Blake shows the murderer Cain horror from the scene of his crime while his father and mother look on in anguish. The exact scene is not described in the Bible - Genesis tells us only that God saw what Cain had done and condemned him to the life of

an outcast. Blake was struck by the story's emotional force and had made sketches and a watercolor version 20 years earlier. The final painting (1826) is on a mahogany panel covered with layers of priming, on which he has drawn in ink. This shows through the surface paintwork of delicate tempera-watercolor mixed with diluted glue.

The Story of Cain and Abel

And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the Lord.

And she again bares his brother Abel. And Abel was a keeper of sheep, but Cain was a tiller of the ground.

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother's keeper?

And he said, What hast thou has done? The voice of thy brother's blood crieth unto me from the ground.

And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother's blood from thy hand.
And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the land of Nod, on the east of Eden.
Genesis, Chapter 4

cain's deed illumination

A 14th-century manuscript: illumination emphasizes the bloodiness of Cain's deed. Like Blake, the artist chooses a spade for the murder weapon, for Cain was a tiller of the ground.

william blake painting of the body of abel found by adam and eve
the body of abel found by adam and eve painting william blake

The setting sun:
Blake applied powdered gold as well as paint to the mahogany panel. Here it suggests the fiery glow of the sun. The technique may have been suggested to Blake by medieval manuscripts.

the body of abel found by adam and eve painting william blake

Adam's anguish:
The head of Adam is drawn in much less detail than that of his murderous son, but powerfully conveys the father's numb horror and confusion.

william blake painting of the body of abel found by adam and eve watercolor version


A watercolor version:
Blake painted a watercolor in about 1805. Although the composition is almost identical to the later tempera version, the color schemes are noticeably different.


Blake's output as a painter, engraver and draughtsman was enormous. He often worked on projects over a number of years, gradually bringing them to fruition, and he frequently returned to favourite subjects. Sometimes he would color a print that he had engraved many years earlier, as with the Ancient of Days.

The Bible was Blake,s most frequent source of inspiration, and he recreated its awesome stories-God Judging Adam, Nebuchadnezzar, Cain and Abel-with an intensity few artists have matched. Just as impressive are the products of his own imagination, such as Newton and Glad day. No other artist has created such a rich personal mythology, or made spiritual beings seem so real.

As a poet, Blake was drawn to other writers who had handled lofty themes in a heroic manner. Towards the end of his life he began illustrating the work of the great Italian poet, Dante, whose Imagination matched his own in fervour.

william blake painting of the ancient of days

The Ancient of Days 1794:
Blake used this design as an illustration for his poem Europe, and it proved one of his most popular prints - he hand-colored this particular impression for a customer 30 years later. The image was inspired by a vision that he declared hovered over his head at the top of the staircase.

william blake painting of god judging adam

God Judging Adam 1795:
This print was known for many years as Elijah in the Fiery Chariot but a faint pencil inscription discovered in 1965 revealed its true subject. Blake may have adapted an earlier design on the subject of Elijah, transforming the prophet's fiery chariot into God's blazing throne.

william blake painting of newton

Newton 1795:
For Blake, Isaac Newton symbolized the dangers of rationalism. Obsessively absorbed in his diagram, Newton thinks the whole of life can be measured with dividers.

william blake painting of nebuchadnezzar

Nebuchadnezzar 1795:
This print forms a pair with Newton, symbolizing the bestial aspects of Man. In the Bible, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar 'was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen'.


Dreaming of Jerusalem

Blake's 'fiery youth' was a time of hope for believers in Utopia. Revolutions in America and France gave grounds for optimism that liberty, equality, and fraternity could exist in Britain too.

The revolutionary message of Blake's Jerusalem – one of the most famous poems in the English language - is easily missed now that it has become a church hymn, almost a patriotic anthem, with its moving evocation of 'England's green and pleasant land'. But in the 1780s, the image of Jerusalem as a city of innocence that could be reclaimed from the hell of industrial Britain's dark, satanic mills' was common currency among London's radicals.

Since the Gordon Riots of 1780, when Blake saw the mob march through the streets of Soho and the City to sack Newgate Prison, the government under William Pitt the Younger had taken stern measures to hold down discontent. But when the decade closed with the French Revolution of 1789signalled by another mob storming another prison, the Bastille in Paris - the news inspired hopes in London that justice could return to England too. In a land equally oppressed by its king and by the wealthy, swords could be beaten back to plowshares, the wolf lies down with the lamb, and all men and women enjoy the fruits of their work in harmony with their neighbors.


A well-known 'Liberty Boy' himself, Blake was involved that year with a group of radical authors and pamphleteers who met regularly in the home of Joseph Johnson, at 72 St Paul's Churchyard. Johnson was a publisher and printer who gave weekly dinners to his friends in a cramped upstairs room, and it was here that Blake met some of the most notorious activists of his era, including the revolutionary journalist Thomas Paine, the political philosopher William Godwin, and one of the earliest feminist writers, Mary Wollstonecraft.

Of the three, Paine was already by far the most influential. The son of a Norfolk tradesman who made women's corsets, he had worked as a Š customs man in Sussex - and organized a claim for e better wages - before trying his luck in America. He arrived in Philadelphia in November 1774, just before the first shots were fired in the War of Independence, and made his name a year later with a pamphlet named Common Sense, which called on Americans everywhere to rise against the British and fight for liberty. The pamphlet sold more than 150,000 copies; it was read by every rank of the new American army and brought Paine to the attention of Washington himself. In another pamphlet issued soon afterward, he even coined the name for the new republic: the United States.

Paine returned to Europe in the 1980s, preoccupied with plans for his own invention, a wide-spanned iron bridge. But he was in Paris to witness the first, relatively orderly stages of the Revolution, and left the city with the key to the Bastille, to forward to George Washington as a comradely gift. When Paine reached London, he v found the government vehemently attacking the c 'savagery of the Paris mob. In defense of their jo actions, he wrote his most famous pamphlet, The Rights of Man, which Johnson published in 1791.Here he set out his vision of a just society, with the stirring declaration that 'All men are born equal.'

Among Paine's strongest supporters was Mary Wollstonecraft, a vigorous campaigner for women's rights. They met in 1791 at Johnson's house in St Paul's Churchyard: William Godwin was also present and was dismayed when Mary talked Paine into silence, but her forceful arguments - published the following year in her Vindication of the Rights of Women - forced both men to adjust their own notions of equality. She condemned marriage, which at that time deprived women of all economic freedom, and insisted on women's right to participate in politics while calling for sex education, state schools, and better job prospects for women.

Outside radical circles, Wollstonecraft's pleas fell on deaf ears, but Paine's pamphlet shook the government. Alarmed by the success of Rights of Man, which sold thousands of copies throughout Britain and Ireland, Pitt urged Ger III to action. On 21 May 1792, a royal proclamation banned 'wicked and seditious writings' and Pitt issued a writ against Paine for blasphemous libel a charge carrying a long prison sentence.

According to one contemporary, Blake himself warned Paine to flee. Paine was at Johnson's house, delivering a rousing speech on liberty when Blake put his hands on his shoulders and said 'You must not go home, or you are a dead man.' Paine fled that night to Dover, tracked all the way by Pitt's spies, and crossed to France.

portrait of tom paine

Tom Paine:
Author of the famous treatise The Rights of Man. Tom Paine was born in England but made his name as a journalist in America. His pamphlets urging the colonists to rebel against Britain were highly successful.

washington crossing the delaware painting by emanuel leutze

Land of the free :
The American War of Independence, which broke out in 1775, was an inspiration to Europe's radicals. After eight years of bitter fighting, George Washington's citizen army won a victory against overwhelming odds. Washington himself, shown here crossing the frozen Delaware River, became the first president of the new republic.

Coalbrookdale by Night painting by Philip James de Loutherbourg

Dark satanic mills:
Blake's rousing poem, written in 1804, expresses his passionate belief that social justice could exist on earth, not just in heaven. Attacking the ugliness and misery of the Industrial Revolution, he summons up a vision of Jerusalem - a city of beauty and freedom that could be built in Britain.


That September, news reached London of a massacre of royalist prisoners and the start of the Reign of Terror. Lurid reports of a blood-soaked Paris soon dimmed the enthusiasm of numerous English radicals, including the Lake Poets, Wordsworth, and Coleridge. Blake himself, who had once worn the red revolutionary bonnet on the streets of London, put his cap away forever, Government repression made such overt shows of support extremely dangerous, especially in 1793, when England joined an alliance of foreign powers pledged to destroy the new French state.

Pitt moved swiftly to silence the radical writers and their publishers. Johnson refused to publ the second edition of The Rights of Man for fear of prosecution, and Blake laid aside his own work The French Revolution at the proof stage. William Godwin's Political Justice, published in 1793, escaped solely because of its high price - at three guineas a copy it was unlikely to inflame the poor.

Yet while the flame of protest seemed to be dying, a new generation was being born to take up the radical torch. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was born in 1792, the same year The Rights of Man appeared; as a schoolboy at Eton he was entranced by Godwin's vision of Political Justice, and in 1814 he fell in love with a precocious 16-year-old - the daughter of Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, who had reluctantly overcome her own objections to marriage, only to die giving birth to her child.

Shelley's brief life overlapped with the later years of Blake, who had retreated into political silence. The younger poet was protected by his high birth and the prospect of an inheritance; he could speak out far more safely. In 1812 he wrote his own Declaration of Rights in support of the Irish, then launched into a fierce defense of the printer Daniel Eaton, who had been sentenced to 18 months imprisonment - and a spell in the pillory each month - for publishing Paine's last great work, The Age of Reason.

storming the bastille painting

Storming the Bastille:
When the people of Paris destroyed the hated Bastille prison on 14 July 1789, radicals throughout Europe believed that freedom was at hand. But their hopes were soon dashed: horrific stories of the Reign of Terror drowned revolutionary ardor in a tide of blood.

henry orator hunt painting of The Peterloo Massacre

The struggle for Reform:
Alarmed by the French Revolution, the British government crushed all known radicals without mercy. But a campaign for parliamentary reform, led by Henry 'Orator' Hunt, won massive support - until stamped out by the brutal 'Peterloo Massacre' of 1819.

william godwin portrait
mary wollstonecraft portrait

A radical alliance:
The marriage in 1797 of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft united the leading theorist of the radical movement with one of Britain's first feminists. Mary Wollstonecraft died the same year, giving birth to their daughter – the future Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein.


Two years later, Shelley met Mary Godwin and declared his love beside her mother's grave in Old St Pancras Churchyard. Throughout his own short life, he remained true to his radical heritage, despite leaving England for good in 1818. The Peterloo Massacre of the following year stirred him to insurrectionary fury, and in The Mask of Anarchy he called on the people of England to: 'Rise like lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number, Shake your chains to earth like dew/ Which in sleep had fallen on you/ Ye are many - they are few.' Shelley died in 1822, when his ship sank in the Bay of Leghorn in Italy, five years before Blake's own death.

portrait of percy bysshe shelley

Shelley in Italy:
The Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was inspired by the writings of Godwin and Wollstonecraft and even married their daughter Mary. A fervent supporter of radical causes, he moved to Italy in 1818 but continued to attack the government. After the Peterloo Massacre, he called for a revolution in Britain in his poem The Mask of Anarchy.

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