The pastoral interlude that influenced a visionary - William Blake in Sussex, Petworth House, review

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William Blake's The Sea of Time and Space (Vision of the Circle of the Life of Man) (detail) Credit:  ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

William Blake was born in Soho in 1757. Seventy years later, he died a mile down the road, off the Strand. In short, he was a Londoner to the core, whose flaming visions came to him amid the filth and bustle of the metropolis and its suburbs.

Except, that is, for the years between 1800 and 1803, when Blake and his wife, Catherine, quit the capital, and lived in the coastal village of Felpham in Sussex. The story of Blake’s stay there, and the impact of the beautiful rolling landscape upon his work, is the subject of a fascinating new exhibition of more than 50 artworks at Petworth House, West Sussex.

Blake’s pretty cottage, with its thatched roof, survives today, swallowed up by Bognor Regis. When he lived in Felpham, though, the village, situated just a quarter of a mile from the sea, had a population of 305 “Genuine Saxons”, as Blake described them, “handsomer than the people about London”.

Portrait of William Blake by Thomas Philipsoil,  (1807) Credit: National Portrait Gallery London

By 1800, Blake had already produced the so-called “Lambeth” books of the 1790s, but was suffering from financial difficulties. He was enchanted by his new surroundings, an earthly paradise that he sensed would stimulate exciting creative possibilities.

“Tho’ small,” he wrote in a letter to his friend and patron, the civil servant Thomas Butts, describing his “beautiful” new situation, “it is well proportion’d & if I should ever build a Palace it would only be My Cottage Enlarged.”

Blake depicted his cottage several times, for instance in a rare watercolour landscape from the Tate, in which, with a typically cosmic flourish, a shaft of sunlight breaks through a lowering cloud and shines directly upon his new home. He illustrated it again in a plate for his eccentric epic poem Milton, which he probably began in Felpham after experiencing an extraordinary vision: supposedly, Milton’s spirit entered Blake’s body in the form of a comet that fell upon his left foot. The preface to the poem contains the lines now known independently as “Jerusalem”, making the Sussex Downs the likely model for “Englands green & pleasant Land”.

William Blake's A Vision of the Last Judgment (1808) Credit: ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The exhibition at Petworth evokes Blake’s experiences in Sussex lucidly and concisely, explaining that he moved there at the invitation of the poet William Hayley, who lived nearby. Hayley offered Blake regular work, providing him with much-needed income.

Over time, though, Blake came to resent Hayley, whom he eventually called “the Enemy of my Spiritual Life”. Blake railed against the workaday nature of Hayley’s commissions, which included 18 decorative tempera portraits of poets for the latter’s new villa at Felpham.

Two of them, depicting busts of Edmund Spenser and John Milton, are on show. With its marine palette of sea-greens and blues, the latter emanates a compelling underwater peculiarity, suggesting the depth of Blake’s feeling for the author of Paradise Lost.

The exhibition also touches upon the unfortunate climax of Blake’s Sussex sojourn, in the summer of 1803, when he scuffled with a soldier billeted in Felpham who had entered his garden. The soldier, Private John Scolfield, said that Blake had “Damned the King of England – his Country and his subjects”, ranting that, in the event of a French invasion, he would “cut [the] throats” of Englishmen. The artist-poet was put on trial for sedition, and acquitted, the following year.

During the legal process, Blake appeared before a hearing at Petworth, where the owner of the house, George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, the great patron of Turner, was a magistrate.

Plate 29 from Milton a Poem (1804-1811), by William Blake  Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

At the heart of the show, the third in a loose series of exhibitions focusing on Romantic artists associated with Petworth (following Turner and Constable), are three paintings by Blake in watercolour and tempera from its collection, now owned by the National Trust.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the two best, Satan calling up Legions (c. 1800-05) and A Vision of The Last Judgment (1808), were not commissioned by Egremont, a champion of contemporary British art, but by his estranged countess, Elizabeth Ilive, the only woman to become the philandering earl’s wife.

With its echoes of Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel, the latter composition, a vortex of figures ascending to heaven and tumbling into hell, is a swirling, complex tour de force, in part touching upon the theme of infidelity. It may even, to the left of centre, contain a representation of Elizabeth, herself, as one of the “Just”.

Blake's Cottage at Felpham, plate 36 from Milton a Poem, 1804-1811, by William Blake  Credit: The Trustees of the British Museum

The painting offers a prime example of the rhapsodic hallucinatory intensity of Blake’s work, and is a reminder that his art articulates not the external appearance of the world, but force of feeling within.

Blake’s perception of another, supernatural dimension, a sort of helter-skelter spirit-world, was his great gift. Ultimately, his transcendent visions have universal force, and float free of time or place.

This can make the careful historical approach of the Petworth show, which features loans from the British Museum and National Portrait Gallery, as well as Tate, seem mildly absurd: after all, what does it matter whether the generic rural landscape in one of Blake’s charming tiny woodcut illustrations for The Pastorals of Virgil (a popular school text) was inspired by this or that view of Sussex?

At times, the exhibition risks overstating the links between this specific spot of countryside and Blake’s work.

Overall, though, William Blake in Sussex, the first show devoted to the subject, makes a strong case for the importance of this sweet pastoral interlude in the visionary artist’s life.

Until March 25. Details: 0344 249 1895; nationaltrust.org.uk