Finding Blake’s formal announcement of the project’s film: Finding Blake: meeting William Blake in the 21st Century, or – memorialising the vegetal ephemeral.
“Forgive what you do not approve, & love me for this energetic exertion of my talent” — William Blake, Jerusalem, The Emanation of the Giant Albion
When director James Murray-White heard that a new ledger stone for the final resting place of artist-poet William Blake was going to be made in his neighbourhood, in the renowned Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge, it reawakened his desire to explore Blake’s work and legacy. He set off on a three-year journey to find the contemporary relevance of this 18th and 19th century creative and spiritual force.
‘Finding Blake’ is the resulting feature-length document of the journey. James interviewed poets, priests, psychoanalysts and a rapper to get at the heart of Blake’s relevance today. Interwoven through the film is the creation of the stone itself — a stunning work of craft — from the stone being mined in Portland, Dorset, to its unveiling ceremony in the ‘Dissenters Graveyard’ in Bunhill Fields in London on the 191st anniversary of Blake’s death. We see the fine detail of the process: from choosing the stone, to its sizing and cutting out and bevelling, to the letter drawing out and then cutting, to gilding, and its final setting.
The film includes some of Blake’s key poems, and animated images, to take the audience into the mind of the artist, and to stimulate the deep imagination so lacking in our age.
“The green and pleasant land that Blake spoke about lives inside human beings: it’s the conversation between a possible template of happiness inside us, and an expression of that in the outer world”
— David Whyte, poet & philosopher, in the film.
Released in the wake of the recent Blake exhibition at Tate London, this brand new documentary seeks to continue the process of opening up this ‘poet – artist – prophet’ to a wider audience, and show his very real relevance at the heart of contemporary culture in Britain and the world in the midst of massive shifts in consciousness and active rebellion on our streets. As we today urgently seek to find answers to the climate emergency and the rank social injustice that divides communities, William Blake pointed towards finding a spiritual unity internally and externally, and strove to find his own system before the ‘mind-forged manacles’ of the industrial capitalist system enslaved him.
Completed just in time for submission to Sheffield DocFest, Finding Blake has a ‘crew and crowdfunders’ preview screening in mid-March, and screening dates are being planned in Cambridge, Bristol, London, Stroud, Newcastle, Cornwall, Cumbria and Scotland, as well as a pay-per-view online option (with additional footage and scenes). All details will be available shortly here on the project website — where, of course, we have many articles exploring all aspects of Blake’s life, career, and legacy, written by a wide range of scholars and creatives.
I give you the end of a golden string; Only wind it into a ball: It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate, Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White announces the completion of the film behind the project, reveals the trailer for the film, celebrates the inspiration behind this work — and asks what Blake would make of the changes we are seeing in the world today.
So — we have a film: a 90-minute feature doc, Finding Blake: meeting William Blake in the 21st Century, or – memorialising the vegetal ephemeral. It was completed, fittingly, on Valentine’s Day. And it’s been a long labour of love — three years, and all my life and experience before that: poured into this.
It’s been a long wild ride. As Patti Smith sings in My Blakean Year:
“all that I envisioned, all that I had held dear, met with grave derision.” — Patti Smith
So I write this with a sense of reflection, and both an opening to the new, and an ending of the old. I’ve been coming and going with this project over these three years: having to put it down to focus on commercial work and pay the bills; deepening my activism and my engagement with the human community in doing so, equally emphasising a deeper connection with the Earth and the soil and engaging in the work of rewilding, inner and outer. And yet, always mindful of returning to the layers and levels of understanding of Blake’s zoas, and seeking to integrate so many aspects of life and the love and joy and horror of it all coming at me constantly, so that I can truly exist somewhere within these four levels of spiritual development.
That is what Blake’s life was all about, and why he still is such a strong source of inspiration. As Luis Carrido, Blake scholar — and, with his wife Carol, the re-discoverer of Blake’s final resting place underneath the plane tree in the Bunhill Fields ‘dissenters graveyard’ — says early in the film:
“It’s a movement of spiritual enlightenment. Blake helps us reach up to the infinite.” — Luis Carrido
So, remembering this, and constantly working with Luis and his words and the other interviewees on screen, and the ever-present solid, calm craft of Lida Kindersley, the constant tap-tap-tapping of chisel hitting stone in her workshop — which I hope I’ve used to good measure in the film as a sound experience as well as a visual metaphor, chipping away at the fixedness of life — I’ve brought all the material to the editing chipping block. Chipped away, always trying to reach up to the infinite, with all its beautiful and wrathful manifestations we find upon the way.
Blake was born for this time
Having dived into Blake’s life and legacy, and responded to it all with this project, I wonder what Blake would have made of the massive cultural shifts and rise in consciousness we are seeing manifest. It is deeply encouraging to see folk — young and old, from every walk of life — rising to challenge vested power and political corruption.
Capitalism stifles and kills. Land ownership excludes and divides. Carbon production and emission destroys. And creativity, stilling the mind, listening, looking deeply — these are what re-invigorate and produce love and beauty and compassionate care.
Blake would love this time in the human story. He was born for it, and we thank him for the legacy of life that has helped bring this shift into being. I wonder if his energy truly went beyond, or if it was re-incarnated: to keep returning as bodhisattvas to guide us humbler mortals to enlightenment…
Wild weather and deep inspiration
Sitting down to edit often feels to me like sitting in the dentist’s chair and having my wisdom teeth pulled (I’ve had two out and still remember the pain and the size of the needles). There is an ominous phrase in the film world, often used by editors and all of us crafting away with cameras: ‘kill your babies’ — which really translates as ‘does your best material hold the story together and would the story survive without it?’ I’d much rather hand projects over — and I’ve worked with a few good editors on pieces of this — but ultimately it’s been my responsibility and I knew I must see it through.
“I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another mans I will not reason & compare:my business is to create”
It’s been wild weather outside the door: Storm Ciara was in full force when I arrived, and knocked out some of Cumbria’s water supply and left the land water-logged, cold, windy, and snowy up on the higher hills. And Storm Dennis is just coming up the land now as I finish the edit and write these words. Wonderful, wild weather to inspire my looking deep into this screen and allowing Blake to unfold…
I’m grateful to two dear friends who have been closely involved with Finding Blake since the beginning. Poet Clare Crossman and filmmaker Jonnie Howard both have been giving me constant advice and good guidance on this visual telling, and whose wise words I took with me to the editing retreat high up in the Cumbrian wilds.
Using film to find William Blake
To get my creative juices going, I took myself to see the new Terence Malick film A Hidden Life: a masterly telling of a true story of conscientious objection, and the soul-felt struggle of the individual who chose this path. The film isn’t about words, as with much of Malick’s recent work. He uses huge-scale cinematography to conjure emotions. Sweeping shots of mountains and the vast rolling (Austrian) landscapes, with beautiful intimate detail of grass and corn, and the vast deep joy of all of it.
One of the disappointments I felt at the big Blake exhibition at Tate Britain that finished at the top of this month, alongside the lack of A/V material, is that the big scale film panning across an artwork didn’t go into enough detail. What I would love to do with Blake is to use special lenses to really scrutinise some of the images — prints and paintings — in deep detail. Access to the images to do this requires a vast budget, and the institutions that hold the bulk of Blake’s oeuvre frown upon such deep scrutiny. There was a very fine film doing the rounds last year looking at Picasso’s early life, with magnificent slow close-ups of some of his work — a powerful way to really look at an image. Blake’s work would really benefit from this close observation by those with eyes to see.
I was up at Clare’s cottage a year ago last winter, and cut all the sequences in draft form. I have sat on them since, adding other bits of footage and doing more interviews, but wondering what was lacking in the overall project. Jonnie — a great filmmaker who has done some of the early camerawork for the project (including the beautifully shot David Whyte interview in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where Blake quite literally sat upon our shoulders) has been continually saying I should inject more personal input: Why have I been doing this? What’s my story here? And so I have. I hope it works: it was never going to be all about me — that thought abhors me, but I realise that ultimately it’s both the personal and the wider perspective that tells the story, and this is where the craft of telling is, whatever the story.
Clare, a fine poet, highly capable of soul-diving to heft out words of the Earth to bring ethical diamonds to us — has also been telling me to work deeper with the Blakean words: pull out the wisdom of his legacy and craft them visually. So I’ve crafted small film-poems (one of my favourite art forms indeed — and I hope this entire film and project is in itself a larger film-poem to creativity and the human spiritual journey itself: from womb to soil).
I have to leave that to you, dear viewer, to judge for yourself. Feedback, of course, is welcome, when you get to see the whole thing on a screen someplace. We welcome reviews here, or email me directly. I’ll probably be out on a moor someplace or lugging cameras to film beavers or wild bogs, and it might take a while to respond (most of the film projects this year are responses to, reflections upon, and recording elements of this beautiful natural world, so far from the inner reflectiveness that Finding Blake has been).
Bringing Finding Blake into the world
There is a preview screening next month for those closely involved and those who chipped in to the crowdfunding campaign to get Finding Blake up and running all those centuries ago … Space is extremely limited but if you’re keen to come, email me and I’ll see if we can squeeze you in.
I’m talking to a prestigious venue about an official launch event, probably late Spring, and also to other venues around the land to take Finding Blake on a mini-tour later in the year. All details will be released here in good time. If you’d love to bring Finding Blake to a screen near you, with or without me to introduce it and do a Q&A, do shout — happy to negotiate.
For now, until Finding Blake manifests onto a screen near you, here to whet your Blakean appetite is the trailer for the film.
Finding Blake creator and filmmaker James Murray-White shares his recent experiences and reflections on the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain, London, which opened last September and ends on 2nd February.
“a new kind of man, wholly original” -- from an 1863 biography, drawing on reflections of Blake’s followers
Just back from an afternoon with Blake at the Tate, I’d been processing on the train home …
Overall, it was an intense encounter: really busy for a Sunday afternoon, which results in conveyor-belt art appreciation, with shuffles and shoves to see and stand for a few moments in front of the image or text that grabs the eye; with my guerilla-style meanderings round the rooms, being led to the Blakes I know well or have wanted to meet for a while, or a colour or a line or an outstretched arm within an image calling for attention.
Here’s a tiny clip of me immediately post-show, trying to gather some thoughts:
There are five rooms in all, each literally stuffed with images of all types. Which is pretty overwhelming, though quite glorious. This show focuses on smaller pieces, with the timeline in order of their production, whereas the last Blake exhibition I saw — at Petworth in Sussex — was smaller and seemed to focus on bigger and brighter images, with space around them. One of my favourites, ‘The Sea of Time and Space’ (1821) has come up from Petworth and was originally commissioned by Countess Egremont when he was down the road in Felpham. And it’s curious that the descriptor on the wall says that the subject of the painting is ‘a mystery’ whereas, post-Petworth, many of the interviewees for our Finding Blake film were keen to discuss it, dissect it and come up with multiple meanings……
The highlight of the show was the recreation of his 1809 independent exhibition in his then house in Broad Street, Soho — with some clever lighting really bringing four of the pictures to life: ‘Satan calling up his legions’ (1795 – 1800); ‘The spiritual form of Nelson guiding Leviathan’ (1805 – 09); ‘The spiritual form of Pitt guiding Behemoth’ (1805); ‘The bard, from Gray’ (1809). This effect really opened up these images, naturally displayed in the regulation, lower lighting levels.
Connecting the legacy?
In the next room was a projection showing these same paintings at a grand scale, which enables that intimate engagement with pigment and brushstroke I really long for in my standing with a Blake. However, what the exhibition does really lack is any more audio-visual material; why no film? Why no ‘experts’ talking about what Blake means to them? And why no material or an entire room connecting the continuing legacy through to our age and beyond?
There is the Tate’s room upstairs, with 20th-century artists’ responses to Blake, so why couldn’t the show be configured to lead into that, at least? Something like: ‘the artist as of his time and beyond’. I like the short and succinct titles for each room: ‘Blake be an artist’, ‘Making prints, making a living’, ‘Patronage and independence’, ‘Independence and despair’, and ‘A new kind of man’. It felt like the exhibition was solely concentrating on the man: inside Blake’s mind as he worked on each commission, or responded to the voices he heard, or reflected with his brush on the swirling politics and rush into the industrial / military / capitalist system happening in the London streets around him; his deep dive into a spiritual world, with visionary realms, clear choices between ascent and descent — strong arms to pull upward, glittering spiral staircases or watery graves, Job, Joseph, a heavenly Jerusalem, inspiration from Milton … and so much more.
It was great to see the portrait of Blake at the start of the exhibition attributed to Catherine: this has been highlighted by the media, for the first time acknowledging her place side-by-side with him, as both his support, his muse, and oftentimes co-creating or finishing the artwork for him (certainly the etchings). Those of us who have been studying Blake a while welcome this, and hope this acknowledgement serves as a significant nudge to recognise the role of partners in artists’ lives.
I recalled the big exhibition at the Ashmolean some years ago, which really kick-started my nascent interest in Blake. That went out of its way to place him in the context in the wider world; devoting the first room to Blake as student to James Basire, and having a series of stones that Blake took rubbings from; and then the end room being a collection of Samuel Palmer’s works, showing the beautiful lineage being passed along — as well as Michael Phillip’s recreation of Blake’s printing press as well, with the man himself on hand to make replicas. So, having these three exhibitions in my mind, I thank these great repositories of art and their curators for having provided me and the public with opportunities to see great Blakes gathered together (although the Tate has been pretty difficult to engage with — ignoring emails and then being less than forthcoming about sharing material on the recent projection on St Paul’s).
So now it is incumbent upon me to go away to get editing our film and bring ‘Finding Blake’ out into the world!
I’ve not been slack. I’ve been limbering up with my software, gathering materials and footage, conversing with a master editor overseas, and reaching out in advance to plan screenings hither and thither (including an exclusive preview for all the project’s sponsors and website friends), and letting Blake and this current stage of the Anthropocene swirl within my molecules reflectively through the solstice in quiet and wilder spaces and places: walking with the fox and ascending to Jerusalem from ‘England’s Green & pleasant land’.
If you’ve been to the Tate, we’d love to hear your reflections on the Blake show. Please send us in a comment or a post. If there’s one image in particular you didn’t know before, or one you’ve been wanting to meet ‘in the flesh’, or were disappointed with, or take issue with the thrust of the show overall — do share.
Tate Britain’s William Blake exhibition ends on 2nd February, You can find out more and read the exhibition guide here.
In an earlier post, The Unfolding and Unveiling, James shares some of his other encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present — including the Blake exhibition at Petworth House, Blake in Sussex, which he mentioned above.