Lady Unknown

Many may have heard of Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), or at least the bank he founded, Coutts & Co., but how many know the name of his granddaughter? After Coutts and his wife died, his granddaughter Angela inherited his fortune, making her the wealthiest woman in Britain. Rather than spend the money on herself, Angela used it to help others in less fortunate circumstances. Whilst Angela may have been “the richest heiress in England”, she was also the most generous.

Angela Georgina Burdett was born on 21st April 1814 to Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Baronet (1770-1844) and Sophia Coutts (d. 1844), the daughter of Thomas Coutts. She was the youngest of six children, five girls and a boy called Robert, who inherited the baronetcy. Sir Francis was an English reformist politician and opponent of the prime minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806). He frequently came into conflict with parliament and was imprisoned for three months in 1820 for “composing, writing, and publishing a seditious libel” about the Peterloo Massacre. On his release, Sir Francis and the family moved into a house at 25 St James’s Place, London.

Sophia was one of three daughters of Thomas Coutts, nicknamed the “The Three Graces”. Due to her beauty, Sophia was sought after by a few painters, including Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the fourth president of the Royal Academy. She married Sir Francis in 1793, bringing with her a fortune of £25,000. Sir Francis and Sophia were very much in love and remained so for their entire marriage. When Sophia passed away on 13th January 1844, Sir Francis became inconsolable. After refusing to eat for several days, he died on 23rd January 1844.

When Angela’s grandfather died in 1822, his estate went to his second wife, Harriot Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans (1777-1837). She thought carefully about the recipient of Coutts’ fortune upon her death and settled on Angela as her heiress. In her will, she stipulated three conditions: Angela’s 50% share in the bank must be held in trust; she must take the name Coutts; and thirdly, she must never marry a foreigner. So, she legally changed her name to Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Upon receipt of her inheritance, 23-year-old Burdett-Coutts became a subject of public curiosity. Many speculated about what she would do with the money, and many men made marriage proposals. For a while, Burdett-Coutts’ wealth elevated her to celebrity status, although she did little with her money during the first few years after receipt. So well known was she that the Reverend Richard Harris Barham (1788-1845) referred to her as “Miss Anja-ly Coutts” in a ballad written for Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) coronation in 1837. The poem is part of The Ingoldsby Legends, named after the author’s pen name, “Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor”.

Burdett-Coutts began to donate money to various causes, prompting author Charles Dickens (1812-70) to write to her in 1846. He expressed his desire to open an asylum for “fallen women” where they could be rehabilitated, find jobs and gain property. Dickens was concerned about the growing number of prostitutes in London and wished to help them. He wanted to find a suitable property but needed funding, which Burdett-Coutts agreed to provide. The following year, Dickens purchased Urania Cottage in Shepherds Bush, which Burdett-Coutts helped him organise ready for opening that November. The home provided the women with food, shelter and education. They learned to read and write, and learn the trades of housekeepers, gardeners and seamstresses. Although the inhabitants did not pay to live there, they helped cook meals and keep the house clean. They also produced meals for the local poor relief.

As well as Urania House, Burdett-Coutts founded churches and schools around the country and in other areas of the British Empire. In 1847, she helped fund the bishoprics of Cape Town, South Africa, and Adelaide, Australia. Ten years later, she provided the same support for British Columbia, Canada.

In 1862, Burdett-Coutts erected a public fountain in Victoria Park in what is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It was designed by the Mancunian architect Henry Astley Darbishire (1825-99), costing £5000 (approximately £647,000 today). Around 10,000 spectators turned up to witness the unveiling of the gothic-style granite fountain. Shaped like an octagon, it is 28 feet (8.5 m) wide with 60 feet (18 m) high red granite columns. Its purpose was to provide drinking water to everyone in the vicinity and was given a Grade II* listed status by Historic England in 1975. This means it is a structure of particular importance and interest. Since the refurbishment of Victoria Park in 2011, the fountain is no longer in public use and is now known as the Baroness Burdett Coutts Drinking Fountain.

Two years later, Burdett-Coutts donated £500 to fund the first Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem. Undertaken by Charles William Wilson (1836-1905), an officer in the Royal Engineers corps of the British Army, the survey produced the first accurate map of the city. Burdett-Coutts agreed to finance the project because she wished to help provide a better drinking water system for the inhabitants. Unfortunately, her wishes were not granted until the following century. Yet, the survey proved useful in other ways, such as helping the Church Mission Society collect information about place names, buildings and points of interest, which, in turn, helped scholars understand the geography of parts of the Bible. For the first time, archaeologists were able to explore the underground features of Temple Mount.

Turning her attention back to her home country, Angela Burdett-Coutts concerned herself with improving housing in the East End of London. This project received the support of Charles Dickens and resulted in the founding of Columbia Market in Bethnal Green to provide local people with affordable and nutritious produce. Burdett-Coutts purchased part of the slum area of Bethnal Green and paid for the construction of an undercover food market containing 400 stalls, which opened in 1869. She also constructed a gothic building called Columbia Dwellings, which was able to house dozens of families. The buildings have since been demolished, but traders continue to set up market stalls in the streets every Sunday.

During the 1860s, Burdett-Coutts also became a supporter of the London Ragged School Union. For two decades, the union had provided destitute children with free education, but it relied heavily on volunteers, many of whom had very little money to give. Considerable donations from Burdett-Coutts and other wealthy sponsors helped establish 350 more ragged schools by 1870, which coincided with the passing of the first Education Act. This resulted in the creation of School Boards and paved the way for compulsory free education for every child.

In recognition of Burdett-Coutts’ ongoing philanthropy, Queen Victoria bestowed upon her a suo jure peerage as Baroness Burdett-Coutts of Highgate and Brookfield in the County of Middlesex. Although her father was a baronet, Burdett-Coutts did not inherit the baronetcy because that always went to the first-born son. Usually, a woman only became a baroness through marriage or if her father only had daughters. Yet, the Queen had the power to give someone the title of baroness suo jure, which means baroness “in her own right”. Burdett-Coutts joined the relatively short list of suo jure titles, featuring Eleanor, Duchess suo jure of Aquitaine (1122-1204), and Anne Boleyn of England, Marquess of Pembroke suo jure (1501-36).

Following this honour, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to be presented with the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall on 18th July 1872. Established in the 13th century, the Freedom allows recipients several obsolete privileges, including the right to drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge, the right to carry a sword in public, and the right to be sent home in a taxi rather than arrested for drunken behaviour.

Burdett-Coutts continued donating money to good causes during the 1870s. First, she founded the Ladies Committee at the RSPCA, which aimed to improve the welfare of animals by encouraging children to join a group called ‘Band of Mercy’. She realised education was needed to teach children how to look after animals and encouraged them to enter an essay competition titled Our duty to animals. Over 275,000 children took part, and Queen Victoria personally attended the award ceremony.

As part of her work with the RSPCA, Burdett-Coutts travelled the country giving talks to farmers about the welfare of their animals. On her travels, she learned of a Skye Terrier called Greyfriars Bobby (1855-72), who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his deceased owner, John Gray. Moved by the dog’s story, Burdett-Coutts commissioned sculptor William Brodie (1815-81) to make a bronze statue of the animal. Sadly, the dog died in January 1872 before the sculpture was complete, so it was unveiled as a memorial the following year near the entrance to the graveyard Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Reflecting Burdett-Coutts passion for providing accessible drinking water for everyone, the statue of Greyfriars Bobby sits upon a water fountain, once furnished with two bronze drinking cups attached by a chain. Today, there is no water supply, but the structure remains a memorial to the faithful dog.

In 1874, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to receive the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh. The honour was likely in response to her generous donation of the Greyfriars Bobby memorial, which held her in high esteem with the people of Edinburgh.

Burdett-Coutts received another honour in 1877, this time for helping Turkish peasants and refugees during the 1877 Russo-Turkish War. After posting an advert in the Daily Telegraph, Burdett-Coutts raised £50,000 to form and run the Turkish Compassionate Fund. She volunteered her secretary William Ashmead-Barlett (1851-1912) to serve as Special Commissioner and oversee the organisation and administration of the charity, which helped thousands of refugees. Both she and Ashmead-Barlett received the Order of the Medjidiyeh by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Only two women have received this honour since its institution: Burdett-Coutts and Queen Victoria.

With Ashmead-Barlett overseeing charity work abroad, Burdett-Coutts refocused her attention to issues closer to home. During 1865, the construction of the Midland Railway, which ran to St Pancras Station, caused damages to neighbouring areas, particularly the burial ground for St Giles-in-the-Fields. The Catholic graveyard was the preferred resting place of French émigrés, but their bodies were dug up and moved to make way for the railway. This project was overseen by the author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who at that time worked as an apprentice architect. Hardy later wrote a poem called The Levelled Churchyard, in which he imagined the ghostly voices of souls he dug up.

After the construction of the railway, only the grandest of tombs remained, such as those belonging to Sir John Soane (1753-1837) and his wife (d. 1815). In 1875, the remaining land was purchased by the St Pancras Vestry for use as public gardens, which officially opened in 1877. To coincide with this, Burdett-Coutts commissioned a memorial sundial to commemorate the graves disturbed by the railway. Designed by George Highton of Brixton and manufactured by H Daniel and Co., the granite and marble Gothic sundial features relief carvings of trefoils, St Giles and St Pancras, and two figures representing the sun and moon. Carved into a marble panel are the Beatitudes listed in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-9.

The sundial features a dedication in “memory of those whose graves are now unseen, or the record of whose names may have become obliterated”. Three marble panels list the names of those whose graves were disturbed to make room for the Midland Railway. Names include Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810), a French spy of questionable gender; Simon François Ravenet (1706-64), an assistant to the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764); and the British composer John Danby (1757-98). On the surrounding railings, a plaque honours Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), who is buried in a pauper’s grave in the vicinity.

Back in the 1860s, Burdett-Coutts gave financial aid to the southwest of Ireland, which continued to struggle with the aftereffects of the famine years between 1848 and 1849. She also established relief stores and encouraged the expansion of the fishing industry. Through the profits made, the Irish gradually repaid their debt to Burdett-Coutts. Unfortunately, in 1880 there were still many impoverished people. The money made from the fishing industry benefitted those in charge more than the workers. Burdett-Coutts suggested giving the British government £250,000 to supply Ireland with seed potatoes to help feed the poor and offer them an alternative means of income. This caught the attention of the Irish government who did not want to rely on the support of other countries. As a result, they agreed to improve the living and financial conditions of their people.

Ever since inheriting her fortune in 1837, Burdett-Coutts gained a never-ending list of marriage proposals. She continued to turn them down knowing they were only attracted to her wealth. Yet, in 1881, Burdett-Coutts surprised everyone by getting married. Not only was she 67 years old, the marriage broke the terms of her step-grandmother’s will, thus she forfeited three-fifths of her income to her sister. The will stipulated Burdett-Coutts could not marry a foreigner, yet she chose to marry her 29-year-old American secretary William Ashmead-Barlett. Fortunately, Ashmead-Barlett agreed to change his surname to Burdett-Coutts, since the rest of the will prevented Angela from changing her name.

Burdett-Coutts’ husband, who became the MP for the London constituency of Westminster in 1885, continued to act as her secretary and helped her organise and fund several charities. Despite having significantly less income, Burdett-Coutts did not lessen her philanthropic work. Her main concerns were for animal and children organisations, for instance, the British Beekeepers Association of which she was president from 1878 until her death.

In 1884, Burdett-Coutts co-founded the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children with Lord Shaftesbury (1801-85), which later became the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 1889. The society campaigned for a law to protect children from abuse and neglect, similar to the way the RSPCA fought for animal rights. The first child protection law was passed in 1889, which prompted the name change of the organisation. In 1891, the League of Pity was founded, which encouraged children to engage with the NSPCC and participate in fund-raising activities.

In recognition of Burdett-Coutts’ mission to “prevent and relieve sickness and injury, and to act to enhance the health and well-being of people anywhere in the world”, Queen Victoria made her a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem on 17th December 1888. This was the first year the award was initiated, so Burdett-Coutts is likely the first woman to receive the honour. Another notable recipient was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) in 1904.

One of Burdett-Coutts’ final projects involved compiling a book called Woman’s Work in England for the Chicago Exhibition in 1893. Rather modestly, she made no mention of herself in the publication. To rectify this, the Duchess of Teck (1833-97) arranged for a second publication in which she included a section about Baroness Burdett-Coutts. “Great as have been the intrinsic benefits that the baroness has conferred on others, the most signal of all has been the power of example an incalculable quantity which no record of events can measure. She has ever sought, also, to increase the usefulness of women in their homes, to extend their opportunities of self-improvement, and to deepen the sources of influence which they derive from moral worth and Christian life.”

At the age of 92, Angela Burdett-Coutts contracted acute bronchitis and passed away on 30th December 1906. Over the next two days, approximately 30,000 people came to pay their respects, often leaving tributes on the street outside her house at 1 Stratton Street. Her funeral took place at Westminster Cathedral on 5th January 1907, where she was laid to rest in the nave. The thousands who attended the funeral ranged from the royal family to the poorest of people Burdett-Coutts supported during her lifetime.

Angela Burdett-Coutts used her considerable wealth to help a great number of people. Many of her contributions paved the way for charities and organisations today, for instance, the RSPCA and NSPCC. She made schools and education more available, both in England and abroad and did all she could to improve people’s quality of life, for instance, providing cotton gins in Nigeria and encouraging the fishing industry in Ireland. Providing clean water for the public was high on Burdett-Coutts agenda, and she even arranged a drinking fountain for dogs. Her money was also spent purchasing new bells for St Paul’s Cathedral, constructing buildings and commissioning memorial statues. She was keen on keeping the memories of the departed alive, hence the sundial, honouring those whose graves were destroyed.

Despite all her work and generosity, very few recognise the name, Angela Burdett-Coutts. She gave so much but received very little in return and is at risk of being forgotten entirely. This is, unfortunately, the case for many women of her era. In the 21st century, someone like Angela Burdett-Coutts would have celebrity status, yet instead, she is confined to the depths of the internet where only a few will stumble across her name.


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Blake: Rebel, Radical, Revolutionary

NPG 212; William Blake by Thomas Phillips

William Blake by Thomas Phillips (1807)

For years, Tate Britain has had a small room dedicated to the English poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827). Now until 2nd February 2020, Tate Britain is offering visitors the opportunity to experience Blake’s visionary art in his largest show in a generation. Detailing his life chronologically, 300 original works illustrate Blake’s talents, personal struggles, innovation and vision.

Blake’s art and poetry continue to influence and inspire many people regardless of profession, religion and nationality. Although produced during a period of unrest involving war, the British Empire and industrialisation, Blake’s work resonates with the present world and the struggles people face today.

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Portrait of William Blake, 1802

William Blake was born on 28th November 1757 at 28 Broad Street (now Broadwick Street) in Soho, London, the third of seven children to James and Catherine (née Wright). His father, a hosier, and mother thoroughly encouraged Blake’s aspiration to become an artist. Although he attended school long enough to learn to read and write, he was educated from home by his mother after the age of ten. The Bible was an important aspect of his studies, which remained a source of inspiration for the rest of his life.

Blake was encouraged to practise his drawing ability by producing engravings of well-known artworks for his father. Alongside this, he attended classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand and explored the art of poetry, reading works by Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and Edmund Spencer (1552-99) as well as the Book of Psalms. In August 1772, Blake was apprenticed to James Basire (1730-1802), a significant British engraver, for seven years. By the age of 21, Blake was working as a professional.

In 1779, Blake enrolled at the Royal Academy of Arts, which at the time was situated in Old Somerset House. He may have attended with one of his brothers, Robert, whose illustrations are briefly featured in the exhibition. The Royal Academy taught its students to draw by studying and copying classical sculptures, prints, live models and paintings, such as those by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). Blake, on the other hand, rejected these teachings, preferring to use artworks by classical artists, such as Michelangelo (1475-1564) and Raphael (1483-1520).

Despite rebelling against the traditional teaching methods, Blake participated in six exhibitions at the Royal Academy. Unfortunately, since he did not conform to the typical oil paint-format the Academy expected, Blake’s watercolours were often consigned to a smaller room.

Students were encouraged to paint serious subject matters, often resulting in portraits and landscapes. Blake, on the other hand, chose to focus on Biblical stories, for instance, the story of Joseph and his brothers. Written in the Book of Genesis, Joseph had been sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. The series of events that follow result in Joseph having significant authority in the land of Egypt and, during a famine, his brothers end up begging him for help.

Blake produced three watercolours that express the latter part of the story of Joseph. In the first, the brothers, unaware who Joseph is, bow down before him, pleading for help to survive the famine. The second, Joseph Ordering Simeon to be bound, shows one of Joseph’s older brothers willingly being arrested for a crime he did not commit to spare the life of another brother. Noting that the attitudes of his brothers have changed since they sold him into slavery, Joseph reveals his true identity and welcomes his brothers with open arms, as shown in Blake’s third painting.

Similar to his Joseph paintings, Blake’s early work typically involved sweeping lines of ink or watercolour, revealing dainty characters full of grand gestures. These tended to have a strong visual impact, evoking emotion and communicating a message or story. Subjects were often drawn from Bible passages, although not necessary the well-known ones, and other literature, such as Shakespeare. As time went on, however, Blake’s works became more obscure and harder to decipher.

Shortly after Blake’s time at the Royal Academy, he met Catherine Boucher (1762-1831), the daughter of a market gardener in Battersea on the south side of the River Thames. At the time, Blake was suffering from a rejection of a previous attempt at love and Catherine proved to be a good ear to listen to his tales of heartbreak. This led to the pair falling in love and marrying on 18th August 1782 in St Mary’s Church in southwest London. The couple had a long, invaluable marriage with Catherine helping her husband to print some of his later works and Blake teaching his wife to read and write.

As well as illustrating existing stories, Blake began to write and illustrate his own, for example, the epic poem Tiriel, although this was never published. Blake borrowed ideas from Shakespeare, Greek tragedies and Gaelic stories to pen the narrative of an aged king, Tiriel, who had been exiled from his land. In the past, Tiriel enslaved one of his brothers and cursed his children and now seeks solace from his misrule and arrogance. Frail and blind, Tiriel tries and fails to make amends for what he has done, thus receiving his comeuppance for his acts of tyranny.

The illustrations Blake produced to accompany the poem Tiriel were engravings rather than paintings. Having trained as an engraver before joining the Royal Academy, Blake found this technique a preferable way of earning an income. Engravings involved copying or drawing an image with fine cuts onto a metal plate, which could then be inked, printed and reproduced several times. This was a technique Blake used for many commissions, such as those delivered to the print shop he temporarily opened with his friend James Parker in 1784. He also worked for a range of London publishers, including the radical Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), who published works by Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) amongst other feminists and religious dissenters.

Etching and engraving were time-consuming and limited, which Blake found frustrating. In 1788, Blake developed what he termed “relief etching”, which allowed him to print in colour and combine text and images. Over time, Blake printed numerous books in this manner, many of which he had written himself and continue to be some of his most famous work. This style of engraving combined “both Letter-press and Engraving in a style more ornamental, uniform, and grand, than any before discovered.” It was also a cheap and efficient method of printing, although the stories and poetry the illustrations accompanied often baffled Blake’s readers and supporters.

From 1790 to 1800, Blake and Catherine lived in North Lambeth, less than twenty minutes from his childhood home. Although the property has been demolished, a nearby tunnel of Waterloo Station is decorated with a series of 70 mosaics resembling illustrations from Blake’s illuminated books. These books reflect Blake’s thoughts during a turbulent time in Britain. Both French and American revolutions occurred during Blake’s lifetime, leading him to become vocal about freedom and liberty, and argue against slavery and the empire.

Despite his strong views, Blake was rather cryptic in how he portrayed his thoughts in his poetry and illustrations. Had his views been expressed more clearly, Blake would have been at risk of arrest, however, his symbolism was too obscure to attract the attention of the authorities.

Tate Britain displays a range of examples from Blake’s radical illuminated books including Visions of the Daughters of Albion, which condemns forced marriage and defends the rights of women. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell expressed Blake’s revolutionary beliefs using biblical prophecy as a basis. Rather than Hell being a place of punishment, Blake depicts it as a place of chaos and irrationality.

Blake also created his own mythology, for instance, The Book of Urizen, from which his recognisable illustration The Ancient of Days comes. Urizen, depicted as a bearded old man, is the personification of reason and law. Considering himself to be god-like and holy, Urizen traps people in webs of law and conventional society. He is often shown with some form of architectural tool, such as a compass, with which he creates his universe. Urizen’s only opposition is Los, who can be likened to a fallen angel, representing imagination. Blake’s myth is almost a reversal of Christian beliefs, with Urizen serving as a Satanic force.

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Little Girl Lost – Songs of Innocence and Experience

Amongst all the books represented in the exhibition is one of his most well-known works Songs of Innocence and Experience, which includes the famous poem The Tyger. “Tyger Tyger, burning bright, In the forests of the night…” Published in 1794, the book of poems is a combination of Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1793). Although the illustrations are suggestive of children’s books and the poems deal with themes of childhood, they also tackle morality, suffering and injustice, which are topics usually deemed unsuitable for that demographic.

Although Songs of Innocence and Experience is famous today, Blake only sold about 30 copies during his lifetime. For income, he relied heavily upon commissions and patronage, including fellow artists. John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and draughtsman Blake met at the Royal Academy. Flaxman supported Blake’s publication of Poetical Sketches in 1783 and his wife, Ann, commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-71).

A civil servant, Thomas Butts was one of Blake’s biggest patrons, purchasing over 200 different works. Many of these were watercolours on biblical themes. Whilst typical scenes involving Jesus, the crucifixion and well-known Old and New Testament characters were popular, Butts was also interested in Blake’s more imaginative works, representing the prophecies of Ezekiel or the Book of Revelation.

The Reverend Joseph Thomas (1765-1811) of Epsom, Surrey was another keen purchaser of Blake’s biblical work. He was also interested in the works of Shakespeare and John Milton and commissioned Blake to produce illustrations for various plays and poems. For Milton’s hymn On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity, Thomas paid Blake two pounds for each drawing – a total of six – which was more than Butts paid for individual watercolours.

Thomas Butts also purchased a series of large coloured prints that Blake produced by experimenting with monotype. This involved using thick, tacky ink on the metal etching plates, which was then transferred onto paper by applying pressure. Once printed, Blake added watercolour and ink washes to finish the illustration. This gave the prints the initial appearance of a painting, however, many elements are impossible to achieve by hand.

The twelve large prints included in the exhibition relate to a range of themes. As usual, Blake depicted biblical scenes, for example, the madness of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, whose humiliating suffering was predicted in the Book of Daniel. Blake produced an illustration of God judging Adam, whereas most artists focus on Eve’s sin. Other biblical images include Lamech and his Two Wives and Noami Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab.

Amongst the prints is a portrayal of the famous English mathematician and scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727), albeit a rather young and muscular one. Unlike the older figure most people imagine when thinking of Newton, Blake drew Newton as a Michelangelo-esque character crouched naked on a rock. The figure’s attention is fully focused on a piece of parchment at his feet on which he draws a diagram with a compass.

Blake chose to illustrate Newton as a reproach rather than praise. The artist was critical of Newton’s scientific approach, which followed precise rules rather than taking in the bigger picture. The figure’s focus on the compass represent’s Newton’s methods, which makes him oblivious to the beauty in the colour of the rocks on which he is sitting.

In 1800, Blake and his wife moved to a cottage in Felpham, (West) Sussex, where he illustrated works for the poet William Hayley (1745-1820) until 1804. Hayley is best known for his biography of his friend William Cowper (1731-1800) whose work was among the poems Hayley wished Blake to illustrate. Mostly, however, Hayley expected Blake to produce miniature portraits, which was something Blake was not keen on due to the lack of inventiveness.

Hayley had recently established a new library in The Turret, his house in Felpham, and commissioned Blake to produce long canvases to decorate the room. Each canvas represented a famous poet, including William Cowper. In the centre, Blake reproduced a likeness of the poets based on existing portraits and engravings and used the remains of the canvas to be more creative. Other poets included William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Milton (1608-1674), Dante Alighieri (1265- 1321) and Edmund Spenser (1552-99).

As time went on, Blake began to resent Hayley, who he believed did not appreciate art. Fortunately, Hayley was still on Blake’s side and able to bail him out when he was arrested following a physical altercation with a soldier. After his acquittal, Blake returned to London.

In 1806, Blake began planning pictures for Geoffrey Chaucer’s (1343-1400) The Canterbury Tales. This is a collection of 24 short stories written by the “father of English literature”. Mostly written in verse like Blake’s own work, the tales tell the story of a group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket (1119-70). Blake envisioned a frieze-like composition, which he completed in 1808 and published as an etching in 1810.

Unfortunately, Blake could not enjoy his work on The Canterbury Tales because he felt he was competing against two friends who were also producing work for the same book. He felt betrayed by these friends, believing that their work would overshadow his artistic vision. He claimed his so-called friends were more interested in making money than producing great art.

Around the same time, Blake was working on illustrations for the 1808 edition of Robert Blair’s (1699-1746) poem The Grave. The commission came from the newly established publisher Robert Cromek (1770-1812), and not wanting to let Cromek’s new career flounder, Blake took the project very seriously.

Blake was attracted to the poem’s themes of death and the afterlife, which were often topics of his own writings. He quickly produced twenty drawings for Cromek, which the publisher began to promote widely in public places, touring London, Birmingham and Manchester. Whilst this gave Blake the attention he deserved, he felt betrayed when Cromek employed someone else to print the illustrations.

The disappointments and supposed betrayals of the early 1800s led Blake to break contact with some of his friends and set up an independent exhibition in 1809. Using the upper rooms of his childhood home, now belonging to his brother James who used the lower rooms for his hosiery shop, Blake displayed several of his paintings, which were accompanied by a Descriptive Catalogue. It was a rather strange location for an exhibition – rather modest in comparison to Blake’s gigantic ambitions – and only a handful of visitors attended. In the only public review written about the exhibition, Blake was branded “an unfortunate lunatic”.

Tate Britain excels itself by recreating one of the rooms in the Blake family home, complete with fake flooring, ceiling, windows and walls, upon which a handful of paintings are hung. Many of Blake’s original paintings have been damaged over time, losing their colour and becoming dark and difficult to decipher. Every 20 minutes, two of the paintings are illuminated to appear as they would have done in 1809 and a disembodied voice reads out Blake’s words from the Descriptive Catalogue.

“The two Pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age.”

Blake’s solo exhibition took place during a period of war and upheaval. Although his paintings appear to be disconnected from politics, featuring allegorical and spiritual elements, they are full of hidden meaning. Two paintings are based on national figures who had both led Britain in the war against France. These figures, the late Prime Minister William Pitt (1759-1806) and naval hero Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), are shown alongside biblical monsters, bringing chaos and destruction to the world. Blake likens these heroes to mythological and biblical characters, for instance, Hercules and cherubim. Although the paintings are representing destruction, Blake is hinting at the potential new freedoms and spiritual rebirth that could follow.

In the next room, a projection shows close up details of these two paintings. He had once dreamt that they would be executed on a large scale and displayed on public walls. After the failure of his solo exhibition, Blake knew this dream would never come to fruition and became increasingly withdrawn and bitter. Tate Britain tries to do Blake’s aspirations justice by showing the paintings at such a large scale.

Having withdrawn from society for a few years, Blake returned with a burst of creativity for the final decade of his life. In 1818, he met the artist John Linnell who provided him with moral and material support. During this time, Blake produced relief-etchings for new and old books for a variety of purchasers, including engravings for the Book of Job.

Throughout his life, Blake reportedly had visions of spirits with whom he conversed. Encouraged by a friend, Blake began to draw these spirits for a series he titled “Visionary Heads”. Over six years, Blake drew more than a hundred of these vision, often attending séance-like sessions to study the details of these characters. Whilst, on the one hand, some people believed in Blake’s visions, others debated whether they were real or a sign of mental ill-health.

One of Blake’s most bizarre characters was The Ghost of a Flea. Depicted as a muscular, nude figure – part-man, part-vampire, part-reptile – the Flea is using its tongue to drink out of a bowl of blood. In its left hand is a thorn and acorn, which are typical icons of fairies and similar mythical characters. Whether or not Blake saw this figure, his painting magnified a flea, which is usually associated with uncleanliness, into a monstrous, bloodthirsty creature.

As well as his personal monsters, Blake was commissioned by Linnell to illustrate the creatures in The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. The poem, which describes a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, leant itself to Blake’s typical style of illustration and preference of theme. Blake used dark, menacing colours to illustrate the depths of Hell, contrasting it with the luminous shades of Paradise.

Although he intended to illustrate the poem in its entirety, Blake passed away before he could finish. Another unfinished work was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come, which was a popular religious text during Blake’s lifetime. Again, it suited Blake’s style, dealing with the realms of dreams, destruction, sins and heaven.

Before Blake’s death in 1827, he managed to complete and illustrate one final epic poem, which is probably his best-known work today. Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion is the longest of Blake’s prophetic books and tells the story of the fall of Albion – Blake’s personification of Britain and the western world. The narrative, however, can be confusing and does not have a linear plot.

Jerusalem is not to be confused with the famous hymn of the same name with music written by Sir Hubert Parry (1848-1918), which was used by the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies in 1917. Although Blake wrote the words of this hymn, it comes from the preface of his epic poem Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

Blake’s magnum opus, on the other hand, is a 4500 lined poem that his first biographer called “a chaos of words, names and images.” Albion (England) has been infected by “soul disease” and her “mountains run with blood” as a result of the Napoleonic wars. Religion is being used to exploit the lower classes and those in charge of the country are full of greed. If Albion can be reunited with Jerusalem once more, then all humanity will survive and be bound together in love.

Jerusalem, like some of Blake’s previous works, summed up his philosophical thoughts, particularly concerning the Age of Enlightenment, which dominated Europe during the 18th century. Enlightenment focuses on ideals of rationalism and empiricism (the theory that knowledge comes from experience), which went against Blake’s beliefs that imagination was the most important human element. Previous paintings showed that Blake was opposed to the Newtonian view of the universe and unimpressed by the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds and other members of the Royal Academy who looked at art with a “vegetative eye”. Jerusalem was Blake’s final attempt at expressing his strong views.

“I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton. black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheel without wheel, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other: not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony & peace.”
– Excerpt from Jerusalem

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William Blake Wearing a Hat – John Linnell

Blake spent his final years living with his wife at Fountain Court off the Strand, near to where the Savoy Hotel is situated today. It is reported that on 12th August 1827 Blake was working on his Dante series when he stopped, turned to his wife and insisted he drew her portrait. Afterwards, he sang hymns and recited verses of poetry until 6 pm when, after promising Catherine he would always be with her, he died. Five days later, on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Catherine buried her husband in Bunhill Fields, the same burial ground as his parents.

Catherine continued to sell Blake’s work until her death in October 1831 when an acquaintance took up the job. Although only a mere handful of his works sold during his lifetime, William Blake became posthumously famous and in 1949, the Blake Prize for Religious Art was established in his honour. He is also recognised as a saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica and, in 1957, a memorial was erected in Westminster Abbey for both him and his wife.

William Blake is the type of figure whose name is recognised worldwide and yet very few know much about him. His name is associated with various titles of books and poems but knowledge of his private life is less common. Tate Britain rectifies this by providing a chronological timeline of Blake’s life alongside his works. We learn who he was, how he lived, how he thought and what he believed. Although many will disagree with his philosophies and controversial ideas, Blake is an interesting character who is worth knowing about.

The William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain is open until 2nd February 2020. Prices are £18 for adults, £17 for concessions and £5 for 12-18 years olds. Whilst under 12s may visit for free when accompanied by an adult, some of Blake’s work is unsuitable for younger children.


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The Order of St John

St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell has been a London landmark for many centuries. From medieval priory to Georgian coffee house and Victorian pub, the building is now a museum exploring the history of a military order of ancient origins from its beginnings in Jerusalem to its present day role with the St John Ambulance Service. Combining historic weapons, medals, hospital equipment, art and a cannon given by Henry VIII, the Museum of the Order of St John spans 900 years of history and a fascinating story.

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The St John Ambulance logo of a white eight-pointed cross on a black background is recognised around the world where it appears on the sides of ambulances and on the uniforms of its volunteers. Although the charity has only been around since 1877, the symbol dates back almost 1000 years. The Brother Knights in the ancient hospital in Jerusalem were also recognised by the symbol on their robes.

 

The History of the Order of St John began shortly before Pope Urban II (d.1099) declared a crusade to recapture Jerusalem and the Holy Land from the Muslim Arabs who had been in control since AD 638. In 1080, a hospital was established in the city by a group of monks under the instructions of Brother Gerard (c.1040-1120) who would shortly become the founder of Order of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller), which was officially recognised by the Church in 1113.

The purpose of the hospital was to care for the many pilgrims who had become ill on their travels to the Holy Land. The Hospitallers, as they were then recognised, took in people of all faiths and race, treating everyone equally. It was only after the fighting in the Crusades that the hospital workers became known as the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem.

From the description of the hospital provided by the museum, the Hospitallers/Knights were ahead of their time in terms of care and treatments. Brother Gerard combined traditional Muslim practices with those used in the western world in order to improve medical care. He was also concerned with healthy eating, emphasising the importance of fresh fruit as an aid to recovery.

During the 11th and 12th century, only rich people could afford to sleep in a bed, however, Brother Gerard insisted each patient should have a bed “as long and as broad as is convenient and each should have a coverlet and its own sheet.” The wards were also well-aired and clean and workers, both male and female, were encouraged to pray for the speedy recovery of the sick.

In some ways, the hospital was a combination of a hostel and a hospice with clothing, shoes and money provided to those who needed it as well as beds. The Hospitallers also looked after orphaned children and provided an ambulance service for the injured. Typically, the hospital could house 1000 people but at times of need could find space for double the number.

 

Unfortunately, the antagonism between Christians and Muslims, in general, meant the hospital in Jerusalem could not last forever, especially after Emperor Saladin (1138-93) led a Muslim military campaign against the Crusader states in the Levant. Jerusalem was captured in 1187 and the Knight Templars moved their Order and hospital to Acre in the north of Israel. Yet, by 1291, Muslim forces had succeeded in recapturing the entire Holy Land, forcing the Order of St John to seek refuge in Europe.

The Order briefly moved to Cyprus before settling on Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands of Greece, in 1309. Another hospital was set up and the Knights remained here for 213 years until the Turkish Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566), conquered the island. The Museum owns a copy of the Rhodes Missal, an illuminated manuscript printed in 1504 that contains the services for a Roman Catholic Mass. In another display case, the Museum shows two handwritten letters from brothers Rostand and Claude de Merles to their father whilst on their journey to Rhodes to join the Knights.

 

Forced out of Rhodes in 1532, the Knights were, temporarily, without a home. Fortunately, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (1500-58) offered to rent them the island of Malta, which they eventually settled on in 1530. Again, they quickly set up a hospital for “pilgrims and to all the sick that happened to come to Malta from all parts of the world.” Once fully established, the knights began to build a fortified city, now the capital of Malta, Valetta.

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Jean Parisot de la Valette

The capital city was named after the military commander Jean Parisot de la Valette (1494-1568). Born into a noble family in south-west France, Valette joined the Order of St John at the age of 20, thus being present at the Great Seige of Rhodes. Later in his career, he became the Master of the Galleys then, in 1557, the Grand Master.

During his time as a knight, Valette was captured by Muslim pirates and forced to be a galley slave for a year. Although slaves were required to row for 12 hours a day on very little provisions, Valette beat the odds by living three times as long as most slaves before his rescue.

The city named after the military commander was where many of the knights were housed on the island. It was also the location of the Order’s religious centre, the Church of St John the Baptist.

The Order of St John remained on the island of Malta until the 18th century, when, as fate would have it, their home was once again invaded. On this occasion, it was General Napoleon Bonaparte who ousted the knights from their location, thus ending their rule over the Mediterranean.

 

Although patients of all faiths were treated at the hospital, the Hospitallers like to treat each individual as though he or she were Christ, the Son of God. Only the best possible supplies were used including silver plates and decorated medicine containers, which can be seen on display in the museum. Many other items belonging to the Knights are also preserved in glass cases to offer insight into their lives.

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The Cardsharps – Caravaggio

As well as objects, there are a few paintings, such as panoramas of Jerusalem, however, one artwork initially appears out of place. This is The Cardsharps by the Italian artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the painting does not add any further insight into the lives of the Knights Templar, Caravaggio was a Knight of the Order. Accused of murder in 1606, Caravaggio fled to Malta where he was made a Knight; unfortunately, he later upset another member of the Order causing him to flee back to Italy.

 

Down the road from the museum is the remainder of the Order of St John’s English priory. In 1144, the Order was gifted 10 acres in Clerkenwell to establish its religious community. The English Knights of the Order of St John remained at St John’s Gate until 1540, when Henry VIII abolished all monastic orders. Since then, the church has changed many times, particularly after extensive damage by an incendiary bomb during the Second World War. Although the church was rebuilt in 1958, the majority of the original architecture has been lost. Nonetheless, the Order of St John Museum offers guided tours of the church and crypt on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. When not open for tours, a small gallery and garden are available to the public.

 

The Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem lives on in the St John Ambulance Association set up in 1877. The founders wanted to reflect the Order’s ethos of caring for the sick and revolutionising health care. First Aid classes were given to the public, which encouraged a large number of “ordinary” people to sign up to become part of a trained St John Ambulance Brigade. By training volunteers, more people were on hand to help the injured and the sick, thus saving more lives that could have perished whilst waiting for a doctor.

The Brigade also provided medical resources during the wars of the 20th century, the first being the South African War (1899-1902). Over 2000 members of St John enlisted, with the army’s medical staff, the medical orderlies making up approximately 25% of the volunteers. Later, during the First World War (1914-18) St John, along with the British Red Cross organised Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which provided nurses, ambulances and hospital supplies for wounded soldiers. A similar feat occurred during the Second World War (1939-45) in which they also provided food parcels, clothing and provisions for prisoners-of-war, particularly those stranded on the Channel Islands.

 

The museum has a number of resources, photographs and medals belonging to past members of St John Ambulance. These include examples of old medical objects, such as a triangular bandage, tourniquet and first aid kits. Interestingly, the majority of the photographs are of women of whom 100,000 had served in VADs by the time the Armistice was called in 1918. One of these volunteers was Veronica Nisbet who joined the John Ambulance Brigade in 1915 when she was 28-years-old.

As part of a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Veronica Nisbet’s scrapbook from the years 1916-19 can be viewed by the public. The museum details a little of her life but her incredible story is best viewed through the photographs in the online version of her scrapbook. As a VAD Nurse, Veronica was taught the basics of first aid, nursing and hygiene in order to volunteer during the First World War. After enlisting to work abroad, Veronica was sent to the St John Ambulance Brigade Hospital in Étaples, northern France, the largest of the British voluntary hospitals. Veronica’s scrapbook shows pictures of the insides of the hospital, which could contain 750 patients at a time, and the nurses’ accommodation. There are also photographs of other St John Ambulance Brigade members and the activities provided to entertain the injured soldiers.

Throughout WWI, the Hospital Étaples cared for over 35,000 patients and was run by 241 members of the St John Ambulance Brigade. Despite the expert care, the building was constructed from several wooden huts, which was not the best conditions for patients recovering from serious injuries. Nonetheless, many soldiers survived due to the medical aid they received from the volunteers. Unfortunately, in 1918, the hospital was struck by a bomb on two occasions, the first killing five members of staff and the second a further eleven. The building was too damaged for the hospital to continue, however, the staff moved what they could to the coastal town of Trouville where they operated for the remainder of the war.

 

St John Ambulance is still going strong today and has members of all ages and backgrounds. The association has spread throughout the world with divisions being formed in other countries. Its primary aim is to be the difference between a life lost and a life saved and has been a valuable service to the modern world.

Since the association’s conception, branches have been formed to include younger people with the leading First Aid training provider. St John Ambulance First Aiders support local communities and emergency services and is determined to work with schools and develop youth programmes. As early as 1922, the St John Cadets was founded for teenagers to attend and get involved with all their great work. This also provided training for the future, either within St John or in other medical professions. Eventually, in 1987, a group for younger children was formed. The St John Badgers cater for 6 to 10-year-olds, providing them with basic first aid knowledge and the chance to earn badges to sew onto their uniforms. Finally, in 1989, LINKS units were opened at universities to provide opportunities for students to be part of a unique team of lifesavers. In total, over half of St John members are under the age of 25.

St John Ambulance relies mostly on volunteers and donations in order to keep running its expert service. To help with funding, the St John Fellowship was formed on St John’s Day 1983, which raises a generous amount of money every year. Supporters help to set up and run exhibitions, displays, concerts and competitions as well as assist at many national events.

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The Museum of the Order of St John is an excellent place to visit in London for those wishing to learn more about the original Knights of St John and the St John Ambulance. A concise timeline helps to make sense of the mass of objects displayed within the gatehouse that date back several centuries and the information about St John Ambulance is very fitting with the anniversary of the end of the First World War. It is also reassuring to know there are so many kind and caring people in the world, despite the many conflicts.

For children, some of the details may be beyond their comprehension, however, the museum provides a fun sticker trail with simple questions to keep youngsters entertained. There are also colouring sheets and simple, child-friendly first aid tips to take away.

The museum is free to enter, however, a donation of £5 is recommended for the tour of the church and priory. The museum receives no government funding, and needs continued financial help to maintain the historically important buildings and collections.