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Vol. 51 no. 2: Fall 2017

William Blake as a Student of the Royal Academy: A Prosopographical Perspective

  • Martin Myrone
18 August 2017
18 Aug. 2017


The day of William Blake’s formal registration as a student at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, 8 October 1779, has often been taken as marking an important turning point in his biography. The date certainly marked an important juncture, following the end of his apprenticeship as an engraver with James Basire (which, if it followed the normal seven-year term, would have been in August 1779) and taking him into the heart of the art establishment, with its program of elevated art practice centered on the ideality of the classical body and the moral and political commitment of the high-minded artist. Even if Blake’s relationship with the academy has too often been taken as simply oppositional, an idea that endures despite excellent work that has shown to the contrary that he had a more complex relationship with the art establishment and its values and owed quite specific debts to academic idealism in the formation and direction of his art (however unconventional in many respects), the significance of this date has never really been in doubt. As David Bindman wrote in his seminal study of Blake as a visual artist, “It is difficult to penetrate the obscurity of Blake’s apprentice days, but with his entry into the Royal Academy in 1779 he emerges more clearly; he now became acquainted with more readily identifiable figures and we begin to discern something like a Blake circle.” The date generally provides a neat chapter division in chronological accounts of his life, and a section or section break in exhibition presentations. The biographical dictionary of Blake’s fellow students that this essay accompanies and glosses is intended to offer the materials for a further illumination of this turning point in Blake’s career, if only in rather indirect or circumstantial ways. It offers a perspective on our understanding of Blake as an academy student by providing a volume of data about his peers at the schools, a collective biography (prosopography) that should deepen our sense of Blake’s social and artistic environment and provide one kind of historical measure against which his personal fortunes and achievements might be tested.