William Blake: Sussex and the New Jerusalem

William Blake, ‘Blake’s Cottage at Felpham’, plate 36 from Milton a Poem, etching and watercolour © The British Museum, London
William Blake, ‘Blake’s Cottage at Felpham’, plate 36 from Milton a Poem, etching and watercolour © The British Museum, London

This week I am revisiting the exceptional William Blake in Sussex exhibition at Petworth House. Many visitors will be surprised to find that many of Blake’s most famous jewel like works are intimate in scale contrasting with their often epic themes.

Amongst these is the preface to Blake’s ‘Milton a Poet’ which was inspired by his time at Felpham and begun here in Sussex. The preface, titled ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’, measures just 9 x 7 inches and is better known to us today as ‘Jerusalem’. It embodies a creative freedom which responds to the pastoral, natural beauty of rural England whose spirit was awakened in Blake in Sussex.

William Blake, ‘Preface, plate 2 from Milton a Poem’, etching and watercolour © The British Museum, London
William Blake, ‘Preface, plate 2 from Milton a Poem’, etching and watercolour © The British Museum, London

At the heart of the poem is a questioning of the myth that Jesus Christ briefly visited these Isles with his Uncle Joseph of Arimathea, a tin dealer, making the new Jerusalem, heaven on earth, here in Britain.

The poem builds on that wonderful passage from the Bible in chapter 21 of the Book of Revelations where Creation is perfected and renewed as heaven and earth are united:

‘Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“Behold, the dwelling of God is with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them, he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”’

Blake must have had this passage in his mind when he wrote to Thomas Butts shortly after his arrival in Sussex: ‘the sweet air and the voices of the winds, trees and birds and the odours of our happy ground makes [Felpham] a dwelling for immortals.’ Blake’s language articulates an earthly paradise contrasting with his lifelong experience of the environs of London.

A little over 100 years later in response to the huge casualties of the Battle of the Somme and declining morale Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, edited a patriotic anthology of poems titled ‘The Spirit of Man’. Amongst these was the then little known poem by William Blake titled ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’ better known to us today as ‘Jerusalem’.

In 1916 Bridges invited Hubert Parry to set William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ to music and the hymn became a national anthem. Jerusalem’s success inculcated redemption, renewal and hope into our national psyche.

‘Milton a Poet’ has an image titled ‘Blake’s Cottage at Felpham’. It depicts Blake visited by the figure of ‘Inspiration’ in the garden of his cottage. The narrative forms part of a very personal mythology of his own creation. Felpham continued to inform the pastoral qualities of his Arcadian figures depicted under a ‘tranquil moon’ and ‘setting sun’ in his later work.

I am delighted that Toovey’s are headline sponsors of this important show which so beautifully connects William Blake’s art and life to Sussex. This is an exceptional exhibition and The National Trust’s Andrew Loukes, Curator of William Blake in Sussex, is deserving of our thanks.

The exhibition runs at Petworth House in West Sussex until the 25th March 2018. Entry is by pre-booked timed tickets which can be purchased online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth. Discounted tickets are available to National Trust Members.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

William Blake in Sussex at Petworth House is a Triumph

Curator Andrew Loukes with Rupert Toovey representing exhibition sponsors, Toovey’s at the opening
Curator Andrew Loukes with Rupert Toovey representing exhibition sponsors, Toovey’s at the opening

The exhibition ‘William Blake in Sussex’ at Petworth House is a triumph!

The show opened to the public last weekend to universal acclaim and is set to be one of 2018’s must see exhibitions.

The central threads of William Blake’s art and writing are beautifully woven together with the formative time that this revolutionary artist spent in Sussex. The clarity of vision of the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Loukes, has blessed us with an unusually rich and coherent narrative.

The works of art on display are visually stunning and include some of the most important in Blake’s oeuvre. They have been borrowed not only from Petworth House’s own collection but also from the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the National Trust’s Arlington Court, Devon.

In an age when our nation is in danger of losing her diverse regional identities with homogenised housing and High Streets it is exciting to see the National Trust daring to put on an exhibition of national importance which speaks of, and is displayed in, the context of William Blake’s story here in Sussex.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries Petworth House held an important place in the British artistic scene thanks to the 3rd Earl of Egremont’s patronage and its extraordinary collections which drew artists including Turner from across the country.

William Blake’s ‘The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, circa 1825 © Petworth House, National Trust
William Blake’s ‘The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’, circa 1825 © Petworth House, National Trust

The exhibition reminds us of his patronage through Blake’s watercolour ‘The Characters in Spenser’s Faerie Queene’. The epic Elizabethan poem The Faerie Queene, upon which Blake’s drawing is based, was written against the backdrop of the Reformation by Edmund Spenser. Spenser employed a series of allegorical devices and characters to articulate the chivalric virtues of Holiness, Temperance, Chastity, Friendship, Justice, and Courtesy. Blake painted the scene in 1825. It was bought by the 3rd Earl from the artist’s widow, Catherine Boucher, for eight guineas, a sum which would have been enough to sustain her for the rest of her days. Catherine wrote to him in 1829 instructing him as to its care, saying ‘Mr Blake had a great dislike to his pictures falling into the hands of the picture cleaners.’

Blake illustrates a number of the characters from Spenser’s epic poem. At the front of the processional scene is the Red Cross Knight seated on his horse and carrying the emblem of St George, the patron saint of England, a red cross upon his shield. Beside him seated on an ass is his travelling companion, Una, who represents the true protestant church. The scene is played out beneath the tableau of the sky. The sun is flanked by the moon and a figure representing Justice among the stars. The spired Gothic Cathedral in the sky to the left contrasts with the depiction of the Tower of Babel on the right.

There is so much more to say about this extraordinary exhibition and Blake’s time in Sussex that I look forward to revisiting it with you.

Petworth House could not be a more appropriate place for this fine exhibition providing a reminder of William Blake’s artistic talent, faith and strong moral vision.

The richness and layers of this exhibition will repay each and every visit. I am delighted that Toovey’s are headline sponsors of this exceptional show which understandably is attracting national interest.

The exhibition runs at Petworth House in West Sussex until the 25th March 2018. Entry is by pre-booked timed tickets which can be purchased online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth. Discounted tickets are available to National Trust Members.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

William Blake at Petworth

Exhibition curator Andrew Loukes with William Blake’s ‘John Milton’, c. 1800-03
Exhibition curator Andrew Loukes with William Blake’s ‘John Milton’, c. 1800-03

One of 2018’s most anticipated exhibitions, William Blake in Sussex: Vision of Albion, opens at Petworth House, West Sussex this weekend. I was fortunate enough to call in last week as the show was being hung under the exceptional eye of the National Trust’s Exhibition Manager at Petworth and the exhibition’s curator, Andrew Loukes and I can confirm that this is going to be an exceptional show.

In recent years the importance of Sussex as a centre for art and artists from the 18th to the 20th century has been affirmed by numerous exhibitions in London but I am delighted that William Blake in Sussex is being held in its correct context.

It is rare for an important country house like Petworth to have William Blakes in its collection and on display. It was Elizabeth Ilive, the 3rd Earl of Egremont, George Wyndham’s mistress and then wife, who commissioned Blake to paint ‘A Vision of the Last Judgement’ in 1808. The image sanctifies family life. Mothers and Fathers ascend to heaven with their children and infants, as Christ sits in Majesty. In contrast, on the opposite side of the composition the wicked descend into hell.

William Blake ‘A Vision of the Last Judgement’, c. 1808 © Petworth House, National Trust

Blake described the iconography: “the Just, in humiliation and in exultation, rise through the air with their children and families…among them is a figure crowned with stars, and the moon beneath her feet, with six infants around her.” In his accompanying essay Andrew Loukes argues that whilst Blake describes the figure in this passage as representing the Christian Church it is possible that the woman is actually Elizabeth accompanied by her six surviving children and that the artist who faces her and appears to be drawing her is reminiscent of Blake’s own imagined self-image.

The imagery must have resonated with Elizabeth who from the age of sixteen had born nine children, three of whom died in infancy. George Wyndham’s philandering would bring to a close their long-awaited and all too brief marriage.

This exhibition promises to bring together the threads of William Blake’s faith, political radicalism and the influences of his patrons, Sussex and the pastoral on his life and work.

Petworth House could not be a more appropriate place for this fine exhibition providing a reminder of William Blake’s artistic talent, faith and strong moral vision.

The exhibition runs at Petworth House in West Sussex from 13th February until the 25th March 2018. Entry is by pre-booked timed tickets which can be purchased online at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth. Discounted tickets are available to National Trust Members.

I can’t wait to see the exhibition and I’m booking my tickets as I write.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

 

William Blake, Exhibition Unites Sussex and Oxford

William Blake (1757–1827), ‘Newton’, 1795, large colour print finished in watercolour © Philadelphia Museum of Art

An insightful exhibition has just opened at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. It focuses on the life and work of the remarkable romantic, visionary artist and poet, William Blake (1757-1827). The exhibition ‘William Blake Apprentice and Master’ explores the artist’s formation as he became one of Britain’s most important poets, artists and printmakers. Although the importance of Blake’s work was not wholly understood during his own life-time it inspired a new, younger generation of visionary artists which included Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert, who called themselves ‘the Ancients’.

William Blake’s artistic promise was apparent at an early age and he was apprenticed to James Basire aged fifteen. Basire was the official engraver to the Society of Antiquaries and sent Blake to study Westminster Abbey and other gothic churches in London. In 1779 Blake joined the Antique School of the Royal Academy. These early experiences would inform William Blake’s unorthodox approach to the depiction of both the gothic and the human form.

William Blake (1757–1827), ‘Nebuchadnezzar’, circa 1795–1805, colour print, ink, and watercolour on paper © Tate, London

By 1789 Blake was at the height of his powers, producing work of extraordinary originality. It was during this period that the artist began experimenting with new printing techniques including relief etching. His technical innovations included developments in colour printing, a method he referred to as ‘Illuminated Printing’. Examples in the exhibition include the book ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. Its theme reflects the common Romantic narrative of the human journey from protected childhood innocence, to the effects of engaging with the world, leading to adulthood. The large colour print ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ highlights Blake’s visionary and romantic reinterpretation of Biblical subjects. Here this ruler, described in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, is depicted as half-human, driven mad by his excessive pride and self-confidence. The large colour print ‘Newton’ is a favourite of mine. It depicts the famous scientist at work. It was reinterpreted by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi in the late 20th Century for his sculpture of the same title outside the British Library.

Joseph Johnson published William Blake and many leading writers. These includied the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, the theologian and scientist Joseph Priestly, the artist John Henry Fuseli and the philosopher Richard Price. Blake became acquainted with these radical figures at Johnson’s gatherings.

William Blake (1757–1827), Frontispiece and facing title page from ‘Songs of Innocence’, 1789, relief etching printed in brown ink with watercolour © Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

William Blake spent most of his life in London. However, for a number of years he lived in Sussex. In 1800 he moved to a cottage in Felpham, West Sussex, to illustrate work by the poet William Hayley. During this period William Blake wrote the poem titled ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’. It formed part of the preface to his epic work ‘Milton a Poet’. The title page is dated 1804 though Blake continued to work on it until 1808.

As we near the end of 2014, the centenary year of the start of the First World War, it is poignant to reflect that in 1916 Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, edited a patriotic anthology of poems titled ‘The Spirit of Man’. Amongst these was the little known poem ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’ by William Blake, better known to us today as ‘Jerusalem’.

In 1916 Bridges invited Hubert Parry to set ‘Jerusalem’ to music and it became a national anthem. In it Blake articulates the triumph of our green and pleasant land over the enslavement of our island’s peoples by the dark satanic mills of the industrial revolution. At the heart of this poem is a questioning of the myth that Jesus Christ visited these Isles with his Uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, a tin dealer. In Blake’s poem heaven and earth are to be united in a perfected creation. The New Jerusalem is to be built here in England. Blake uses this story from the Book of Revelations as a metaphor for social justice in his own times.

The exhibition provides a very human insight into William Blake placing him in the context of his times and contemporaries. The recreation of his London studio, now lost, brings us an opportunity to connect with William Blake’s life and work in a particularly personal way.

This fine exhibition provides a reminder of William Blake’s artistic talent and strong moral vision. An important artist who has an important place in the story of Sussex as a leading centre for artists over the centuries.

‘William Blake: Apprentice & Master’, runs until 1st March 2015 at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. For further information go to www.ashmolean.org. The Blake Society are campaigning to buy his cottage at Felpham and preserve it for the nation, for more information go to www.blakesociety.org.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 10th December 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.