The Soho That Made and Broke William Blake
It was 1806 above a hosiery shop on Soho’s Broad Street and William Blake was not a happy man. He had set up a makeshift exhibition above his brother’s business, in the hope of winning over some well-deserved admirers. But the critics weren’t being kind. To be exact, the critic wasn’t being kind. The only visitor who bothered putting pen to paper wrote off Blake’s life work as “…a few wretched pictures. A farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain.”
Must have stung.
Blake is known for his other-wordly creations – his ethereal paintings and poems of fairies dancing, muscular monsters moving through mystical netherworlds. He wasn’t entirely unappreciated in his time. He had patrons. People bought his work. They also often admitted not grasping quite what the artist was trying to say.
Who were these strange creatures, what were these bleak dystopias which flew into Blake’s mind?
Actually, they were born, partially at least, in Soho. A workhouse situated directly behind the Broad Street dwellings where Blake himself was born in 1757, resurfaced years later in his Songs of Experience, in works like Nurse’s Song. Perhaps the bad memories even flavoured his “dark satanic mills”.
And from early days, Blake had visions. The earliest came to him aged four – the infant Blake screamed as he saw God “put his head to the window.” He’d caught a terrifying glimpse of the almighty in Soho.
Soho inspired Blake in more practical ways, too. At 28 Poland Street, in ‘a narrow house of four storeys’ he dreamed up the revolutionary printing technique in which text and image could easily coexist on the same page – and which came to determine his style. It’s currently celebrated in a retrospective of his work at Tate Britain – a show that even recreates that fateful exhibition in Soho over two centuries ago.
Blake was a Londoner, a Soho-ite at that. As he once said it was only in London that he ‘could carry on his visionary studies… see visions, dream dreams.’ He makes other alien Londoners who came after him seem almost platitudinous. David Bowie like an accountant. Kate Bush like a data entry pen pusher.
If you seek out Blake materially in today’s Soho, all you’ll find is an almost laughably unimaginative plaque, marking the former site of his home. As a far better plaque for Christopher Wren – the architect of Soho’s Golden Square – says in St Paul’s Cathedral: “If you seek his memorial – look around you.” Blake’s poetry and art indirectly paved the way for the artful Sohos to come.