William Blake was born in London into a middle-class family on November 28, 1757. He was from earliest youth a seer of visions and a dreamer of dreams, and such he remained to the end of his days. His teeming imagination sought expression both in poetry and in drawing. At ten years old, he began engraving copies of drawings of Greek antiquities, a practice that was then preferred to real-life drawing. Four years later he became apprenticed to an engraver. At the age of 21 Blake finished his apprenticeship and set up as a professional engraver.
In 1779 he became a student at the Royal Academy, where he rebelled against what he regarded as the unfinished style of fashionable painters such as Rubens. He preferred the Classical exactness of Michelangelo and Raphael.
In 1782 Blake met John Flaxman, who was to become his patron. In the same year he married a poor illiterate girl named Catherine Boucher. Blake taught her reading and writing and even trained her as an engraver. At that time, George Cumberland, one of the founders of the National Gallery, became an admirer of Blake's work.
Blake's first collection of poems, Poetical Sketches, was published circa 1783. After his fathers death, William and brother, Robert, opened a print shop in 1784 and began working with radical publisher Joseph Johnson. At Johnson's house he met some of the leading intellectual dissidents of the time in England, including Joseph Priestley, Richard Price, John Henry Fuseli, and others.
In 1788, at the age of thirty-one, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, which was the method used to produce most of his books of poems. The process is also referred to as Illuminated printing and involved writing the text of the poems on copper plates with pens and brushes, using an acid-resistant medium. Illustrations could appear alongside words in the manner of earlier illuminated manuscripts. He then etched the plates in acid in order to dissolve away the untreated copper and leave the design standing. Each of his illuminated books was thus a unique work of art and a radical break with not only traditional book printing but the traditional means of presenting poetic and philosophical discourse.
Later in his life Blake sold a great number of works, particularly his Bible illustrations, to Thomas Butts, a patron who saw Blake more as a friend in need than an artist.
About 1800 Blake moved to a cottage at Felpham in Sussex to take up a job illustrating the works of William Hayley, a mediocre poet. It was in this cottage that Blake wrote Milton: a Poem. The preface to this book included the poem And did those feet in ancient time, which Blake decided to discard for later editions. This is ironic, because as the words to the hymn Jerusalem, this is now one of Blake's most well-known if not well-understood poems.
Slavery was abhored by Blake, who believed in racial and sexual equality, with several of his poems and paintings expressing a notion of universal humanity: "As all men are alike (tho' infinitely various)". He retained an active interest in social and political events for all his life, but was often forced to resorting to cloaking social idealism and political statements in protestant mystical allegory.
Blake rejected all forms of imposed authority, indeed was charged with assault and uttering seditious and treasonable expressions against the King in 1803, but was cleared in the Chichester assizes of the charges.
Blake returned to London in 1802 and began to write and illustrate Jerusalem (1804-1820).
At the age of sixty-five Blake began work on illustrations for the Book of Job. These works were later admired by John Ruskin, who compared Blake favourably to Rembrandt.
William Blake died in 1827 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Bunhill Fields, London. In recent years, a proper memorial was erected for him and his wife. He died while still hard at work. His last work was said to be a sketch of his wife.