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 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 a later version of a larger picture by Stothard of 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.

Farewell to the Palace

This week between Christmas and New Year tends to feel something of a limbo, but this year that feeling is greater for me as I’m between jobs and homes.

I finished work as Bishop Otter Scholar in Chichester just before Christmas, and so have moved out of my flat in the Palace — I doubt I will ever have such a grand address again!

In January I start a new job as a research fellow at the University of Manchester (more on the new research to follow), where I may have a more humble home address, although I will have the joy of working in the gorgeous John Rylands Library.

In the meantime, here are some highlights from my time living at the Palace (if you are on twitter, you will find more photos, videos and anecdotes on #palatialproblems).

 

Wildlife in the garden:

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Fireworks in the garden (a suitably secure open space to set off public displays):

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Gorgeous autumn foliage:

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And some spectacular skies:

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William Blake and the Divinity of Humanity

A post on an article I worked on this year.

Theology and the Arts in Sussex

Alongside my work more directly focused on the arts in the Diocese, another project I have been working on during my time as Bishop Otter Scholar is an article on interpretations of William Blake’s religion in the second quarter of the twentieth century. This research is due to be published as a journal article next year, so this post is intended just to give a flavour of one writer I have been looking at in this research.

Max Plowman (1883-1941) was a modernist critic who lived for a time in Storrington, West Sussex. Although living within the locale of the Diocese, Plowman would not have identified with that body because he rejected the idea of organised religion. This was a conviction that he shared with Blake – another sometime resident of West Sussex, who lived in Felpham (near Bognor Regis) between 1800 and 1803.

So while I cannot recommend a wholesale adoption…

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Theology of an Easter Tree

You may wonder at the words above belonging together. In my experience ‘Easter Tree’ alone tends to be met with blank looks, never mind a theology thereof.

I grew up with the tradition of an Easter tree because my parents discovered it in Switzerland when visiting my uncle who was working there at the time, before I was born.

It’s basically a vase of spring twigs, decorated with wooden eggs, chicks and other Easter decorations. I put mine together on Tuesday upon returning to Chichester after the Easter weekend:

I’m not aware of the origins of this tradition, or whether there is any particular theology behind it, though I daresay the world wide web offers a few possible answers. As with its cousin the Christmas tree, this may be more a secular than a religious tradition, but similarly, there is plenty of potential to read theological meaning into it — most obviously that the spring twigs unfurling and the eggs hung upon it resonate with the Easter promise of new life.

I feel this more strongly still with my tree this year. On my ramble around Chichester in search of suitable twigs (not the easiest task with Easter being so early this year), I came upon a bough of a willow tree blown down in Storm Katie over the Easter weekend. I would never have got away with using the unruly willow branches at the family home (Mum thinks tulips are messy) but rescuing a few twigs for my Easter tree seemed to resonate with the Easter narrative (at least temporarily). New life from death!

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A new old name

Followers may or may not have noticed that I haven’t posted much over the past few months, apart from re-posting material from my other blog, associated with my work in the Diocese of Chichester. In part, that blog has absorbed some of what I might previously have written here.

But my lack of other writing here also reflects my uncertainty about what to do with this blog. I started it whilst writing my PhD on Blake in Manchester; its title, ‘Tortures of Doubt and Despair’, quoted Blake’s words about Manchester, and reflected my feelings at certain moments in the research process.

Having finished the PhD and relocated, I wondered what to do with this blog. Should I scrap it altogether? Should I rename it, and if so, to what?

As you will see, in the end I decided simply to rename the blog with my own name – at least, my initials and surname. I have also changed the url to naibillingsley.wordpress.com

As ever, I look upon this blog really as my own space to write down various different kinds of musings with no expectation that they will be of use or interest to the wider world. If they are, much the better!

Expect more repostings from my Bishop Otter Scholar blog, and other occasional bits of writing and ephemera. Thanks for reading!

All things bright

Blake would have had something to say about London’s Lumiere Festival too. It brings to mind his ambition to have his own works reproduced on a large scale in places such as Westminster Hall. A project to realise this ambition through the medium of light projections was unsuccessfully attempted a few years ago by the Blake Society; a fascinating document on this project by Adriana Diaz-Enciso is available to read via the Blake Society website.

Theology and the Arts in Sussex

On Saturday evening, I was able to see some of London’s Lumiere festival. This new festival of light installations took place in various locations across central London, shown on the evenings of Thursday to Sunday.

Saturday evening was cold but clear(ish — the clouds must have been rolling in for the overnight snow shower, but the moon was shining brightly even in the London sky). January can be a very dreary month — the excitement of Christmas and New Year has passed, resolutions may already be being broken, and people stay in to save money (and watch the new drama and comedy which populates the television). So a festival which harnesses a brings light into the long hours of darkness, and is free to visit was an inspired initiative to put on at this time of year. It certainly inspired plenty of interest on Saturday — many of the…

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David Jones in Sussex

Theology and the Arts in Sussex

In his late twenties, the artist David Jones spent two years (1922-24) living in the village of Ditchling, East Sussex, with the community of Catholic craftsmen founded by Eric Gill. Ninety-odd years later, Sussex hosts two celebrations of David Jones’ work in concurrent exhibitions at Pallant House Gallery, in Chichester, and at the Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft.

These are excellent opportunities to see the work of one of (to my mind) Britain’s great Christian artists (let’s leave discussing what that term means for another post).

The Pallant House exhibition offers an overview of Jones’ career, whilst the display at Ditchling focuses on Jones’ depictions of animals. In both there are plenty of examples of traditional Christian subjects, but beyond these, Jones’ work is infused with a sense of the visionary and spiritual in the every day, in landscapes, and so on.

Like Blake, whom he much admired, Jones was a painter…

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Welcome

This is my new blog associated with my new job — about Theology and the Arts in Sussex.

Theology and the Arts in Sussex

Welcome to the new blog associated with my work as Bishop Otter Scholar in the Diocese of Chichester.

I’m Naomi Billingsley and have just taken up this new post. My role is to combine scholarly research with work to develop engagement with theology and the arts in the Diocese.

My background is in theology and visual art so this will be the main area I will be focusing on during my two years in post.

The main project I will be working on is an online resource about key works of art in the Diocese. This will include research about the artworks, and reflections upon and responses to them from individuals and groups in the Diocese. I will be posting further details about the project, and how you can participate in it, over the coming weeks and months.

I will be using this blog to write about my work, and to…

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A little update

Tomorrow I (with my friend and colleague Scott) am running a workshop on using social media in academia. One of the platforms we’ll be discussing is blogging, which reminded me that it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here, so I am not setting the best example of good blogging practice.

It’s been a busy few months, which have included handing in my thesis, starting two new jobs, and relocating to Sussex. Accordingly, I’ve just updated my ‘About’ page:

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This blog was created whilst I was working on my PhD as a means of reflecting upon some of the experiences along the way, as well as various other projects and interests. It’s not a research blog, nor a guide to how to survive a PhD; primarily it’s somewhere for me to write up miscellaneous musings but which is open to anyone who wishes to read these thoughts.

My thesis, undertaken at the University of Manchester, was on the figure of Christ in the visual works of the poet-painter-prophet William Blake (1757-1827). The title of the blog is taken from Blake’s words about Manchester in his epic poem Jerusalem; the city is “…in tortures of Doubt & Despair” (Jerusalem, Plate 21). I suppose it evoked for him “dark Satanic mills,” but contrary to local legend, there’s no evidence to suggest he ever got much further north than Hampstead Heath. Whatever Manchester was like then, I wouldn’t describe it in such bleak terms today. However, Blake’s words about Manchester are an apt description of certain moments in the PhD experience; trying to understand Blake is a daunting and occasionally torturous experience, but there is excitement in the challenge and delight in the moments of insight.

I handed in my thesis in September 2015, and have since moved to work for the Diocese of Chichester, doing research related to art in churches in Sussex. Chichester is not far from Felpham, where Blake lived for three years, and although it’s where Blake was put on trial for sedition, he described it as “lovely mild & gentle” (Jerusalem, Plate 36) — first impressions suggest that these words ring more true than his damning assessment about Manchester.

So perhaps I need a new blog, with a new title, but between the new job and keeping thoughts about the PhD alive in preparation for the viva, I haven’t had chance to decide, so watch this space.

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I will probably be starting a new blog associated with my role in Chichester, but notes on a postcard about the future of my personal blogging are welcome!