Feature: James Haddrell
FROM 1790-1800, the printmaker, painter, poet and philosopher
William Blake spent the most productive decade of his life living
at 13, Hercules Buildings in Lambeth.
For the fifth in their series of summer exhibitions at the Museum
Of Garden History, the Lambeth based commissioning group,
Parabola, has brought together eight contemporary artists and
four writers to explore the extraordinary work produced in this
ten year period by one of this country’s most unique artists.
The Museum of Garden History is located in the church of St Mary-at-Lambeth,
turning the historic place of worship into a celebration of that
oh-so-English past-time, gardening.
This might seem an unlikely place for eight modern artists to
come together and exhibit their work - side by side and jostling
for space with a collection of artefacts from horticultural history
- but as Parabola curator, Danielle Arnaud explains, for an exhibition
inspired by Blake there really could not be a better place.
"For Parabola the context of the art we commission, the
place where it will be seen and the historical relevance of the
work are all very important.
"In this case, William Blake lived 200 yards away from the
church, and could see it from his window. Whilst he was certainly
not a traditionally religious man in eighteenth century terms,
he would likely have walked into the church at some point."
Borough-based artist Andy Harper, one of the eight artists involved
in the show, adds: "Blake had a very personal relationship
with this church, and it wasn’t a positive one. He was a
very spiritual man, but this church charged a fee to sit in a
pew which excluded a lot of people.
"Now that the church has been taken over by this slightly
eccentric museum, and the entry fee is entirely voluntary, it
feels like the right time to bring Blake inside."
The eight artists and four writers involved in the exhibition
all came to the project with different levels of knowledge about
"I did not simply choose artists who were already interested
in Blake," explains Arnaud. "I was interested in their
ability to work around a theme, and in their different artistic
"We wanted to explore different approaches to Blake, so
we have some painting, some embroidery, some text, some new media
– and, of course, we have Polly Gould’s live demonstration
of how a printing press actually worked in Blake’s time."
The exhibition is relatively small – by the time you have
walked through the two sets of double doors to enter the museum
you have already walked past four of the ten exhibits - and several
of the pieces are very small themselves, but many of the artists
have considered the peculiarities of the space in their work.
Manuela Ribadneira has grown a giant ‘&’ out
of the grass in the churchyard, sitting half seen among the gravestones.
So often used by Blake to unite opposite ideas – as in this
exhibition’s title, Cloud & Vision,
taken from a poem about the French revolution - the typographical
symbol here seems to grow out of the graveyard, embodying that
idea of opposition, somehow laid to rest among the dead but still
David Burrows’ sculptural answer to Blake’s poem,
Sick Rose, seems to break through the very foundation
of the church, with brightly coloured flowers growing from a mass
of glittering black dirt, their sickness spewing violently from
each flower and mingling with strangely placed, half-buried items
– a vest, a child’s shoe – glimpsed beneath
Andy Harper’s show-stopping An Orrery for Other
Worlds is a giant globe suspended above the site of the
original font, reclaiming the now vacant circular space. The near
black globe is covered with white painted foliage, and slowly
rotates, reminding us of the scientific interest in the planets
that was raging in the eighteenth century.
"As much as he might have wanted to, Blake could not avoid
the scientific revolution going on around him," explains
Harper. "It wasn’t that he thought the scientific discoveries
of people like Newton were wrong. He just rejected the totality
of that scientific approach, he wanted to challenge the way that
science was seen to have the answer to everything, he wanted to
turn the natural order upside down.
"When I was asked to take part
in this exhibition, I had just come back from South Africa, so
I had just crossed the equator, and I was thinking about how random
it is that we have these ideas of up and down, or north and south,
with up always more important.
"I wanted to have the globe hanging, and turning, with an
equator, but with no obvious difference between the two halves.
I wanted to question what we all think of as the natural order,
in the same way that Blake did."
Annie Whiles has also focused on Blake’s battle with science,
recalling his earliest original design - an etching called Glad
Blake’s illustration features a glorified male figure derived
from the Vitruvian man - the naked man surrounded by a square
and a circle used most famously by Leonardo da Vinci to signify
the perfection of the human form.
However, Blake’s figure has broken free of the geometric
prison, and where the previous versions of the figure emphasised
man’s place at the centre of the scientific, geometric world,
Blake’s figure is a celebration of man’s emotional
and spiritual self, free of the scientific boundaries of the world,
the light exploding from him to illuminate, not rationalise, the
Whiles’ Rain On The Parade (pictured)
sees Blake’s figure transposed to the modern day, walking
down a catwalk with the same golden light surrounding him. However,
all around the edges of the scene, the traditional English rain
is falling, pooling at the man’s feet, and to one side of
the catwalk four contemporary figures stand, wrapped up tightly
in anoraks, the epitomy of bored onlookers.
Can a modern day viewer, Whiles seems to ask, still engage with
the dramatic spirituality of Blake?
Blake claimed to have seen his first angel when he was ten-years-old,
and to see visions for the rest of his life, but belief in both
God and ghosts is fading fast in the modern world.
Science continues to move on, but the life-changing discoveries
about our place in the universe and the nature of humanity that
surrounded Blake have been replaced by developments in computer
technology, far beyond the understanding of most people.
In this world, where the idealised human form is on display
on every bill board and bus shelter in every street, can Blake’s
vibrant spirituality, his determination to loosen the grip of
science, and his love of humanity still offer us anything?
As an artist, Blake has certainly brought a change to Andy Harper’s
"I didn’t know much about Blake before getting involved
in this project," he says, "but now he has made a real
difference to my work.
"A lot of my previous work has dealt with images of real
vegetation, but this is new ground for me. There is a poem by
Blake that is accompanied by a picture of a plant, and no-one
has ever been able to identify that plant, Blake just made it
"With that in mind, I made every plant on my sphere imaginary,
just built up from painted brush strokes. You could say that this
encounter with Blake has changed the way I approach my work –
I’m not scared of words like ‘imaginary’ or
‘in the spirit of’ anymore. It’s made me feel
free to bring more fantasy, or more of a sinister quality, to
Curator Danielle Arnaud goes further. For her, it is not only
artists who can be inspired by Blake.
"Blake has always been relevant," comments Arnaud decisively.
"He represents a single figure trying to find his place in
"The great thing about Blake is that whoever you speak to,
whether they work in the arts or not, they have a vague sense
of who William Blake was – they’ve sung Jerusalem
in church and heard that he wrote the lyrics, or they’ve
heard the story about him and his wife dressed as Adam and Eve,
reading Paradise Lost naked in their garden in Lambeth,
or more often than not they’ve seen one of his etchings.
"Blake was an outsider in his own time, but that has a timeless
quality. People will always look to that kind of role model -
any figure challenging the society around them will always be
Cloud & Vision
Until September 4, 2005
Museum Of Garden History, Lambeth Palace Road, London. SE1
020 7401 8865; www.museumgardenhistory.org
Open 10.30-5.00, Monday-Sunday
Voluntary admission charge: £3 (concessions: £2.50).
Our picture shows Annie Whiles, Rain on the Parade, 2005