William Blake has got a new сrowd-funded headstone nearly 200 years after his death
Two amateurs recovered the long-lost resting place of William Blake
, an English poet,
and printmaker. On 12 August of 2018,
on the 191st anniversary of his death,
a new memorial stone was finally placed on Blake’s grave at Bunhill Fields Burial Ground in London by fans and artists. It also marked the conclusion of 14 years of detective work and campaigning for two of his admirers,
as the exact site of Blake’s grave was lost to history until 2006.
Despite his influence today, Blake died in obscurity in 1827 and was buried in an unmarked common grave in Bunhill Fields, a London cemetery. There was a plain memorial stone in the cemetery that simply recorded that the artist with his wife were buried nearby.
However, in 1960, the stone was moved about 20 yards during cemetery renovations, and Blake’s grave once again went unmarked.
William Blake’s final words before his death in 1827 are said to have been, "I am going to that country which I have all my life wished to see." But for the better part of two centuries, Blake’s unmarked grave meant that his final resting place remained largely unseen and unvisited. It wasn’t until 2006 that two fans of Blake’s work, Luis and Carol Garrido, tracked down the exact location of Blake’s burial site—a common grave in which Blake lies buried beneath seven other bodies.
William Blake’s headstone in Bunhill Fields, a former burial ground, in London.
Photograph: Matthew Lloyd
Thanks to the hard work of these married Portuguese Blakeans living in London, the real burial place of William Blake was tracked down. Carol and Luis Garrido had always had a fascination for the man who wrote poems such as The Tyger and And did those feet in ancient time, better known as Jerusalem, England’s unofficial national anthem, as well as art and engravings that have inspired artistic movements.
When the pair decided to visit Bunhill Fields about a decade ago, they were surprised to discover that the monument to Blake at the edge of the green said, almost apologetically, that his body and his wife’s were "nearby."
Finding it proved a bigger challenge than they imagined. Bunhill Fields was a cemetery popular with Dissenters, and when Blake died, largely unrecognised, in 1827, his was the fifth of eight coffins to be buried in the plot.
The graveyard had been arranged in a grid, and the co-ordinates were in the Bunhill Fields burial records, given as "77, east and west, 32, north and south". But after bomb damage during the second world war, the Corporation of London decided to transform part of the site into gardens, leaving only two remaining gravestones, and moving Blake’s stone next to a memorial to an obelisk commemorating Daniel Defoe.
The burial records were not always precise, according to Carol Garrido, whose skills as a landscape architect were vital. "You could see the handwriting in the burial order book change," she said. "We imagined someone who was a clerk in the office, writing what the foreman of the gravediggers told them." By using the two existing graves to find a point of origin, after two years they had found the right place.
The society raised £30,000 (33,500 euros, $38,300) through donations from around the world, as well as a benefit gala. The engraved slab of Portland Stone reads: "Here lies William Blake, 1757−1827, Poet Artist Prophet", followed by two lines of his verse.
Although his grave was located in 2006 using directional coordinates that had been logged by cemetery staff, it took some time for fans to reach a consensus on the new gravestone’s inscription, carved by Lida Cardozo, which is an extract from his epic poem "Jerusalem."
Photo: Victoria Jones/PA / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Among hundreds of people at the unveiling of a gravestone was frontman of Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson. The man, whose band is one of the most enduring and successful heavy metal bands of all time, said Blake is "one of the greatest living English poets, artists".
Iron Maiden lead singer Bruce Dickinson speaks ahead of the unveiling of the headstone at Bunhill Fields (Victoria Jones/PA)
"When I was growing up in Portugal, I didn’t know about Blake’s poetry or writing but I saw the illustrated books, the pictures, the beautiful handwriting," Luis Garrido said. "I decided to study English specifically to be able to read his poetry. There are people all over the world like this. Even if you cannot understand the words, you start reading the pictures and you are transported to a different world. He visualised an England that will become a new Jerusalem, the home of spiritual enlightenment."
Visions were commonplaces to Blake, and his life and works were intensely spiritual. His friend the journalist Henry Crabb Robinson wrote that when Blake was four years old he saw God’s head appear in a window. While still a child he also saw the Prophet Ezekiel under a tree in the fields and had a vision, according to his first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist (1828−61), of "a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars."
From childhood Blake wanted to be an artist, at the time an unusual aspiration for someone from a family of small businessmen and Nonconformists (dissenting Protestants). His father indulged him by sending him to Henry Pars’s Drawing School in the Strand, London (1767−72). The boy hoped to be apprenticed to some artist of the newly formed and flourishing English school of painting, but the fees was too high. Instead he went with his father in 1772 to interview the successful and fashionable engraver William Wynne Ryland. Ryland’s fee, perhaps £100, was both "more attainable", but Blake interposed an unexpected objection: "Father, I do not like the man’s face; it looks as if he will live to be hanged." Eleven years later, Ryland was indeed hanged—for forgery
The young Blake was ultimately apprenticed for 50 guineas to James Basire (1730−1802), a highly responsible and conservative line engraver who specialized in prints depicting architecture. For seven years (1772−79) Blake lived with Basire’s family, h e learned to polish the copperplates, to sharpen the gravers, to grind the ink, to reduce the images to the size of the copper, to prepare the plates for etching with acid and so on. He became so proficient in all aspects of his craft that Basire trusted him to go by himself to Westminster Abbey to copy the marvelous medieval monuments there for one of the greatest illustrated English books of the last quarter of the 18th century, the antiquarian Richard Gough’s Sepulchral Monuments in Great Britain (vol. 1, 1786).
On the completion of his apprenticeship in 1779, Blake began to work vigorously as an independent engraver. His most frequent commissions were from the great liberal bookseller Joseph Johnson. At first most of his work was copy engraving after the designs of other artists, such as the two fashion plates for the Ladies New and Polite Pocket Memorandum-Book (1782).
Blake became so well known that he received commissions to engrave his own designs. Blake’s style of designing, however, was so extreme and unfamiliar, portraying spirits with real bodies, that one review in The British Critic (1796; of Gottfried August Bürger's Leonora) called them "distorted, absurd," and the product of a "depraved fancy." His prophetic works based on his own invented mythology.
He has been regularly rediscovered by artists, starting with members of the pre-Raphaelite movement in the 1860s, classical composers such as Benjamin Britten and John Tavener, and the counter-cultural movements of the 1960s. Two of the great graphic novelists, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, have also been inspired by Blake.
Left: Thomas Phillips. William Blake, 1807.
"There was no one really comparable to him and he wasn’t part of any establishment, you’d almost call him an outsider artist," said Jeremy Deller, the 2004 Turner prize winner. "He stood apart from everyone else and was viewed with quite a lot of suspicion, I imagine, by the establishment. But of all the artists of that time, he’s the one who has this huge appeal to artists now because of the way he wrote and the ambition of his work.
"He was interested in the past, present and future — in ancient, pre-Christian culture and ancient history, but also very much in today, the working conditions of children, the state of Britain at that moment. He also looked forward to the future, what might it look like."
Title illustration: William Blake. Illustrations of the Bible. Assumption Of The Virgin, 1803. Tate Britain, London.
Based on materials from Artdaily, The Guardian.
Artists mentioned in the article