Paradise Restored: Blake’s Lambeth Mosaics

March 29, 2023

Anna Stearman, Programme Manager for the School of Ideas, Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College, writes about their current project to restore the mosaics of Blake’s Lambeth.

I’m standing in a light-filled art room at Hillcroft College, ten miles west of London Waterloo. Many thousands of tiny tiles are gathered on benches around me, arranged by size, texture and colour. These are single ‘pages’ of an enormous, unbound book: emanations in mosaic from Songs of Innocence and of Experience. These are pages that, until recently, were only to be seen mounted in the underground tunnels, streets and walkways of Lambeth, around Waterloo Station in London. Made from ceramic, vitreous glass, stone, bone and marble, what I am seeing are interpretations of pages from one of the most distinctive books in the world. Why are these Blake mosaics here in this art studio?

The mosaics are being restored by Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College. The artist in residence is Jo Lewis, from the London School of Mosaic. RHACC is also collaborating with the community in other ways: with Surbiton Art Trail, the Friends of Surbiton Station, Network Rail and Southwest Railway. The mosaics, when cleaned and repaired, will be installed in Surbiton Station. The mosaics themselves are the brainchild of David Tootill, who told me the story of setting up Southbank Mosaics in 2004. He was looking for inspiration and remembered Leonardo da Vinci’s suggestion that we look for the greatest artist around. 

David talks about William Blake as if as if he is with us now: ‘Blake is the best artist in Lambeth’. He took Blake as his master and ‘copied’ him. In doing so, he took Blake to heart, and fulfilled Blake’s wish to have his work enlarged, after none of it sold at his 1809 exhibition, and put up in public space. As David puts it, ‘Mosaic is a metaphor for London, all the peoples, tribes, colours, creeds, faiths and freedoms coming together to make a brilliant whole’.

As I look at this rendition, created by the mosaic artist Jo Thorpe, of the title page of Songs of Experience, I notice that the first ‘S’ in ‘Songs’ is bursting into bloom, with twirls of tulip shaped flowers in orange, pink and green. Two figures bend over a third: lying on a sickbed. The folds on the bedspread are picked out in purple, blue and red tiles of ceramic and vitreous glass. The colours deepen towards the base of the panel, until the red tile becomes the shadow. The word ‘Experience’ is built in block capitals of gold and ultramarine, made in Venice. Jo Lewis tells me that her own experience of working on these mosaics has unravelled the story of their making. The earliest mosaics in produced in the first years of the Blake’s Lambeth project were experiments: makers were learning about the materials as they used them.  

Each panel holds a story of the involvement of the many different people who made it: residents of Lambeth, some of them young people who were homeless or in trouble with the law, became apprenticed to Tootill as an alternative to a custodial sentence. They were employed to learn the art of mosaic and trusted with the practice of making something that would become a gift to their community. As an open studio, Southbank Mosaics collaborated over the years with artists and volunteers who brought along an extraordinary range of skill and experience. Now in its current incarnation, London School of Mosaic, that collaboration continues with this partnership with RHACC in Surbiton.

According to Jo Lewis, the more she works with the mosaics as made objects, the more she feels that Tootill’s visionary and collaborative way of working is itself like Blake’s. There is a sense that many different hands are involved, through the course of time. Just as in Blake’s practice, where new prints from an older plates could be hand-coloured with watercolours; each mosaic panel, (as ceramicists from around the world were invited to take part in the project), shows a different series of artistic choices made in the process of emanation.  

Now I’m touching the giant tiled title page of Songs of Innocence, another beautiful creation by Jo Thorpe. The first ‘S’ of ‘Songs’ has a feathered tail, sprouting and curling in reflection of the tree of life below it. Impossibly large orange circles of fruit are borne by a tree. Its gnarled branches curve up in green and blue, into a sky made heavenly with streaks of real gold. The tree’s colours are echoed in the word ‘Innocence’: its cursive, serpentine letters linking the tree to the word, outlined in sparkling aubergine-coloured vitreous glass. The woman is seated in her pink dress, two children at her knee. As Jane O’Shea, one of RHACC’s governors, explains: though we may think of mosaic as being cold and hard to the touch, there’s an incredible warmth in these images. 

Whenever these mosaics come to mind, I imagine planting a rose in the gap between two paving stones, to climb the outside wall of my kitchen, across the flat roof, up past the bathroom window, to my bedroom, where, if you step out onto a rickety balcony, you find a view across into Isleworth train station. Through an archway people can be seen in the distance, waiting on platform 1 for the train to Waterloo.  

When the first stage of the restoration is complete, during the summer of 2023, pedestrians will pass Blake’s illuminations in mosaic after they climb the steps and pass through the ticket barriers of Surbiton station towards trains that will take them back into the city; to Waterloo Station — to Blake’s, Tootill’s, and Lewis’s Lambeth. Gabrielle Flint, Principal of RHACC, the force behind this collaboration, expresses her own passion for the project: what she loves most about the idea of the mosaics being installed on our public buildings is that they don’t contain practical information, instruct us or give direction. The mosaics are simply there as a visual gift. 

The Blake’s Lambeth Mosaics will be part of the Surbiton Art Trail project, developed by the photographer, Stephen Young. As Director of the Art Trail, Stephen is curating a series of community art events over the summer. The Art Trail is designed to connect visitors to Surbiton, local schools and colleges with their community. Before they are installed in the station, the mosaics will be displayed at the Hillcroft campus, where we are running a series of mosaic-making workshops, taught by Jo Lewis. To connect this project with other ways of thinking about William Blake and his creativity, the School of Ideas, part of the Community Learning School at RHACC, has developed a series of short courses: Creative Writing, History, Politics and Philosophy are drawn into this ongoing conversation about William Blake and his gift to the future.