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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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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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.

William Blake and the Divinity of Humanity

A post on an article I worked on this year.

Bishop Otter Scholar

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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Image of the Month: William Blake, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-1803).

Romantic Illustration Network

Blake Sealing the Stone

William Blake, Sealing the Stone and Setting a Watch (c.1800-1803). Watercolor, with pen, in gray ink, black ink and graphite on moderately thick, slightly textured, wove paper. Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, Everett V. Meeks, B.A. 1901 Fund.

In an ‘Image of the Month’ in February, I wrote about Blake’s watercolour Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre (c.1805). In this post, I’m jumping back a bit to another of Blake’s watercolour illustrations to the Bible, Sealing the Stone andSetting a Watch (c.1800-03), which depicts a moment slightly earlier in the biblical narrative, and was probably also produced several years earlier (the exact dates of these works are not known, but they have been assigned dates based on stylistic features).

The text illustrated is Matthew 27:66 which describes the sealing of Jesus’ tomb on the day after his death and burial. The chief…

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‘Wonderful Originals’

In his descriptions of his paintinsg of Pitt and Nelson in the Descriptive Catalogue for his disastrous one-man show in 1809, Blake wrote:

‘The two Pictures of Nelson and Pitt are compositions of a mythological cast, similar to those Apotheoses of Persian, Hindoo, and Egyptian Antiquity, which are still preserved on rude monuments, being copies from some stupendous originals now lost or perhaps buried till some happier age. The Artist having been taken in vision into the ancient republics, monarchies, and patriarchates of Asia, has seen those wonderful originals called in the Sacred Scriptures the Cherubim, which were sculptured and painted on walls of Temples, Towers, Cities, Palaces, and erected in the highly cultivated states of Egypt, Moab, Edom, Aram, among the Rivers of Paradise, being originals from which the Greeks and Hetrurians copied Hercules, Farnese, Venus of Medicis, Apollo Belvidere, and all the grand works of ancient art. They were executed in a very superior style to those justly admired copies, being with their accompaniments terrific and grand in the highest degree. The Artist has endeavoured to emulate the grandeur of those seen in his vision, and to apply it to modern Heroes, on a smaller scale.

No man can believe that either Homer’s Mythology, or Ovid’s, were the production of Greece, or of Latium; neither will any one believe, that the Greek statues, as they are called, were the invention of Greek Artists; perhaps the Torso is the only original work remaining; all the rest are evidently copies, though fine ones, from greater works of the Asiatic Patriarchs. The Greek Muses are daughters of Mnemosyne, or Memory, and not of Inspiration or Imagination, therefore not authors of such sublime conceptions. Those wonderful originals seen in my visions, were some of them one hundred feet in height; some were painted as pictures, and some carved as basso relievos, and some as groupes of statues, all containing mythological and recondite meaning, where more is meant than meets the eye. The Artist wishes it was now the fashion to make such monuments, and then he should not doubt of having a national commission to execute these two Pictures on a scale that is suitable to the grandeur of the nation, who is the parent of his heroes, in high finished fresco, where the colours would be as pure and as permanent as precious stones though the figures were one hundred feet in height.’

In short, Blake claimed that the pictures were inspired by, and sought to emulate, wonders of ancient art which he had been taken to see in his visions.

Not all of us are mental travellers like Blake.

The threat to the ancient city of Palmyra in the wake of its seizure by IS could lead to the destruction of its stunning and historically significant remains.

In the absence of the kind of visionary powers which Blake claimed to have, I feel very lucky to have visited this beautiful and beguiling place, and very sad that it is under threat.

Below are a selection of my photographs from my visit in 2009 for the benefit of virtual travellers.

DSCF4510 DSCF4503 DSCF4595 DSCF4611 DSCF4640 DSCF4613 DSCF4644

Blake(an?) stars at the Whitworth

As mentioned in my last post, this weekend marked the re-opening of the Whitworth Art Gallery. Blake was given a prominent role in the opening celebrations in a variety of weird and wonderful ways.

I’m going to begin by getting my grumble out of the way. Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of the opening celebrations was Cornelia Parker’s ‘Blakean Abstract’ which involved graphene — a new super-material created by scientists at the University of Manchester — made using a speck of graphite from the back of a Blake drawing in the Whitworth’s collection. The graphene was used to activate a meteor shower over Whitworth Park on Friday evening. This was hailed as a remarkable collaboration between art and science, a product of the gallery’s status as a university art gallery. Fair enough. But it was a show that was essentially put on for an invited audience as part of a launch party the evening before the gallery opened to the public. Apparently it was visible in the surrounding area, but the park itself in which the gallery is situated was closed, and it was not advertised as a happening that anyone could witness (I only found out the timing by asking, although in the end an ill-timed cold and a rain shower put me off hanging around outside on a cold, damp evening in the hope of a second-rate view of the piece). I do not begrudge VIPs their private party, but to make the headline happening a closed event seems to me a great shame. It is also not very Blakean to make art for VIPs  — he hated all forms of institutional hierarchy. Perhaps one could argue that the lack of advertising piece to the general public mirrors Blake’s own failure to promote his work, but the view available to those not invited to the party must have been an inferior one, so the injustice remains. Perhaps there was a worry about numbers, but I find it difficult to believe that the meteor shower would have attracted a (significantly) bigger crowd in the park than the fireworks which took place as part of the public programme on the Saturday night (more on that presently).

I’d also like to take issue with ‘abstract’. I assume Parker intended the term to be read in at least two ways: first, analogous to Blake’s poem ‘The Human Abstract‘ or the abstract that I will have to write to summarise my PhD thesis, the term can refer to the ‘abstract’ of the Blake drawing used to produce the graphene; second, in reference to the nebulous form of the piece. The latter reading makes ‘Blakean abstract’ an oxymoron; for Blake:

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling.

(A Descriptive Catalogue, 1809)

Having said that, the idea of lighting up the sky with sparks and stars does resonate with a lot of imagery in Blake’s works — both visual and verbal. One might also object that Blake would have shuddered at the idea of his work being brought together with science in light of his negative view of the contrary discipline, but he liked experimenting with materials as much as the next artist, so he might have embraced graphene just as quickly as Cornelia Parker.

Right, grumble over; I’m glad I got that out of my system! But this complaint did not take away from the marvellous day I had at the public opening extravaganza yesterday in which Blake’s presence continued.   Cornelia Parker’s show inside the gallery included further Blakean references in casts of the gaps between pavements at Bunhill Fields — where Blake is buried — and in Jerusalem — a place Blake visited frequently in his imagination but not in the flesh. Personally, I could take or leave these pieces, but the notion of making use of negative space does have some interesting resonances with Blake’s printing practices and his statement in The Everlasting Gospel‘thou readst black where I read white’ (although Parker doesn’t mention these points in her guide to the exhibition, so I might be trying too hard to read them through a Blakean lens).

Of greater interest to me are eight Blake works included in the display of watercolours that forms one of the ten opening exhibitions. Among other pieces in this display are views of eighteenth-century London and works by JMW Turner, thus presenting Blake alongside his contemporaries. The hang is Victorian-style, which means that the works are hung densely, and some above eye-level. This means that they are not all easily viewable, but it’s always refreshing to see works displayed in different ways, and one can spot different things by seeing works from different angles and alongside different neighbours. I look forward to returning to see these works again over the next few months — and eavesdropping on what other visitors have to say out them!

As darkness fell, some of the Blake works works were projected onto one of the new wings of the building (and, inexplicably, a drawing by Blake’s namesake William Blake Richmond). Blake himself wished that his works could be produced on a grand scale adorning public buildings, an ambition which was not realised in his lifetime, but which a digital projector now makes readily realisable (if not in the form which Blake himself imagined).   The evening closed with a firework display accompanied by (or accompanying) the Halle Youth Choir singing settings of Blake’s poems. It began with the rather ‘contrary’ juxtaposition of the pastoral ‘The Shepherd’ and ‘The Lamb’ and bursts of fire. But Blake himself delighted contraries and perhaps in the latter the aptly-named ‘Two Tigers Fireworks’ had in mind Blake’s fiery ‘Tyger‘ and the famous line ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ ‘The Lamb’ of course, is Jesus, but so is the Tyger — so the juxtaposition was, for me, a reminder that I need to do justice to the mild and the angry in Blake’s Christ in my thesis.

The final piece was the old favourite, Parry’s Jerusalem – ‘burning gold’, ‘chariot of fire’ and not least, on Valentine’s day, ‘arrows of desire’ were brought to life as fireworks. The arrangement rather too messed about with the rousing anthem for my liking, although I did enjoy the alteration of ‘the dark Satanic mills’ to ‘these dark Satanic mills.’ Blake was probably not, as some locals seem to think, talking about the mills of Manchester (at least, not specifically — as the title of this blog attests, he was quite capable of naming and shaming places when he wanted to), but nevertheless, the song speaks to Joseph Whitworth’s ambition to build a public space ‘for the perpetual gratification’ of the people who lived among Manchester’s mills. And now, Manchester’s New Jerusalem — or Golgonooza, Blake’s city of art — has been renewed once more.

DSC_0066

Fireworks by Two Tigers Fireworks to the soundtrack of Blake’s poetry bring an explosive close to the Whitworth Art Gallery’s opening celebrations on 14th February 2015.

Image of the Month: William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805).

Romantic Illustration Network

William Blake, 'Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre' (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.  http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856  William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

February’s ‘Image of the Month’ comes from Naomi Billingsley, PhD Candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester, and recipient of a Bibliographical Society Studentship to assist with attendance at the third RIN symposium, ‘Literary Galleries’.

This is one of approximately eighty watercolour illustrations to the Bible produced by William Blake for his loyal patron Thomas Butts (a civil servant) between 1800 and about 1805 (several designs were added after this date but the majority were completed in this five-year period).[1] It is not clear how these designs originally functioned as illustrations: they may have extra-illustrated a large Bible or they might have been kept in their own portfolio or volume as a Bible in…

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