A Mosaic Marvel on Lambeth’s Streets
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.