When she turned 50, artist and Londoner Louisa Amelia Albani left her job as a marketing designer in the London office of Yale University Press. Her next step: to set up her own small press, Night Bird Press N2, and create pamphlets inspired by the work of literary figures such as Virginia Woolf and William Blake. Both Woolf and Blake are themselves remembered today as celebrated practitioners of self-publishing: Virginia set up Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard Woolf in 1917; over a century earlier, William and Catherine Blake had begun printing the illuminated books from their home in Lambeth during the 1790s.
Albani’s first self-published project was a visual-verbal production: an anthology of illustrated poems and short stories entitled ‘What we Heard from the Sea’ (2014). In 2018, she published a pamphlet inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft’s ‘Letters from Norway,’ which was the beginning of her fascination for 18th-century writers. She then turned to William Blake. In her 2019 pamphlet entitled William Blake’s Mystic Map of London, Albani reanimated especially the spirit of Blakean self-publishing, multimedial creativity, and creative partnership, inviting written contributions from Hackney-based writer and walker Simon Cole to accompany her artworks.
Albani’s Mystic Map is also a meditation on Blake’s topography of London in his illuminated books, mediated by Albani’s personal sense of the ever-changing city. In our recent interview, she explained:
Like Blake, I have lived in London all my life and therefore feel a deep affinity to some areas that are part of my own lived history. I have also experienced that need to find sanctuary or to protect and preserve parts of the city that resonate with my past, as well as that imaginative urge to shape its future. To create, if you like, my own ‘mystic’ map of a city that I also feel emotionally, psychically and physically connected to. Ideas around the theme of spirit of place fascinate me, therefore being able to literally walk in Blake’s footsteps was an important part of the project.
‘To walk in Blake’s footsteps’: Albani’s hope has been shared by many local artists, poets, and publishers in London for decades. Her Mystic Map harnesses the enormous visionary energies of William Blake into a remarkably warm and personal mapping of London’s streets, one that is also alive to the social ills, the frictions and fractures, that contradict and crack open the smooth surfaces of ‘official’ maps.
For Albani, Blake’s cartography is a cartography of feeling; her own aim:
To map Blake’s interior world of memory and imagination onto a grimy, urbanised London of social and political unrest. For Blake, the city feels all the pain and anguish of these changes, streets ‘weep’ and ‘lament.’ London becomes a pulsating city, a ‘being’ in itself, driving all these energies through its streets.
In the Mystic Map and in our interview, Albani is eager to assert the role played by Catherine Blake in the laborious process of illuminated printing and hand-colouring. The notion of collaboration is also foregrounded in Albani’s recent artworks, created for a forthcoming issue of VALA, the Blake Society’s online journal (scheduled to appear in autumn 2021), one of which shows Catherine colouring in the foreground, while William operates a star-wheel rolling press in the background.
In her work, Albani recuperates the importance of female labour in artistic production and especially in the historically male-dominated, power-laden domain of cartography. Her artworks perpetuate Blake’s legacy as both a champion of autonomous artistic production and a subversive cartographer of London’s ‘opening streets,’ both of which continue to inspire small-press practitioners today.
Night Bird Press website: https://www.nightbirdpress.com/louisa-albani-art-works
William Blake’s Mystic Map of London: https://www.nightbirdpress.com/blake
Jason Whittaker’s review of the Mystic Map on Zoamorphosis: https://zoamorphosis.com/2019/07/review-william-blakes-mystic-map-of-london/
VALA: The Journal of the Blake Society: https://www.blakesociety.org/vala
Michael Phillips demonstrates the Blakes’ illuminated printing process, using the star-wheel rolling press: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/videos/william-blake-printing-process
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.
CR: What is the history behind your creative practice?
LA: I graduated from Central St Martin’s with a design degree in the late 1980s, then did a second degree in art history in the late 1990s. I slowly built my artistic practice, combined with bringing up my daughter and working as a marketing designer in the London office of Yale University Press. When I turned 50, I left Yale and started my own small press, researching projects inspired by literary figures and then creating artworks, designing and producing the pamphlets and selling them directly to booksellers.
CR: How did you come to be familiar with Blake’s work?
LA: My first experience of Blake was through his Songs of Innocence and Experience via my English Literature A’ Level course. I still have the text book, a slim, small booklet with no illustrations, the pages creased and stained, with my comments crammed in the margins in tiny writing. This was my first introduction to his poem ‘London.’ All my notes in the margins are written in smudged pencil, except at the top of this poem I have written in blue ink ‘appearance and reality: seeing through the hypocrisy façade to the essence.’
CR: What does Blake mean to your creative practice?
LA: The creative process requires artists and writers to dig deep, to commit to a kind of excavation process in order to unearth what is hidden inside the psyche. It takes immense self-belief to bring this ‘vision’ into the real world, especially if you are working alone and without financial back-up. For me, Blake is one of the finest examples of a truly unique visionary. He used his poetry and art to envisage a more spiritually infused world, one that would be better than the reality he experienced in his present day. New realities begin life as dreamscapes—we should never forget this. Visionaries like Blake have the capacity to imagine a new reality for the future, in a way that rational thinking may not yet be able to comprehend in the given present. The pandemic has forced us to question the permanence of a reality we once knew. Poets/artists like Blake can teach us much about the power of the imagination in relation to repairing our psychic and emotional connection to a sense of place.
CR: How do you see the relationship between Blake and independent publishing?
LA: For me, Blake was a visionary not just in an imaginative sense, but also in a very real, visceral and physically demanding sense, because he found a way to be involved in every aspect of the publishing process, from creating the poetry and art, to designing, engraving and printing, thus retaining complete control over the finished product. In this way, he was able to practically manifest his visionary talent into a reality. The fact he was able to do this in the late 18th Century is an extraordinary achievement. At this time, two workshops were needed to print books: one specialising in letterpress, the other in the illustrations. In his home in Lambeth, with his star wheel press, Blake (and assisted by Catherine) would do it all. His achievements paved the way for others to follow in his footsteps, enabling the dissemination of free ideas and philosophies and thought to be made available to society without censorship or corporate goals overriding artistic and literary freedom. Blake’s own venture encapsulates the importance of and valuable contribution that independent publishing has on culture. It is an inspiration to others to follow their own vision and see it through to its publication.
CR: What kind of contact have you had with other Blakean organisations or individuals? How did you meet them? How did you stay in contact?
LA: I had no contact with Blake organisations prior to publishing my Mystic Map of London pamphlet. When I first began researching the project I felt that it needed to include a written contribution from a contemporary psycho-geographer, revisiting Blake’s landmarks and offering a 21st Century commentary. I had met Hackney tour guide Simon Cole through our mutual work on Mary Wollstonecraft and so we began to meet, sitting on a bench by Blake’s gravestone in Bunhill Fields, and talking about how we could make his contributions work. I have since been contacted by the Blake Society, who have asked me to contribute to their online journal, focusing on Catherine Blake and her considerable involvement with Blake’s printing press process.
CR: How have your encounters with other Blakean practitioners and projects affected your work?
LA: I was influenced and inspired by two writers, Iain Sinclair and Niall McDevitt, both opening up new ways of thinking for me in relation to Blake and London.
CR: What are the key similarities and differences between your work and other Blake-influenced projects that you have come across?
LA: A key difference, I would say, is that I used visual storytelling and imagined maps of Blake’s London to tell his story. My art project was not a critique of his work but rather to take an imagined journey that reflected his psychic, emotional and creative state, as he wandered down London streets. Perhaps another difference is that I wanted to replicate, in a sense, Blake’s own independenet publishing process by being involved in the whole process, from researching the project, creating the art and designing the pamphlet itself.
CR: How do you see the relationship between Blake and London?
LA: I was initially inspired by Henry Eliot’s ‘tour,’ in which he discusses the way London, for Blake, represents a continuous process of destruction and regeneration. Blake’s imaginative and original way of repairing aspects of the city takes the form of a golden srting that threads through the streets and portals of the city. This way of looking at Blake’s London began to shape my own vision of how I could put together a pamphlet, inspired itself by the format of 18th-century publications, using visual storytelling to develop and engage with these ideas. To find a way to visually map Blake’s visionary ideas of transforming London through a kind of poetical alchemy into his ‘golden city,’ of renewing the city after what he saw as the apocalyptic threat of industrialisation. Cartography provided a tool for mapping both what were collective anxieties as well as locating that ‘vein of gold,’ as Iain Sinclair puts it, Blake’s spiritual belief system. To map Blake’s interior world of memory and imagination onto a grimy, urbanised London of social and political unrest. For Blake, the city feels all the pain and anguish of these changes, streets ‘weep’ and ‘lament.’ London becomes a pulsating city, a ‘being’ in itself, driving all these energies through its streets.
CR: Has your own geographical location affected your engagement with Blake?
LA: Like Blake, I have lived in London all my life and therefore feel a deep affinity to some areas that are part of my own lived history. I have also experienced that need to find sanctuary or to protect and preserve parts of the city that resonate with my past, as well as that imaginative urge to shape its future. To create, if you like, my own ‘mystic’ map of a city that I also feel emotionally, psychically and physically connected to. Ideas around the theme of spirit of place fascinate me, therefore being able to literally walk in Blake’s footsteps was an important part of the project.
CR: What do you see as the significance of Blake’s local and/or global geographical imagery in a present-day context?
LA: In the first verse of ‘London’ Blake writes:
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In 18th century London, ‘permission’ is required to walk the city streets. We can find a comparison in 21st-century London – surveillance cameras in our present-day city—constantly watching and monitoring us. Governments are able to track, trace and control our day-to-day existence. Blake tunes into the collective anxieties of his day in a very intuitive way, as there is an underlying sense of unease in his writing. Homelessness, gentrification of previously communal spaces, division between rich and poor: all this still exists now. Perhaps we can learn from Blake and his imaginative rebuilding of a post-apocalyptic city, in relation to how we can repair our own fragmented and fractured vision of our own cities that we have experienced during the current pandemic.