Curating Blake’s ‘Digital’ Cottage, by Naomi Billingsley

Before my current role at the John Rylands Research Institute, I had a reseach post in West Sussex. It was an interesting corner of the world to be based in for a time – not least for someone with an interest in William Blake, who lived in Felpham, Bognor Regis, for three years 1800-1803.

Until a couple of years ago, the cottage where William and Catherine Blake lived was in private hands. It has now been acquired by a private trust, who have plans to renovate it and make it accessible to the public and to become a centre for creativity.

In the meantime, another organisation, the locally-based Big Blake Project commissioned photographer Jason Hedges to capture 360° shots of the interior and the garden of the cottage and to create a virtual tour that would give the viewer an insight into Blake’s time in Felpham and his art and ideas.

Last summer, I was approached by the Big Blake Project to curate the virtual tour. It has just been launched as part of a Blake Festival in Bognor. It’s designed to be viewed with virtual reality goggles, and will be shown in that form at exhibitions and events, but it can also be viewed online on standard browsers on any device.

My job as curator was to come up with a scheme to populate each part of the tour with Blake’s designs. There are six zones in the tour – four rooms and the stairwell inside the house, and the garden. So one of my first jobs was to think about six themes to focus on in the tour.

The stairs and garden almost took care of themselves, and each of the four rooms focuses on an aspect of Blake’s work related to his time in Felpham. For example, the room shown below explores Blake’s work for William Hayley, who lived nearby and at whose invitation the Blakes moved to Felpham.

b cottage2
William Blake’s Cottage Virtual Tour Hayley room. Produced by Jason Hedges. (c) The Big Blake Project. Featuring images of and details from works by William Blake from the collection of the Yale Center for British Art, and a detail from Milton, plate 8 from the collection of the New York Public Library.

When I had come up with ideas for each space (including identifying images that we could use without incurring expensive licensing fees) I sent them to Jason, who brilliantly turned them into virtual reality.

Having spent a lot of time thinking about Blake’s images in my research, it was refreshing engage with his designs in more playful and creative ways for this project. It was an interesting challenge to come up with a scheme that could simultaneously be visually impressive and tell a story about Blake’s time in Felpham.

blake cottage1
William Blake, detail from ‘Milton’ (1804), showing his cottage at Felpham

The Belgian composer, Lucien Posman, who has written many settings of Blake’s poems, kindly gave permission to use some of his Blake works as the soudtrack to the tour. The music is a wonderful addition to the tour that enhances the immersive experience.

I’m not sure what Blake would have made of photography, but I think he might have enjoyed the idea of a virtual reality tour – describing one of his paintings, Blake wrote that he wanted the ‘spectator’ to ‘enter into these images in his Imagination.’

blake cottage2
John Arthur Poulter, William Blake’s thatched cottage at Felpham, 1915 (British Museum 1915,0828.1)

Watch this space for news of special showings of the tour, and in the meantime, I hope you enjoy exploring it online.

Naomi Billingsley is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute (part of the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures at Manchester), and teaches in AHVS.


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