In Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination (2002), Peter Ackroyd traces the “London imagination” as far back as Chaucer’s contemporary William Langland (1332–86). In the 1370s, Langland wrote Piers Plowman, his portrait of a rural visionary, in “a hovel on Cornhill,” near the modern Bank of England. Langland saw Gluttony and Sloth toping in a London tavern, Blake the golden pillars of Jerusalem in the fields of Marylebone and St. John’s Wood. “To hear the music of the stones,” Ackroyd writes, “to glimpse the spiritual in the local and the actual, to render tangible things the material of intangible allegory, all these are at the centre of the London vision.”

In 1976, six hundred years after Langland’s visions, R. B. Kitaj curated an exhibition called...


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