Lambeth to Brixton, or Poetry and Painting, Sound and Vision, William Blake, and The Institute of Imagination

David Robert Jones was born within walking distance of the house where William Blake (1757-1827) did much of his greatest work.

London seems a remarkably small town in some ways: so much has happened there in so little space over so many hundreds of years’ time. South of the Thames River, at Hercules Road, London SE1, between 1791 and 1800, William Blake created the Songs of Experience, Europe and America (among other prophetic books), and Newton and Nebuchadnezzar.

The man who would be David Bowie was born about three miles down the road at 40 Stansfield Road, Brixton, London, SW9 9RZ on January 8, 1947.

At age 10, in 1767, Blake started  Mr Pars’ drawing school in the Strand and then in 1772 became an apprentice engraver to  James Basire of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At age 11, David Jones went to Bromley Tech to study art, leaving five years later to start work at Hirst Advertising, 98 New Bond Street, London, not far from Lincoln Fields.

There the similarities end.

Blake scrambled for enough cash to maintain himself and wife and buy what he needed for his engravings and paintings,  unknown and unappreciated. But likely he came close to satisfying himself, creating his own system of belief, was never “enslav’d by another Man’s,” and preserved his visions in ways which honor both language and image, joining the sound of poetry and the meaning of its words and the sensuality and immediacy of his visual art.

Jones became Bowie and achieved fame and riches. I don’t mean to suggest that he is not a man who has achieved great things. But I think he never got to where he wanted to go. I think he wanted very much to join sound and vision, but it didn’t happen. He could imagine it, using elements of Kabuki or mime, costuming, and so on to add visual interest to the music, but one problem, of course, is that performance is fleeting. My choice, based solely on youtube snippets, of the most visually interesting tour is Sound and Vision. Even on my monitor, the interaction of the giantess Louise Lecavalier and Bowie is impressive.

For recordings, Outside came closest, perhaps, but appeared after the transition from 12″ by 12″ LP format with heavy cardboard opening out to a 24″ by 12″ canvas and capable, even unboxed, of including glossy 8″ x 10″ photographs and a 24″ by 36″ poster (I’m thinking of the Beatles’ White Album) to the shoddy little 5.5″ square CD case with the flimsy little booklets of thin paper. The artwork of Outside is essentially ruined by being so shrunk that even a magnifying glass doesn’t help with the lyrics.

Bowie’s Blakean Mind

Bowie thought in Blakean mode — Blakean in the synathesia sense (like one who hears or smells colors). In 1978, Bowie told Melody Maker‘s Michael Watts about his  “peculiar system of notation for the musicians”:

“I draw the music, the shape that it should look like. I have to draw the feeling because I can’t explain it. The musicians who have worked with me have now learned the language.”

Twenty years later he told The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman:

“I’d find that if I had some creative obstacle in the music that I was working on, I would often revert to drawing it out or painting it out. Somehow the act of trying to recreate the structure of the music in paint or in drawing would produce a breakthrough. . . .I’ll combine sounds that are kind of unusual, and then I’m not quite sure where the text should fall in the music, or I’m not sure what the sound conjures up for me. So then I’ll go and try and draw or paint the sound of the music. And often a landscape will produce itself.  . . . . Suddenly I’ll realize where things go in the music.”

So there we are. Except for one odd little connection.

The Institute of Imagination, Blake House, London

If you search “David Bowie” + “William Blake,” you are going to find an annoying number of hits for Bowie’s description of artist Tracy Emin as “William Blake as a woman, written by Mike Leigh.” Keep going though and you’ll find a most peculiar invitation to join the Institute of the Imagination [IΟI]. Membership is limited to 100 people. The cost is £1ooo to join and then another £1000 each year for dues. Three patrons are listed: Bowie, Prof. Chris Orr RA, and Sir Stephen Tumim.

Tumim was a judge who campaigned vigorously for prison reform. He also oversaw the Arthur Koestler award for prisoners’ art, which he collected. The judge died in 2003.

Chris Orr is a visual artist who attended Ravensbourne College of Design, once the not so grandly named Bromley Technical College, Bowie’s old school. Of his work, Orr says,

“The basic physical nature of the print processes… allows one full control of the output. From the conception of an idea and the making of plates to their refinement through proofing and the printing of the edition, I was fully in control…I identified strongly with William Blake: being married to Catherine, having the press in the house, publishing and distributing the results. My homage to Blake also takes in his capacity as an inventor. In pursuit of my own poetic vision I have discovered, or re-discovered, printing processes such as counter-proofing and relief printing that can serve to liberate creativity.”

The closest connection with Blake is via the IΟI’s founder and director, Tim Heath, who studied math, practiced law, and is now a writer and designer. Heath is also Chairman of the Blake Society and owns the only building still standing where Blake once lived, Blake House, 17 South Molton Street, London — which also happens to be the headquarters for IΟI.

He is still active. In 1997 he was awarded a grant “to create the definitive Blake Website on the Internet.” I think the University of Georgia’s Blake Digital TextProject wins that prize. More recently, in 2009, Heath was involved with “Songs of Imagination & Digitisation, an illuminated book for the digital age,” a project of if:book or The Future of the Book national charity in the UK (you may also check out “magical musical graphical digital fiction”).

As for surviving Patrons Bowie’s amd Orr’s support of  Director Heath’s IΟI, or for that matter the existential status of the IΟI, I haven’t a clue or £2000 to find out. But maybe I’ll send in a membership application, accompanied by an imaginary £2000, just for fun.

You know what else is amusing: Philip Pullman, one of my favorites, is the president of the Blake Society, which sometimes meets in the same digs as does (or did) Bowie’s IΟI. How tidy life sometimes seems.

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