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 Practical Diversion

I spent Saturday at the John Rylands Library. For a change, I wasn’t trawling through 200-year-old books or having a meeting to plan projects, but actually getting my hands dirty creating prints in response to the Blake exhibition.

The workshop, “Line and Light”, was part of the public programme to accompany the exhibition. Inspired by the Rylands’ magnificent hand-coloured (by William and Catherine Blake) copy of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, the workshop took us through the process of creating and printing a plate, then colouring it in watercolour.

We were using silver card, rather than metal, to create out plates, which has numerous advantages for a workshop of this nature, not least being rather easier to work with (a great bonus for someone as out of practice in drawing with even a pencil and paper as I am) and it still allows experimenting with various techniques to create different effects.

I made two plates, both taking images from “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” from Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job — probably the most famous design in this series.

I had great fun, even if the results are very amateurish, but maybe I will leave it for less than years this time before I turn my hand to making pictures instead of writing about them.

Here is my first plate (but my favourite of the two), which takes elements from two of the vignettes in the margin of “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” which depict the six days of Creation — this is the creation of the beasts of the air and the sea, and the sun, moon and stars.

Birds Plate

Here is the coloured print I made:

Birds Coloured

After this impression, I added some additional texture to the plate in the sky:

Birds B&W

The second plate I made is basically a straight borrowing of the Morning Stars themselves:

Morning Stars Plate

Again, I coloured the the first impression, with less shading:

Morning Stars Coloured

I then tried using a special tool to add lines to darken up the background:

Morning Stars Stage 2

Finally, I made it even darker by adding cross-hatching (although it turns out not very evenly, but I ran out of time to fix this):

Morning Stars Stage 3