Burning Bright. Part 1: Kindling

This is a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago for the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project through which I took part in training about how to develop public outputs from research. Apologies there is some repetition from previous posts here. Things have moved on in the past two weeks, so this will serve as a precursor to an update I hope to write at the end of the week.


My project is linked to the exhibition “Burning Bright” at the John Rylands Library which examines William Blake and the world of the book.  The exhibition includes books illustrated by Blake and explores his impact on subsequent generations of artists and writers. Blake’s influence continues to “burn bright” and activities alongside the exhibition encourage visitors to take creative inspiration from his work.

Blake’s work as a visual artist is the focus of my PhD — specifically, I am examining the role of Christ in Blake’s images — so I had a ready-made opportunity to relate my research to public audiences. There are three strands to my contribution to the exhibition programme: creating a workshop for school groups inspired by the exhibition, devising a tour for the public programme, and contributing to an online version of the exhibition. After months of meetings, planning and looking at books in the reading room, things are coming together, so I’m going to share how things are shaping up.

Schools workshop: Blake and the Bible

Taking as its inspiration Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job, a copy of which is in the exhibition (and was only recently discovered in the Rylands collection), my workshop will explore different ways of retelling stories from the Bible, with students creating their own version of a Bible story. I’m going to give the students a choice of producing either a design in the format of Blake’s Job illustrations (which have an image in the centre with commentary and designs in the margin) or a newspaper article.

Preparing for this workshop has involved lots of discussion with the education team and I’ve sat in on some other workshops in the education programme to help get a feel for what works well. There are also two MA students, Liz and Amy, running workshops alongside the exhibition, and each of us has chosen a different theme. I sat in on one of Amy’s workshops last week, which was on personification, with pupils writing personification poems, and it was fantastic to see how well the pupils engaged with the theme.

I’m going to be running my session for five groups between years 7 – 10 in the middle of May and I’m looking forward to seeing what results come of it!

Rylands Blake workshops

Advertising for the exhibition education programme.

Public tour: Blake and the Gothic

This tour will explore Blake’s fascination with the Gothic, inspired by the John Rylands Library itself which is a grand neo-Gothic building. This will be an opportunity to show visitors items from the collection not included in the exhibition — by Blake himself and by others interested in the Gothic to weave a narrative between Blake and the library building.

Preparation has involved lots of delving through books from the collection and I’ve been spoilt for choice because the collection is so rich in this area, so I have had to be very self-disciplined in deciding what to use. Stella Halkyard who looks after visual collections at the library and curated “Burning Bright” has been a great source of advice and arranged for me to see the massive volumes of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (it takes two people to move them) which contain some fantastically spooky engravings of subjects from Shakespeare by Blake’s friends and foes.

I’ll be running this tour twice in June.

Burning Bright online

Once all the books in the exhibition have been returned to the stores at the end of Jun, “Burning Bright” will continue to burn in the shape of an online exhibition. This will provide a legacy for the exhibition itself and for the activities which have taken place alongside it. Work produced in the schools workshops is being photographed as are the fruits of printing workshops offered as part of the public programme. I will also be writing up a version of my Gothic tour. The funding from the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project will help to pay for the photography of items in the collection for the online exhibition.

I was part of a meeting about the online exhibition last week and the provisional designs look great, so I’m excited about seeing how it will come together. I’ve come up with an idea for the structure which I need to discuss with the web team, and I need to finalise my order for the photography department, then start writing it all up.

Birds B&W

An example of work produced in a printing workshop, inspired by one of Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job.


A Transpennine Excursion

A post I wrote on the train yesterday as a big sun was beginning to set across the Pennines, and the last vestiges of snow drifts were melting on the hillsides.


I am en route back to Manchester after spending three days in Leeds. The main purpose of my visit was to take part in a conference at the School of English and the Leeds Library on creativity in dissenting and evangelical communities in the period 1750-1830 which is part of an AHRC network “Creative Communities 1750-1830.


I travelled over the day before the conference to visit the University’s Special Collections to consult the letters of the Blake scholar Ruthven Todd. I’d been tipped off about this material unexpectedly, and it was a bit of a shot in the dark as to whether I would find much of use. Todd was a Scot, born in 1914, but spent much of his life abroad, first in America, then in Mallorca, where he died in 1978. He was quite an eccentric which is reflected in the tone of many of his letters. I was hoping I might find some useful insights into some of the images I am looking at through his correspondence with various cultural institutions which hold Blake’s images, and I did find a few useful snippets. I had to be careful not to get too distracted by amusing banalities and bickering. In years to come there is probably a fascinating research project on the exchange of ideas and research in these letters.


The conference itself was an unusual format – the first day was mostly seminars, based on readings we had been given in advance. I had a crash course in Barbauld, who featured prominently throughout the two days. The second day was a more traditional format of papers and responses, held in the marvellous setting of the Leeds Library, which is the oldest subscription library in the country and where I would probably take up residence as a workspace were I based in Leeds. I gave a paper which explored how a notion of community might be at work in some of Blake’s images, which gave me occasion to think about some of my material from an angle I might not have otherwise, which in itself was a useful exercise. And, as ever, there were lots of interesting people involved and I came away with plenty of food for thought from the various sessions and speakers.


Next weekend I am off to Cambridge for another conference in the Faculty of English which will be a good opportunity to give some other work an airing, as well as being a chance to catch up with old friends from my own time there. So I have to get the material into a presentable format, plus I expect to have some emails to catch up on.


My train’s slowing down in to Manchester now so it’s time to sign off.