Over the Bank Holiday weekend, I visited Turner Contemporary’s current exhibition ‘Journeys with The Wasteland‘ – a community-curated exhibition that responds to T. S. Eliot’s poem, which was influenced by the poet’s time in Margate.

As our party included my toddler nephew, I didn’t spend as much time in the exhibition as I might otherwise have done, with Margate Sands beckoning for getting wet feet and broken fingernails. So I did not really take in the narrative of the exhibition, but I did enjoy looking at some works by some of my favourite artists (a list of artists included in the exhibition is at the bottom of the webpage linked above; Blake is, alas, not represented in original, but 1922 facsimiles of some of his Dante designs).

The visit also gave me occasion to remember another installation at Turner Contemporary that responded to The Wasteland, which I had previously written about on a page in a now redundant section of this site, so I am taking this opportunity to re-post it.



On Margate Sands, I can connect nothing with nothing 

T. S. Eliot – The Wasteland

During my brief period outside the academy, one of the pieces of my patchwork of occupations was working as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Over the summer months of 2012, we had an installation on the promenade outside the gallery by Mark Wallinger — it was a ‘Sinema Amnesia’ (a concept Wallinger had previously used in Canakkale in Turkey) showing “Wasteland.” The film was a constantly changing picture of Margate Sands, showing the scene from the previous day – there was a camera inside the Sinema, filming the view outside, which replayed on a 24-hour time delay. Sometimes, to a casual observer who entered the Sinema, it would appear at first that it was simply showing the view outside, but there were always differences to notice in the clouds or current of the waves, and on other occasions, there would be dramatic differences in the weather or the activity taking place outside.

‘Wasteland’ of course, is after T. S. Eliot, who spent time convalescing in Margate whilst he was writing the poem — part of my spiel was pointing out to visitors the wind shelter where he sat writing, and the film played on the notion of disconnection in the poem. It also resonated with Turner’s interest in the changing sea and sky in Margate — the gallery is built on the site where Turner lived with his mistress, Mrs. Booth, and he is reported to have said that the skies in Margate were ‘the loveliest in Europe’ (its location at the tip of the Kent coast, straight onto the North Sea, makes for big skies and dramatic weather).

It was a treat to get out of the galleries — especially on sunny days — and it was generally better for talking to visitors (it’s no wonder many Gallery Assistants the world round look bored stiff — days go very slowly when visitors don’t want to ask questions): being in a small box meant they were a captive audience, and the work needed explaining unless people had read up on it in advance.

On the very last day of the installation, I was really given a run for my money, as not only were there more visitors in that day than there had normally been in a week, but Mark Wallinger himself along with various friends, was around, so I had to explain the work to visitors in front of him. There was also a very curious ‘visitor’ who kept asking me questions who turned out to be part of Wallinger’s entourage! I think I passed the test, but it was quite a surreal experience.

I saw some brilliant things on the film — people soon caught on that they could appear on the film when the tide was out, and there were some great (and mischievous) interventions; there were also some interesting wildlife moments — my favourite were the spiders dancing over the lens of the camera.

There were also times where little happened on the film and no visitors came. I used this time to get to know T. S. Eliot’s poem, and was struck by some remarkable resonances with other aspects of the work of and working at Turner Contemporary. I scribbled down my responses to various lines of Eliot’s poem; here they are, along with the lines that prompted them (Eliot’s lines are italicised).

Summer surprised us…with a shower of rain

We stopped in a promenade, finding a booth where we could stay

Fear death by water

Engulfed under its great weight, pushing down, pressing down;

A fragile figure beneath

I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring

Around a pool

What shall we do tomorrow?

Return and recall today

It rains

We stay, and watch the past unfold

Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest;

Knowing what had passed

I too awaited the expected guest

Who appeared, as clockwork, from a time past.

She is bored and tired

Standing sentinel

The broken fingernails of dirty hands

That wrote in the sand

My people humble people who expect nothing

Of art nowadays

But not all

The cry of gulls and the deep sea swell

Above and beneath this place

A current under sea

Sweeping away

Prison and place and reverberation of thunder

Resounds in here, and there

Here us no water but only rock

Rock and no water and the sandy road

Down there, up here, over there

The road winding above among the mountains

Sharp, grey mountains, rising above the sea

And the chalky cliffs beyond

In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust,

Bringing rain

Once more, outside, creeping in, cold

Memories draped by the beneficent spider

Who danced for us

The boat responded

Passing by


Shrimping in the sands; seeking crabs among the rocks

This arid plain

This scene; this stage


A Visit to a William Blake Exhibition – and why his letters are useful, Part 2

Lives of Letters

At the end of November, I wrote a post about some of the ways in which the letters of William Blake are useful to scholars researching his work.

Here, I’m going to expand on that post by saying a bit about how Blake’s letters feature in an exhibition that opened last week at Petworth House, West Sussex, ‘William Blake in Sussex: Visions of Albion.’

Full disclosure: I wrote an essay for the exhibition catalogue (see below), so this is not intended to be an impartial review of the show, but instead to tease out how letters are important to the story that the exhibition tells.

DSC_4600.jpg William Blake in Sussex exhibition banner – outside the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Petworth

The exhibition explores Blake’s time living in Felpham, West Sussex between 1800 and 1803 (see my previous post) and its influence on his later work, as well…

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What will we be reading in the year 2367?

John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

A photograph of the decorated Milton alcove. The Milton alcove in the Historic Reading Room was decorated for the weekend.

Naomi Billingsley, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute, writes:

On 9 December 2017, the Library celebrated 350 years of Paradise Lost, on the birthday of the poem’s author, John Milton.

The events included talks from University of Manchester academics, projections of illustrations to Paradise Lost from the Library’s collections, and an intervention in the activity alcove that included information about editions of Paradise Lost in the collections and an invitation for visitors to nominate the book that they thought should still be read 350 years from now.

Although one visitor predicted that “There will be no books in 350 years”, we had over 100 more optimistic responses, nominating works that spanned thousands of years and from across the globe.

Image of response cards to the question 'which book will still be read in 350 years' time?' We received lots of responses to the question, ‘which book will still be…

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Curating Blake’s ‘Digital’ Cottage, by Naomi Billingsley

Another Blakean reblog on his 260th birthday

Art History UoM Index

Before my current role at the John Rylands Research Institute, I had a reseach post in West Sussex. It was an interesting corner of the world to be based in for a time – not least for someone with an interest in William Blake, who lived in Felpham, Bognor Regis, for three years 1800-1803.

Until a couple of years ago, the cottage where William and Catherine Blake lived was in private hands. It has now been acquired by a private trust, who have plans to renovate it and make it accessible to the public and to become a centre for creativity.

In the meantime, another organisation, the locally-based Big Blake Project commissioned photographer Jason Hedges to capture 360° shots of the interior and the garden of the cottage and to create a virtual tour that would give the viewer an insight into Blake’s time in Felpham and his art…

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Happy Birthday William Blake – and why his letters are useful (part 1)

Lives of Letters

Naomi Billingsley, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the JRRI and one of the Lives of Letters team, writes:

Today is the birthday of poet, painter and visionary William Blake (1757-1827).

Blake’s letters are an important resource for scholars of his work for a number of reasons, including:

  • Biography: As far as we know, Blake did not keep a diary, nor do we have detailed log books for his commissions for commercial engraving work and private patrons. Therefore, his letters are one of the sources available to biographers of Blake to reconstruct details of his life and his relationships with personal and professional associates (such methods were explored in relation to other figures in our seminar ‘Networks & Individuals‘).
  • Beliefs: Some of Blake’s letters contain important insights into his personal belief system, such as a letter of 23 August 1799 to the dissatisfied patron Revd Dr Trusler:…

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11 June: The Holy Trinity – still a bone of contention!

Something from my Chichester Days posted on the Agnellus Mirror blog for Trinity Sunday today


In an earlier post about the art at Chichester, I discussed some of oldest works in the Cathedral – the Romanesque reliefs depicting scenes from the raising of Lazarus. This post brings us forward, to the twentieth century, and a work which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary last year – the tapestry by John Piper at the high altar. A photograph of the piece is available on the Cathedral’s website.

Known simply as ‘the Piper Tapestry’, this piece was commissioned by Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester (1955-77). As parish priest at St Matthew’s in Northampton, and then as Dean of Chichester, Hussey was a great champion of the arts in the round – commissioning works of art and musical compositions, and inviting figures such as writers to give sermons.

The Piper Tapestry was part of a reordering of the quire in the 1960s. Hussey decided that an injection of colour was…

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Accidental Romant(i)ourism

The weekend before last, I broke a trip down to London for a week’s research by stopping to visit a friend in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

Amid country walks and good food, it actually turned out to be something of a Romanticist tourist trail (suggestions for alternative terms for such activity that avoid confusion with visitors to Roman sites welcome).

Olney was sometime home to the poet William Cowper (1731-1800). Less well-known now than some of his contemporaries, he was very successful in his lifetime, and had sufficient following to ensure that many of his possessions were preserved by his admirers when he died, so that the Cowper and Newton Museum in Cowper’s house in the town has a remarkable collection of his effects (having visited a good number of literary houses over the years, I can’t recall encountering such an extensive collection of items actually belonging to the writer in question).

There were even some unexpected Blakean connections. The museum was founded in 1900, largely thanks to Thomas Wright, local school-master and author, whose passions aside from Olney’s heritage included Blake – he even served as Honorary Secretary of the William Blake Society (a precursor to, rather than continuous with, the present Blake Society) for many years.

I knew that Blake had produced some engravings for William Hayley’s Life and Posthumous Writings of Cowper (1803), but I did not expect to find Blake’s original portrait miniature of Cowper in the museum. And this was actually one of two Blake miniatures in the collection, with another of Revd. John Johnson, Cowper’s second cousin and guardian, who visited Felpham in connection with Hayley’s Life and sat for Blake in January 1802. Two more updates have been duly made in my copy of Butlin’s catalogue raisonnée of Blake’s paintings and drawings.

These portrait miniatures are two of a handful of such works by Blake, which have a curious status within his oeuvre. The Cowper portrait was actually a study for Blake’s engraving of the poet for Hayley’s Life, after a portrait by George Romney, but usually such works were painted from life as keepsakes for loved ones (an equivalent these days is having a photo of loved ones as wallpaper on a mobile phone). Portraiture was not the sort of work that Blake relished; he complained that William Hayley gave him too much of such work, as the patron had for Romney. For Blake, such work was mundane, merely representing the superficial appearance of things.

On a side note, one important thing such works do show us is that Blake could do straightforward representation if he wanted to. So when we see figures with elongated limbs or contorted poses that commonly appear in the sorts of pictures that I work on, it’s not because Blake was a clumsy draughtsman: he broke the rules deliberately to make symbolic points.

But back to Olney.

The Newton of the museum’s name is Cowper’s friend and fellow Olney resident, Revd. John Newton (1725-1807). Newton was an abolitionist and hymn-writer, whose most famous lyric is Amazing Grace. A small section of the museum is devoted to his work. There is also a section on the local art of lace making, and another with general local social history collections. Outside are charming gardens, and Cowper’s summer house, which he used as a writing room. Today the visitor can only peer in to the little hut, to prevent us from adding to the graffiti from previous generations of visitors.

Cowper’s Summer House

Graffiti in the summer house

The weekend also saw a walk from Olney to nearby Weston Underwood, where another of Cowper’s residences was; that house remains a private home, but the Romantiourist can eat and drink at the Cowper’s Oak pub a few doors down, and visit Cowper’s Alcove, which looks out across fields – another of the poet’s favourite spots.

Cowper’s Alcove

Cowper’s Lodge

Cowper’s Oak

All in all, I had a lovely weekend catching up with a good friend also turned out to be a bit of a busman’s holiday for a Romanticist. But would an academic have it any other way?

Picturing Chaucer’s Pilgrims

One of the “things to do” for tourists to the city of Canterbury is a visitor attraction which tells selected stories from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. A visit begins in a mock-up of the Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims begin their journey and decide to have a story-telling contest in Chaucer’s Prologue; the visitor then journeys through a series of rooms which stage five of the stories through scenery, smells, and an audio narrative.* By immersing the visitor into an evocation of the world of Chaucer’s stories, the experience invites him/her so to imagine him/herself as one of Chaucer’s party of pilgrims.

Last October, a new public sculpture was unveiled in Canterbury in which thirty twenty-first century people (and two dogs) became the faces of Chaucer’s band of pilgrims in a more permanent way.

Commissioned by the Canterbury Commemoration Society, the piece consists of a sculpture of Chaucer by Kent-based Sam Holland, and a plinth with a frieze depicting the pilgrims by Yorkshire-based Lynne O’Dowd. The project was largely funded by individuals donating a sum of money to become the face of one of the pilgrims; the cast list is included on the plinth and is also on the project’s website, under ‘Funding’.


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The website states that the frieze is based on Thomas Stothard’s 1817 painting of the Canterbury pilgrims in the Beaney Museum, a few steps from the site of the sculpture. This little painting is actually a later version of a larger picture by Stothard c.1806-7, commissioned by the publisher Robert Cromek as the design for a print, and now in the Tate collection. Stothard’s earlier painting was at the centre of a great argument between him and William Blake. Blake painted the same subject with a similar composition at about this time (now at Pollok House, Glasgow); he claimed that his painting had originally been commissioned by Cromek and that when the publisher turned to the other painter, Stothard had copied his design. What really happened remains unclear.

Plagiarised by Stothard or not, Blake’s take Canterbury pilgrims has resonances with O’Dowd’s frieze as an assemblage of portraits of contemporary figures. Blake exhibited his Canterbury Pilgrims painting at his one-man show in 1809, and in the same year produced two prospectuses for a self-published engraving based on the design (a copy of which also hangs in the Beaney). In both the exhibition catalogue, and the prospectuses, Blake describes Chaucer’s characters as universal types for the people of society. The catalogue states:

The characters of Chaucer’s Pilgrims are the characters which compose all ages and nations: as one age falls, another rises, different to mortal sight, but to immortals only the same; for we see the same characters repeated again and again … Of Chaucer’s characters, as described in his Canterbury Tales, some of the names or titles are altered by time, but the characters themselves for ever remain unaltered, and consequently they are the physiognomies or lineaments of universal human life, beyond which Nature never steps … As Newton numbered the stars, and as Linneus numbered the plants, so Chaucer numbered the classes of men.

Blake goes on to explicate the characters of the pilgrims, adding that he has ‘varied the heads and forms of his personages into all Nature’s varieties; the Horses he has also varied to accord to their Riders’. Blake’s character portraits explore how Chaucer’s characters hold a mirror to some of the age-old foibles of humanity. We can probably all recognise at least some of the characters in Chaucer’s tales, and in Blake’s descriptions of them.

The Canterbury Commemoration Society did not (as far as I know) have in mind such a moral motivation in its scheme to show the pilgrims as twenty-first century individuals; indeed, in many cases, being associated with the character of one of Chaucer’s pilgrims would be a rather dubious honour! The primary motivation was a high-end form of crowd-funding – the modern equivalent of the subscription system through which Blake sought to finance his engraving, as advertised in the prospectuses. In at least some cases, the allocation of the characters in O’Dowd’s frieze was apparently made carefully: the Good Parson and the Nun’s Priest are both clerics, and the Young Squire is none other than Orlando Bloom (a sometime resident of Canterbury). Thus, although the focus is different (character traits versus trades), the twentieth-century scheme is, like Blake’s account of the pilgrims, invoking Chaucer’s characters as types of contemporary humanity.

I happened to discover while writing this post that there is a tradition that it was on this very day (17 April) in 1387 that Chaucer told the first part of his story cycle; 620 years on, with or without attending the visitor attraction, we can still recognise Chaucer’s characters, and imagine ourselves in their company.


* It’s been some years since I visited the Canterbury Tales, so I will happily be corrected if the experience has changed significantly from that that I remember.

Researching the Macklin Bible (1800), by Dr Naomi Billingsley

Art History UoM Index

The John Rylands Research Institute is a diverse community of researchers, working in partnership with the John Rylands Library. I joined the Institute last month as a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow, and I am also affiliated with Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Manchester. I was previously at Manchester for my PhD (2012-2015), which focused on William Blake’s depictions of Christ.

My new research project is about the Macklin Bible. Thomas Macklin (1752/3-1800) was a publisher and dealer of pictures, based in London in the late eighteenth century. In 1788 he opened a ‘Poet’s Gallery’ to exhibit and reproduce in engravings paintings by eminent British artists of great works of English poetry. The following year, Macklin announced that he would add scripture pictures to the exhibition, which would be reproduced in an ambitious illustrated Bible. Biblical paintings were included in Macklin’s exhibitions in the years 1790-93, and the printed…

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