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10 things to know about William Blake

William Blake portrait
Blake's portrait by Thomas Phillips, 1807

The man who wrote the words to 'Jerusalem' and inspired rockers like The Doors and Van Morrison is marking his 250th birthday. But how much do you really know about William Blake - painter, poet, mystical outsider and son of the city?

1. Apart from a brief spell in West Sussex, Blake, who was born in Soho in November 1757, lived his life in various homes in the capital, both north and south of the river. Only 17 South Molton Street, however, has survived the demolition ball.

2. A contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, his poetry is taught in schools in works such as 'The Tyger', from his Songs of Innocence and Experience, causing children over the years to complain about the rubbish rhyme of "what immortal hand or eye, could frame thy fearful symmetry".

Blake's Nebuchadnezzar, courtesy of Tate
Blake's Nebuchadnezzar, courtesy of Tate

3. Blake the artist, meanwhile, can be found on permanent display in Tate Britain, which created the first ever Blake Gallery in the 1920s.

4. Keen-eyed viewers would have registered him at number 38 in the BBC's recent public vote for the 100 Greatest Britons - unlike Wordsworth, Coleridge and fellow painters Constable and Turner, none of whom made the list.

5. Blake is loved at least in part for the poem that became the hymn 'Jerusalem' during World War I. Its indelible opening line about feet is famously matched by its "chariot of fire" and "bow of burning gold" references. At the time of its conception, however, Blake was also awaiting trial for supposedly making insulting remarks about the king and praising Napoleon to a soldier.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite...
Blake on the 'sixth sense' of imagination, from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

6. His image as a wild man of art, an outsider and dissenter, has boosted his appeal over the years, as have the facts of his birth and upbringing: the son of a hosier, who came from the wrong class to be an artist and trained instead as a humble engraver.

7. As a writer and thinker Blake espoused the value of humanity and played a crucial role in developing our understanding of the 'sixth sense' of imagination. "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite", he said in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, influencing the writer Aldous Huxley and LA rock band The Doors among others.

8. So radical were his thoughts that many considered him mad. A view not helped by Blake's claims to have seen visions from an early age of God, various angels and, on one occasion, Satan himself, in an encounter on the staircase of his South Molton Street home.

Blake's commemorative plaque
Blake's commemorative plaque in Hercules Road SE1

9. The final years of his life, until his near pennyless death in 1827, were spent behind the Savoy hotel in what was then Fountain Court, an alleyway referred to today as Savoy Buildings.

10. Superficially, London has changed a great deal since his day. But to his admirers, Blake's spirit still hovers in the streets and alleys and in the air. A guided walk regularly visits his haunts in central London, while a two-year project in Lambeth has created a series of Blake-inspired mosaics in a tunnel near the poet's former home in Hercules Road SE1.

Putting Blake back on Lambeth's streets
09 Jun 09 |  People & Places
William Blake celebrated
27 Nov 07 |  England
In pictures: William Blake
17 Dec 08 |  In Pictures
Blake's notebook goes on display
11 Jan 07 |  Entertainment


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