'I Write in South Molton Street, What I Both See and Hear': Reconstructing William and Catherine Blake's Residence and Studio at 17 South Molton Street, Oxford Street
Whitehead, Angus, British Art Journal
It is only recently, chiefly through the pioneering work of Michael Phillips, that Blake scholars have begun to examine the poet-painter's studio-residences in detail. Following earlier reconstructions of Blake's residences, by Michael Phillips, Mark Crosby, and myself, the following essay provides the first sustained account of William and Catherine Blake's immediate living and working environment at 17 South Molton Street where they lived from 1803 to 1821.
I begin by re-examining the sparse contemporary, records and references in Blake biography and scholarship relating to the residence in the light of new data gleaned from a survey of the present physical structure of 17 South Molton Street. I explore evidence for the precise location of the Blakes' apartment at this residence. Then, stripping away subsequent architectural modifications made to the structure of the residence since the Blakes' departure, I provide a historically accurate architectural reconstruction of 17 South Molton Street in the period 1803-21. In the light of this reconstruction, compelling evidence regarding the location and extent of the Blakes' living and working spaces at 17 South Molton Street emerges. This reconstruction of the dimensions and features of those spaces suggests how the Blakes carefully utilised their modest living and working spaces of their South Molton Street studio-residence. As we shall see the couple's working methods and domestic life for the next quarter of a century were defined by overcoming these new challenges and limitations in order to create some of Blake's greatest works.
In September 1803, after an absence of three years, William and Catherine Blake returned to London. Those three years had been spent in a six-roomed two-storeyed cottage in the coastal village of Felpham, Sussex, in the vicinity of the Blakes' patron, the poet, biographer and man of letters William Hayley. On returning to London, William and Catherine lodged with William's brother and sister, James and Catherine Elizabeth Blake, presumably on the recently vacated first floor of James' hosiery shop and William's birthplace and former home at 28 Broad Street, Carnaby Market. (1) Less than a month later, William and Catherine moved into lodgings at 17 South Molton Street, near Oxford Street (PI 1). (2) During the 17 years spent at this residence, Blake, assisted by Catherine, composed, designed, engraved, etched, printed and coloured his most ambitious late illuminated books. In 1811 Blake printed the approximately 140 impressions needed to make up Copies A, B and C of Milton a Poem in 2 Books. He also printed Milton Copy D here in 1818. (3) By 1807 Blake had also printed in several sessions early proofs of his most ambitious illuminated book Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion. (4) In his final two years at 17 South Molton Street Blake printed at least four copies of this hundred-plate work. (5)
'South Molton Street' features prominently both on the title page of Jerusalem and in the texts of both Milton and Jerusalem. (6) On plate 38 of Jerusalem Blake writes:
... I heard in Lambeths shades: In Felpham I heard and saw the Visions of Albion I write in South Molton Street what I both see and hear In regions of Humanity, in London's opening streets. (7)
At 17 South Molton Street Blake also reprinted numerous copies of his earlier illuminated books, including Songs of Innocence Copies P, Q and S.s The Book of Thel Copies N and O, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell Copy G, Visions of the Daughters of Albion Copies N, O and P, Songs of Innocence and of Experience Copies T and U, The First Book of Urizen Copy G were also printed here, as were Copies A and B of For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. (9) In 1805 Blake colour-printed at least two later copies of his series of large colour prints originally created ten years earlier, Nebuchadnezzar and Newton. (10) During the longest period he lived anywhere, Blake employed himself in a number of other projects. …