Still image of The Ghost of a Flea by William Blake
William Blake, ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ 1795–c.1805
William Blake
Nebuchadnezzar 1795–c.1805

Sources and Inspirations

‘Man is all Imagination’

The galleries in this section present materials that reveal the many sources of Blake’s ideas about the imagination and the key figures that populate his poetry and art. Drawings, prints and paintings introduce aspects of his creative imagination at work - interpreting, selecting, and inventing - and all twelve of his Large Colour Prints are brought together to show the range of sources he used. One room is dedicated to Blake’s illustrations to Milton and his illuminated book of that name and shows the crucial importance of that seventeenth-century poet to the formation of his imagination. The final room in this section introduces some of the major characters that he invented.

A diverse range of ideas and people influenced Blake’s life. He attended sermons by the visionary Emanuel Swedenborg, whose rejection of organised religion appealed to him and annotated the Discourses of Sir Joshua Reynolds, writing disparagingly ‘This man was hired to depress art’. By far the most important force throughout his life, was his wife, Catherine Blake, who was his constant helpmate and would sit with him for hours during those nights while he was drawing and writing from the ‘immediate dictation’ of the spirits. Blake is reported to have said that when he married her in 1782 she was a ‘bright-eyed, dark-haired brunette’. She was illiterate, but he taught her to read and write and trained her to assist him as an engraver and colour his prints. Catherine’s imitation of Blake’s painting style and technique is obvious in her picture Agnes. She also made a drawing of the young Blake.

In 1795, as the illustrations in his prophetic books grew progressively larger, Blake devised a means of making large watercolour prints of them and created a pictorial cycle of twelve large prints, with no text. These represent the culmination of Blake’s technical experiments with colour-printing. They also demonstrate the breadth of his imagination, drawing their subjects from the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton and his own invention. Although no single interpretation of these images seems convincing, all are negative and allude to the fallen state of the human race.


‘A true Poet of the Devil’s Party without knowing it’

Although he is little read today, in Blake’s time John Milton (1608-74) was recognised as England’s greatest epic poet. Blake had regarded him with reverence since his youth, saying later that ‘Milton lov’d me in childhood & shew’d me his face’. He considered Milton the greatest of all the poets, greater than Dante, Shakespeare or Chaucer. As an artist, and as a republican, Blake identified closely with him. He also admired the poet’s ambition and energy, calling him ‘a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it’. This room brings together Blake’s illustrations to Milton’s writings, and his own poem Milton, to explore his very distinctive responses to the poet.

Paradise Lost, Milton’s epic reinterpretation of the Bible, was considered by many, including Blake, to be his masterpiece. Its dramatic subject matter and grandeur attracted many artists of Blake’s time, who were looking for literary sources expressive of their own ambitions. Blake himself was commissioned to produce illustrations based on Paradise Lost, and some of those created for Thomas Butts in 1808 are shown here. Typically, Blake conflates separate passages from Milton’s text, adding his own embellishments. Notably, he rejects Milton’s puritanical prudishness and revels in the depiction of the naked human body. The heroic nudity and expressive attitudes in these works shows Blake’s desire to emulate Michelangelo.

Blake’s poem Milton is an attempt to liberate and spiritually rehabilitate Milton, while at the same time exploring the potential of his own prophetic voice. Blake chooses to relive Milton’s mental battles with him, and in Book One, Milton descends from the heavens in the form of a comet and enters Blake’s left foot. This leads to a catharsis whereby Milton recognises his error in elevating reason above imagination and achieves spiritual regeneration. The poem was largely conceived as a reaction to the spiritual and intellectual mid-life crisis that Blake himself underwent in the years immediately after 1800, when he left London for the first time to live at Felpham on the Sussex coast.

Blake’s Universe

‘I must create a system or be enslav’d by another man’s’

Blake developed his own mythology for his illuminated books. He invented a cast of characters that reappear and interact with one another, their nature and relationships revealing Blake’s beliefs, hopes and fears. These characters, such as Albion, Los and Urizen, can seem obscure and present a major challenge to us in understanding Blake’s art. The idea behind any one of the characters often originates in a range of arcane sources, although their names can be revealing: for example the punning ‘Urizen’ (your reason). This section brings together Blake’s illustrations of some of the most important of these figures.

Blake’s frequent references to Britain as Albion reveal his interest in the legendary history of the island, a history he believed was worth recalling in an age when Britain ruled as a world power. For Blake, the land of Albion has at first a Garden of Eden quality. But by his time, Albion, like other countries in Europe, has fallen into a state of decay, suffering under war and the ‘terrors’ of reasoning philosophers like Newton and Locke. The end of all this desolation is marked by the appearance of the sun of Eternal Day over the hills of Albion.

Los, one of Blake’s heroes (and alter egos) who appears in various books, declares ‘I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create’. His main task in Blake’s writings is to save Albion. He is physically powerful and, as the sound of hammers at his birth foretells, Los becomes a blacksmith. The name Los is probably an inversion of ‘sol’ (meaning sun). In classical mythology, the sun god Apollo, is also the god of the arts. The name may also refer to the idea of loss, inherent in the fallen state of man.

Blake’s ‘thick-flaming, thought-creating’ Orc, is the essence of revolutionary passion and energy, the antithesis of Reason represented by Urizen. These two characters epitomise Blake’s idea of ‘contraries’ without which the world cannot progress. When Orc was fourteen, his father Los saw him embracing his mother Enitharmon and thought he was plotting his death. So he tied down Orc on a mountain. Orc rages against his enemy Urizen, who is trying to cool his creative flames with storms, and turns into a worm or serpent to escape. Orc’s chaining symbolises the suppression of creative energy and eliminates the threat that he poses to the power of Reason.