Before a major William Blake exhibition opens at Petworth House, EDWIN GILSON learns about the vivid impression Sussex left on the artist and writer

TO SOME, he is Britain’s greatest ever artist.

And while most of William Blake’s extraordinary imagined worlds were dreamt up in his home town London, the three years he spent in Sussex had a deep impact on his work and character. Between 1800 and 1803, Blake rented a seaside cottage in Felpham, near Bognor, an area he considered to be the “sweetest spot on Earth”.

It was the only place Blake ever lived outside the capital and it was here he began writing the manuscripts for two illustrated epic poems that would later be thought of as his masterworks – Milton: A Poem and Jerusalem.

Rather confusingly, Blake’s line “And did those feet in ancient time”, originally written in the preface for Milton, came to be adopted for the anthem now known as Jerusalem whose music was written by Sir Hubert Parry.

Extracts from both of Blake’s famous pieces feature in a major new exhibition at Petworth House exploring his connection with Sussex. Its title, Visions Of Albion, is taken from the text accompanying Blake’s illustration of his modest Felpham lodgings.

To the artist, the rolling green hills and rugged coastlines of his adopted home fitted the romantic notion of Albion, the term used to describe a bucolic ideal of Old England. The title is also pertinent because of Blake’s frequent claims to have experienced dramatic visions, episodes that informed the Biblical imagery of his art (more on that later). According to Andrew Loukes, exhibition manager at Petworth, Sussex’s splendour stoked Blake’s creative fires.

“All he had known was central London – he came from a dark place, with very little money,” says Loukes. “To come from that into this idyllic, pastoral world was really something. It had a really profound effect on him. He saw the coast for the first time, which became really important.”

Although it’s far from a straightforward sea scene, Blake’s The Sea of Time and Space – main picture above – was a result of his time spent living near the ocean. Despite the great artistic influence Blake would eventually take from Sussex, though, he initially came to the county for professional purposes.

An engraver in his day job, who was increasingly fed up with his impoverished life in London, he was hired by Chichester-based writer William Hayley to create images to appear alongside the latter man’s published poems. Blake often resented the burden of this work and being dictated to by Hayley. He bemoaned the perceived workmanlike attitude of his employer, claiming he was preoccupied with the “mere drudgery of business”.

In Milton: A Poem, Blake’s line “corporeal friends are spiritual enemies” has been interpreted as a reference to his uneasy relationship with Hayley.

“Blake was a pretty free spirit – even now he’s considered to be pretty out there,” says Loukes. “He got tired of the prescriptive nature of Hayley’s patronage. The process of coming up with imagery for Hayley’s books was subservient to Blake; his ambitions went much beyond that.”

While the two men didn’t always see eye to eye, Hayley later paid for a top lawyer to defend Blake in a court case in Chichester after he was accused of assault against a solider and treasonous remarks against the King. The charges were dropped after the allegations failed to hold up in court. Loukes says that 1804 was a “watershed year” for the artist and poet due to the relief of being acquitted. The consequences of a guilty verdict were unthinkable.

That case was a dark mark on an otherwise enjoyable and fruitful time for Blake in Felpham. It is easy to understand why an out-and-out landscape artist like J M W Turner (whose watercolours are also displayed at Petworth) would be fired by the Sussex plains, but maybe less so with Blake.

“The Sussex countryside was the only place to inspire any direction for Blake in the line of landscape art,” says Loukes. “At the same time, most significantly, he was developing his two great epic poems. Both of those have their origins in Sussex.”

Milton can be traced directly to one of Blake’s bizarre epiphanies. The artist was increasingly drawn to the work of John Milton, the English writer who penned one of the greatest epic poems ever – Paradise Lost. Coincidentally, Hayley was also writing a mammoth autobiography of John Milton at the time. An image in the exhibition shows Blake’s portrayal of his vision. Loukes explains the episode in all its curiosity.

“It’s an event which happened in his head,” says the exhibition manager. “When Blake said something had happened, it really had – at least in his own mind. He was in Felpham and a comet fell out of the sky and smashed him on his left foot. At that point, the spirit of Milton consumed Blake, and as a joint entity they became a kind of superhero. As Blake saw it, they were both able to take the good from each other and help each other.”

If you think that version of events is strange, you only have to look the rest of Blake’s work to see the extent of his wild imagination. As well as an image of Old England, the word “Albion” had another connotation for Blake. Jerusalem is based on a character called Albion, a giant who goes on a journey to achieve an exemplary society.

In the poem, Blake explores the ways in which he believed Britain had “gone wrong” over the years, before Albion reaches a perfect haven; Jerusalem. Unfortunately, Blake himself was far from in an ideal state by the end of his spell in Sussex. The stress of the court case had taken its toll on him, as had his draughty cottage – a”hovel” in Loukes’ words. While you might think the sea air would have done him good, Loukes adds that “his health had begun to suffer”. Also, he’d had enough of Hayley by that point.

His employer did introduce him to the 3rd Earl of Egremont, the art-mad patron of Petworth House who hosted many famous artists at the house including Turner. However it was the earl’s wife, Elizabeth Ilive, who commissioned Blake to make his famous piece A Vision Of The Last Judgement. For a while, Blake revolved in the same social circle as the Petworth crowd. In that sense the new exhibition sees the artist come full circle.

A nice feature of the display is an accompanying selection of work by His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman, who, like Blake, has juggled both creative writing and visual art to distinction. Pullman, president of the William Blake Society, shares similar themes to his artistic forefathers. “Most of Pullman’s books revolve around similar themes to Blake,” says Loukes. “They’re all highly imaginative and sit somewhere between real and fictitious worlds.”

The undeniable impression that Sussex left on Blake is another example of the strong connection between the country and ground-breaking artists. As the Petworth exhibition gets under way, we can all hope that this proud tradition lives on for generations to come.

Who was William Blake?

lWilliam Blake was born in 1757 in Soho, London, where he would spend the majority of his life. He was the third of seven children, two of who died in infancy.

He attended school up to the age of ten. Thereafter he was home educated by his mother. Hailing from a religious family, the Bible was a constant factor in Blake’s early life and would be a big source of inspiration for him in his later art.

As a child, Blake began to engrave copies of Greek antiques bought from him by his father. Through this hobby, he learned of the work of Raphael and Michelangelo among others. The Blake family were relatively wealthy and able to afford art books for their son, as well as to send him to drawing class.

After Blake started professional work as an engraver he was sent to copy abbeys and churches, where he experienced many visions. His tendency towards anger was exemplified when he knocked a schoolboy to the ground who had been teasing him while he worked.

In 1779, he became a student at the Royal Academy of Art, where he exhibited a number of his early works.

Blake was embroiled in a strange incident in 1780. His biographer Alexander Gilchrist writes that the artist was walking in central London when he was swept up in a mob that stormed Newgate Prison. According to reports, Blake was near the head of the mob as it attacked the prison gates. This episode led to the creation of the first London police force.

He married Catherine Boucher in 1782. Blake helped the illiterate Catherine to learn how to read, write and even engrave. The couple were together until Blake’s death.

Blake’s first collection of poems was released the year after. Aside from Milton and Jerusalem, one of Blake’s most-lauded projects is his series of illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

On the day of his death in 1827, Blake is said to have painted a portrait of Catherine, now lost. Reportedly, he said to his wife: “I will draw your portrait – for you have ever been an angel to me.” 

William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion. Petworth, January 13 to March 25. Visit