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Borough High Street as seen by William Blake

Leigh Hatts

William Blake's painting of the Tabard Inn in Borough High Street has gone on show at Tate Britain.

William Blake: The Canterbury Pilgrims
William Blake: The Canterbury Pilgrims; ?1808 Pen and ink and tempera on canvas; 46.7 x 137 © Culture and Sport Glasgow (Museums)

William Blake's 1809 Exhibition is a new display occupying an entire room. A major feature is his painting 'Sir Jeffery Chaucer and the Nine and Twenty Pilgrims on their Journey to Canterbury 1808' which has been brought to London from Glasgow.

It depicts pilgrims leaving a gothic-style Tabard Inn before sunrise at the start of their journey to Canterbury. The Southwark inn's landlord Henry Bailley is in the centre of the painting.

Pigeons snooze on the roof. A few local children are watching along with a mysterious bearded figure in the far corner of the inn's entrance. The backdrop is the City churches and the nearby countryside.

Only a few years earlier Blake had been living in Lambeth's Hercules Road and so probably knew Borough High Street. He certainly visited Blackfriars Road. By 1809 he was living on the north side of the river and staging his exhibition in his brother's shop in Soho.

Blake had great hopes for this painting which he loved. He was unwilling to sell it but expected to have a good demand for the engraving.

"Every age is a Canterbury Pilgrimage," wrote Blake in the catalogue of which just 21 copies survive. "We all pass on, each sustaining one or other of these characters, nor can a child be born who is not one of these characters of Chaucer."

Unfortunately few people appear to have visited Blake's only solo show mounted in his lifetime. The Chaucer scene was eclipsed by a rival version from Thomas Stothard which was also issued as an engraving. This did not depict Southwark but merely showed the pilgrims going in the opposite direction on open country.

However, Stothard's engraving was dedicated to the Prince Regent with a bilingual key to allow for sales in France.

A review of the Blake exibition in The Examiner suggested that Chaucer's Pilgrims "is in every respect a striking contrast to the admirable picture of the same subject by Mr Stothard". Blake was furious and suspected that his Chaucer painting had prompted Stothard to quickly turn to the same subject.

Both pictures and their engravings are on show for visitors to compare unlike in 1809.

Blank spaces represent the lost pictures from the 1809 exhibition but curator Martin Myrone thinks that this second showing 200 years on will still attract more visitors than the original exhibition.

The site of the Tabard Inn in Talbot Yard, off Borough High Street, is marked by a blue plaque on Copyprints.

• William Blake's 1809 exhibition is at Tate Britain on Millbank SW1 until Sunday 4 October; admission free.

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