THE poet and painter William Blake described the Sussex village of Felpham where he lived for three years as “the sweetest spot on earth”.
Many of his later works were inspired by his experience of living in Sussex and now for the first time a major new exhibition celebrating the artist’s relationship with the county opens on January 13 at Petworth House.
Some of Blake’s greatest works from poetry to painting will be shown in the William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion exhibition, the first to bring together for display many of his Sussex-inspired works, as well as extraordinary works by the artist on loan from the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and Tate. These will be combined with three paintings by Blake from the Petworth collection and a fourth on loan from the National Trust’s Arlington Court in Devon.
Petworth’s exhibitions manager Andrew Loukes says, “It’s very exciting to be mounting the first exhibition to reunite many of Blake’s Sussex-related works, especially at Petworth – the only great English country house to hold major paintings by the artist.
“William Blake in Sussex is not only a subject of great local interest but also of national cultural significance, not least because the famous lines that were later adopted for the song Jerusalem were written in the county.”
Largely unrecognised during his lifetime, William Blake (1757-1827) is now considered a key figure in the Romantic Age of poetry and the visual arts, creating what he called his “prophetic works”, many of which were influenced by the ideals of the American and French revolutions.
He lived in London for most of his life and Sussex remains the only place outside London that Blake ever lived. He spent three years in Felpham from 1800 to 1803 with his wife Catherine after taking a job illustrating the works of poet William Hayley. It was in the cottage in Felpham that he began to write his epic poem Milton, its preface a poem with the opening line “And did those feet in ancient time”, which became the words for the anthem Jerusalem.
The exhibition is particularly significant to Petworth. The 17th century mansion has an extraordinary collection of works of art including two of Blake’s paintings, The Last Judgment, 1808, and Satan calling up his Legions, c. 1800-1805, both of which are usually displayed in Petworth House.
They were commissioned by Elizabeth Ilive, who was the mistress and then wife to George Wyndham, the 3rd Earl of Egremont (1751-1837), and lived at Petworth House from 1789 to 1803. The watercolour The Last Judgment, described as Mr Loukes as Blake’s most important work at Petworth, probably features Elizabeth ascending to Heaven with her six children beside an artist that may represent Blake.
“Elizabeth Ilive was a remarkable woman who had a life of adultery,” says Mr Loukes. “ She had nine children by the 3rd Earl, who had many mistresses and she couldn’t cope with it and went back to London. But as well as being a mistress and then a wife, she also had many other strings to her bow. She was interested in science and art and had her own laboratory at Petworth House. She invented a crossbow lever and was given a silver medal by the Royal Society of Arts, which will be part of the exhibition.”
The two paintings The Last Judgment and Satan calling up his Legions will be displayed alongside a third by Blake, Characters from Spenser’s Faery Queen, 1825, bought by the Earl of Egremont from the artist’s widow Catherine as a philanthropic gesture after she fell on hard times.
During his lifetime, William Blake was virtually unrecognised either as an artist or a poet. His reputation only soared later on in the 19th century when national museums became the beneficiaries of many collections of works, including Blake’s, and his work suddenly reached huge audiences.
“He wrote poetry and illustrated it himself,” says Mr Loukes. “He also published it himself. Nobody else was doing that. The amazing thing about Blake is that he excelled at both art and words – so much so his best work combines the two. He was capable of relating his work to what was happening at the time.”
Blake’s reputation also suffered because he was considered to be mad for his controversial views. “He was a radical fellow,” says Mr Loukes. “He was on a government list for dangerous radicals, and when he was living in Felpham, he was embroiled in an altercation with a drunken soldier called John Schofield in his garden.
“Blake was charged with assault and sedition and treason because Schofield said he had shouted, ‘Damn the king’. But Blake appeared before magistrates at Chichester Assizes and was acquitted.”
Original documents from the trial will be on display in the exhibition. Also among the works will be the hand-coloured relief etching of Blake’s illustrated epic poem Milton, of which only four are still in existence. Written and illustrated between 1804-1811, it is on loan from the British Museum
One of the illustrations for display from the poem depicts Blake’s conception of Milton; a spirit of John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, in the shape of a comet landing on the foot of Blake. A second illustration, of the cottage at Felpham, overtly references Blake’s experiences in Sussex with the text ‘In Felpham I saw Visions of Albion.’
Blake’s The Sea of Time and Space, 1821, a watercolour of a stormy coastal scene will also be a part of the exhibition. Discovered at Arlington Court above a wardrobe in the housemaid’s pantry when the house was given to the National Trust in 1947, little is known of how – or why – it came to be there.
Running parallel to the main exhibition will be an exhibit of original drawings by author Philip Pullman, president of The Blake Society, for his internationally acclaimed His Dark Materials books that echo John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. These chosen illustrations will feature as part of an immersive experience in the Red Room using projections, sound and text to connect these Miltonian works within the wider context of the exhibition.
Pullman has described Blake’s designs as “majestic in their power and authority, exquisite in their detail, tender, awe-inspiring, profoundly original” and his poetry as possessing “a moral darkness and complexity of thought that we recognise as truly Blakeian”.
William Blake in West Sussex: Visions of Albion is at Petworth House, Petworth, from Saturday January 13 until Sunday March 25. Entry is by pre-booked timed tickets only. Tickets £12 for National Trust members or £16 for non-members, ticket includes entry to the gardens, parkland and selected rooms in the house.
Phone 0344 249 1895 or visit nationaltrust.org.uk/petworth.
Above: A Vision of the Last Judgment, 1808. National Trust Images/John Hammond
Main picture, top: portrait of William Blake by Thomas Philipsoil on canvas, 1807/National Portrait Gallery, London
Below: Satan calling up his Legions (from John Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’) by William Blake (London 1757 – London 1827). Picture: National Trust Images/Derrick E Witty
Above: The Sea of Time and Space, 1821, pen and ink and watercolour on paper/Arlington Court, National Trust
Below: The Characters in Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’, c1825. National Trust Images/John Hammond
Above: William Blake – Blake’s Cottage at Felpham, plate 36 from Milton a Poem, 1804-1811/©The Trustees of the British Museum
Below: William Blake – ‘Chichester’ from the Designs to a Series of Ballads written by William Hayley, Chichester 1802/©The Trustees of the British Museum
Above: William Blake, William, plate 29 from Milton a Poem, 1804-1811/© The Trustees of the British Museum
Below: Petworth House, which is staging the William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion exhibition from January 13