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.
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.
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.
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.