Mosaics and ‘Minute Particulars’

September 18, 2023

On 11 September The Blake Society was delighted to attend the unveiling of the restored Blake Mosaics, based on pages from Songs of Innocence and Of Experience, at Surbiton Station. The mosaics were originally created by London School of Mosaic and were displayed for many years in the arches near Waterloo station. They have been restored at Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College by Artist in Residence Jo Lewis, part of a collaboration between the college, London School of Mosaic, Friends of Surbiton Station, and Surbiton Art Trail. You can read an earlier Emanation on the project by RHACC Programme Leader Anna Stearman here

On the day, we retired to Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College for coffee and pastries, where Blake Society Trustee John Riordan made the following speech about Blake, mosaics, art and ‘Minute Particulars’. To see the beautiful mosaics in their new home get off the train at Surbiton Station and head to the passenger bridge. You won’t regret it!

My name’s John, I’m a trustee of The Blake Society. We’re a group of enthusiasts who hold regular events that celebrate and explore the work of visionary poet and artist William Blake. Thank you to Richmond and Hillcroft Adult Community College for telling us about this project to restore the Blake mosaics and for inviting us today to see the unveiling of these beautiful artworks.

I’m an illustrator and comics artist, and one of the things that interests me about Blake is that he too was a commercial artist, literally scratching a living as an engraver in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. But he was much more as well, even if it took people the best part of a century to catch up with him.

These mosaics dazzle up close, where you an see the beauty and variety of each tiny tile. When you step back the broader image comes into focus, each particle contributing to the whole. Blake is an artist and poet who works with the very small and the very big and the movement in between, from flies and clods of earth to cosmic battles and vast sweeps of eternity. Perhaps his most famous piece of poetry asks us ‘To See a World in a Grain of Sand’.

His later, epic poetry deals with this movement from the tiny to the cosmically huge more expansively. This piece of proto-psychedelia is from Jerusalem (confusingly not the same as the hymn that bears its name):

Let the Human Organs be kept in their perfect Integrity

At will Contracting into Worms, or Expanding into Gods

And then behold!… for tho we sit down within

The plowed furrow, listening to the weeping clods till we

Contract or Expand Space at will: or if we raise ourselves

Upon the chariots of the morning. Contracting or Expanding Time!

Every one knows, we are One Family: One Man blessed for ever

But, as with our mosaics, Blake insists that these cosmic visions are made up of small, concrete actions, events and details, what he calls ‘Minute Particulars’. Blake’s art deals in epic, spiritual sweeps but he is deeply suspicious of generalisation and supposedly universal truths. Those who go looking only for cosmic bangs and whistles will miss the point. Blake writes:

He who would see the Divinity must see him in his Children

One first, in friendship & love; then a Divine Family, & in the midst

Jesus will appear; so he who wishes to see a Vision; a perfect Whole

Must see it in its Minute Particulars;

It’s not a millions miles away from ‘Think Global, Act Local’ and certainly Blake’s cosmic, religious vision is rooted in the material conditions of 18th century London. In his birthplace of Soho and in Lambeth, where he, and these mosaics, later lived, Blake would have witnessed appalling extremes of poverty, homelessness and degradation. Round the corner from Blake’s house in Lambeth was the Female Orphan Asylum, designed to save abandoned girls from prostitution, and close by were the pleasure gardens where the ‘unsaved’ sold themselves. Later William and his wife Catherine moved to South Molton Street, close to the infamous Tyburn. Though public executions had been moved behind the walls of Newgate Prison twenty years earlier, Tyburn became for Blake an important symbol of the cruelty man inflicts on his own, and of the imposition of a hateful Moral Law by a hypocritical political and religious elite. These social concerns are always at the heart of Blake’s poetry, though more obvious in his early Songs of Innocence and of Experience, as in his superdense masterpiece, ‘London’, an excoriating social critique of an entire society compressed into sixteen lines. To quote the last eight of them:

How the Chimney-sweepers cry

Every blackning Church appalls,

And the hapless Soldiers sigh

Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear

How the youthful Harlots curse

Blasts the newborn Infants tear

And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

I imagine Blake would have applauded David Toothill of Southbank Mosaics, now London School of Mosaics, for giving young homeless people and those who were in trouble with the law a chance to contribute to the creation of these mosaics in their original setting in Lambeth. These are the ‘Minute Particulars’ of which Blake’s moral vision, as opposed to the dreaded Moral Law, is composed.

This insistence on vision as concrete and actualised carries across into Blake’s sometimes cranky views on visual art. He was an old school engraver who valued line and precision of form, rejecting the fashionable innovations of stipple and mezzotint. Similarly, he rejected oil painting as so many brown blots and blurs, dismissing painters from Rubens to Rembrandt as charlatans and enemies of art. In his combative Descriptive Catalogue, written to accompany his disastrous 1809 exhibition, he imagined being commissioned to create his paintings ‘one hundred feet in height’, ‘in high finished fresco, where the colours would be as pure and permanent as precious stones’. 100 feet tall they may not be, but I think that Blake would have seen these mosaics as a partial fulfilment of his thwarted wish, his paintings and engravings enlarged and picked out in luminous detail.

Although Blake was the quintessential control freak, overseeing every stage of his art, from composition through production to publication, his artworks do not exist in definitive versions. He printed from the same plates many times, and he and Catherine printed and hand coloured them in different styles and tones across the years, so that even his most iconic designs, for example ‘The Ancient of Days’, exist in wildly different iterations. Similarly, he would return to the same compositions years apart, re-using them in his illuminated books, or painting multiple versions for different clients. This means that these mosaics, now restored, join a long and noble line of Blake re-visions, starting with his own restless imagination and following on through the many artists he influenced.

I also love that these mosaics will be seen by commuters, people going about their lives on their daily journeys. Blake titled one of his engravings ‘The Traveller Hasteth in the Evening’ and I like to think that wearied commuters will be struck by these beautiful, strange artworks on their return journey from London. Blake was not an aristocratic layabout or laudanum-addicted fop. He was an artisan, a craftsman, running his own business (although perhaps not always terribly well), fulfilling laborious commissions and then working all night to get his unique vision out of his brain and on to the page. One of the things he is for me is the patron saint of freelance artists. It strikes me as perfect, then, that these mosaics are not hidden away in a museum or gallery but that they are a gift to the community, to ‘ordinary, working people’. We all know, of course, that there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary working people’.

One of the curiosities of The Blake Society is that we’re a membership organisation dedicated to a non-joiner. Blake was, for a matter of months, a signed-up member of the Swedenborgian Church. Apart from that, and his antagonistic relationship with The Royal Academy, there is no record of him ever being part of a congregation, club, or organisation. But for all his fierce antinomianism and individualism, the idea of fellowship and community is surprisingly important to Blake. At one point in Jerusalem he states simply, ‘Brotherhood is Religion’.

He puts it more memorably still in a proverb from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: 

’The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship’.

John Riordan