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  • Writer's pictureLondon On The Ground

Sanctuary, Naomi Blake's sculpture for victims of oppression

A moving sculpted art work sits alone outside St Botolph Aldgate in the City of London.

'Sanctuary' by Naomi Blake, outside St Botolph Aldgate

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The sculpture, in fibreglass, was created in 1985 by sculptor Naomi Blake. Entitled Sanctuary, it is dedicated to all victims of oppression.

It depicts a huddled figure, head bowed and knees drawn up, sitting under a curved canopy or leaf-like object.

'Sanctuary' is dedicated to all victims of oppression

It sits in an isolated location outside the north end of the church of St Botolph Aldgate, which is near the eastern border of the City of London.

For many years it occupied a more prominent position closer to the front of the church. It was moved round the back when the churchyard gardens were re-worked in the latter part of the last decade, coinciding with the development of the adjacent Aldgate Square.

Since then, it has been placed against a wooden hoarding, where it is barely visible to passers-by and distant from the seating in the more attractive parts of the church gardens.

Naomi Blake's work sits against a hoarding

This seems a great pity, as the work deserves to be seen. The artist herself was a victim of oppression, as a survivor of the Holocaust.

Naomi Blake was born on 11 March 1924 in Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia (now Mukacheve, Ukraine), where she was the youngest of 10 children of orthodox Jewish parents.

In 1942, her extended family of 32 members also included four grandparents, six spouses of her siblings and 10 nieces and nephews.

By the end of World War II in 1945, only eight of the 32 were still living.

In 1944 the family, including Naomi, were forcibly taken from Mukačevo in a crowded cattle truck to Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in Poland, where many of them were murdered.

Naomi and her sister Malchi were put to work in a munitions factory, were they lived off watery soup in appalling conditions.

Before the Soviet Red Army reached the camp to liberate it, the occupants were sent on a death march towards the Baltic Sea, but Naomi and Malchi managed to escape. In spite of being shot at while hiding in the snow, they eventually made their way back to their home town.

Naomi soon left Mukačevo once again, this time of her own volition.

Her homeland was now under Communist rule and she wanted to pursue her vision of creating a new Jewish homeland. Travelling to Italy, she took an illegal ship heading for Palestine. However, the ship was intercepted by the British and its passengers detained in Atlit Prison near Haifa.

After her release and the United Nations decision to partition Palestine, Naomi joined the Palmach (the elite force of the Jewish underground army). After being injured by shrapnel in her neck in 1947, the result of being shot at by a British soldier, she spent several weeks in hospital.

It was while recuperating that she started to sculpt, carving a figure of a dog from olive wood. She joined the Israel Defense Forces after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.

After living in Milan, Rome and Jerusalem, Naomi married German refugee Asher Blake in 1952. The couple moved to London and settled in Muswell Hill.

Naomi took evening classes at Hornsey School of Art after Asher encouraged her to pursue sculpture as a career.

According to her website (, "her work began with ceramic pots and portrait sculpture, progressing to figurative and then abstract work". She originally sculpted in clay, then in polystyrene for casting in bronze and "gradually reintroduced figurative elements in her work, showing the influences of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth".

Her work developed from embryonic forms, enclosed and protected figures, gradually opening out "to free the figure from its haven to stand against all adversity and spread its free wings".

The work outside St Botolph Aldgate appears to sit somewhere in the earlier phases of this artistic development.

Naomi Blake was a Fellow of the Royal Society of British Sculptors and 50 of her works are on public display all over Britain.

In London, her sculpture can be seen in places including Great Ormond Street Hospital, the Peace Garden at St Ethelburga's Church on Bishopsgate and Fitzroy Square.

Elsewhere in England, locations for her works include Norwich, Bristol and Portsmouth Cathedrals, the University of Leicester, The Holocaust Centre in Nottinghamshire and Synagogues in Hampstead Garden Suburb, Kingsbury, Oxford and Leeds. Her sculptures are also in The Hebrew and Tel Aviv Universities.

Naomi Blake died on 7 November 2018, aged 94.

Her work, generally optimistic and forward looking, expressed her experiences and aimed to keep alive the legacy of six million Jews murdered by the Nazis.

It also displayed her belief in uniting different religions, her confidence in humanity and hope for the future.

Taking a cue from her way of thinking, I hope that Sanctuary can once again be noticed and appreciated by people passing by St Botolph's. Its simple lines evoke empathy for the huddled figure, currently denied sanctuary by its isolation.

I was told by the Rector around eighteen months ago that Naomi Blake's Sanctuary will remain in its current location. However, it will be more visible and better integrated into the church gardens once a new community centre has been completed and the hoarding removed.

I look forward to that.


Walks and tours available for booking

The London On The Ground Summer 2023 schedule of walks and tours is now available to book. For details and tickets, please click here

Naomi Blake's Sanctuary can be seen on the Secret City Spaces East tour.

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