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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
William Blake

England's most individual painter and poet. As a student at the Royal Academy he conceived a passionate hatred of authority and of the establishment, particularly as personified by *Reynolds. He studied engraving, which became his trade; but other forms of printmaking were also central to his art. In about 1788 he developed his famous method of relief etching, which enabled him to make a metal block for each page of a book, containing both his own hand-written verse and its illustration.

It was in these 'illuminated books', such as *Songs of Innocence (1789), that many of his best-known poems first appeared. When a copy was ordered, Blake and his wife, Catherine, would make up the book and colour it. Few were sold, so copies are now extremely rare and valuable. In these books he developed his very personal philosophy, contrasting the evils of materialism, conventional morality, organized religion and reason with the virtues of honest human experience, love, nature and imagination. His ideas were expressed in a blend of Christian imagery and an arcane mythology of his own invention.

His paintings, commissioned by a very few loyal patrons, were mainly of a kind which could have become engraved plates, being illustrations of scenes in the Bible or in the works of Milton, Bunyan and Dante. His flowing linear style is instantly recognizable, though owing something to the example of his friend *Fuseli. In different ways it anticipates the elegance of *Beardsley and even the zooming conventions of aerial travel in modern comics.

Nearly all Blake's paintings are in watercolour. The main exceptions are the large colour prints of about 1795, known as the Lambeth prints because Blake was then living in that part of London. These superbly rich images, each existing in two or three slightly different forms because they are monotypes (taken from a surface on which the image is repainted in oils between each impression) are considered by many the peak of Blake's art. The most complete collection of them is in the Tate Gallery.

Late in life Blake was taken up by a group of younger artists (in particular Samuel *Palmer, Edward Calvert and John Linnell) who called themselves the 'Ancients' and regarded the older man as their master. Largely forgotten both as painter and poet in the later 19C (not a single poem of his appeared in The *Golden Treasury in 1861), he is now seen as a major figure in both fields. It is a measure of the strength of his visionary imagination that *Jerusalem should have become probably the best-known and best-loved poem in the English language while being, at a literal level, almost incomprehensible.

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