Latest Blog Posts

The Unfolding and Unveiling

In this post, Finding Blake founder James Murray-White shares some of his encounters with William Blake, from childhood up to the present, including the recent Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House.

My first encounter with William Blake happened fleetingly — as a boy, in  the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. I have been there again recently, and of their huge archive of Blake prints and pictures, only four seem to be on permanent display — high on an upper gallery. Maybe it was these I saw, or possibly a temporary exhibition, although my overriding memories of childhood visits there were to the Egyptian mummies and the knights in armour on horseback! I feel my encounter with Blake was a fleeting ‘seeing’ that became an acknowledgement of the work, and a storing up for later.

Frontispiece from ‘Songs of Experience’: William Blake, 1825
Relief etching printed in orange-brown ink and hand-colored with watercolor and gold
Source: Metropolitan Museum, New York

That unfolding and unveiling of the glory and depth of Blake’s works and thought has emerged for me over the past few years: at a summer festival two years ago, with a group of 20 or so in the woods late at night, round a roaring fire — when the guitars and chatter paused, I piped up and said “does anyone know the words to Jerusalem?”, and we all were surprised that we all did, and sang many a rousing versions of it for a communal hour or two.

Then just last year, as I was walking on my way to film an interview with the ex-President of Tuvalu in the Amnesty Bookshop in Cambridge, I was stopped on the street by a friend who I knew to be a member of the Blake Society, who said he had a project to run by me. When we made time to meet properly and discuss, it turned out that the Blake Society had commissioned a new gravestone for Blake, and it was to be made here in Cambridge by renowned letter cutter Lida Kindersley. I had met Lida years before while researching for a play on artist Eric Gill (Lida’s husband David had been Gill’s chief apprentice, and is in the lineage of master crafts folk within the world), so I very quickly felt hooked in and knew that my time to ‘get into Blake’ was beginning.

Blake in Sussex

Then followed a year of deep-time research. I gathered as much material as I could — all the biographies, from Kathleen Raine to Peter Ackroyd, through to the latest (and very good) one by Tobias Churton, as well as books of images and his poetry — and got stuck in. My antennae are always active to Blake-related activities, and one of the highlights was a whole day’s walk led by writer Henry Eliot  a member of the Blake Society committee who also has an interest psychogeography and leads walks on writers works and lives. The walk was divided into the four themes around Blake’s The Four Zoas — characters in Blake’s prophetic work, The Four Zoas: The torments of Love & Jealousy in The Death and Judgment of Albion the Ancient Man.

This was a blast of Blakean energy — on the streets he knew well and trod daily, to the places he lived (most demolished or built over, apart from the South Molton Street flat). A highlight of this day was access to the Tyburn Convent, close by Marble Arch, once site of the infamous Tyburn Cross; London’s hangings took place here, which Blake was well aware of.

Fast forward to more recent blasts of Blake, including a trip to the wonderful ‘Blake in Sussex’ exhibition at Petworth House in West Sussex, followed the next day by filming the Blake Society’s visit to Lida’s studio to see and approve her lettering for the grave.

Twice so far this year I’ve found myself face to face with an original painting, and often a new one to me that I’ve not seen reproduced. There were a few highlights of ‘Blake in Sussex’ at Petworth House, particularly the depth and dimensions of The Sea of Time and Space (vision of the circle of the life of man) from 1821 (owned by The National Trust). Moving from the man in red to the angelic woman, pointing in opposite but aligned directions, through to the connections between tree and sea and sky and flesh and blood… On reflection it feels now that maybe the piece of art, or the creative form, appears to us right at the moment we need it to, and here was this ethereal vision.

The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man) by William Blake, 1821. Pen and black ink, watercolour and gouache on gesso ground on stiff paper, 
Source: National Trust

A nature-based energy

It feels very special to have seen this gathering of images and words in this location, honouring William and Catherine Blake’s three years out of the grime and chaos of London. Although his time in Felpham came to a crushing end with his trial for sedition, the work he produced there — much of it commissioned by William Hayley or Lady Egremont (hence the Petworth connection) — I feel has an edge: a nature-based energy, connecting elements and exploding the human form.

After the exhibition, I felt doubly blessed to be shown the Devil’s Punch Bowl, a few miles from Petworth. This is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, owned and managed by the National Trust, with sweeping views around and down into a huge area of heath and woods, and out over Surrey towards London from the top of Gibbet Hill. My guide, Mark Goldthorpe, speculated that the Blakes might have come this way on their journey from London, and had a taste of this spectacular beauty too. I hope so.

Seeing the letters written out on Blake’s ‘new’ grave also feels special — to have been part of this journey from seeing Lida choose the stone, to now being at the point where she will start to cut the letters, makes a wonderful connection in craft and physicality. I’ve only come into this at a very late stage: the Blake Society have been trying to get this grave made for at least a dozen years, and it was an honour to be with them as they gathered round it and saw the design coming to fruition. More of that as the project progresses: do keep coming back to the site for updates.

This is a little of my connection to Blake, and my ‘deep time’ dive into his works and vision. I’ll write more of the project, and its aims and timeline, in a further post. Please feel free to share your connection to Blake with us here, with anecdotes and images: we’d love to hear.

Notes

You can find out about the recent exhibition, Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion and the history of Petworth House at the National Trust’s site. And there is information about William and Catherine Blakes’ cottage in Felpham at the Blake Cottage Trust site. The Guardian and Telegraph both have interesting articles on the recent exhibition: Maeve Kennedy’s Rare William Blake works to be exhibited in Sussex, where he lived (10/1/18) and Alistair Sooke’s The pastoral interlude that influenced a visionary (12/1/18).

The Devil’s Punch Bowl in Surrey is part of the National Trust’s Hindhead Commons and Devil’s Punch Bowl property.

Blake’s The Four Zoas are among the wide range of topics that American poet Robert Bly explored in a 1980s interview for New Dimensions Radio, William Blake and Beyond, which we’ve added to the Blakean articles collection in A Blakean Archive.

 

 

Reflections on ‘London’

In the first of our series of posts by Finding Blake's contributing writers, artists and scholars, poet Clare Crossman reflects on William Blake's poem London, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

I did not know this poem until I was in my forties, when a close friend quoted the first verse to me one winter morning.

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Immediately the first two lines link us to a song of the everyman who walks Thameside. We wish the river to run softly, but these lines run counter to the wish. When I got home I looked the rest up, and found the second verse:

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

My friend had quoted the poem because I was going through a miserable time and had been telling her about it. In some detail! So exact and precise, and ordinary in its address; I felt as if Blake was in the room talking to me. He too had walked that morning in a place where everything was restricted and miserable. He understood.

The familiar made strange

150 years later the poet W.H. Auden said that poetry could be ‘memorable speech’. Certainly ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe’ fits this criterion. The repetition, the soft alliteration are like a sigh or a man holding back tears. Within the phrase lies the heaviness of water and a relinquishing; the speaker is burdened, tired. And again in ‘mind-forged manacles’: imagine a forge in your head with a blacksmith hammering your beliefs into place. You are made to believe certain things you may not agree with. In that image is a scorch of the familiar made strange, which is unforgettable.

‘London’ Artist: William Blake
Source: Wikipedia (click image to link)

There is no relenting in tone during the last two verses:

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

In precis, church-goers don’t mind children as young as six being sent up chimneys because they are small enough; those who go to fight for their country are murdered in God’s name; babies will grow into harlots whose swearing ignores and coarsens the sorrow of their children. And so, if this is what happens to infants then marriage is dead. All Innocence is lost. The sorrow for Blake is the fact that society is this way is an appalling travesty of the way it should be and leaves him – and us – with a hard knot of pain.

Mourning a lost power

Exam notes will say what a political poem this is. And Blake knew radicals like Tom Paine. But for me the poem’s wonder is in plain, precise and vivid diction. It is deeply personal, deeply felt, and moves from despair to anger and sorrow, in a simplicity and directness that mourns the fact that we have lost the power to transform anything; and that we are walking away from the mysterious and joyful, and we have DONE IT TO OURSELVES.

Even the young and beautiful are of necessity corrupted, but oh how things could be different if we could be more open and generous.

Found in Songs of Experience, critics note that this poem is one that has no ‘companion’ poem in Songs of Innocence. But in the illustration which Blake gave it (in the collection of the Fitzwilliam), the poem is illustrated with a small child trying to accompany a very old sagacious man through the street, below which someone else is perhaps tending the holy fire that will bring a longed for transformation into connection, openness and peace.

Blake wrote at a time of great turmoil in Britain and abroad. In France there was revolution and in early Victorian London there was poverty on the street and in the houses, children were abused and malnourished, many girls worked as prostitutes, while those with power and the wealth in society were disdainful and hypocritical. Seem familiar in 2018? I hope there’s a Blake in Hackney, or Middlesbrough, Kettering, Preston, Gateshead, Hartlepool, Redcar, Sunderland, Drigg, Workington, Aberystwyth, Hamilton…


Notes

Clare Crossman is a poet and writer. She is based in Cambridge, has lived in Cumbria and is originally from Kent. In the past few years, Clare has become very interested in writing about the natural world in Cambridgeshire, due to her interest in climate change and involvement in conserving a small woodland. This has produced a sequence of poems about a local chalk stream. You can find her work at clarecrossman.net.

You can find many of William Blake’s poems, including ‘London’, at Poetry Foundation.

You can also explore more of Blake’s poems from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, with summaries, analysis and images of the original illustrations, at The Tate’s pages.

 

 

Testament on Blake

To launch our new page of Finding Blake films - part of A Blakean Archive - and as the first of a series of mini-posts on the growing library of films we're producing for the project, here is a short clip of Testament talking to James Murray-White in London, the city that was home to Blake for almost all his life.

In September 2017, I interviewed and filmed rapper and beatboxer Testament in London on his passion for Blake.

Filmed in an alleyway off Leicester Square with the sights, sounds and smells of central London in our faces, Testament’s passion for Blake and the inspiration he has gained from studying him shines through. 

Testament talks Blake from Finding Blake on Vimeo.

Testament’s solo show on Blake, Blake Remixed, has been an inspiration for our Finding Blake Project, and we hope to collaborate with him in the future.

Notes

We’ve included Testament’s Blake Remixed project in our More Resources page, where we will also be adding more projects that discuss or respond to William Blake. If you know of projects, organisations and other resources we should add there, do use the Contact page to let us know. And don’t forget the collection of individual music, films, books and other materials that you can explore in A Blakean Archive