A Mo­saic Mar­vel on Lam­beth’s Streets

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Peter Davies

Wil­liam Blake has a habit of hit­ting the head­lines. An an­niver­sary, an ex­hi­bi­tion, some new dis­cov­ery about his life, is some­how al­ways re­mind­ing us afresh of Lon­don’s most orig­i­nal artis­tic son. Above all, he al­ways seems to be ‘of the streets’. His spirit is likely to be en­coun­tered in the most un­ex­pected, unlovely corners.

This year’s no­table Blake event in Lon­don was the un­veil­ing of a stone mark­ing the true lo­ca­tion of Blake’s grave, in the Bun­hill Fields Burial Ground, Lon­don EC1, after more than half a cen­tury of un­cer­tainty as to its pre­cise where­abouts. Since 1965, after ex­tant grave­stones had, over time, been taken away to ac­com­mo­date a new lawn, the site had been spec­u­la­tively marked by a stone close to the Daniel De­foe obelisk, stat­ing merely: ‘nearby lie the re­mains of the poet-painter Wil­liam Blake and of his wife Cather­ine Sophia’.

But sev­eral years of in­ten­sive re­search by two Blake en­thu­si­asts, Luis and Carol Gar­rido, grad­u­ally es­tab­lished the pre­cise site of his burial, now ac­knowl­edged by the City of Lon­don, the Blake So­ci­ety, and lead­ing Blake schol­ars. In this ven­ture Carol’s train­ing as a land­scape ar­chi­tect in her na­tive Por­tu­gal had been in­valu­able in a ven­ture that re­quired in­ten­sive anal­y­sis and in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Bun­hill Fields burial records. On 12 Au­gust, the Blake So­ci­ety was at last able to un­veil a new mon­u­ment in hand­some Port­land stone stat­ing con­fi­dently: ‘Here lies Wil­liam Blake Poet Artist Prophet’. Be­neath is a verse from Blake’s epic poem ‘Jerusalem’, in­scribed by the carver Lida Car­dozo Kin­der­s­ley.

In the mean­time, and vir­tu­ally con­tem­po­ra­ne­ously with this schol­arly ef­fort, on the streets of Lam­beth, where Blake spent the richly pro­duc­tive years 1790-1800, quiet but epic labours of a com­pletely dif­fer­ent sort were un­der way. Over a pe­riod of seven years from 2007 the artists of

South­bank Mo­saics (now the Lon­don School of Mo­saic), an ar­ti­san stu­dio com­mit­ted to mak­ing its neigh­bour­hood more at­trac­tive, were at work, to cre­ate a daz­zling, freely-ac­ces­si­ble, vis­ual homage to Blake, of which most Londoners re­main un­aware.

Helped by sev­eral hun­dred vol­un­teers these mo­saic artists have cre­ated, on the brick walls of the rail­way arches that carry train traf­fic in and out of Water­loo sta­tion, what amounts to a gallery re­pro­duc­ing – in mo­saic – some of the finest il­lus­tra­tions from Blake’s il­lu­mi­nated books, The Songs of In­no­cence and Ex­pe­ri­ence, The Mar­riage of Heaven and Hell and the Prophetic Books.

It feels like noth­ing less than a mir­a­cle to leave the fre­netic rail­way ter­mi­nus and busy Water­loo Road be­hind you, and pass through Lower Marsh mar­ket into what should be gloomy, for­bid­ding tun­nels – made the more men­ac­ing from the rum­ble and crunch of steel train wheels over rail­way lines close above your head – sud­denly to dis­cover that they have been trans­formed into an art gallery de­voted to dis­play­ing the en­ergy and drama of Blake’s spir­i­tual uni­verse.

The choice of mo­saic to re­pro­duce Blake’s of­ten ‘prim­i­tive’ graphic style was an in­spired one. Blake’s cho­sen me­dia, pen and wa­ter­colour, or tem­pera, of­ten re­stricted him in their in­abil­ity to pro­duce im­ages of a power that could ef­fec­tively echo his pow­er­ful ver­bal ef­fects. Most of these im­ages are much larger in scale than their orig­i­nals are on the page, giv­ing their sub­jects greater im­pact, and achiev­ing a sub­lime sim­plic­ity which Blake some­times misses.

Mo­saic, in this set­ting, dis­creetly lighted, can also achieve ef­fects that were not open to Blake. The sur­face of the stones re­flects light glo­ri­ously with myr­i­ads of tiny flashes and twin­kles height­en­ing the sense of drama in­her­ent in many of these pan­els as you pass in front of them.

Vis­ual rep­re­sen­ta­tions from the Prophetic Books work much bet­ter here – as they did for Blake – than the Songs of In­no­cence and Ex­pe­ri­ence.

We must all have all scratched our heads over what on earth Blake meant, when he sought to il­lus­trate the tremen­dous ver­bal thun­der of ‘The Tyger’, (‘Tyger! Tyger! Burn­ing bright,/ In the forests of the Night:/ What im­mor­tal hand or eye/ Could frame thy fear­ful sym­me­try?’) with the im­age of the ami­able quadruped that ac­tu­ally props up the page on which the poem is printed.

The same holds true of such ex­er­cises as ‘The Sick Rose’, or ‘Lon­don’. Blake was un­able to match in vis­ual terms the ef­fort­less con­cen­tra­tion of im­agery he achieves in what are some of the most pow­er­ful short po­ems in the lan­guage. The al­most un­bear­ably sav­age last stanza of ‘Lon­don’, which can be seen in mo­saic here, might in­deed be read as Blake’s som­bre warn­ing to fu­ture gov­ern­ing gen­er­a­tions that have not, after all, and after so many years, made no­table progress in ame­lio­rat­ing the plight of the poor­est in so­ci­ety: ‘But most, through mid­night streets I hear/How the youth­ful har­lot’s curse/ Blasts the new born in­fant’s tear,/And blights with plagues the mar­riage hearse’.

It is a priv­i­lege – and a marvel­lous one – to be able to read again, at leisure, these po­ems, in the form in which Blake cre­ated them, and in­tended us to en­joy them.

When it comes to the Prophetic Books, the boot is, so to speak, on the other foot. As the al­most com­plete ne­glect of Blake’s work drove him more and more into him­self, his free-verse ram­blings seem to be­come more and more a pri­vate code for his own con­sump­tion, as he teases out his ar­gu­ments. In­dig­na­tion al­ways threat­ens in­tel­li­gi­bil­ity – and the qual­ity of his po­etry.

Yet the il­lus­tra­tions to these carry a seem­ingly ef­fort­less en­ergy, which fre­quently soars above – and even some­times con­tra­dicts – the poet’s dif­fi­cul­ties in the text. And the mo­saic re­pro­duc­tions are in here in their el­e­ment. Thus, the ‘Book of Thel’, whose epony­mous shep­herdess heroine seems a fear­ful vic­tim of her tyran­nous vir­gin­ity, ends with an il­lus­tra­tion which de­picts a naked young girl and two in­fants rid­ing on the back of a ser­pent. This iron­i­cal com­men­tary on sex, the Ser­pent and the bib­li­cal Fall

at the same time im­plies (through the man­i­festly un­trou­bled ex­u­ber­ance of the chil­dren as they en­joy their ride) that nei­ther sex nor the Fall will be as ter­ri­ble to Thel as she fears.

Some­thing sim­i­lar hap­pens in ‘Vi­sions of the daugh­ters of Al­bion’, whose vir­gin heroine, Oothoon, tells us at the out­set: ‘I loved Theotor­mon/ And I was not ashamed’. Filled with the de­sire to con­sum­mate her love, she flies to meet him. On her way she is in­ter­cepted and raped by Bromion – a fig­ure rep­re­sent­ing male au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. As­ton­ish­ingly, the now jealous Theotor­mon agrees with Bromion’s ver­dict that this act of vi­o­lence makes her ‘Bromion’s har­lot’.

She can only ac­cept this for the mo­ment, even call­ing Theotor­mon’s Ea­gles to ‘rend away this de­filed bo­som’ (a clear ref­er­ence to the pun­ish­ment of Prometheus for steal­ing fire from the gods). Does Blake col­lude with us in think­ing she de­serves some­thing bet­ter than such a pre­pos­ter­ous pun­ish­ment after all her suf­fer­ings? At any rate the plate de­pict­ing the ea­gle’s visit to her omits to equip the rap­tor with a hooked beak, but fur­nishes it with some­thing more akin to a duck’s or swan’s bill. There is more than a sug­ges­tion of the erotic here. The ea­gle of the text seems, rather, anal­o­gous to Zeus/the Swan who visits Leda as a lover. The ef­fect, ren­dered in mo­saic, is here rivet­ing. Bromion and Theotor­mon have not, it seems, had the last words on Oothoon.

Not all the mo­saics in this Lam­beth gallery ref­er­ence Blake’s il­lus­trated books. There are some fine ‘stand-alone’ im­ages of sub­jects which were ei­ther a part of Blake’s re­li­gious pre­oc­cu­pa­tions or which in­ter­ested him for other rea­sons. These in­clude the cel­e­brated ‘Glad’ and an af­fec­tion­ate study of his wife Cather­ine, for which a pen­cil sketch has trans­lated most ef­fec­tively into mo­saics, pre­serv­ing its sub­ject’s dis­tinc­tively ro­bust lin­ea­ments.

The names of the artists who col­lab­o­rated on this project may be seen on ce­ramic plaques on the walls of the tun­nels. A walk through these ‘char­tered streets’ of Blake’s Lon­don brings you face to face with his art in all its vigour and del­i­cacy, its anger and com­pas­sion.

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