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You are in: London > People > Interviews > Pieces of William Blake

William Blake

Pieces of William Blake

This Lambeth resident was a rebel, a visionary and one of the most important artists in British history. Not that you would know it by walking around the borough. Now, plans are in place to properly celebrate the life of Lambeth's William Blake.

Born 250 years ago on 28th November 1757, Blake's poetry, paintings and philosophical writings are considered some of the seminal works in arts and culture. Blake abhorred the practice of slavery and believed in racial and sexual equality. As a thinker he played a crucial role in developing our understanding of the 'sixth sense': imagination.

"If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite" - Blake's The Marriage of Heaven & Hell

So radical were his thoughts, that many considered him mad. Yet, until now, his presence in Lambeth, where he spent some of the happiest and most productive years of his life, has been strangely muted.

David Tootill

Southbank Mosaics's David Tootill

The William Blake Heritage Project

David Tootill, of Southbank Mosaics, is on a mission to change this. His team is creating a series of mosaics that will be installed underneath a railway tunnel close to Blake's Lambeth home. The work is part of the William Blake Heritage Project that Southbank Mosaics are running in partnership with the Southbank Sinfonia and the Futures Theatre Company. As well as the mosaics, it will feature performances based on Blake's work, such as Songs of Innocence and Experience.

It's no happy accident that this two-year project involves visual, theatrical and musical cooperation; Blake is perhaps unique in unifying the art forms.

In his studio on Waterloo Road, David Tootill, explained to BBC London why the project was necessary and why Blake continues to be an important figure today.

"William Blake lived just a few hundred metres away from here in Hercules Road; there is a plaque on the wall where he used his house used to be but he is not properly respected. And yet he is a major artist, respected around the world and we are not properly recognising it. He is Lambeth's most famous artist and North Lambeth's most famous son."

"He is also very relevant to people today. He was very independent and had very strong views. He didn't like organised religion, didn't have much time for kings and queens. He was considered to be a very big rebel and yet was very private, very hard working and kind and generous, despite living very close to poverty. He was a rebel against what he saw as wrong – forms of authority. He was very much for children and women's rights, the imagination and the intrinsic worth of people."

Making Blake accessible

The main festival is scheduled to run in November 2008. As well as the art and the mosaics, there will be performances, music and readings of Blake's work.

Caroline Bryant of Futures Theatre Company told BBC London that the aim was to make Blake more accessible to the people of Lambeth.

"We will be working with young people in schools; we're aiming at the older ages, so GCSE to A Level students and will look at different qualities of Blake. We want to look at the language, look at the context of Blake and that fact that he used to live around here."


A William Blake by Southbank Mosaics

The Heritage Lottery Fund

Both David Tootill and Caroline Bryant were united in agreeing that a grant of £195,500 from the Heritage Lottery Fund was 'absolutely vital' in allowing the festival to proceed.

Sue Bowers, Manager for the Heritage Lottery Fund in London said; "How many people from Lambeth know that one of Britain's greatest artists and writers lived in their own backyard? This fascinating project will let people learn about Blake's poetry and art and discover more about their local history along the way. Exhibiting the mosaics across the street from where Blake once lived is a great way to open up his legacy for as many people as possible."

More than the sum of its parts

Southbank Mosaics is a not-for-profit community enterprise that works with volunteers and, in David Tootill's words, 'people who are outside of society to make London more beautiful.'

Southbank Mosaics

A volunteer working on a mosaic

"It is really important that we get works of art onto the streets of London, where people can touch and see them," said David.  "It becomes part of the street. Mosaics have got that strength."

A large part of his time is dedicated to working with youth offenders and teaching them the skills needed to create mosaics, skills that they can then transfer into a useful trade such as tiling or paving. He admits not all the offenders are as enthusiastic as the volunteers who attend by choice, but on the other hand many of them have also shown considerable talent and commitment.

David has an infectious enthusiasm for mosaics and he sees it as the perfect metaphor for London.

"It could become a major art form on the streets and it symbolises the way that London is this world city where people come from every country and every faith. Different cultures can meet together and make something that is absolutely brilliant and that is what we are trying to do. In a year we have 50 or 60 different nationalities come through our studios and work together and join in."

The William Blake Heritage Project is the perfect opportunity for him to combine his passion for mosaics and his admiration for William Blake.

"Blake wrote that he wanted his work to be reproduced enlarge and put into the public. So we are fulfilling a wish of his because he worked in very small size, just books, and his paintings as well were quite small. He was never able to produce large works which he wanted, so we are fulfilling his wish."

last updated: 17/06/2008 at 11:00
created: 07/08/2007

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