William Blake Was a Petty B––– Who Lived for Drama

What? He was a petty bench!

Okay, let me explain. I’m preparing to teach a class about William Blake and I am super nervous because everybody in this British Romantic Poetry class is literally a genius and I’m over here like “Ethical dualism? Is it ethical dualism? Are we talking about ethical dualism yet?”

And friends, we’re never talking about ethical dualism.

I’ve been channeling my nerves the best way I know how: by completely going insane on the research. Turns out, William Blake was not only a total loser of a poet during his life (and died bitter about it) but he was also a mediocre engraver. At least, that’s what his neighbors all thought.

I’ll skip the lecture about the differences between engraving, etching, and relief painting or the types of intaglio in the 18th century because there just isn’t time, but trust me when I say they are all very different processes. In a nutshell, engraving is with a knife, etching is with acid and relief painting is just painting a raised surface. And “intaglio” from the Italian word “taglia” meaning “cut,” really just indicates whether you’re using a burin to engrave or a needle to etch. God, I’ve already said too much and I could go on for several minutes about this. If you want to know more, here’s where you can read all about 18th-century engraving techniques, you nerd.


William “Bill” Blake was apprenticed to an engraver and learned all these processes, and when he became a professional engraver at the age of 21, he figured he’d try something new.

So he combined all three processes.

Basically he engraved around the design he wanted, covered the design in wax and dipped it in a vat of acid (etching!) so the design would come out raised (relief!) and then he painted it. By hand.

This process was so labor-intensive that he was the only artist to ever try it, and he’s still the only engraver to use it. Because it’s just that extra.

And also super outdated; Blake’s work was considered anachronistic during his time, and he died poor and unrecognized for his achievement as a result.

Okay, you’re probably wondering, but how does that make him a petty bench who lives for drama?

One of Blake’s most famous biographers, Peter Ackroyd, discovered that Blake kept a list of “adversaries” in his desk, the names of his competitors (which is hilarious because seriously he was such a loser). At the top of the list was the name of the man he apprenticed with, James Basire, and the name was crossed out.

Petty. Extra. Drama.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Believe Kramer on Seinfeld would say he’s a Dandy!


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