Copyright © 2001 G.E. Bentley, Jr.
All rights reserved.
1720-1772: God at the Window
God ... put his head to the window
William Blake's Christian life began in grandeur and glory when he waschristened at the noble marble baptismal font in the majestic new parishchurch of St James's, Westminster.
He was born at 7:45 p.m. on Monday 28 November 1757 in the parishof St James's, one of the most prosperous, fashionable, public-spirited, anddemocratic parishes in the kingdom. When the area was developed after theRestoration of Charles II in 1660 and the Fire of London in 1667, it was laidout methodically and handsomely, with straight streets and elegant squaressuch as Berkeley Square and St James's Square and Golden Square, nearwhere the Blakes lived.
Christopher Wren designed the church to dazzle (Pl. 1). Its great vaultedhall and gallery supported by Corinthian columns could accommodate twothousand worshippers, and its massive organ-case and beautiful limewoodreredos and wonderful marble baptismal font were all carved by GrinlingGibbons. The pedestal of the font represents the Tree of Life with Eveoffering Adam the apple, and the bowl shows the Ark and the Baptism ofChrist (Pl. 2). When the church was completed and consecrated in 1684, inthe lifetime of Blake's grandparents, all that taste and money could do sanctionedthe services in St James's.
The parish and its church were magnets to aristocrats and artists, to politiciansand poets. The Earl of Chesterfield, the letter-writer and patron, waschristened there in 1694, as were William Pitt in 1708, later Prime Minister,and the children of James and Catherine Blake.
When James and Catherine Blake brought William, their third son then twoweeks old, to be christened on Sunday 11 December 1757, they were probablyaccompanied by their first son James, then a little over four years old,by their second son John, two and a half, by the child's grandfather JamesBlake from across the river in Rotherhithe, and by his mother's parents Mrand Mrs Wright, as well as by the child's god-parents. And among the ordinarySunday congregation of clergymen in surplices and wigs, gentlemenwearing lace and swords, ladies with powdered hair, combed children, andbabies in white gowns, there were friends and acquaintances and customersof the Blakes' little haberdashery shop a few minutes walk to the north. Thesix beadles may have been carrying their handsome new silver-headedstaves of office as they led in the vicar and the choir.
The solemn setting and the sonorous service were impressive: Sufferthe little children to come unto me ... for such is the kingdom of God (Pl.3). But perhaps the setting and service did not greatly impress the littleBlake family group assembled there. William Blake rarely again participatedin such august ceremonies or in such distinguished company. He was familiarwith the affairs of the church and the parish, and his father and hisbrother did extensive business with the St James parish Work House andSchool of Industry. But there is no evidence of the Blake family at servicesin St James's, Piccadilly, aside from christenings.
From the Shadows to the Light: Blake's Family
No augury of excellence, no precedent of promise illuminates the obscurityof William Blake's origins. His parents left no footprints in the sands of timeexcept when they stepped into a city guild hall to be apprenticed or intochurch to be married, when they voted and paid their taxes, christened theirchildren, and died. So inconspicuous are they that we do not even know thedates and places of their birth, the names of their mothers, or whether theyhad siblings.
The earliest information about Blake's family is that his grandfatherJames Blake, a Gentleman of Rotherhithe, was sufficiently prosperous inJuly 1737 to pay the very large sum of £60 to apprentice his son James Blaketo Francis Smith as a draper. The boy was probably born about 1723, forthe normal age of apprenticeship was fourteen.
When the younger James Blake finished his seven-year apprenticeship in1744, he moved to a substantial house at 5 Glasshouse Street, near OxfordStreet, Westminster (Pl. 7), which he took over from John Blake, perhapshis brother. The house was probably used for both a residence and a hosieryand haberdashery shop shared at first with John Blake (1743) and then withMr Butcher (1751), perhaps his cousin.
James Blake was a gentle, amiable man of easy habits & ... moderatedesires, moderate Enjoyments, & ... by his Sons description, a lenient &affectionate Father, always more ready to encourage than to chide. Hewas a devout man and a Dissenter, and, like many Dissenters, his politicalsympathies were liberal. At the 1749 election, James Blake GlasshouseSt. Hosier voted for the anti-court candidates Earl Percy and LordClinton, as did his fellow-hosier Thomas Hermitage (i.e., Armitage) of 28Broad Street, who may well have been an acquaintance.
Thomas Armitage had married Catherine Wright on 14 December 1746at St George's, Hanover Square, a casual wedding-factory much patronizedby Dissenters, and both bride and groom were probably Dissenters. Theymoved into 28 Broad Street, Golden Square, in 1748, and when Thomasmade his will on 20 July 1751 he identified himself as a Haberdasher andHosier of St James, Westminster. The Armitages had no children, andwhen Thomas died a little later in 1751 he left the rest residue and remainderof my estate, consisting chiefly of his house and business, to my saidWife Catherine Armitage. The will was proved on 27 November 1751.
The death of Thomas Armitage must have left his young widow in difficulty.Her chief property was the house and hosiery shop, and at best shehad taken only a subsidiary role in the business. She could scarcely haveknown the Company of Drapers and the masculine world of the financialCity, and she probably knew little of which merchants supplied reliablegoods or how to tell the best prices. As a woman, even as the widow of adraper, it would have been difficult for her to drive bargains and insure theperformance of her bargains in the male world of commerce.
The natural place for her to turn for assistance was to friends of her latehusband who were in the same line of business. Among these was youngJames Blake, who had his own hosiery and haberdashery shop in GlasshouseStreet, just on the other side of Golden Square. He probably started helpingher not long after her husband's death in the latter part of 1751.
Eleven months after she had proved her late husband's will, CatherineArmitage married James Blake on 15 October 1752 at St George's, HanoverSquare, in a brisk ceremony--there were fifteen weddings before noon atthe church that day. When they were married, Catherine was thirty andJames was twenty-nine, early middle age by the standards of the time.
James Blake took over the hosiery and haberdashery shop at 28 BroadStreet. There he and Catherine did a respectable Trade selling glovesand stockings; they had at least enough business to appear respectable to thewise guardians of the poor in St James Parish who repeatedly employedJames Blake to supply goods for the parish workhouse and school of industry.
The resources of the little shop must have been strained when CatherineArmitage and James Blake were married. Under the terms of her firsthusband's will, Catherine was required, if she remarried, to pay from herinheritance £20 to her late husband's brother William, £10 each to his brothersRichard and John and his sisters Elizabeth Fox and Grace Hattersley, and£20 to his nephew and namesake Thomas Armitage, the son of his brotherWilliam. Catherine and James Blake must have been persons of courage toassume this £80 debt at the beginning of their marriage.
By the time she was forty-two in 1764, Catherine Blake had borne sixchildren. This is a modest-sized family by the standards of the period; what isremarkable about the family is that only one child died in infancy. From thebirth of her first child in 1753 to the adolescence of her last about 1790,Catherine Blake's chief occupation and joy must have been the care of herchildren, comforting their infant sorrows and rejoicing in their infant joys.For twelve years she had babies in long clothes. Even with help from servantsand her husband, she must have been house-bound for much of that period.
Catherine was a tender and sympathetic mother, more inclined to overlookfaults than to punish them, especially in her charming, wayward sonJohn. However, she was capable of beating her children under severe provocationsuch as a wilful lie. In particular, her strange son William was privatelyencouraged by his mother to make designs, and in the solitude ofhis room he used to make drawings, and illustrate these with verses, to behung up together in his mother's chamber.
Blake's natural playmates in his childhood were his three brothers and hissister. His eldest brother, James, was four years older than William; Johnwas two years younger; Robert was four years younger; and CatherineElizabeth, the baby of the family, was six years younger.
Blake's eldest brother James was born on 10 July 1753, just nine monthsafter his parents were married. When he was fifteen, he was apprenticed on19 October 1765 to Gideon Boutoult of the Needlemakers' Company.Boutoult, the son of a weaver of Southwark, was probably a Huguenot. Onthe completion of his apprenticeship he became a member of the firm calledBlake & Son, Hosiers & Haberdashers, 28 Broad-str. Carnaby-mar. Hegrew up to be an humble matter-of-fact man, an honest, unpretendingshop-keeper in an old-world style, ill calculated for great prosperity, in thehosiery or any other line ... adhering to knee-breaches, worsted stockings,and buckles. He long retained the stigmata of his childhood amongDissenters, and even in middle age he would at times talk Swedenborg,talking of seeing Abraham and Moses. For many years, he and Blakerubbed along together well enough. In September 1800 James went to teawith Blake at the home of Blake's patron Thomas Butts, and Blake wroteJames a long, confiding letter on 30 January 1803 about his troubles with hispatron William Hayley at Felpham. In September 1803, when the Blakesmoved from Felpham back to London, William and Catherine Sophia Blakestayed for a time with James and Catherine Elizabeth Blake at 28 BroadStreet, and James allowed his shop and home to be used to show Blake'sprivate exhibition in 1809-10 and his Canterbury Pilgrims engraving in1810.
In later years, however, differences grew between Blake, with his head... in the clouds amid radiant visions, and James with his head bentdownwards, and studying the pence of this world. James pestered hisbrother the Artist with timid sentences of bread & cheese advice, andafter James retired on a little annuity in 1812 to Cirencester Place, they didnot even speak.
Blake's younger brother John, born on 20 March 1760, was apparentlya charming and promising boy--at least he charmed his parents,whose favourite he was. He was also dissolute disreputable, andself-pitying. Though William repeatedly remonstrated with his parentsover their indulgence to John, he was often told to be quiet, &that he would bye & bye beg his bread at Johns Door. There wasplainly rivalry among the Blake children for their parents' favour, andthe others resented John's strong pre-eminence in his parent's affections.
Blake's youngest brother and his favourite was Robert, born on 19 June1762. He was an amiable & docile boy much beloved by all his companionssuch as J.T. Smith. William thought of Robert as a fellow spirit andeven as a spiritual guide, and years later in his Milton he made mirror imagesof William and Robert receiving the inspiration of Milton (Pls 4A--B).
Catherine Elizabeth Blake, born on 7 January 1764, the baby of the familyand the only girl, was six years younger than Blake and would have beenonly eight years old when he moved out as an apprentice. She helped hermother in the house, and after the deaths of her parents in 1784 and 1792she became the housekeeper of her bachelor brother James who supportedhis only Sister. She helped William when he moved to Felpham in 1800and visited him there repeatedly. When she was a young woman, Blake'sfriend Thomas Butts thought her charming, but with advancing yearsand persistent spinsterhood she became somewhat shy and proud; withprecise old-maidish ways, decidedly a lady in demeanour.
There were other members of the family as well, who must have come forfamily festivities and whom the Blakes probably visited in fine weather.Blake's paternal grandparents lived across the Thames in Rotherhithe, nearthe great docks, and his maternal grandparents named Wright may havelived in the parish of St George's, Hanover Square, where CatherineWright lived when she married Thomas Armitage in 1746. CatherineWright may have had siblings and nephews and nieces as well; Blake had acousin in Hampstead and an aunt who was buried in Bunhill Fields whoare probably on his mother's side of the family. He apparently had an unclenamed John Blake who lived in Glasshouse Street, Westminster, in 1743and in Hogg Lane, Soho, in 1778-88, and a cousin named Stephen Blake,haberdasher, who was at 28 Broad Street in 1783 and 1784. William Blakeprobably knew the siblings of his mother's first husband: William Armitageand his son Thomas, Richard and John Armitage, and Elizabeth ArmitageFox and Grace Armitage Hattersley.
Excerpted from The Stranger from Paradise by G.E. Bentley, Jr. Copyright © 2001 by G.E. Bentley, Jr. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.