William Blake was a Londoner. Born in Soho in 1757, he died off the Strand nearly seventy years later. Except for three years by the Sussex seaside, Blake spent his entire life in the capital. Though he loathed its misery and darkness, it was only in London, he wrote, that he could 'carry on his visionary studies...see visions, dream dreams.'
London famously appears in the Songs of Experience as the scene of exploitation and social injustice. The city, centre of government and Britain’s war economy, also plays a key part in the Prophetic Books, particularly Jerusalem. Follow a path through Blake's life and work with the places below.
1. 28 Broad Street
On November 28th, 1757 Blake was born at 28 Broad Street, Soho. No. 28 was a terrace house on the ground floor of which Blake’s father had a successful hosiery shop. Soho then lay on the extreme northern edge of London with nothing but fields and market gardens beyond, so the young Blake was able to roam freely in the countryside.
Blake remained at 28 Broad Street until 1782, when he moved out to Green Street to set up house with his new wife. Gilchrist, Blake’s first biographer, claims that his father, enraged at his marrying an uneducated woman, actually drove him out of the house.
On Blake senior’s death in 1784, the eldest son, James, took over the hosiery business at No.28, and the first floor of his hosiery shop was the incongruous site of Blake’s May 1809 exhibition of sixteen works, including the Canterbury Pilgrims. The exhibition was not a success.
28 Broad Street no longer survives. The street has been renamed Broadwick Street, and on the site there now rises a block of high rise apartments, William Blake House. Old houses that survive on Broadwick Street, however, give a good idea of what Blake’s house looked like.
2. St. James's Church
Blake was christened in this Wren church on December 11, 1757. By rights, however, the ceremony should have taken place in the Blakes’ own parish church of St. Anne’s Soho (Wardour Street), since St. James’s was in fact in the next-door parish of Westminster.
Given Blake’s scorn for Newton, it is an irony that this church is diagonally opposite the philosopher’s London residence in Jermyn Street.
3. Mr Par’s Drawing School in the Strand
In 1767, at the age of ten, Blake was sent to Mr. Pars’ drawing school, where he stayed for four years copying plaster-casts. Pars’ drawing school was located on the North Side of the Strand in Castle Court.
The address no longer exists as the court was demolished in Regency times. The school stood on what is now the site of Agar Street and King William Street.
4. 31 Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn
Blake’s father was not able to afford to send him to be instructed by a great painter, so in 1771, at the age of fourteen, Blake was apprenticed to the engraver, James Basire of Queen Street. Engraving – which was then a booming trade – seemed to offer a better chance of earning a steady living than did painting.
Basire had executed engravings of the works of Reynolds, Hogarth and West. Gilchrist describes his abilities as ‘stolid but not fascinating’. More significantly Basire was official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries, and by sending Blake out to Westminster Abbey and other old churches to sketch tombs and monuments, awoke in him both a passionate love of the Gothic and an equally passionate disdain for contemporary fashions. Blake remained with Basire for seven years.
The original building was unfortunately demolished in the late nineteenth century, but the next-door houses (of brick rather than stone) give an idea of its original appearance.
5. Westminster Abbey
Between 1761 and 1768 Blake was working as an apprentice to the engraver, James Basire. Basire was official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries. In consequence, Blake was sent out to old churches to draw ancient tombs and monuments. Chief among these old churches was Westminster Abbey, where the Kings and Queens of England are buried. Blake, in his enthusiasm, is said to have clambered on to the tombs in order to draw them better, to have participated in the opening of King Edward I’s tomb, and to have sketched portraits of kings that had been long hidden behind tapestries.
Working in Westminster Abbey made Blake into a passionate admirer of the then neglected gothic, and it contributed to his indifference to the standards of fashionable art of his time. It inspired him to produce his early history paintings (such as The Penance of Jane Shore), and also led him to create a unique philosophy in which religion, history and politics were blended.
There is a monument to William Blake in Poet’s Corner in the Abbey. This was erected in 1957, and Blake is in fact buried in the dissenters’ graveyard, Bunhill Fields.
6. Royal Society of Arts
The Royal Society of Arts in the Adelphi features a series of murals entitled The Progress of Human Knowledge and Culture. These were painted between 1777 and 1784 by James Barry. Barry received no recompense for his work, though the Society did provide him with canvas, paints and models.
Blake admired Barry’s grand, heroic canvases, which depicted historical or poetic subjects. Indeed there are clear similarities between Barry’s King Lear (in King Lear Weeping Over the Dead Body of Cordelia in Tate Britain), and Blake’s numerous bearded prophets and deities (Urizen, London, The Ancient of Days).
Barry was Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy while Blake was studying there. He was, however, expelled in 1799 for his attacks on other members (particularly the memory of Reynolds, whom Blake also loathed) and went on to die in poverty in 1806.
Blake felt great kinship with Barry, an outsider, who, like him, stubbornly refused to truckle to the fashions of the time and was consequently ostracized for refusing to be ‘passive and polite and a virtuous ass’.
7. Royal Academy
The Royal Academy had been founded in December 1768 with Sir Joshua Reynolds, the celebrated portraitist, as its first president. The Academy was originally located in Old Somerset House, but moved to New Somerset House in 1780. (It is now located in Burlington House on Picadilly)
Blake was admitted to the Academy in August 1779. He followed the usual courses, but also worked as a commercial engraver while studying. Of his teachers he revered James Barry, the history painter, but his radically different tastes pitted him against Reynolds and Moser. Blake exhibited his work at the Academy on several occasions, 1808 being the last.
In the 1790s there may have been a movement to make Blake a member of the Royal Academy. Despite the support of successful artists like West and Cosway, the ‘eccentricity’ and ‘extravagance’ of his designs, and a snobbish prejudice against the humble birth of his wife, probably scuppered his chances. In the 1820s Blake was granted twenty-five pounds by the Academy on the grounds that he was ‘laboring under great distress’.
8. Green Street, Leicester Square
After his marriage in 1782, Blake moved out of the parental home in Broad Street to lodgings in Green Street, off the South-East corner of Leicester Square. Gilchrist reports that Blake’s father, angered by his son’s humble marriage, had in fact expelled him from the house.
In the late eighteenth century Leicester Square was a fashionable residence for artists, and both Hogarth and Sir Joshua Reynolds had lived there. Blake and his wife, Catherine, resided here for just two years before returning to Broad Street when Blake’s father died in the summer of 1784. Green Street no longer exists, and this picture shows nothing more than the approximate former site of Blake’s residence.
9. 27 Broad Street
On Blake senior’s death in 1784, the eldest son James took over the hosiery business at No. 28 Broad Street, while William moved back to No. 27 next door. Here he set up as a print seller in partnership with James Parker, an expert in mezzotint. Both families lived together above the shop. Despite a boom in print-making and print-selling, this venture lasted only three years before Blake dissolved the partnership and moved around the corner to Poland Street.
27 Broad Street no longer survives. The street has been renamed Broadwick Street, and on the site there now rises a block of high rise apartments, William Blake House. Old houses that survive on Broadwick Street, however, still give a good idea of what No. 27 looked like.
10. 28 Poland Street
After Blake dissolved his partnership as a print seller with James Parker he moved to No. 28 Poland Street. It was, according to his biographer Peter Ackroyd, ‘a narrow house of four storeys and a basement, with a single front and back room on each floor’. Blake lived here until 1791, when he moved to Lambeth.
It was at 28 Poland Street that William Blake invented his revolutionary print making technique allowing him to combine text with image and create the works for which he is best known. The house was rebuilt in the late nineteenth century.
11. 13 Hercules Buildings
Blake lived in No. 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth for the most productive years of his life, from 1791 until 1800. It was in this house that he produced the Songs of Experience, Europe and America (among other prophetic books), and the series of twelve watercolours that includes Newton and Nebuchadnezzar.
The house, which was demolished in 1918, was one of the largest in a row of twenty-four, with a garden at front and back. It stood three storeys high and had eight or ten rooms. Blake worked in the front and back rooms on the first floor.
Lambeth was a pleasant rural area when Blake arrived, but with legislation driving some of the more obnoxious industries across the river, it quickly began to change into a noisome, disease-infested slum, the London described in Blake’s eponymous poem.
12. 17 South Moulton Street
Between 1800 and 1803 Blake had lived on the Sussex seaside at the village of Felpham. Eventually tiring of Hayley, his officious patron, and frightened by his impending trial for sedition, Blake returned eagerly to this house in his hometown of London. The location – close to Tyburn (now Marble Arch) where public hangings took place – was significant to Blake who makes reference to ‘Tyburn’s tree’ and ‘Tyburn’s brook’ in his prophetic book Jerusalem.
Sadly Blake’s optimism about his return to London was unjustified. Before setting out from Felpham he had written ‘My heart is full of futurity…I rejoice and tremble’, but in the years he lived in South Molton Street he was to suffer his bitterest disappointments. Fame and financial success continued to elude him, and he sank into poverty and paranoia.
13. Fountain Court
Blake lived in two rooms on the first floor of No. 3 Fountain Court, a red brick house, from 1821 until his death in 1827.
He was very poor, and frankly admitted that ‘he lived in a hole’. He consoled himself, however, with the thought that ‘God had a beautiful mansion for him elsewhere’. It was here that Blake produced his Illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy and his Illustrations to The Book of Job.
Fountain Court no longer exists, but was just situated behind the Coal Hole Tavern on the Strand which still stands, albeit rebuilt. From the steps behind the Tavern you can enjoy a similar view of the Thames– looking like ‘a bar of gold’ – to that which Blake enjoyed.
14. St Mary’s Battersea
Blake was married to Catherine Boucher in St Mary’s Church in South London church on 17 August, 1782. Catherine, whose family lived nearby, was twenty-one at the time, Blake twenty-five. They remained married for forty-five years until Blake’s death, Catherine ‘uncomplainingly and helpfully sharing the low and rugged fortunes which over-originality insured as his unvarying lot’.
Despite having almost no education (Catherine merely made her mark, an X, in the parish register) she was much more than a prudent housekeeper for Blake, even helping him out with his engravings. Blake acknowledged this on his deathbed, crying out to her ‘Stay! Keep as you are! You have ever been an angel to me’, before drawing her portrait for the last time. Catherine outlived her husband by a number of years, dying in 1831. She was buried in Bunhill Fields.
14. Bunhill Fields
Blake died on August 12, 1827, and was buried here in the Dissenters’ Graveyard at Bunhill Fields on Friday August 17. Blake’s father and beloved brother Robert had also been buried there, as had the writers John Bunyan and Daniel Defoe.
Blake was buried in an unmarked grave, as his first biographer Alexander Gilchrist commented: 'to a neglected life there followed a nameless and dishonoured grave’. Gilchrist goes on to describe the graveyard as ‘a sordid Golgotha…a squalid Hades…bare of art, beauty, or symbol of human feeling.'
A small monument now stands at the approximate site where Blake was buried.
16. Paolozzi's Newton, British Library
Set in front of the British Library on the Euston Road, this statue is modeled on Blake’s Newton, from the series of twelve large watercolours produced by Blake in Lambeth in the mid–1790s.
To the eighteenth century Newton represented the triumph of rational thought, the bringing of order to the Universe. But Blake could not forgive Newton the omission of a spiritual dimension from his theories. In a poem contained in a letter addressed to his patron Thomas Butts, Blake famously concluded:
May God us keep
From single vision and Newton’s sleep.
17. Tate Britain
On display in the Blake gallery on the first floor of the Clore Wing is a selection of William Blake’s works from Tate’s collection. The display provides an overview of Blake’s work and includes paintings, drawings and prints reflecting a range of his interests, ideas and beliefs. Unlock some of the main themes found in Blake’s work. This gallery is part of a new hang of artworks at Tate Britain and will be dedicated to showing a changing display of the artist’s work.
The floor of octagonal Gallery II on the ground floor is a mosaic tribute to Blake completed in 1923. The mosaics were created by Russian artist Boris Anrep and are based on Blake’s Proverbs from his Marriage of Heaven and Hell.