“…Cambridge and Oxford, places of Thought” (Milton 13:42)
Blake liked to take long walks from his various homes in central London – to Peckham Rye where he saw angels in an oak tree, and to Hampsted Heath, where he visited his friend John Linnell. These open spaces survive, but around them the city has expanded and you have to get a lot further out to get rural open space and fresh air. It’s the same in Manchester, and since summer decided to appear, I’ve been feeling hemmed in by the city – we have plenty of parks but it’s not quite the same.
Open space was one of the delights of the first few days of August when I spent a long weekend in Cambridge, where it’s not far to walk from the city centre to fields along the river (not to mention a higher than average amount of green space in the city centre itself), and there were opportunities to make the most of it during my visit.
I was down (or up in Cambridge-speak) for a friend’s wedding, which was a lovely day, helped along by beautiful weather, the wonderful surroundings of Magdalene, and the company of good friends.
It was also a chance, after two abortive attempts in the last few months, to visit the prints and drawings room at the Fitzwilliam Museum to see their Blake collection. I looked at two boxes of watercolours, some I had seen before and others I hadn’t. I ended up looking at some I hadn’t even asked to see because they live in the same box, which was a nice surprise.
Apart from the works I had actually gone to look at, I was especially pleased to see the three watercolours of the story of Joseph (of the dreamcoat fame), which Blake painted c.1784-5 and exhibited at the Royal Academy. They are a completely different style to any of the works I am working on, which (with a couple of exceptions) date from 1795 onwards. You can view the Joseph watercolours on the Fitz’s website (Joseph’s brethren bowing before him, Joseph ordering Simeon to be bound, Joseph making himself known to his brethren) and compare them, for instance, with the watercolours of Paradise Regained (c.1816-20), which are also at the Fitz (view via the Blake Archive).
Joseph’s story is one I have a soft spot for because when I was a primary school my choir was the chorus for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor© Dreamcoat when it came to the local theatre, so I know that version of the story inside out (I think I could still roll off the words for the full two hours without too many mistakes).
I also looked at various works by other artists – either that he could have seen and potentially been influenced by, or contemporaries dealing with the same subjects. In the latter category I was looking at sketches which I had not found reproduced anywhere, so it was a complete unknown how they would compare to Blake’s – for the most part differences were more striking than similarities (I can’t put any comparisons to up because the images aren’t available online).
They also finally sell some Blake postcards (I’m fairly sure they’ve never had them when I’ve been before), so I have a few more to add to my pile which I can’t quite decide whether to find wallspace for (it is healthy to be able to not think about the PhD occasionally).