Mosaic & William Blake Courses

ABOUT THE PROJECT

RHACC has been working with the London School of Mosaic, Friends of Surbiton Station, and Surbiton Art Trail to restore and exhibit mosaics, inspired by William Blake, which are now on display at Surbiton Station. 

The mosaics were originally displayed in the arches near Waterloo station, which were taken down and delivered to our Hillcroft campus to be restored by our Artist in Residence Jo Lewis from London School of Mosaic. The first lot of mosaics that are being restored are based on Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience poems. The restoration concentrated on cleaning, curating, restoring and replacing bespoke ceramic pieces that are included in some of the mosaics. 

Read our Programme Manager Anna's article about the restoration project on the William Blake Society page here.


MOSAIC STORY

ABOUT MOSAICS: 

Mosaic is an ancient art form.  The first known examples are over 4000 years old, and mosaic was first brought to Britain by the Romans.  Archaeologists continue to uncover great finds every year.  Mosaic is enjoying something of a resurgence at the moment and is considered by many to be architecture's most expressive surface.  Once you start looking, you'll see mosaic everywhere - whether it's Paolozzi's colourful abstract mosaics at Tottenham Court Road tube station, the vast, grand floor, wall and ceiling mosaics made by women prisoners at St Paul's Cathedral in the nineteenth century. Making mosaic can be meditative - it's easy to get lost for hours in making one, but it's also a very collaborative art form. Large projects need many hands. Today, mosaics are often made from vitreous glass or ceramic tiles. They gain their unique depth and texture from being hand-cut, hand-laid craft work. These are the materials and techniques we will be looking at in the new mosaic curriculum at Hillcroft.

RESTORING THE MOSAICS: 

The mosaics were previously displayed in damp railway arches for the past 20 years or so. Some of them suffered from being constantly dripped on by rainwater, some by having birds perching on them and leaving their calling cards! And some from graffiti or vandalism. The first stage of the restoration was to work out whether the mosaic was dry enough to still have full structural integrity. If so, then it was a case of giving them a good clean and using special products to get rid of permanent marker, spray paint, guano and so on.  For mosaics which have got wet, it is a much more involved job.  Once water gets between the cement adhesive used to glue the pieces on and the marine plywood base, pieces start to peel away from the base, sometimes falling off altogether.  In the worst case scenario, we had to soak the whole mosaic in water, carefully stripping it away from the base, using acid to dissolve all the cement and grout on every single piece and then re-adhering each piece in its correct position to a new board. As you can imagine, this is an incredibly painstaking process, so was only used as a last resort.  

One of the most interesting features of these mosaics is that some of them include handmade and highly decorative ceramic pieces.  Some are used as borders and some contain the poems themselves. These pieces seem to have suffered more damage than the more traditional mosaics made with 1cm tesserae, so we worked with a ceramicist from RHACC to replace missing and broken pieces which was a really important part of the process.


THE LAMBETH MOSAICS EXHIBITION AT SURBITON STATION

SONGS OF INNOCENCE 

William Blake was an English poet, painter, engraver and mystic, born in London in 1757. He may have been the first ‘Romantic’ and was a huge influence on the Romantic movement in art and literature.  In his lifetime he was not famous, didn’t sell much of his work, and often found it hard to make a living.  Late in his life, he inspired a group of young poets, who revered him and helped to build his reputation. He continues to inspire artists and writers with his extraordinary, powerful imagination, including the mosaic artists who created the ‘Lambeth’ mosaics. Songs of Innocence was published in 1789, as an ‘illuminated’ book (illustrated). His books were engraved, hand printed and coloured by Blake and his wife at home in Lambeth. Each poem and its accompanying illustration were designed to be seen and understood as a whole: each adding meaning to the other.

THE TITLE PAGE OF SONGS OF INNOCENCE

The image shows a boy and a girl reading to their mother, or nurse. They are shaded by a tree entwined by a vine, and birds fly up through the words of the title. A piper and an angel are also shown within the letters of the word ‘Songs'. This pastoral scene, where the children read to the adult, rather than the other way around, contrasts with the tradition in Blake’s time of children’s literature published for the purpose of ‘moral instruction’. William Blake’s first illustration acknowledges the power and importance of the child’s point of view, linking childhood with nature.


SONGS OF EXPERIENCE

A CRADLE SONG 

A mother sings a lullaby to her sleeping baby, a prayer that the child will sleep deeply, as well as a celebration of sleep itself. The poem is also an idealised image of motherhood, and of the ‘holy image’, of mother and child. The baby’s tears may symbolise the tears shed by Mary and Jesus, and parental and divine love are overlaid.


THE NURSE'S SONG 

   

The nurse sings of the pleasure (‘My heart is at rest’) of knowing that the children in her charge are happy playing outside in natural surroundings (‘the green’ and ‘the hill’). Her joy increases when the children complain that they are not ready to go indoors, and she allows them to stay out longer, ‘until the light fades away’. Blake has been praised for writing ‘such a successful poem on the delight of being allowed to play a little longer until dusk’. The counterpart to this poem in ‘Songs of Experience’, also called ‘The Nurse’s Song is, of course, much darker.


LONDON

This poem was published in 1793, soon after the French revolution of 1789, and is a powerful political poem. The narrator sees that London is suffering – including the river and the streets themselves. The poem uses repetition to express an outcry against the oppression of ordinary people, in particular soldiers, young prostitutes ‘harlots’ and chimney sweeps. Each have been sold or forced to sell themselves because of their position in the abusive hierarchical society they have been born into. The poem lays the blame for poverty, disease and misery with the Church and the King for creating this society and its victims.


THE CHIMNEY SWEEPER

The narrator of this poem describes the suffering of orphans and children, to whom Blake is known to have felt passionately protective.  The shaving of the child’s hair may represent the loss of childhood innocence, but Tom Dacre’s dream of divine security (being clean, going to Heaven and putting down the burden of his tools) is a happy one. A main theme seems to be that with faith, we can endure, because parentless children still have God.  Readers might interpret irony here, given Blake’s negative feelings about the destructive aspects on society of the industrial revolution.


A POISON TREE

    

The image shows a gnarled tree, below which a man lies dead, poisoned by his enemy, who’s unexpressed anger made him commit murder. This poem is about the danger of repressing emotion, and suggests that if we are honest about our feelings, without allowing them to build-up (and poison us), we will keep our anger under control, unlike the narrator. The anger in this poem has been connected to the rage felt by the revolutionaries in France - it was needed as a motivating force for change, but its repression and subsequent release led to terrible violence. It also relates to the themes of trust and religious faith, and the idea that piety can conceal malice, making true evil difficult to detect.


THE GARDEN OF LOVE

The narrator expresses a change in perspective as he moves from childhood to adulthood. This garden used to be a place to play, when he was a child, but now a chapel has been built there.  The metaphor works on several levels: on becoming an adult, we become subject to more of the rules and restrictions governing society, particularly regarding sexuality and freedom of expression, which religion and moral codes (the Chapel) represents.  A building with ‘Thou Shalt Not’ on the door, is shutting the narrator out of a place of joyful play. This phrase quotes the Bible’s ten commandments, but also the oppression of industry: Nature, where the child was innocent, has been built upon. Blake suggests that unless we develop our creative imagination to replace our lost innocence, we might as well be dead. 


THE SICK ROSE 

This is an enigmatic poem, very open to interpretation without one clear meaning.  It is very much about the nature (and dangers) of love and sexuality, but it runs deeper than this, and is about something more personal to Blake.  It can also represent the vulnerability of anything which may be delicate, ephemeral or precious to the reader. Some interpret the worm in the poem as symbolic of the human race.  It is about a rose that is a real rose, but also more, which is also suggested by the capital ‘R’ of ‘Rose’. 


THE CLOD AND THE PEBBLE 

Love is described first by a clod (a piece of mud / earth) and then by a pebble. The optimistic clod sees love as self-sacrificing: love ‘for another gives its ease’. The pebble answers with the opposite, cynical view, that love is selfish: ‘seeketh only self to please’. Perhaps the pebble is hardened by its experiences of the world, whereas the clod is made of something softer, and is therefore more vulnerable. The poem is perfectly balanced in that the reader is not told who is right, the clod or the pebble – perhaps love is always a balance of both. Blake has allowed these tiny elements of the natural world to have a voice in this philosophical debate, in keeping with the project of the book as a whole.  


THE TYGER 

Perhaps most famous of the poems, many school children have been introduced to this poem in the last 200 years in their English lessons. The poem repeats the question: Who could be brave enough to invent or make ‘frame’, a tiger? How could a lamb and a tiger be created by the same hand? The answer would seem to be God, but there is a sense that making a tiger might be something that one would regret. This poem is a counterpart to the poem in ‘Songs of Innocence’, ‘The Lamb’, which asks the lamb if he knows who made him. The lamb is ‘meek’ and ‘mild’, but in contrast the tiger burns with power, to represent the anger of God, or the aggressive, creative and imaginative strength of human beings as well as of whatever, or whoever, made us.


THE PIPER (FRONTISPIECE ILLUSTRATION TO THE INTRODUCTION)

   

The image of the pipe-player in a wood, looking up at an angel is the frontispiece of Songs of Innocence, and relates to the first poem ‘Introduction’. This poem gives purpose to the book itself – explaining the reason for creating Songs of Innocence : “Piper sit thee down and write / In a book that all may read”. William Blake, who described himself as an ‘author and printer’, characterises himself as a wandering minstrel who is ordered by an angel to sing and then to write down the songs, making his work accessible to all. 


THE FLY

        

The illustration shows a nurse with a toddler, and a little girl batting a shuttlecock, from which the trail of the fly’s flight-path seems to follow. The poem compares the narrator’s mortality with the fly’s, which he has thoughtlessly killed by swatting it away. The fly says, ‘I dance, and drink and sing until some blind hand will brush my wing’. Comparing the value and the precariousness of the fly’s life with his own human life, the narrator philosophically asks whether we should be afraid of death, because we won’t know when we are dead. ‘Thought’ ends when our life ends, so we should be happy while we are here. Our deaths are caused, like the fly’s, by a ‘blind hand’ - a hand that moves without decision. The word ‘if’ is very important here, as without it, the poem does not consider God’s role in our life and death.

Discover more about William Blake's biography and Songs of Innocence and Experience here.


COURSES: 

ART & LITERATURE: 

Art History - William Blake - Visionary Printmaker (Hillcroft Campus, Surbiton)

Creative Writing - Opening the Imagination (Hillcroft Campus, Surbiton)

Creative Writing - Poetry and Collage

Literature - Reading William Blake -The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (Hillcroft Campus, Surbiton)

Literature - William Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience (Hillcroft Campus, Surbiton)

MOSAICS:

Mosaic Taster Course (Hillcroft Campus, Surbiton)

Mosaics - 1 day Introduction Course (Hillcroft Campus, Surbiton)

Mosaic - Beginners (Hillcroft Campus, Surbiton) 

Mosaics - Intermediate (Hillcroft Campus, Surbiton)

Enrol today!