William Blake

William Blake

English Poet, Painter, and Printmaker

Born: November 28, 1757 - London, United Kingdom
Died: August 12, 1827 - Westminster, United Kingdom
"To see the world in a grain of sand, and to see heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hands, and eternity in an hour."
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"If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
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"The imagination is not a state: it is the human existence itself"
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"I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create."
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"Art is the tree of life. Science is the tree of death."
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"No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings."
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"Great things are done when men and mountains meet."
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"The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."
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"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
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"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see nature all ridicule and deformity... and some scarce see nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself."
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"In the universe, there are things that are known, and things that are unknown, and in between, there are doors."
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"The person who does not believe in miracles surely makes it certain that he or she will never take part in one."
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"The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: that the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling"."
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"This world of imagination is the world of eternity; it is the divine bosom into which we shall all go after the death of the vegetated body. This world of imagination is infinite & eternal, whereas the world of generation, or vegetation, is finite & temporal."
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Summary of William Blake

Though he is perhaps still better-known as a poet than an artist, in many ways William Blake's life and work provide the template for our contemporary understanding of what a modern artist is and does. Overlooked by his peers, and sidelined by the academic institutions of his day, his work was championed by a small, zealous group of supporters. His lack of commercial success meant that Blake lived his life in relative poverty, a life in thrall to a highly individual, sometimes iconoclastic, imaginative vision. Through his prints, paintings, and poems, Blake constructed a mythical universe of an intricacy and depth to match Dante's Divine Comedy, but which, liked Dante's, bore the imprint of contemporary culture and politics. When Blake died, in a small house in London in 1827, he was poor and somewhat anonymous; today, we can recognize him as a prototype for the avant-garde artists of the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries, whose creative spirit stands at odds with the prevailing mood of their culture.

Accomplishments

  • Blake was perhaps the quintessential Romantic artist. Like his peers in the world of Romantic literature - Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelly - Blake stressed the primacy of individual imagination and inspiration to the creative process, rejecting the Neoclassical emphasis on formal precision which had defined much 18th-century painting and poetry. Above all else, Blake scorned the contemporary culture of Enlightenment and industrialization, which stood for a mechanization and intellectual reductivism which he deplored. Blake felt that imaginative insight was the only way to cast off the veil thrown over reality by rational thought, claiming that "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite."
  • Blake is unique amongst the artists of his day, and rare amongst artists of any era, in his integration of writing and painting into a single creative process, and in his use of innovative production techniques to combine image and text in single compositions. Celebrated for his visual output, Blake is also recognized as one of the most radical poets of the early Romantic period, combining a highly wrought, Miltonic style with grand, Gothic themes. Moreover, through original techniques such as his "illuminated printing" Blake was able to adapt his craft to meet the demands of his creativity.
  • Blake's spiritual vision was central to his creativity, and was crucially and uniquely informed by a complex, imaginative pantheon of his own making, populated by deities such as Urizen, Los, Enitharmion, and Orc. Grand allegorical narratives illustrated with Blake's own designs, were played out in this universe, which might seem to have existed in a space apart from reality. However, in his epic poem sequences, Blake imagined the fate of the human world, in the era of the French and American Revolutions, as hinging on these sequences, determined by the battles between reason and imagination, lust and piety, order and revolution, which his protagonists represented.

Biography of William Blake

William Blake Photo

William Blake was born in Soho, London, into a respectable working-class family. His father James sold stockings and gloves for a living, while his mother, Catherine Hermitage, looked after the couple's seven children, two of whom died in infancy. William, a strong-willed boy and an evident prodigy from a young age, often absconded from school to wander through the streets of London, or spent his time copying drawings of Greek antiquities; moreover, inspired by the work of Raphael and Michelangelo, he also developed an early fascination with poetry. Though his childhood was peaceful and pleasant, William began experiencing visions at the age of eight, claiming to see angels on trees, or wings that looked like stars. Though troubled by his stories, Blake's parents supported his artistic ambitions, enrolling him when he was ten at the Henry Par drawing academy, then a well-regarded preparatory school for young artists.



Progression of Art

Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789)
1789

Songs of Innocence and Experience

Songs of Innocence and Experience, a collection of poems written and illustrated by Blake, demonstrates his equal mastery of poetry and art. Blake printed the collection himself, using an innovative technique which he called 'illuminated printing: first, printing plates were produced by adding text and image - back-to-front, and simultaneously - to copper sheets, using an ink impervious to the nitric acid which was then used to erode the spaces between the lines. After an initial printing, detail was added to individual editions of the book using watercolors. Prone as he was to visions, Blake claimed that this method had been suggested to him by the spirit of his dead brother, Robert. Songs of Innocence was initially published on its own in 1789. Its partner-work, Songs of Experience, followed in 1794 in the wake of the French Revolution, the more worldly and troubling themes of this second volume reflecting Blake's increasing engagement with the politically turbulent era.

The cover of Songs of Innocence and Experience includes the subtitle "The Two Contrary States of the Human Soul," a reference to the opposing essences which Blake took to animate the universe, depicted throughout the collection through a range of contrasting images and tropes. Beneath this caption are a man and woman, presumably Adam and Eve, whose bodies mirror each other, but are connected by Adam's leg, another indication of the dualities at work in the book. The use of vibrant color, and the intensity and fluidity of Blake's lines, creates a sense of drama complemented by the figures' anguished appearance. At the same time, the dance-like orientation of their bodies creates an almost childlike sense of play, which jars with the lofty nature of the project.

Unappreciated during his lifetime, Blake's illuminated books are now ranked amongst the greatest achievements of Romantic art. They indicate his artisanal approach to his craft - influential on the 'cottage industries' of subsequent printer-poets such as William Morris - and his hatred of the printing press and mechanization in general. The question underlying this collection is how a benevolent God could allow space for both good and evil - or rather, innocence and experience - in the universe, these two necessary and opposing forces summed up by the contrasting images of the lamb and "the tyger", the subjects of the two best-known poems in the sequence. The influence of Blake's "tyger", in particular, its eyes "burning bright,/ In the forests of the night", echoes down through literary and artistic history, seeping into popular culture in a myriad of ways.

Pen and watercolor - Various editions

The Ancient of Days (1794)
1794

The Ancient of Days

The Ancient of Days, one of Blake's most recognizable works, portrays a bearded, godlike figure kneeling on a flaming disk, measuring out a dark void with a golden compass. This figure is Urizen, a fictional deity invented by Blake who forms parts of the artist's complex mythology, embodying the spirit of reason and law: two concepts with a very vexed position in Blake's moral universe. Urizen features as a character in several of Blake's illuminated long poems, including Europe: A Prophecy, for which this illustration was created. There, and here, Urizen is a repressive force, impeding the positive power of imagination. This piece can thus be read in light of a famous line from another of Blake's long works, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction."

In many ways, Blake is the exemplar for our modern conception of the Romantic artist. He prized imagination above all else, describing it not as "a state" but as the essence of "human existence itself." Thus, as The Ancient of Days implies, he disdained attempts to rationally curtail or control the power of imagination. This is also clear from the annotated version of Sir Joshua Reynold's Discourses on Art (1769-91) which he produced around this time. Blake was highly critical of Reynolds, an older and more established artist who, as President of the Royal Academy of Arts, embodied what Blake saw as the formulaic and stultifying ideals of the academy; his teeming marginalia to Reynold's treatise serves in some ways as a conscious affront to these ideals. But if The Ancient of Days also encapsulates the rational spirit Blake was wary of, the undeniable majesty of the figure also reflects his belief in human beings' visionary power, just as his famous and beautiful line from Auguries of Innocence compels the reader "To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour".

With his oppositional critiques of the art establishment, Blake set the stage for artists later in the nineteenth century, like the French painters Gustave Courbet and Édouard Manet, who deliberately set about to challenge academic paradigms. The Ancient of Days sums up something of the spirit Blake was opposing, but also of the spirit he was endorsing. It is also known to have been one of his favorite images, an example of his early work, but also one of his last works, as he painted a copy of it in bed shortly before his death.

Watercolor etching - Private Collection

Pity (c. 1795)
c. 1795

Pity

This piece, like Songs of Innocence and Experience, was made using Blake's illuminated printing technique. It seems to portray two cherubim, one of whom holds a baby, on white horses in a darkened sky, jumping over a prostrated female figure. The image is generally understood as an interpretation of a passage from Shakespeare's Macbeth: "And pity, like a naked new-born babe,/ Striding the blast, or heaven's cherubin, hors'd/ Upon the sightless couriers of the air,/ Shall blow the horrid deed in every eye".

Blake's use of blues and greens, contrasting with the whites of the figures, grants the work a nocturnal, dreamlike quality. Indeed, some scholars have questioned the extent to which the piece draws on Shakespeare's verse, suggesting instead that it might depict figures from Blake's own imaginative pantheon, as its visionary intensity seems to imply. The figure turning away from the viewer might be the god Urizen, for example, the face leaning down from the horse that of Los, an oppositional force to Urizen but also his prophet on earth, who has taken on the female form of Pity - often embodied in the character of his partner, Enitharmion - to enact Urizen's will. The woman below might be Eve, fulfilling the biblical prophecy that "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children" by generating the miniaturized male figure cradled in Los's arms. By this reading, Pity represents the fall of man, in particular the moment when he becomes aware of his sexuality, and his subjugation to God.

Through mythological and literary-inspired works such as Pity, Blake would exert an immense influence on the course of post-Romantic art, including on the Pre-Raphaelites, who often drew on literary and Shakespearean themes, as in John Everett Millais's Ophelia (1851) and John William Waterhouse's Miranda (1916). The hallucinatory quality of works such as Pity, meanwhile, along with their apparent deep allegorical significance, would have a profound effect on movements such as Symbolism and Surrealism.

Relief etching, printed in color and finished with pen and ink and watercolor - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Isaac Newton (c. 1795)
c. 1795

Isaac Newton

In this, perhaps Blake's most famous visual artwork, the mathematician and physicist Isaac Newton is shown drawing on a scroll on the ground with a large compass. He sits on a rock surrounded by darkness, hunched over and entirely consumed by his thoughts. This engraving was developed from the tenth plate of Blake's early illustrated treatise There is No Natural Religion, which shows a man kneeling on the floor with a compass and features the caption "He who sees the Infinite in all things sees God. He who sees the Ratio only, sees himself only".

For Blake, Newton was the living embodiment of rationality and scientific enquiry, a mode of intelligence which he saw as reductive, sterile, and ultimately blinding. Isaac Newton is clearly a critical visual allegory, therefore, the sharp angles and straight lines used to mark out Newton's body emphasizing the repressive spirit of reason, while the organic textures of the rock, apparently covered in algae and living organisms, represent the world of nature, where the spirit of human imagination finds its true mirror. The deep, consuming black surrounding Newton, generally taken to represent the bottom of the sea or outer space, indicates his ignorance of this world, his distance from the Platonic light of truth. The compass is a symbol of geometry and rational order, a tool and emblem of the stultifying materialism of the Enlightenment. Blake's scorn for the scientific worldview, which also gave rise to his famous depiction of the god Urizen in The Ancient of Days - another figure who tries to measure out the universe with a compass - is summed up by his assertion that "Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death".

Blake's Isaac Newton has been the subject of numerous reproductions, homages, and reinterpretations, and the figure of Newton himself is probably Blake's best-known visual image, perhaps because it sums up his creative credo so perfectly. The image is also famous because it has proved so fascinating to subsequent artists. In 1995, the British pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi created a large number of bronze sculptures inspired by Blake's work, including a huge sculptural homage to Blake's Newton - though both curvier and more machine-like than its predecessor - which now sits outside the British Library in London.

Engraving - Tate Modern, London

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (1799-1800)
1799-1800

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The painting, finished in pen and ink, illustrates a passage from the Bible, a prophecy described in the Gospel of Matthew as having been used by Jesus to advise the faithful on spiritual vigilance, describing how "A trumpeting angel flying overhead signifies that the moment of judgment has arrived". Blake contrasts the elegant and wise virgins on the left, prepared for the trumpet's call from the angel above, with the foolish virgins on the right, who fall over their feet in agitation and fear. The Parable was commissioned by Blake's patron and friend Thomas Butts, one of a huge number of tempera and watercolor paintings completed by Blake at Butt's behest between 1800 and 1806, all depicting Biblical scenes.

Though his own faith was anything but conformist, Blake had a profound respect for the Bible, considering it to be the greatest work of poetry in human history, and the basis of all true art. He often used it as a source of inspiration, and believed that its allegories and parables could serve as a wellspring for creative spirit opposing the rational, Neoclassical principles of the 18th century. The message of Matthew's passage is enhanced here by strong tonal contrasts, the graceful luminosity of the wise women contrasted with the ignominious darkness surrounding them.

Works such as The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins were influenced by various Renaissance artists who had explored similar, Biblical themes, and whose work Blake had devoured as a child. Leonardo da Vinci's The Adoration of the Magi (1481-82), The Annunciation (c. 1474), and The Last Supper (c. 1495-98) are good examples of such works, as are Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel frescoes (c. 1508-12), and Fra Angelico's The Madonna of Humility (1430). By not only entering into dialogue with these pieces, but by putting his own gloss on the moral and emotional dynamics of the scene, Blake expressed the ambition of his religious vision.

Watercolor, pen and black ink over graphite - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Great Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed in Sun (c. 1805)
c. 1805

The Great Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed in Sun

This ink and watercolor work depicts a hybrid creature, half human half dragon, spreading its wings over a woman enveloped in sunlight. It belongs to a body of works known as "The Great Red Dragon Paintings", created during 1805-10, a period when Thomas Butts commissioned Blake to create over a hundred Biblical illustrations. The Dragon paintings represent scenes from the Book of Revelation, inspired mainly by the book's apocalyptic description of "a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and seven crowns upon his heads".

The Great Red Dragon is an example of Blake's mature artistic style, expressing the vividness of his mythological imagination in its dramatic use of color, and its sinuously expressive lines. The poet Kathleen Raine explains that Blake's linear style is characteristic of religious art: "Blake insists that the 'spirits', whether of men or gods, should be 'organized', within a 'determinate and bounding form'." This work also bears out Blake's claim that "Art can never exist without Naked Beauty display'd". Even in the portrayal of a destructive and aggressive subject, beauty, in particular the beauty of the human body, always plays a fundamental and central role in Blake's art: indeed, there is something of the human vigor and strength of Milton's Satan in the central, winged form.

Like Blake's Newton, his Great Red Dragon is an image which has permeated artistic and popular culture, particularly during the 20th century. Famously, the main character of Thomas Harris's 1981 novel Red Dragon obsesses over Blake's beast, believing that he can become the dragon himself by emulating its brutal power. The sequels to Harris's novel, Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999) - adapted, like Red Dragon, into successful films - ensured the cultural resonance of Blake's monstrous but enticingly human creation.

Ink, watercolor and graphite on paper - The Brooklyn Museum, New York

The Angels Hovering Over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805)
c.1805

The Angels Hovering Over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre

This watercolor and ink work, commissioned like The Great Red Dragon and The Wise and Foolish Virgin by Blake's great patron Thomas Butts, depicts a scene from the Biblical story of Jesus's death and rebirth. Following his crucifixion, Jesus's body was buried in a cave or tomb. As described in the Gospel of John, Mary Magdalene visited the tomb to find two angels sitting "where the body of Jesus had lain". Upset at the body's absence, she began to weep, only to find Jesus standing beside her. Adapting the details of this scene, Blake places the two angels hovering above Jesus's body, probably portraying the moment just before his resurrection.

Though Blake's alteration of the details of the Gospel story are minor, they express his unorthodox, irreverently creative approach to faith and scripture. His depiction of the angels, for example, is said to be inspired by a passage from the Old Testament's Book of Exodus: "the cherubims shall stretch forth their wings on high... and their faces shall look one to another". The angelic forms also seem to allude to the wings which Blake claimed to have seen appearing on trees and stars as a child. As such, the image is testament to his belief in the central role of individual imagination in the interpretation of faith. In compositional terms, the darkness of the sepulchre, and the delicate whites and yellows of the aureoles around the angels' heads, give the painting an almost monochromatic quality, while the symmetry of the composition grants it a visual harmony in keeping with its spiritual significance.

In his imaginative adaptations of Biblical and religious scenes, Blake not only responded to a tradition of religious paintings extending back to the Renaissance, but also predicted the post-Romantic, imaginative adaptation of religious iconography in the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, Symbolists, and other proto-modernist movements. As such, the vision expressed in works such as The Angels is both historically aware and subtly radical.

Pen, ink and watercolor on paper - Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20)
1819-20

The Ghost of a Flea

This delicate tempera painting, finished in gold leaf, depicts the ghost of a flea, represented as a combination of man and animal, staring into an empty bowl or cup. The figure appears to be pacing the boards of a stage, set against a backdrop adorned with painted stars, flanked by the heavy patterned curtains of a theater. His pose is suitably melodramatic, while the awkward weight of his body dwarfs his small, half-human head. This work was composed on a miniature scale, on a wooden board measuring roughly 21 by 16 cm.

Whereas much of Blake's earlier work draws on Biblical or literary themes, this painting is the expression of a macabre, darkly comic inner vision, and is considered amongst the most 'Gothic' of his works. According to John Varley, an astrologer, artist, and close friend of Blake's, who made notes on his practice, the painting was created after one of Blake's séances, during which he claimed to have been visited by the ghost of a flea who explained to him that fleas were the resurrected souls of men prone to excess. In this sense, the cup is a symbol for "blood-drinking", for overindulgence and intemperance. That interpretation is complemented by the half-human form of the spirit, suggesting a man in thrall to his animal instincts, while the stage might be a metaphor for society - the horror or scorn of the crowd - or for the vanity bound up with compulsive behavior.

The Ghost of A Flea is a singular manifestation of Blake's unique spiritual and imaginative temperament. Its late composition suggests that his visions became more idiosyncratic, more untethered from the collective, social view of reality, as he aged.

Tempera and gold leaf on mahogany - Tate Gallery, London

The Lovers Whirlwind (1824-27)
1824-27

The Lovers Whirlwind

The Lovers Whirlwind illustrates a scene from the fifth canto of The Inferno, the first book of The Divine Comedy (c. 1308-20), by the medieval Florentine poet Dante. As the poem's protagonist, Dante himself, descends into the outer circles of hell, he comes across a number of people caught up in a whirlwind, shrieking with pain. Dante's guide, the Roman poet Virgil, explains that these are lovers "whom love bereav'd of life", punished for the illicit nature of their desire. They include Francesca, the daughter of a lord of Ravenna, who fell in love with her husband's brother Paolo, and was sentenced to die alongside him. Profoundly moved by their story, Dante faints, as portrayed in the painting to the right of the bearded Virgil. Above Virgil's head, Blake seems to depict Paolo and Francesca in a sphere of light, while the surrounding whirlwind of lovers ascends to heaven.

This painting belongs to a series of works commissioned by John Linnell, Blake's friend and second great patron, after the success of the illustrations for The Book of Job which Blake was already composing for Linnell. There was an established tradition of creating illustrations for the Divine Comedy, stretching back to the early Renaissance period, and to artists such as Premio della Quercia, Vechietta, and Sandro Botticelli. Blake was probably inspired by their work, but with typical immodesty he spoke of his superiority to many Renaissance masters in his handling of color, seen to be at its most accomplished in the Divine Comedy sequence. Blake believed that the effective use of color depended on control of form and outline, claiming that "it is always wrong in Titian and Correggio, Rubens and Rembrandt." As for his response to Dante, it is typical of Blake's critical stance on religious orthodoxy, and his belief in the sanctity of love, that he chooses to deliver the condemned lovers from their torment.

The Divine Comedy commission was left incomplete as Blake died in 1827, having produced only a few of the paintings. However, those that survive are noted for their exquisite use of color, and for their complex, proto-Symbolist, visionary motifs. Linnell's commission is also said to have filled Blake with energy despite his age and ill health; he reputedly spent the last of his money on a pencil to continue his drawings.

Pen and watercolor - City Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham

Satan Before the Throne of God: When the Almighty was yet with me (1826)
1826

Satan Before the Throne of God: When the Almighty was yet with me

This engraving depicts the Old Testament character of Job surrounded by his children, while Satan sits above him in heaven, in front of a large sun, encircled by angels. The scene is an illustration of Job 29.5, which is written below the plate: "When the Almighty was yet with me, When my Children were about me". Satan Before the Throne of God is one of 22 engraved prints created towards the end of Blake's life, known as the Illustrations of the Book of Job. In the passage above, God has allowed Satan to kill Job's family and take away his wealth in order to test his faith. Though his relationship with God ultimately endures, at this point Job is lamenting his lost happiness, and questioning the creator's wisdom.

The Book of Job had preoccupied Blake since 1785, and was the subject of two previous watercolor paintings, created for Thomas Butts in 1805 and John Linnell in 1821. When he began the engravings Blake was therefore able to adapt various existing images, but the engravings became his most virtuosic response to the theme. The whole series expresses his fascination with the figure of Job who, like Blake, had lived a life of penury coupled with intense religious devotion. In compositional terms, the Job illustrations are Blake's most technically complex engravings, rendered with an extraordinary degree of tonal and figurative detail.

A marvelous final expression of Blake's imaginative and religious vision, Kathleen Raine describes the Illustrations of the Book of Job as "more than an illustration of the Bible; they are in themselves a prophetic vision, a spiritual revelation, at once a personal testimony and replete with Blake's knowledge of Christian Cabbala, Neoplatonism, and the mystical theology of the Western Esoteric tradition as a whole". She calls them as "a complete statement of Blake's vision of man's spiritual drama."

Engraving - Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, Glasgow


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Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"William Blake Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Frances Dias
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 17 Apr 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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