'In the visionary imagination of William Blake there is no birth and no death, no beginning and no end, only the perpetual pilgrimage within time towards eternity'
In his life of William Blake – poet, painter, engraver and visionary – Peter Ackroyd proves himself the definitive biographer of ‘the last great religious poet in England’. From Blake’s birth in 1757 above his father’s hosier shop in Soho to his deathbed, ‘singing of the things he saw in Heaven’, his life was an extraordinary journey towards spiritual and artistic revelation. As a young, solitary boy with a ‘flat and pugnacious face’, he walked the streets for hours on end, finding the inspiration for his future artistic vision.
Ackroyd explores the influence that both contemporary and past artists had on Blake, those he admired and those he disdained. He reveals Blake’s rigorous artistic education, including seven years as an apprentice engraver and acceptance to the prestigious Royal Academy schools. While Blake’s interest in spiritualism – first in Swedenborg and later Boehme and Paracelsus – is central to his work, Ackroyd also shows how contemporary events, from the Gordon Riots to the French Revolution, caught Blake’s imagination.
Far from being an unworldly, mystical eccentric, the Blake presented by Ackroyd was a diligent, intelligent, opinionated artisan who spent his life on a philosophical quest, embodied in his art and poetry. London, a city that Ackroyd knows as intimately as Blake himself, is integral to the story. Blake pulses with the colour, squalor and radicalism of the capital and reveals its influence on Blake’s art: every time he walked from his home in Lambeth into the City, he passed the burnt-out shell of Albion Mills, the embodiment of Jerusalem’s ‘dark satanic mills’. Luminous and lyrical, this is a truly fitting biography for one of the most intriguing creative figures in history.