12 January 2018

Blake Cottage concept designs presented at Petworth House

An exhibition celebrating poet William Blake in Sussex at Petworth House, West Sussex, presents MICA’s concept designs for the restoration of William Blake’s College and two new garden buildings.

Extracts from The Times exhibition review - published 12th January 2018:

"William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion focuses on a period from 1800 to 1803 when, disillusioned and struggling to make ends meet, the impoverished poet and artist decided to leave the capital and set up home in the country for the only time in his life. He moved with his wife, Catherine, to a cottage in the village of Felpham. There he passed three of his most challenging (William Hayley, his patron, would become his “spiritual enemy”), but also prolific years.

Blake was at first delighted with this, “the sweetest spot on earth”. He wrote: “In Felpham the voices of celestial inhabitants are more distinctly heard.” In the sparkling light of the sea, which he saw for the first time, he saw the spirits of ancient poets and prophets taking shimmering form. He heard “the noise of souls” in the Sussex winds as they swept over cornfields. And in his thyme-scented garden he witnessed a fairy funeral taking place.

It’s this sort of imaginary realm that the exhibition reflects. Joining the two great Blake works that belong to Petworth are 50 works borrowed from collections around Britain. They are used to examine the “visions of Albion” that Blake conjured up while living in Sussex and to trace how, long after his return to London, their influences continued to shape the course of his work.

Blake etches a tiny picture of his cottage. It shows a lime-washed two-up, two-down with a lean-to at the side, with the artist standing in front in a neat patch of garden, deposited there by the angel who hovers above. Turning one downstairs room into a studio, he embarked on what he described as “three years [of] Herculean labours”. He worked on a commission of biblical watercolours and a series of tempera portraits of poets; he composed (among much else) the line “And did those feet in ancient time” and was inspired to write his greatest illuminated books, Milton and Jerusalem.

It was also during his time there that, at the height of the threat of Napoleonic invasion, he was accosted by a drunken soldier and as a result stood trial for treason. Thanks to the testimony of friends, the “meek spiritualist” was found innocent. This exhibition captures all aspects of this story.

The show serves another important purpose. Only two of the residences that Blake occupied have survived. One is an apartment on an upper floor in South Molton Street, London, now a commercial property. The other is the cottage in Felpham. When five years ago it came on the market for the first time since the Twenties it was bought and placed in the care of the Blake Cottage Trust. Now, with the aid of funds donated by the chairman of financial PR Firm Brunswick, Alan Parker, MICA Architects presents its designs for the restoration and development of this cottage into the only Blake museum in the world.

Models and drawings show a replica of Blake’s 18th-century wooden rolling press (researched by the Blake scholar, printmaker and cottage trustee Michael Phillips) installed in what was once the artist’s studio. It will be used for demonstrations. The kitchen and three bedrooms will be restored and 20th-century additions to the cottage removed, making way for a gallery of a standard to reassure lenders from prestigious collections.

The Blake Cottage Trust needs to raise a minimum of £1 million. This Petworth show should help to rouse enthusiasms, not least when you think that the renovation will ensure that a part of the building will be available for short-term let to scholars, artists and the public. As you leave Petworth, giddied by Blake’s pictures, remember that you could soon be sleeping where Britain’s greatest visionary dreamt.

William Blake in Sussex: Vision of Albion is at Petworth House, West Sussex from January 13 to March. "

Link to the full article in The Times

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