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?

Advertisements

Wandering London’s Charter’d Streets

I’m in the midst of a fortnight’s research in London. In addition to the primary purpose of seeing Blake works and rooting through archives for useful snippets of information, I have stumbled (quite literally, since I twisted my ankle earlier in the week) past many Blake-related places in London and I’ve sporadically kept a bit of a photo diary.

First stop this week was Tate Britain, which has one of the major collections of Blake works. I spent a couple of days in their archive and went to see various works currently in storage.

Monday lunchtime was bright and crisp so sitting outside in the open air (‘fresh’ is hardly appropriate for the atmosphere in London) was a welcome break from the dimly-lit archive room:

DSC_0048

Wednesday, by contrast was grey, as captured in this shot of the “charter’d Thames” whilst waiting for the gallery to open:

DSC_0052

Back to Tuesday, I also paid a brief visit to Westminster Abbey to make use of the new(-ish) cellarium cafe on another bright morning. Blake was sent to draw the monuments at the Abbey when he was an apprentice engraver (which I’ve written about for JRL’s ‘Burning Bright’):

DSC_0051

Thursday took in various places, including the library at the Royal Academy, an institution with which Blake fell out but which nevertheless holds useful information for researching him. Here it is in the sunshine:

DSC_0066

Sharing the quad at Burlington House is the Society of Antiquaries, for whom Blake’s master, James Basire, was the principle engraver, and for whom the drawings of the Westminster Abbey monuments were made:

DSC_0065

In Blake’s time, both of these institutions inhabited rooms at Somerset House, where I went on Friday, to see Stanley Spencer’s (a Blakean artist) paintings from the Sandham memorial chapel:

DSC_0067

Thursday also presented the opportunity to visit St. James’ Church, Piccadilly (just across the road from the RA), where Blake was baptised. I wanted a photo of the altar for thesis-purposes and also got some snaps of the font itself (by Grinling Gibbons) in which Blake was baptised:

DSC_0572

DSC_0565

After my visit to Somerset House on Friday, I walked along the Strand to pick up the Northern Line at Charing Cross and passed a couple of other Blakean places. Somewhere near the Savoy and the Coal Hole Tavern was Blake’s last residence, at Fountain Court:

DSC_0070

DSC_0071

Although the building has been destroyed, there is a painting by Frederick Shields depicting William Blake’s Room (1882) at Manchester Art Gallery.

A bit further along the Strand, roughly where the  Embassy of Zimbabwe now stands, was Henry Pars’ drawing school, where Blake was sent at the age of ten to learn the principles of drawing:

DSC_0075

Finally, I’ve been in and past the British Library a number of times this week. In the Piazza is Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze behemoth Newton, after Blake (1994), which towers over the many researchers who walk past it every day, reminding them not to become entrapped in ‘Single vision & Newton’s Sleep’ in their thinking (or at least, I presume that is the intention, whether or not it is the reality):

DSC_0078

Also of interest here is the current exhibition ‘Georgians Revealed’ which explores Blake’s time, and which I hope I may get to next week. In the courtyard is a Georgian garden installation by landscape architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan:

DSC_0079

“In England’s green an pleasant land?”

Other permanent fixtures in the Piazza are two works by Antony Gormley. As I’ve written before, Gormley cites Blake as an influence on his own interest in bodies and forms.

Planets (2002) is a group of eight granite rocks, each inscribed with a figure crouching, curving, folding around the form of the piece of granite.

On his website, Gormley writes of these figures:

“I wanted to reverse Michelangelo’s slaves, where a quarried square rock had to conform to the represented body. In PLANETS…the outline of the body conforms to the stone, suggesting a dependency. The outline was carved to an adequate depth where the form was beginning to be self-revealed, so is on the cusp between a drawing and the arising of self-determined form.”

Blake might also be somewhere in the background; the scrunched-up, folded figures resemble Blake images such as plate 6 of The First Book of Urizen (1796):

DSC_0082

Gormley’s newer addition is Witness (2011) – an iron chair commissioned by the charity English Pen, which campaigns for the freedom to write to mark its 90th anniversary. A less obviously Blakean work, although surely a cause of which he would approve:

DSC_0081

DGR’s Grave

Last weekend, I went in search of a Blakean’s grave.

When Blake died in 1827, he requested to be buried at Bunhill Fields, the Dissenters’ burial ground. Today, the site of Blake’s grave is unmarked; instead, there is a headstone which reads ‘Nearby lie the remains of William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophia.’ The exact spot of Blake’s burial has been discovered, and there is a proposal to mark the site but this has yet to come to fruition.

The grave I visited this weekend was that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the Pre-Raphaelites, who was a great admirer of Blake. DGR is buried at the parish church in Birchington in Kent. I used to pass this graveyard regularly when I took the bus to work in Margate but never got around to visiting the grave. Paying a visit to my old workplace (more on that in another post) was a good opportunity to finally make the pilgrimage.

There is a short account of DGR’s interest in Blake in the online exhibition I wrote for the John Rylands Library, Burning Bright.

DSCF9969

The monument was designed by Ford Madox Brown (another Blakean, and a sometime Mancunian – more on that another time perhaps), Rossetti’s friend and tutor.

DSCF9970

St Luke, patron saint of painters is depicted on the monument.

DSCF9971

Above is the winged ox, the beast of St Luke.

DSCF9972

At the top are three figures: on the right is DGR’s namesake, Dante, but I haven’t found information about the other figures –  the one in centre looks like an angel, so may be Gabriel; as for the figure on the left, perhaps it is a Charles, DGR’s other name, but it looks decidedly feminine. Notes on a postcard please.

DSCF9973

The inscription on the front of  the monument:

Here sleeps

Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti

Honoured under the name

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Among painters a painter

And among poets a poet

Born in London

Of parentage mainly Italian, 12th May  1828

Died at Birchington, 9 April, 1882

DSCF9975

On the back of the monument another inscription refers to the monument itself:

This cruciform monument

Bespoken by Dante Rossetti’s mother

Was designed by his lifelong friend

Ford Madox Brown

Executed by J. and H. Patteson

And erected by his brother William

And his sister Christina Rossetti