What would it be like to have a conversation with William Blake? In his recent pamphlet entitled A Conversation with Wm. Blake (Uppingham: Goldmark, 2019), artist David Suff takes this question as his theme. Suff’s imagined dialogue with Blake unfurls in a series of visual and verbal evocations, beginning with the front-cover design (above), in which Suff places his own self-portrait directly opposite a portrait of William Blake. The two artists, centuries apart, are pictured in a single pictorial plane, conversing across a small coffee-table.
Suff is represented by Goldmark Gallery, an idiosyncratic cultural institution in Uppingham, founded by Mike Goldmark. Goldmark has also published literary works by Iain Sinclair (White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, 1987 and Objects of Obscure Desire, 2013). The artworks that Suff made for A Conversation with Wm. Blake were recently displayed at Goldmark Gallery (March 23 – April 13 2019) in the show Journeys Beyond Appearance, which also featured Suff’s 30-foot long autobiographical pen drawing called ‘River of Life.’
I recently interviewed Suff about his engagement with Blake over the course of his long artistic career (see the full interview below). What emerged was a sense that Suff’s ‘conversation’ with Blake has been a lifelong process. As a maker of verbal-visual books, an enthusiast of and participant in 20th-century counterculture, and a lover of literal and figurative journeys, Suff has brought Blake to many aspects of his creative practice. His work offers one vista into Blake’s legacy among contemporary artistic practitioners and particularly among makers of small-press books. In our interview, Suff recalls the beginnings of his fascination for Blake:
I think it began with the imagery, and the fact that so many of his most well-known images were taken in the 1960s and were used as emblems of the counterculture, there are lots of little small presses that all use Blakean words for names of their printing houses, and some of the psychedelic music of the 1960s was heavily influenced by Blake. I think my beginnings would have started with all of that, and then fitting that to living in London, loving walking around, looking, thinking about people who would have walked there before: all of those things kind of get crystallised in Blake for me.
Suff is particularly interested in a kind of Blakean re-enchantment of London’s topography. In our interview, he describes a quasi-epiphanic moment of inspiration that he experienced at Bunhill Fields, the site of Blake and Catherine’s burial. In A Conversation with Wm. Blake, which was directly inspired by this experience at Bunhill, Suff offers what he calls ‘a partial portrait of a man who is always near.’ In the poetry he meditates repeatedly upon a sense of Blake’s continued presence within London:
the time will come for you to
blow through this city
a suitcase of visions carved from the darkness
following the golden string
listening for mermaids,
reading faces and
… tracing feather paths through the air
endlessly whispers through the centuries
In picking up the ‘golden string’ that Blake lays down in Jerusalem, Suff positions himself as actively thinking with Blake, both thematically and formally, in the space of his minutely detailed visual-verbal book. There are many differences between Blake’s illuminated books and the practices of self- and independent publishers today—not least owing to the advent of digital printing—but Suff’s A Conversation is one work that keeps resolutely alive Blake’s legacy as a maker of books and a maker of worlds.
David Suff’s website: https://www.davidsuff.com/
Goldmark Gallery: https://www.goldmarkart.com/
Documentary about Suff’s Journeys Beyond Appearances, produced by Goldmark gallery: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1-JG4Z4ZD0
More information about the exhibition: https://www.goldmarkart.com/exhibitions-and-events/all/114-david-suff-journey-beyond-appearance-upcoming
This interview was conducted as part of research supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and hosted by Tate Britain and The University of York. For more information, see https://www.tate.org.uk/research/studentships/current/caroline-ritchie.
We began the conversation talking about Journeys Beyond Appearances, Goldmark’s documentary about Suff’s artwork River.
DS: Goldmark Gallery is a very, very strange institution. It’s a commercial gallery, but it behaves more like an arts centre: they publish books, they put on poetry readings and music events, they have a huge activity with ceramics, with pottery-makers from around the world, they deal in contemporary art and historical art, all sorts of things. When I first moved here to Rutland eighteen or so years back, it was a bookshop—a secondhand bookshop with the gallery on the side. Now it’s this huge building with lots of rooms and lots of things going on. They keep a resident film-maker. It’s common practice that if they’ve got an exhibition of pots or paintings or something, they tend to make a supporting film.
What I didn’t say in the finished version of that documentary, but probably said in one of the conversations that went towards it, was that I often don’t sleep very well, I’ll wake up a lot in the night. It got to be my habit, if I was staying in London overnight for some reason, I would probably stay somewhere near the Barbican or Old Street, and if I woke up in the middle of the night I’d go for a walk and I’d probably go and sit in Bunhill Fields. The grave marker that’s been there for quite a long time, apparently marking William Blake’s burial spot, says ‘nearby lie.’ That ‘nearby’ has always seemed such a powerful thing. It’s not a very twentieth-century kind of phrase, but it’s such a powerful kind of statement: here’s this person who’s so embedded into our culture in all sorts of ways—principally ‘Jerusalem,’ but also the imagery and the poetry and the idea of the Romantic radical and all of these things—and yet we don’t actually know exactly where he’s buried. And it’s a graveyard for Nonconformists—Daniel Defoe has a beautiful stone memorial there and the Wesleys, but Blake is somewhere here, he’s somewhere round about.
CR: It’s funny though that he has been given a sort of pride of place in its own way—it’s a humble sort of thing but it’s kind of hard to miss as well.
DS: Absolutely, and it turns out that the actual burial is around thirty feet away. Some people have researched the exact point and they know who’s buried in the shared grave and all of that. But it just seemed to me that over your shoulder is the City of London, this enormous capitalist powerhouse, with tentacles of influence and power all over the globe, and here’s Blake: someone who was not afraid to comment on that, to confront it, to talk about the inequalities within society, and he’s buried so close, just on the periphery of it, and nobody actually bothered to note precisely where he is. There’s something there that always fascinated me and intrigued me, I think.
CR: From living in London and living near Bunhill Fields—is that how you came to know Blake or came to know him in a particular way that was very closely related to place and geography?
DS: My father was a Cockney. He was born in London. He was orphaned and grew up in children’s homes and I kind of feel as though I’m a Londoner in my sinews, in my heart, and we lived in London for a long time. And there’s something about London that draws me back imaginatively, constantly. The River Thames is a huge thing in my thinking—the idea that Roman legionnaires crossed it on bridges, the idea that Joseph Conrad sat in a boat out in the estuary and wrote Heart of Darkness. And Blake’s one of those London figures. If you’ve got a Romantic notion of the city and its place in history and generation after generation walking the same streets, then he’s one of those figures that you would naturally be drawn to. But I don’t think that’s where it began. I think it began with the imagery, and the fact that so many of his most well-known images were taken in the 1960s and were used as emblems of the counterculture, there are lots of little small presses that all use Blakean words for names of their printing houses, and some of the psychedelic music of the 1960s was heavily influenced by Blake. I think my beginnings would have started with all of that, and then fitting that to living in London, loving walking around, looking, thinking about people who would have walked there before: all of those things kind of get crystallised in Blake for me.
CR: Did you have a sense at the time that there were other artists or hubs that were interested in Blake in London? For instance, you seem to have crossed paths with Iain Sinclair through Goldmark, is that right?
DS: Sinclair I knew from his self-published books in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, I suppose around the early ‘70s. I have copies of his Albion Village work, the things that he published himself, and I’ve followed his career through all of the publications since. And he very kindly agreed to speak a little bit in that documentary [Journeys Beyond Appearances]. So Iain was one thing, and I think that there was a kind of psychedelic folk music centred around the Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention and some Irish musicians—Dr Strangely Strange—that were Iain’s friends and so we both had some similar interests in that kind of music. I was aware of the William Blake Society and went to a few of their exhibitions and talks. I spent a lot of time in the Tate looking around, when all the Blake pictures were in that strange rotunda room. I would go there quite often.
CR: It would be great to hear a bit more about what Blake’s work means to your work, especially in light of the metaphors you’re interested in—the river and the garden and so on. By the way, there is a Blake painting at Tate entitled The River of Life, and I was wondering as a side note whether you’d had that in mind as well?
DS: Yes—I think I thought about that after I’d pretty much finished the river thing. But I’ll just go back to amplifying the piece that’s in the documentary. On one of these early mornings, I was sitting in Bunhill fields with the fig tree behind me—there’s a little bench there—and there were goldfinches. There were goldfinches flittering around and chattering away, and I suddenly felt not the presence of Blake—not somebody speaking to me from the past or something—but I suddenly felt that that kind of commentary on the inequalities of society is a pretty continuous thread and it was almost like these tiny, tiny coloured birds twittering away, the sun breaking through at dawn, and these enormous tower blocks of power and authority and wealth behind—they seemed like some kind of almost Blakean metaphor, some kind of image of the natural world. The grass is going to pop up beneath all of the paving slabs—if we leave it long enough, the city disappears, the tended garden returns to the wild. And that’s something that’s probably always been in my work. And out of listening to those goldfinches, I made a few drawings, which became four largeish black-and-white drawings and that little pamphlet of some of the thoughts and words [A Conversation with William Blake].
There were feathers falling out of the sky because a couple of birds had had a dispute, or maybe there was a predatory bird attacking a smaller bird or something. But I’m sitting there, in the dawn light, listening to the goldfinches, and there are these feathers dropping down, and somehow it all seemed like I was kind of in the presence of at the very least a Blakean way of looking at the world. I’m not claiming that there was a ghost speaking to me from the past, it wasn’t that kind of experience, but it was something very powerful and it fed into a lot of work. I would have been working on that river drawing at that time and thinking more about my own life and the experiences of moving around and passions, and fundamentally thinking about ‘what is this thing that I’m drawn to do?’ One of the most common questions that I’ve ever been asked as an artist is ‘when did you decide to do that?’ And I don’t think I did. That’s what I was chosen to do, that was the thing that I was set up to do, really.
CR: I love the image of that unfolding notebook that you used for River and that seemed to me to resonate with the kind of journeys that we find in Blake as well, this idea of the golden string metaphor, that there might be some kind of goal in the future but that the way to get there is step by step, it unfolds along the way. Back in Bunhill Fields, John Bunyan is also buried nearby in that big tomb and I was wondering if there was a theme of pilgrimage in Bunyan’s sense informing your metaphor of the journey, or if Bunyan has been an interest of yours as he was for Blake as well?
DS: When I’m there, I’m aware that those other people are buried there, but it’s Blake that draws me there. My father didn’t know his grandparents. Probably the grandfather would’ve been a seaman from Northern Germany or Denmark or something, and so the East of London has always been very interesting to me. The idea that life is a journey, the idea that it’s not clearly mapped out, and that it’s not necessarily a straight line—all of those things make perfect sense to me. I always say to people that I think I’ve led a charmed life really, it just unfolded and it was interesting. It was scary, it was miserable at times, it was sometimes hard to pay the bills, and all of those things, but they’re just kind of common threads in any life, in a life. Most of us are sort of given over to wondering ‘what’s the point of all of this? What am I here for?’
CR: The River artwork isn’t annotated, is it? It’s pictorial, is that right?
DS: Absolutely right. I’ve shown it a few times to roomfulls of people and I usually say very little to introduce it other than ‘here’s sixty years of a life—my life—in fifteen minutes.’ That’s kind of all the clues I want to provide really because there are symbolic images embedded in it, some of which I’ve spoken about and spoken of in that documentary, but there are other things that I don’t want to talk about. There was a long period of miserable, depressive life—more than a decade really of not very pleasant times. I think if you look at the thing, it gets incredibly dark at one point and it’s not like other bits of it that are well-lit and everything. But that’s kind of all you need to know because it’s not intended to be a drawing of this life only. I want it to be a drawing of a life that you’ll find your own resonances in. I don’t think I’ve lived an unusual life, it’s been fairly ordinary in most respects, but obviously the sequence of things or how things affect your equilibrium will be different for different viewers or different interpreters.
CR: Different threads to be picked up… You’ve also written some beautiful words—poems—in this pamphlet [A Conversation with William Blake], and I was fascinated by this combination of words and images, it seemed very reminiscent of the illuminated books.
DS: It’s straight out of Blake! I think that I’ve been fascinated by the conjunction of word and image and always been drawn to illustrate children’s books and graphic novels (to some extent, but less so). In my drawings, in the exhibitable pieces, I would like to embed words into them more, but I’ve never found a satisfactory way of doing that, partly I think because our culture tends to give more weight to words than to images, and if you put words in it might solidify possible interpretations in ways that I don’t really want. Over the years there have been a few pieces of work where it’s fed into a little pamphlet or something which you’ve very kindly called poetry…I’m uncertain and don’t want to make any great claims for that. But all of those words which are in the sketchbooks and on scraps of paper, they somehow seem very important and part of the making—in this case—four largeish drawings and maybe twenty or so smaller pieces. I don’t know if the booklet really stands alone as a separate thing, but it felt important to do that and working with Goldmark gave me a very good opportunity to make that.
CR: Were your other pamphlets also published by Goldmark?
DS: No… At the end of 1982 or something at the Royal College of Art, I made a very large drawing about the Green Man and there’s a substantial booklet that went with that, which was published at the Royal College as part of the final degree piece of work. And some of them were just one-offs, just handmade little sewn chapbooks.
CR: Are you working on something in particular at the moment?
DS: At the beginning of 2020, about a year ago, I went for a walk locally from this house—a three- or four-mile circular walk. And in one of the hedgerows I found a huge Ash tree that had been blown over a long time ago, a hundred or more years ago, and it’s growing laterally to the ground, and it’s incorporated in the hedge, and it’s maybe eighteen feet long, with the roots at one end and all the saplings grow up as it goes along. I decided this thing was called ‘tree hedge,’ and I would begin making drawings of it. A few weeks later, we were all supposed to stay at home and only go out for an hour a day, so I began doing this walk every day, listening to the birds, taking some photographs on my phone maybe, and making drawings. Today was day 302 of making this same walk.
Once a week, on a Monday, I gather all of the things I’ve seen together into a little email and attach this week’s drawing, and I sent it originally to friends who I knew to be bird-watchers or interested in the natural world. And it now goes around the world—I send it to about fifty people. Some of them send it on to their mums and dads in their nineties who haven’t been able to go out of the house since last March. I get these extraordinary messages back from around the world. Somebody sends me a photograph of the Cherry Blossom in Osaka, somebody else tells me about the street demonstrations in Portland, outside the Capitol building… I’m right at the point now of turning the first six months of that walking into a book. I’m laying out the pages, and that’s forced me to make additional pictures, so I’ve made some landscape drawings where the weekly picture had been a couple of birds in the hedgerow or something. I call this thing ‘Walking on Skylark Ridge’—I made up the name ‘Skylark Ridge’ because there were invariably skylarks singing when I went out walking for 125 days continuously, there was a skylark singing for sure. And then there’s been a big gap, and yesterday and today there were skylarks singing again, so we’re nearly back to a full year. Now I’ll start to see the repetition of the natural world. I know what date I saw the first swallow last year, will I see one at the same time this year, or will I see one later, will the daffodils come up at the same time… It’s this strange kind of nature diary that’s grown by accident, really. It’s been an extraordinary, gentle way of connecting with the world around about and keeping contact with friends all over the globe.
CR: To come back to Blake, do you attach particular significance to specific Blakean places? I know you’ve mentioned Bunhill Fields and I wondered if you’re interested in the kind of obsessive cataloguing of the places that Blake mentions in his work, or where he lived in London, which is something many Blakean writers and artists have taken up? Is that something that you feel drawn to, or that you’ve brought to your own work?
DS: It’s something that I’m definitely aware of in Blake. I’m very aware of the specificity of places in his work. But I’m more generally aware of the biography of his life than the specific bits of London…that hasn’t been a major part of my work. In the past there have been drawings of Callanish up in the Scottish Isles and drawings of Venice and gardens in France and things. But I suppose there’ve been two strands in my work, one of which has been images of recognisable, known places—if I make a drawing of Stonehenge, you could go and compare it with Stonehenge—but the larger pieces have generally been an imaginative place, they’ve not been a real place. So I might take the form of a bush from here, a piece of pyramid topiary from there, and a bird from here, and invent a garden because I think the idea of the garden has run through most of my work for thirty or more years.
CR: Are you thinking of the garden in opposition to something like the city or built environments?
DS: No, I think I’m thinking of the garden more in that kind of Islamic tradition of heaven on earth, a place for contemplation, a place for quiet: the running water, the flowers. I’m not thinking of the garden in opposition to the built environment of the city as though they’re opposites. I’m thinking of the garden more as an imaginative space, a space where spiritual contemplation might be possible. I think I’m very interested in spirituality and thinking about why and how, but I don’t go to a church or follow a particular church or follow a particular belief system. But in a way the garden is a little bit like a sacred space, a place of worship. In a way—I wouldn’t want to make that point too strongly.
CR: I don’t know if there is an answer to this, but why do you think that Blake has this status in independent publishing specifically, but also some kind of special status as a guide-figure in art, poetry for a lot of people?
DS: I think you’re right when you say that you’re not sure if there could be an answer to the question. It’s very complicated, but there are bits of answers to it. I think that Blake does seem to be very, very singular. It’s very, very hard looking back through British culture to think of anybody who had such facility with words and with images. It’s very hard to think of any other kind of free-thinker or radical commentator who could make such powerful images. And yet, at the same time, he seems to be both didactic and not at the same time, so it’s possible for you to invest in Blake almost any kind of meaning that you want. I’m very comfortable in saying that Blake was unafraid to “speak truth to power”, or one of those modern phrases that we all think we understand and we quite like people who can do those things. He feeds in a way into that very kind of middle-class, European idea that the genius has thin soup, dried bread, lives in a garret, and yet is so extraordinarily creative and wonderful. That’s sort of true about Blake to a point, except he was quite well supported, and when he did earn money, he earned more money than an awful lot of ordinary working people in his community would have earned. He had some kind of way of being able to talk to more wealthy, more powerful, more socially distanced people. One of the things about the artist sometimes—not always—is that they can float free of the restraints of stratified society, so they can be in the working man’s pub in the East End playing darts and drinking beer, and they can also attend a soiree at lady somebody-or-other’s house the next day. They never quite belong in either place but they are sort of tolerated and don’t not belong in either place. I think Blake is kind of quintessentially that. He’s not afraid to criticise things, he’s got ideas on social order, he talks all the radical language, he’s sort of an outsider, and yet maybe he wasn’t. Certainly there was a community later in his life of younger artists who were very aware and held him in high esteem and tried to support him, he had patrons who found work for him—perhaps not the work he wanted, but something.
When you get to the publishing houses, well he was one of the first self-publishers. Financial necessity made sure that he had to invent techniques, and he had a lot that he wanted to say, he had a lot to do. It’s not hard to see how if you set up your own publishing operation in the twentieth century, or even perhaps in the nineteenth century, why you would have taken Blake as some kind of role model or exemplar, he’s perfect for it, but they miss the bit where he wasn’t actually very successful in disseminating the things he published.
In a way, of course, he told us so little about his reality, and people might have had their own reasons and their own agenda to over-romanticise him. This idea that somebody sings on their deathbed is a pretty powerful image—all of us would like to die gently and with a smile on our faces (if that could be arranged, please)—but we don’t know for sure that that’s what happened, we don’t know that he didn’t die in agony and discomfort.
And again, it’s the same point really, that he’s an extraordinarily colourful and interesting creative figure, but the biography and the detail and what he was exactly trying to say in particular pieces of work is vague enough, it’s almost blank, you can almost put what you want onto Blake and it’ll sort of fit.
CR: It’s posssibly something that could be said of many if not any text—that you can bring your own interpretation to it—but Blake seems to make this idea a theme.
Since I’ve been in London I’ve noticed quite a number of publications and exhibitions relating to Blake, and a series of small presses with this Blakean undercurrent, and I’m wondering if that is to your mind something that has had a bit of a resurgence again recently, or whether it’s been there throughout?
DS: I think it’s kind of cyclical. I think in the little book [A Conversation with William Blake], I say something about Blake always being there. But I think that fashion, or the zeitgiest or something…periodically it seems to come back. You only need Damon Albarn from Blur or someone to speak about Blake and there seems to be a new flurry of activity. He’s a bit like a kind of creative Che Guevara in a way—you can sort of put William Blake on your t-shirt and you’re telling the world something about who you think you are, and what your interests and passions are. I don’t think there’s very many British artists that you could do that with—you couldn’t do that with Turner. If you put Turner’s image on your t-shirt, or one of his paintings, a much smaller number of people would get the reference and know what you’re doing. Blake has always been, I think, bigged-up, especially in the literary community, but also by people who see themselves as radical, who see themselves as iconoclasts or outsiders in some way, and so he’s become this kind of poster boy. He fits so many other people’s views of what it is to be a poet or a painter.