Today’s piece is another one that takes an historical figure and imagines what may have inspired his work. William Blake was a visionary artist, a poet and a radical thinker – if you want to have a look at some of his artwork, click here: https://www.google.com/search?q=william+blake+paintings&sxsrf=ALeKk02G0ZmV1QBZVHr8W4GXdilRfmKC7g:1592900331410&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiY8amTwJfqAhVaUhUIHcuHBE8Q_AUoAXoECCIQAw&biw=1366&bih=625
He saw angels dancing.
Will must have been around eight or ten when he first saw the angels. He and some other boys had been playing on the common when he looked up to see a tree filled with glorious, radiant creatures, their bright, angelic wings bespangling every branch like stars. For a moment, he could not move, captivated by the shining beauty he saw before him. Seconds later, the vision disappeared, but Will held the memory, hugging it tight as he fell asleep that night and carrying it around with him for months afterwards.
The next time he saw them, he was in his chamber, busily working on a sketch for his mother. He had already tried several times – albeit unsuccessfully – to capture the sense of awe he had felt at that first meeting; but the seraphim that flowed from his pencil looked clumsy and awkward on paper – almost, he thought, as if it did not want to be recorded for human eyes.
It was as he was thinking thus that his eye caught sight of a hazy shape in the corner of the room. Without turning his head to look at it properly, he knew it was the angel he had been attempting to draw from memory. Keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the paper in front of him, he said slowly, “I know you’re there – and you’re real. Will you stay for long enough to let me copy your likeness?”
He said afterwards that the angel hadn’t uttered audible words yet it had spoken to him as plainly as his mother when she told him to blow out his candle or his father when he talked to him about books. He somehow knew instinctively that this time the being would not vanish as abruptly as before, and so he began turning his head little by little until he was staring at a creature made from fire and stars and sunlight all at the same time.
“Write this down,” said the angel, and its voice was the sound of many waters and its eyes burned into his very soul: “The angels of the Lord shall walk this earth again and great and terrible will be the suffering of those who choose not to believe.”
But Will was too busy trying to sketch the flowing robes and mighty wings to pay much attention to the actual words being said, and so, with a sigh, the angel shimmered out of existence – or at least out of the plane of existence as we know it.
Will’s mother was quite taken with the angel pictures he presented to her over the next few years. By now, he had been enrolled in drawing classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand. He was still an avid reader, and many of his sketches reflected his love of the Psalms, in particular, the ones that described the Lord of Hosts seated in a chariot made of thunderclouds or hurling bolts of lightning across the sky. For Will, Norse mythology and Christianity seemed to combine and his paintings were mysterious and vibrant, depicting fearsome battles between angels and demons, light and dark, fire and ice.
He did not tell anyone about the vivid dreams he had in which the angel that he had seen in his room visited him again, night after night, telling him that he was to use his eyes and ears and write down the evils he saw.
He was fourteen when he became apprenticed to an engraver, leaving his family and going to live on Great Queen Street where James Basire ran his business. Often, whilst running errands for his master, Will would find his gaze being drawn towards the injustices he saw. The angel’s words echoed in his mind: “And thou shalt use thine eyes and thine ears and shalt make a record of the evil that men do.”
There was plenty to note down. For the first time in his life, he became aware of the plight of the poor as day after day he noticed the marks of weakness and woe written on men’s faces, and his heart railed against the Church that turned away beggars and refused to help those who were most in need. What was it our Lord had said to the Pharisees? He had compared them to whited sepulchures full of rotting bones and that now seemed an apt way to describe the hypocrisy of established religion. At night, he drew the suffering he saw; but his heart was set on capturing it all in a series of engravings that would show the Almighty’s displeasure with the vipers who professed to be His representatives on earth.
Gradually, he began to detect the true face of humanity. It was as if he were seeing with the angel’s eyes and not his own – had that heavenly messenger been sent not merely to open Will’s eyes and ears but to give him a voice as well? Fragments of judgement danced in his brain: King and Church alike must be held to account for the suffering they had imposed on their fellow men and it was up to him, William Blake, to sever the mind-forged manacles the people wore.
He was twenty-one by the time he left Basire. He was now a fully qualified engraver and he longed to use his talent to fulfil the angel’s directive. He would produce a pamphlet full of the scenes that had so touched his heart. Others needed to know how tiny children as young as three were apprenticed to chimney sweeps and often died before reaching their tenth birthdays: their faces might be blackened with soot, but their souls shone far whiter than those of the priests who refused to intercede for them. There were so many innocents suffering needlessly, but he would record their misery and the songs of woe that surrounded them.
By now, he was a student at the Royal Academy and, to his delight, he found that he had kindred spirits there: others who felt as strongly as he did that some kind of social reform was needed. This conviction was further strengthened when he was caught up in a mob whilst en route to his old master’s shop in Great Queen Street and found that he was part of a crowd storming Newgate Prison. He could have sworn he saw the angelic host at the front of the crowd, waving flaming swords and encouraging the angry men to set the captives free.
It was now that his friends cautioned temperance. Will had already attained a reputation at the Academy due to his strange paintings. It was not just the style – figures painted in bold brush strokes with muscles and sinews standing out in stark relief as if to call attention to the physical power they contained: it was the subject matter itself. Where his contemporaries painted scenes that were easily recognisable from life, Will’s canvases were full of supernatural beings, and judgement and terror dripped from every tableau. He protested that he merely painted what he saw, but Joshua Reynolds and the other tutors were not impressed. Will was not concerned with Reynold’s disapprobation: the painter might be the president of the Academy, but Michaelangelo’s work was far more interesting to a young man who saw angels.
Leaving aside his controversial paintings for the time being, Will found himself becoming more engaged with politics. Through the meetings of The Society for Constitutional Reformation, he was able to voice many of the views he had hitherto been forced to keep secret; he eventually grew bold enough to start expressing these ideas in other social settings where they attracted the interest of a young woman, the sister of his friend George Cumberland. Will began to court the raven-haired beauty, thinking that she would make a good wife for him; however, she found his talk of angels disturbing and when he proposed marriage some months later, she refused.
Dejected and despondent, Will struggled to see his angel for a while. What good was it to paint hidden mysteries when the simple pleasures of life were denied him? He became morose, often sitting and staring into space for hours at a time without producing anything on his canvas.
It was as he was leaving the Academy one day that he quite literally bumped into a stranger walking down the street. Catching sight of some engravings tucked under Will’s arm, the unknown gentleman asked if he was an artist. Upon hearing that he was, Mr Boucher introduced himself and asked Will to dine with himself and his family that evening. Will would have refused were it not for the angel standing behind Mr Boucher, nodding his head approvingly.
That evening, Will found himself pouring out his heart to the Bouchers and their daughter Catherine, recounting the story of his lost love. “Do you pity me?” he asked, addressing the remark directly to Catherine. The girl blushed. At nineteen, she was five years younger than Will; and whereas Mary Cumberland had been his intellectual equal, being well-versed in the satire of the day, Catherine was illiterate. Nevertheless, there was something about her warm, green eyes and soft curves that attracted him – “Freya in human form,” he thought distractedly – and from that moment on, he began to woo her in earnest.
If Mary had driven his angel away, Catherine welcomed him with open arms. “Is he here now?” she would ask as they strolled hand in hand through the London streets and, “What is he telling you to observe?”
The two were married later that year and Will immediately set about teaching his wife to read and write. Putting aside his ‘Songs of Innocence’ until a later time, he began to write poetry that was more traditional in nature, inspired by the Elizabethan poets he so admired. Once he had enough for a slim volume, he printed enough copies of ‘Poetical Sketches’ for his friends and other interested parties. If he could make a name for himself as a poet now, the public might be more likely to take an interest in his political ‘Songs’ once they were finished. The poems were riddled with mistakes which Will hastened to correct with handwritten notes and did not achieve the admiration he had hoped for. Was this a reflection of his human pride, he wondered, in writing from his own heart and not penning the words the angel was giving him?
It was then that he decided he must return to his mission. He began walking the streets again, this time noting everything the angel showed him. He would write two pamphlets, he decided: ‘Songs of Innocence’ would show the world as most people saw it, and ‘Songs of Experience’ would reveal the shocking truth of man’s selfish existence, chronicling the evils that were rife in London. At Catherine’s suggestion, he illustrated each poem with one of his experimental inverse engravings. Art and literature would combine for the glory of God!
Throughout the years that followed, Will was faithful to the angel’s prompting, teaching Catherine to engrave so she could help him in his work. He returned to his painting, producing wild and wonderful canvases depicting man’s foolish pride and God’s immense glory. When people asked him what inspired his imagination, he replied simply that he painted what he saw. And in his mind, there were always angels dancing.