The ancient abbey is vast and, in later centuries, will be crowded with ornate memorials. Nevertheless, now – in London, in 1771 – a few historic effigies and tombs can be seen in the shadowy aisles, their carvings worn and their paint faded.
The newly-reformed Society of Antiquaries is eager to have a record of these treasures for surely their own nation’s history is now as worthy of study as the classical world?
A series of careful engravings are required, and that is why the boy sits in the hallowed gloom, pencil in hand, drawing the long dead. His master, James Basire, the foremost architectural line engraver in London, has chosen this fourteen year old apprentice specifically for this stage of the commission.
First of all, the boy has been copying casts of classical statues since he was ten. He has the ability to draw a good foot, a hand, a torso, a head, a detail and more. Secondly – and maybe this is just as important a reason – Master Basire knows the boy has a passionate, argumentative nature and that he is easiest when left to work alone. Certainly, the lad’s brain seems fit to burst with his tales of biblical visions and lines from scripture and Milton’s poetry.
Time passes. The boy works. The tall windows let in little daylight so he lights a candle stub or two. The small flames make the tombs look like great four-poster beds: the stone slabs in place of soft mattresses and the hard, carved canopy instead of curtains overhead.
His task, in drawing each tomb, is to demonstrate it from every angle and produce a record of every important detail and inscription.
Down below, under the fine stonework, he knows the bodies are waiting. Once or twice, where stones have been cracked and shifted, he spied bones and breathed dust from the darkness within.Now he raises his head and stares.
Up there, high up on their stony beds, the strange elongated effigies of old kings and queens face upwards, heavenwards, God-wards. The royal features are not for common, everyday eyes to view - and yet the Society has asked for a true record of all that is there, have they not?
He works. Now and then, he hears voices echo in the sacred air and once ghostly monks passed in a procession. He does not mind. Such spectres are better than the flesh-and-blood schoolboys who visit the abbey, mocking him and his work. He glances down at his marked knuckles, his eyes still alight with righteous anger. Master Basire was correct about that temper.
Imagine the boy, working. Imagine what patterns this particular work must be forming in his mind.
All his youthful energies are bound up with the spirits of this place: the sense of history, of worldly and godly glory, of living words cut into stone, of the eternal victory of death - and of his own dreams, eagerly calling him on to great things. All he sees, hears and feels while working alone in that place will go into his own work. He pauses, stretches his shoulders, bends over and draws again.
The building is Westminster Abbey.
The boy? His name is William Blake.
As I began reading Peter Ackroyd’s excellent biography of Blake, I came across his account of this stage in the boy’s apprenticeship and, startled by the scene conjured up, used it as a starting point for my own writing, above.
Adolescent experiences can be intense enough to imprint perceptions that persist long afterwards - especially if you are an imaginative young apprentice working twelve hours a day, six days a week, and with a head constantly spinning with new thoughts and half-biblical visions.
Reading about Blake standing on the tombs, I felt as if a half-recognised aspect of Blake’s work had suddenly become understandable.
There is, of course, the strongly sculptural nature of many of his figures, but I also wondered – and this is only my thought which you can take or leave – whether the young artist, leaning over the effigies on the tombs, had so absorbed the physical and bodily memory of that encounter that he recreated that stance over and over again in the form and shape of his paintings and artwork.
Is this idea possible? Did the familiar "Blake" shape of the bending deity or spirit, leaning over the human come from something remembered in his own body? What do you think?
Meanwhile, I must see more and read more of Ackroyd’s William Blake - and maybe more elsewhere, including Blake’s own account - and see what I discover.