Sunday, February 23, 2014

Remnants of William Blake's Garden at Lambeth


From the Spectator, 6 May 1916.

"And there is the little red-brick house in Poland Street, No. 23— the Blakes' first settled married home—standing as Blake must have known it, shabby and dark now with the London smoke of a century and a half, a strange setting for the radiant beauty of the Songs of Innocence which were written and designed within it.  In 1793 Blake and his wife migrated to Lambeth, , to a house known now as 23 Hercules Road.  It makes one of a terrace which has been condemned, and which waits, blackened, untenanted, glassless, behind its hoardings, for the coming of the housebreakers. Even in its present ruin it is worthwhile to cross Westminster Bridge to gain a last sight of it before it disappears, for it is without doubt the most interesting of all Blake's homes. 



The front door of Blake's house is nailed up, and anyone fortunate enough to gain an entrance must make his way through the passage of the house next it, and so into a tangled garden, all overgrown with vine and fig tree—the descendants, doubtless, of those trained by Mrs. Blake with so much loving care into the arbour famous for its apocryphal legend of Adam and Eve, and for the prettier story of the Flaxman visits to the Blakes, and their tea-drinkings and music together."

[n.b. The apocryphal legend: ""Visiting the Blakes while they lived in Lambeth, [Thomas] Butts found the couple nude in their garden summer house. ‘“Come in!” cried Blake; “it’s only Adam and Eve you know!” Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character’ (Gilchrist, 1.115)."]

"In summer time this jungle of greenery is thickened by a small forest of Jerusalem artichokes, left by later tenants, and by lilac bushes and bright double dahlias and marigolds. At every step the foot is caught by the trailing vine, and broken glass and waste rubbish lie everywhere underneath the tangle. And so we get to Blake's garden door...



"The Vale of Lambeth "—" Lambeth the Lamb's Bride," as Blake speaks of it in one of his prophecies—with fields and gardens, and open views over to the river and the towers of Westminster and the wide western sky, must have been a pleasant quarter at that time to live in. There is Wordsworth's Westminster Bridge sonnet, written in 1803, three years after the Blakes had left Lambeth, to bear witness to the beauty of London "open unto the fields and to the skies."  



The Songs of Experience belong to this time, and it was on the stairs here that Blake had the great vision of the Ancient of Days with the measuring compass which was to become one of the most famous of his designs...No one can stand before this blackened shell of a home, once alive with so much fire and passionate vision, without a sense of awe, as they think of the "treasure in earthen vessels," of this great spirit.  It is not perhaps quite fanciful to think that the open skies and sunset clouds of Lambeth had their influence on this outburst of visionary power. 


3 comments:

Anne Wareham said...

Terrible to think it was just destroyed..

Aussiegardenhistorynut said...

Thanks again gardenhistorygirl. Just visited a few weeks back,again, the Garden History Museum in Lambeth and was unaware of this long gone site, would have "paid my respects" if I had known.

Jill said...

There is a plaque marking where the house once stood - and a fascinating article by Michael Phillips about the house and garden. It includes photographs of the site site shortly before demolition.
BTW I think the Spectator piece has its wires slightly crossed on the address: the Blakes lived at 28 Poland St in Soho (now a pub) and then 13 Hercules Buildings in Lambeth.

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