William Blake finally honoured with a gravestone at his last resting place
A new gravestone to be unveiled in Bunhill Fields in August 2018.
William Blake (1757-1827) is widely regarded as one of, if not the, greatest artist in British history. The born and bred Londoner was an acclaimed poet, painter, author and printmaker, although never had much success during his lifetime. Nearly 200 years after his death, Blake’s canon continues to amaze and inspire people around the world. Among his more famous works include ‘Songs of Innocence and of Experience’, ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, ‘The Four Zoas’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘Milton’, ‘And did those feet in ancient time’.
Having been brought up as an English Dissenter (Protestant Christians which broke away from the Church of England), Blake was laid to rest in a Dissenters’ graveyard following his death in 1827. The painter died at home in the Strand and was buried in Bunhill Fields in the London borough of Islington. As well as the location of his parents and two of his brothers’ graves, Bunhill also included the burial sites of Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan and Susanna Wesley. Blake was buried in an unmarked grave on 17 August – on what would have been he and wife Catherine’s 45th wedding anniversary. He was buried on top of several bodies, with another four being placed above him in the coming weeks. His widow Catherine died in 1831 and was also laid to rest at Bunhill Fields, but in a separate plot.
Bunhill Fields was closed as a burial ground in 1854 after it was declared ‘full’, having contained 123,000 interments during its 189 year history, and became a public park. Although William and Catherine Blake had both been buried in unmarked graves, the William Blake Society (founded 1912) erected a memorial stone to the couple in Bunhill Fields on the centenary of the painter’s death in 1927. The stone read: ‘Near by lie the remains of the poet-painter William Blake 1757–1827 and his wife Catherine Sophia 1762–1831.’ Re-landscaping in the 1960s following widespread damage during World War II resulted in many of the monuments being cleared. Although the Blakes’ memorial was one of those to survive, it was moved from its location at William’s grave to near Defoe’s memorial stone in 1965.
For the first 100 years following Blake’s death, there was no marking for his grave. Although the memorial stone erected in the 1920s was a notable improvement, it hasn’t been located in the correct position of the artist’s final resting place for over 50 years. After decades of being lost to history, two members of the Blake Society, Luis and Carol Garrido, finally uncovered the exact location of Blake’s remains in 2006. With Blake being such an important figure to British art and literature, the Society deemed his grave should be properly and respectfully commemorated. Fans of the poet around the world donated to the Society’s campaign to raise £300,000 for an official memorial. Comedian Stewart Lee helped fundraising with a sell-out stand-up gig, while Sir Alan and Lady Parker made a generous donation.
Acclaimed British stone-cutter Lida Cardozo – who created the British Library’s bronze gates – has designed and engraved a slab of Portland stone for Blake’s new gravestone. The stone will feature a quotation from Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ (1804–1820), reading:
‘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…’
The Blake Society are also giving Blake enthusiasts the opportunity to own one of 100 chips from the gravestone itself. Those who donate £45 or more can receive a chip, which will be boxed, numbered and signed by Cardozo.
The gravestone will be officially unveiled during a special inauguration ceremony in Bunhill Fields at 3pm on 12 August 2018 – the 191st anniversary of Blake’s death. Novelist Phillip Pullman, poet Malcolm Guite, musician John Wardle (aka Jah Wobble) and comedian Will Franken will be giving short addresses on how Blake inspired them. The subsequent unveiling of the stone will take place during a performance of a choral setting by Chris Williams. Later that evening, there will be a sunset vigil, featuring 191 candles at the grave.
Trustee of the Blake Society, Nick Duncan, said: ‘It matters that we recognise those who have contributed to our cultural heritage, and no creative genius has influenced people to the extraordinary extent as William Blake. Yet almost two centuries after his death, Blake’s grave is unmarked. People walk unknowingly over it, dropping litter and thinking of other things.
‘At last the grave will be correctly identified for future generations. We are inviting anyone who has been moved by Blake to come to Bunhill Fields on 12th August to honour his life and achievement and give him the wake he never had. The gravestone will provide the intimacy of contact with Blake that no text or guidebook can offer. At last lovers of Blake from all over the world will have a point of pilgrimage.’
- The William Blake gravestone is located in Bunhill Fields, 38 City Road, Shoreditch, EC1Y 2BG. Nearest station: Old Street. Open daily during daylight hours. For more information, visit the William Blake Society website.
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