Review: William Blake’s Mystic Map of London

At the end of William Blake’s Mystic Map of London, the artist and author Louisa Albani includes a quotation from Iain Sinclair’s Blake’s London, in which he writes:

“The golden chain goes on & on & on, & the maps we need to follow are  all to be found in the works of the archetypal London writer, William Blake of Lambeth.”

The quotation is an apt one, as indeed is Sinclair’s description of Blake as “the godfather of psychogeography” in his earlier book, London Orbital. Simon Cole, who has contributed much of the writing to William Blake’s Mystic Map, directly refers to Blake as the “original psychogeographer”, while Albani invokes Sinclair as a direct inspiration for her project, along with Peter Ackroyd, Hnery Eliot, Niall McDevitt, and June Singer. And the nature of that project? To invoke Blake’s spirit as an an anarchist and activist in his own time to understand not only the London of his own day, but that of the city in the twenty-first century. As Albani writes in her introduction:

In 21st century London, significant landmarks continue to be knocked down, and common land gets sold off to money-hungry developers. We are led to believe that such changes are an inevitable part of city life, but the privatisation of free space can lead to feelings of powerlessness. How can we address this feeling? Perhaps by being visionary architects of our own futures, imaginatively mapping our own sacred spaces across the city.

Albani, who describes herself as an artist, educator and independent publisher, has produced a wonderfully beautiful pamphlet to map out her own imaginative response to Blake, a visionary mapping of the city that draws upon the Romantic as she has also drawn upon Mary Wollstonecraft for a similar work dealing with her inspirations. The book comprises a series of hand-drawn maps and illustrations of scenes in London (and of Blake’s life), with particular emphasis paid to the features that appear in those locations. Thus the “Mystic Map of Soho”, for example, lists that the Ancient Order of Druids was founded at the Old Kings Arms east of Poland Street in 1781, while the font in Christopher Wren’s church of St James, Picadilly, was designed by Grinling Gibbons and was inspired by the Tree of Life. There are elements of Albani’s (and Cole’s) enthusiasm which occasionally inspire a Urizenic-academic raise of they eyebrow from me (I have, in the past, spent far too long tracking down what I believe was the relative insignificance of that Druidic Order in the Old Kings Arms), but at the same time I am fully aware of just how important these minute particulars are to an understanding of William Blake. Many is the time that I have felt this myself, wandering through London’s chartered streets and mentally mapping how they must have appeared in Blake’s day (and how so many of those tracks still survive into the present, even as the city is constantly destroyed and rebuilt).

Alongside the images are a series of short prose pieces, some by Albani, others by Cole, as well as quotations and extracts of Blake’s works. Thus we learn of the site of the old Newgate Prison where Blake is said to have been carried along by the crowd during the Gordon Riots of 1780, or his home in 17 South Molton Street, the one London residence that still stands today. Interspersed with these are satirical or observational pieces, such as Cole’s “Death Sentence Commuted to Shopping”, a meditative riff on the fact that Molton Street, formerly close by Tyburn where criminals were hanged, is now dominated by the traffic generated by the commerce of Oxford Street. My own particular favourite among the illustrations included is that of William and Catherine, looking out of the window at Fountain Court, their final home. The aged couple, William sitting and increasingly infirm, Catherine vibrant and standing, are sketched out against the watercolour of the Strand on which they gaze. It is touching and elegant in its simplicity.

William Blake’s Mystic Map of London is a deeply personal response to Blake’s visions of the Jerusalem and Babylon that was his home for all but three years of his life. Albani’s work is not a systematic appraisal of the city – no more than Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion is a systematic account of the history of Britain. Indeed, in her introduction Albani introduces Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur, the modern drifter through the city who absorbs aimlessly, a process that the later Situationists would describe as dérive, the revolutionary act of engaging with the situations of the city against the impositions of those in power. In Blake’s case, this was to reimagine those chartered streets as the conduits of Los and Enitharmon, the sites of struggles between Vala, Luvah and Urizen – his great Zoas with which he projected his own psychic battles onto the urban landscape around him. Taking her cue from Blake, Louisa Albani has created her own psychic projections onto Blake’s city and her London, deploying the technique of kintsugi, the golden joinery employed by Japanese artists to bind together broken pottery: the fragments of the city contained in her book are bound together with the same golden string that Blake promised would lead to Jerusalem, and which words are inscribed on his tombstone with which the book concludes:

I GIVE you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall

 

Louisa Albani, William Blake’s Mystic Map of London, with contributions by Simon Cole. Night Bird Press, 2019. £9.00. 

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