Blakean Illuminations

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Earlier this week I was in London for a part-work, part leisure trip – taking in a couple of exhibitions and getting my hands on an obscure pamphlet on a Blake picture in the National Art Library.

Among the exhibitions was the British Library’s ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, which traces the rich cultural phenomena of the Gothic from the eighteenth century to the present day. The early part of the exhibition took me back to thinking about Blake and Gothic for ‘Burning Bright’ at the John Rylands Library in 2012. There were a number of familiar objects in the display here, including Blake’s own Night Thoughts engravings and several pages from Vala/The Four Zoas.

There were no huge (/terrifying) surprises in the narrative set out here, but it was good to be introduced to some objects I was not familiar with, and particularly to find out more about later iterations of Gothic.

That evening, however, I did encounter a gothic surprise: on a stroll around London’s Christmas lights, I turned off Oxford Street onto South Molton Street to see the scene above. 17 South Molton Street is where Blake lived after his return to London in 1803 (following three years in Felpham, Sussex), and is the only one of his London residences still standing.

Although a brief internet search suggests that these lights have been on South Molton Street for several years, I don’t recall seeing them before. What I could not find out was whether or not the lights are intended to be Blakean – if any reader knows, I would be delighted to hear from you. But whether intentionally so or otherwise, the gothic arches of light are appropriate for this Blakean setting. Blake called Gothic ‘living form’ (On Virgil) and Gothic motifs appear frequently in his images – a famous example is Angels Hovering over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805) in which the angels form an arch reminiscent of the gothic ‘ogee’ arches Blake knew from Westminster Abbey.

The Blakean resonance of the illuminations is further reinforced in their fourfold structure. In Blake’s mythos, to be fourfold is a characteristic of the spiritual state; thus, the spiritual London is fourfold, the Human is fourfold, there are four gates to the celestial city of Golgonooza, and so on.

Is this mere accident? Are the lights celebrating Blake or the posh shops that now populate South Molton Street. Either way, if the ghost of Blake happens to visit his former home, I hope he’d appreciate the former and enjoy the irony of the latter.

Laden with Blakean fruit

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Blake’s ‘To Autumn‘ is a favourite of mine.

Here in America, the season is of course, known as Fall, and glorious it is too – parks resplendent with deep, fiery hues, and skies crisp and clear; here’s a shot taken at Yale’s Cross Campus:

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I think Blake would have enjoyed the intensity of Fall colour – lovely as Autumn is, there is a different quality to the colours here.

I haven’t come across many trees ‘laden with fruit‘, but I’ve been able to see much fruit of the Blakean kind (i.e. Blake works), both at the Yale Center for British Art where I’m based, and on a long weekend in to New York, where I took in works at the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

It’s wonderful to be able to see so many works in person, and I’m looking not only at works that I’ve already done quite a lot of research on, but also at things that I might not otherwise be because they are on hand – both works by Blake himself and by his contemporaries. Whilst I’m here, I’m giving the business of writing up a bit of distance – I’m taking stock of what I’ve written so far and thinking about what I need to write to fill in the gaps, but not writing or editing in earnest. I’m sure when I get back to working on the script more intensely on my return, it will be the richer for spending time with the works themselves.

Beyond the walls of museums, Blake’s habit of cropping up all over the place confronted me twice during my ‘off-duty’ time in New York.

First, I was staying near Columbia University, and therefore had the chance to take in Corpus Christi Church (see picture below), where in a seemingly unlikely combination of life events, Thomas Merton became a Catholic whilst writing his Masters’ dissertation on Blake!

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Second, and more well-known, was Lee Lawrie’s ‘Wisdom’ above the entrance to the GE Building at the Rockefeller Center, inspired by Blake’s ‘Ancient of Days.’

10422138_10153572063845961_1645421751290256258_nLike Paolozzi’s (rather later) fellow compass*-bearing ‘Newton’ at the British Library, this figure towers over a place where large numbers of people pass every day. Both of these monumental sculptures seem to incite the beholder away from the tyrannical, short-sighted worldview which the plates that inspired them symbolise (at least, that’s the standard readings of the figures in both Blake plates, although both have been read in alternative ways, but that’s a matter better saved for discussion elsewhere) to a ‘wiser’ take on the world.

At more or less the halfway point in my time at the YCBA, the compasses can also serve as a metaphor of pointing two ways: a cause to reflect on my time here thus far, and to look forward to making the most of the fruits available for the remainder of my time.

* Last week during a talk on Blake, I was corrected by a mathematician than Newton and the Ancient of Days are in fact holding dividers, rather than compasses. This is of course a fair point, but ‘compasses’ is rather too ingrained in Blake scholarship for me to give up the habit of using the term.

Visions of London

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William Blake, ‘London’ from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Copy F. Relief etching, 1974. The Yale Center for British Art.

 

Visiting London always strikes Blakean chords; even making the short walk between Euston and St Pancras when I visit my parents in Canterbury involves walking past the British Library, where Paolozzi’s Newton. after Blake looms over the courtyard (see a previous post on London) and Blake’s Notebook is guarded by the librarians.

 

This week I have been able to spend a few days among the “charter’d streets” for a conference organised by the Art and Christianity Enquiry and King’s College London on “The Sacred City: London, art and the religious imaginary.” It’s given me more food for thought than I’m able to digest at the moment, so for now I’m just posting a fairly brief record of the week’s perambulations (mental and physical).

 

On Tuesday we explored “architecture and multiculturalism” – spaces and the people who use them in relation to a number of religious traditions. We were hosted by LSE’s new Faith Centre, against the backdrop of Christopher le Brun’s windows. The day began with a conversation between le Brun and the chaplain at LSE, James Walters which was broad-ranging from the challenges surrounding creating a space for interfaith use to the practicalities of making stained glass to the role(s) of the artist.  Several papers explored the theme further through various historical and faith lenses, then the afternoon saw us exploring various places of worship in East London. A highlight for me was the unexpected gem of St. Benet’s Chaplaincy at Queen Mary’s, University of London which is decorated by ‘sgraffito murals by Adam Kossowski. Finally, an evening lecture at from Sam Wells, rector of St. Martin in the Fields, examined the topic of “Arts and the Renewal of St Martin-in-the-Fields.” The lecture was held at St. Giles Cripplegate, a church I knew of from visiting the Barbican, but had never actually been inside before. Of interest for a Blakean is the fact that John Milton – a great influence on Blake – is buried there.

 

Yesterday we had a morning of papers at St. Giles in the Fields, an elegant, early eighteenth-century church which Blake may well have known and indeed Blake’s friend John Flaxman is buried there.  The day’s theme was “Medieval to Victorian Cities and focused on architectural visions of London. At lunchtime I dipped out of the scheduled activities to visit the Tate. I couldn’t resist another look at their Blake room, but my main reason for visiting was to see works by his contemporaries which were not on display when I last visited.

 

First, Henry Thomson’s Raising of Jairas’ Daughter (exh. 1820) which is utterly different from Blake’s version of this subject from twenty years previously. Second, a display entitled “Bodies of Nature” which focuses on representations of nymphs in late eighteenth-century art – a treat which combined scholarly research with playful subject matter. En route up to the Blake room, I was stopped in my tracks by Stanley Spencer’s monumental The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27), a work which is not new to me but which is so overwhelmingly powerful that I couldn’t not but stop for a few minutes in front of it. Upstairs in the Blake room, I had fun seeing some of my favourite Blakes again. I am always struck by how quiet this little room seems to be – not devoid of visitors, but audibly quiet, with people speaking only in very hushed tones. Perhaps it is the smallness and darkness of this room (necessary because of the fragile nature of Blake’s works) which lend the room a chapel-like quality which perhaps encourage (deliberately or otherwise) a special kind of reverence in this space. Or maybe people are simply self-conscious of being overheard  in a smaller space – I love eavesdropping on other people’s conversations in galleries, but there wasn’t much chance of that in the Blake room. Adjacent to the Blake room is a display which makes a striking juxtaposition: “The Nature of Common Life” opens by citing the artist and writer William Henry Pyne‘s 1806 statement that the artist should not make “an imaginary nature his model, or any other nature, but the nature of common life” – an utterly different attitude to Blake’s belief that “This World Is a World of Imagination and Vision.” I wonder if this is this another necessity of displaying works on paper in a suitable space, or a curatorial joke?

 

In the evening we were taken on a journey through London through the lens of Dante and in a fantastic lecture by Alison Milbank. We were shown who various artists have re-envisioned London via Dante and Milbank proposed that we can re-envision London today (and the world around us more broadly) as Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. Our venue was the wonderful space of St. James’ Piccadilly, where Blake was baptised.

 

On Thursday we were back at St. Giles in the Fields to explore “Pilgrims and Holy Places,” including my own paper on Blake’s Magdalen, and also journeying to nineteenth-century Paris, Mecca via the British Museum’s Hajj exhibition and Willesden in North West London. I then made a couple of pilgrimages of my own to explore a bit of eighteenth-century London – the Foundling Museum and Sir John Soane’s Museum. I came away from the latter with an unexpected gem of a purchase in a teatowel which reproduces Blake’s title-page to Robert Blair’s poem The Grave. The evening saw a celebratory atmosphere with the award of ACE’s book prize and a closing dinner.

 

Finally, on Friday we were at Cheyneygates, Westminster Abbey – another site of Blakean interest, since the apprentice engraver William spent time drawing the monuments of the Abbey (see that previous London post again). The theme for the day was “contemporary art and the city” which took us from Florence, to Minneapolis, New York and sites in London, and mediums ranging from stained glass, to photography, cartoons, poetry, sculpture and light. A highlight was an in situ paper in the Abbey itself in which Emily Guerry shared her research about the wall paintings in what is now Poets’ Corner.

 

It was a treat to explore London in such multi-layered ways but a couple of days away from big cities in quiet Canterbury are now welcome!

Robes of Promise

In my final year of school, one of the texts I studied in English Literature was Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (another was Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience – my fledgling foray into Blake studies). The play, set in the early eighties, focuses on a group of eight boys at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield who are preparing for an entrance exam and interviews to gain places to study history at Oxford and Cambridge.

 

Studying the play whilst myself going through the process of applying for a place at Cambridge was somewhat surreal. Whilst the admissions process has changed in a number of respects (the seventh-term entrance exam is no more and efforts to widen access have improved), I could identify with the experience of the History Boys in some respects, particularly because my school, like Cutlers’ Grammar, had little experience of students applying for Oxford and Cambridge, and as such was feeling its way in its efforts to guide me through the alien application process.

 

At the end of one of my interviews at Cambridge, after the interviewer had already made closing remarks and I was gathering up my belongings, I was asked how I found studying the play whilst going through the admissions process. I don’t know if that was part of the interview; I suppose everything in an interview context contributes to the impression of the candidate. I can’t remember what I said, but whether or not it made a whisker of difference, I was lucky enough to get a place to study Theology at Magdalene and very much enjoyed my time there.

 

I’ve been prompted to cast my mind back to this experience recently for various reasons. Yesterday (9 May 2014) was Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday, so his name has been doing the rounds on Radio 4 and twitter (among other places no doubt), and last week I spotted Frances de la Tour, who played Mrs Lintott in the original stage cast and the 2006 film, in the British Library. But the chief reason is that I’m going back to Cambridge next week to collect my MA (by a peculiar tradition, a Cambridge BA matures into an MA; see details on the University’s website).

 

I’ve been back a number of times since finishing my degree, but this will be special in that it’s not merely a visit but, in a sense, the final rite of passage associated with my degree (as well as being probably the biggest reunion for members of my year at College). Among other rites and rules associated with the MA, the ceremony requires a different gown to the BA graduation, and, where once I felt like one of the History Boys, the prospect of robing up for my MA makes me feel like a figure from Blake-land.

 

As I’ve written before, Blake was quite disparaging about Cambridge; when he called Oxford and Cambridge “places of thought” in his poem Milton (13[14]:42; see another previous post), he was ironically referring to these universities as institutionalising “thought.” Milton is Blake’s imagined account of the poet John Milton’s undergoing a spiritual journey to correct his former errors. As part of this process, Milton “took off the robe of the promise, & ungirded himself from the oath of God” (14[15]:13).

 

The “oath of God” is the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, to which one then had to swear in order to be admitted to the University. Milton’s taking off “the robe of promise” is depicted in one of the illuminated book’s full-page plates. I didn’t and don’t have to sign up to the Thirty-Nine Articles and these days you can also opt of the Trinitarian formula by which degrees are traditionally conferred (see the University website’s outline of the ceremony). Nevertheless, when I come to robe up next week, I know I will feel like an anti-icon of the plate from Milton.

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:

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

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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’):

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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):

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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:

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“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):

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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:

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