William Blake in Lambeth
Michael Phillips, guest curator of the major exhibition on Blake opening this month at Tate Britain, explores the lifestyle and work of the artist when he lived in Lambeth - and the anti-Jacobin terror of the early 1790s that threatened his radical activities
No.13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, was the residence of William Blake and his wife Catherine during the most creative and productive period of his life. Moving from smaller premises in Soho in 1790, it was here during the next few years that Blake produced Songs of Experience, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Visions of the Daughters of Albion, America a Prophecy, The First Book of Urizen and much else. Here he developed his method of colour printing that in 1795 led to the production of the great series of large colour prints including Newton, Nebuchadnezzar and The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy. But by the winter of 1792-93, in reaction to events in France, a writer and publisher of prints of Blake’s radical persuasion was at grave risk of being indicted for sedition and committed to prison to await trial.
Apart from the works themselves and a single fragment of one of his relief-etched copper plates, no trace remains of Hercules Buildings, Blake’s studio, his press or the plates he made to reproduce his works during the revolutionary decade of the 1790s. However, it is possible to build on a few surviving records to reconstruct the circumstances of his life at this extraordinary time.
In 1918, No.13 Hercules Buildings was razed, together with the rest of the terraced row in which Blake lived. The last glimpse we have is that recorded by an anonymous contributor to The Spectator, May 6th, 1916. Ironically, it is also our most vivid and factual account: