Chosen by Wendy Walker, County Archivist
For generations, artists and writers have found inspiration in the West Sussex landscape and details of their lives can sometimes be found in the most unexpected places. The poet and artist William Blake (author of ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘The Tyger’) makes an interesting appearance in the Quarter Sessions court records. Since 1800 Blake had been living in Felpham, which he declared to be ‘the sweetest spot on earth’. Indeed one of his most famous works, the poem Jerusalem is supposed to have been inspired by one of his regular rides between Felpham and Lavant.
However on 12 August 1803 he became involved in an altercation with a soldier, John Scolfield, and was accused of sedition against the King, supposedly having shouted ‘Damn the King. The soldiers are all slaves.’. Blake was indicted at Petworth in October 1803 and stood trial at Chichester in January 1804, when he was acquitted. One contemporary paper wrote that ‘[T]he invented character of [the evidence] was … so obvious that an acquittal resulted’. Blake returned to London in 1804.
West Sussex Record Office also has a wide range of material relating to other artists and literary figures which can provide a fascinating insight in to the minds of authors and their creative processes. One such collection, that of 19th century author, Anna Eliza Bray, will be featured in a later blog post, but material from many other authors has been deposited at the Record Office over the years. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, poet and writer, Nancy Price, actress, author, and theatre director, and Robert Gittings, the famous biographer are all represented in West Sussex Record Office’s collections.
Blake originally moved to Felpham to make the engravings for William Hayley’s Life of Cowper which was published in Chichester in 1803-1804. Hayley himself was born in Chichester and lived at Eartham and Felpham. A series of his correspondence and papers can also be found amongst the Record Office collections including his letters to Admiral Sir George Murray, who will be the subject of a later blog post.
There are more passing references to the arts in surprising places, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s appearance in a Bognor chemist’s prescription book which we’ll be looking at in more detail in a few weeks’ time. A County Record Office may not be the first place you think of if you want to find out more about an author or an artist, but it is well worth exploring the wealth of material which can be found locally, including things that can appear in unexpected places, as Blake’s indictment demonstrates.