This semester I am auditing an undergraduate/MA course on Blake’s critical afterlife. On Friday, we are going on a field trip to the John Rylands Library to see the exhibition “Burning Bright” and to look at other items in the collection. As part of this session, I have been asked to talk about the projects I am developing with JRL and about how my interest in Blake developed, and it occurred to me that writing on these themes here would help me to think about what to say, and might just be of interest to people reading my blog.
Like many, the first Blake I got to know (apart, of course from Parry’s “Jerusalem”) was the Songs of Innocence, which I studied for A Level English Literature. I got myself a facsimile edition of the poems, and was captivated by the richness (both visual and verbal) of these productions. Soon after my exams, I also sang The Lamb as part of John Rutter’s Mass for the Children in Canterbury Cathedral and remember delighting in proclaiming Blake’s words.
Meanwhile, I had decided to pursue a degree in Theology and Religious Studies. The attraction was that TRS is such a big subject, both in the scale of the questions it deals with, and the range of disciplinary fields it encompasses. The course I studied at Cambridge was, I think, particularly rich in the range of papers (known as ‘modules’ at most universities) on offer. The highlight was my second year, when I took papers on “Moral Vision in the European Novel” and “Image and Icon in the Christian Tradition.” The latter was assessed by coursework essays, and at least one had to be a focussed analysis of an image or images. We were encouraged to make use of the collections at the Fitzwilliam Museum, so one weekend I went to try to find a picture or two to write about. There are numerous religious paintings on display in the Fitzwilliam and the choice was quite overwhelming. I wandered into a temporary display of “treasures of the Fitzwilliam” and encountered some of Blake’s illuminated plates. This is the first time I can recall seeing Blakes “in the flesh,” and I decided to find some Blakes to write about. Blake did not actually appear on the course, but my supervisor was enthusiastic and after some to-ing and fro-ing I decided to write about The Christ Child Asleep on a Wooden Cross and The Black Madonna. These works are at the V&A and the Yale Center for British Art (although by a curious coincidence, another version of The Christ Child Asleep has since entered the Fitzwilliam’s collection), which rather went against my original intention to write about something from the Fitzwilliam. In fact, the Fitzwilliam has quite an extensive collection of Blake’s images, some of which are now central to my research.
Through that undergraduate essay, I began to realise that Blake’s images are rich in theological content, and that this remains relatively under-explored in Blake Studies. I explored this further during my Master’s in Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London which explored the interactions between theology and the arts — especially visual and literary — in the Christian tradition. My dissertation explored Blake’s watercolours of Christ in the Sepulchre which convinced me that Blake’s “visual Christology” was worthy of a PhD project.
My research examines how Blake’s images of (and relating to) Christ express — even create — theological ideas. In particular, I will be exploring Blake’s ideas about Christ’s nature and ministry, and Christ’s role in salvation and eschatology (literally “last things”), and I aim to set this “visual Christology” in the context of eighteenth-century religious, artistic and literary traditions.
I came to Manchester because of the combination of supervisory expertise and the impressive Blake collections across the city, and the opportunities to work on Blake projects at the John Rylands Library — I have written about the ideas I am working on in an earlier post.
In the meantime, I have a panel meeting tomorrow — to discuss the progress of my PhD to date — so it’s probably time for bed.