Epiphany with #AshBlake


I spent yesterday, Epiphany, in Oxford, visiting the current exhibition ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ at the Ashmolean Museum. The visit was specifically to write a review of the exhibition, so I won’t say too much about it here, but it did spark a three more general — and various — thoughts which I’ll share here.

1. Although I’ve written reviews of exhibitions before (and/or ramble about them on here) this was the first time I had visited an exhibition with the primary purpose of writing a review. Especially because it’s a topic so close to my own work (and still more because I’d read the catalogue before visiting), I really had to take a step back and tried to place myself in the shoes of the prospective visitor who might be reading my review (so I was thinking specifically about the readers of the journal I’m writing for). Watch this space for the results!

2. I couldn’t help but be struck by the irony of a Blake exhibition being held in one of the ancient universities which he poked fun at, calling them (ironically) ‘Places of Thought’ (see previous about Cambridge here and here).

3. An amble around the permanent displays took me into a gallery devoted to eighteenth-century Britain. It seems a shame that this isn’t flagged up for visitors to the exhibition as it illustrates how different Blake’s aesthetic was from the fashions of his time. I had a similar, indeed more striking, such experience, at the Rhode Island School of Design (see my post, ‘Take a Seat‘), where a Blake picture was placed in a room devoted to the eighteenth-century interior, as illustrated below (the Blake picture was behind me).



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.

“places of Thought” and other Delights

“…Cambridge and Oxford, places of Thought”  (Milton 13[14]:42)

Blake liked to take long walks from his various homes in central London – to Peckham Rye where he saw angels in an oak tree, and to Hampsted Heath, where he visited his friend John Linnell. These open spaces survive, but around them the city has expanded and you have to get a lot further out to get rural open space and fresh air. It’s the same in Manchester, and since summer decided to appear, I’ve been feeling hemmed in by the city – we have plenty of parks but it’s not quite the same.

Open space was one of the delights of the first few days of August when I spent a long weekend in Cambridge, where it’s not far to walk from the city centre to fields along the river (not to mention a higher than average amount of green space in the city centre itself), and there were opportunities to make the most of it during my visit.

I was down (or up in Cambridge-speak) for a friend’s wedding, which was a lovely day, helped along by beautiful weather, the wonderful surroundings of Magdalene, and the company of good friends.

It was also a chance, after two abortive attempts in the last few months, to visit the prints and drawings room at the Fitzwilliam Museum to see their Blake collection. I looked at two boxes of watercolours, some I had seen before and others I hadn’t. I ended up looking at some I hadn’t even asked to see because they live in the same box, which was a nice surprise.

Apart from the works I had actually gone to look at, I was especially pleased to see the three watercolours of the story of Joseph (of the dreamcoat fame), which Blake painted c.1784-5 and exhibited at the Royal Academy. They are a completely different style to any of the works I am working on, which (with a couple of exceptions) date from 1795 onwards. You can view the Joseph watercolours on the Fitz’s website (Joseph’s brethren bowing before him, Joseph ordering Simeon to be bound, Joseph making himself known to his brethren) and compare them, for instance, with the watercolours of Paradise Regained (c.1816-20), which are also at the Fitz (view via the Blake Archive).

Joseph’s story is one I have a soft spot for because when I was a primary school my choir was the chorus for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor© Dreamcoat when it came to the local theatre, so I know that version of the story inside out (I think I could still roll off the words for the full two hours without too many mistakes).

I also looked at various works by other artists – either that he could have seen and potentially been influenced by, or contemporaries dealing with the same subjects. In the latter category I was looking at sketches which I had not found reproduced anywhere, so it was a complete unknown how they would compare to Blake’s – for the most part differences were more striking than similarities (I can’t put any comparisons to up because the images aren’t available online).

They also finally sell some Blake postcards (I’m fairly sure they’ve never had them when I’ve been before), so I have a few more to add to my pile which I can’t quite decide whether to find wallspace for (it is healthy to be able to not think about the PhD occasionally).

Work in Abundance

I haven’t posted in a while; this is largely owing to spending too much time at my computer, rather than too little.

I spent much of last week manacled to my laptop working on the text for the online version of the John Rylands Library’s Blake exhibition. It’s a curious process re-writing an exhibition for an online manifestation — it will basically follow the physical exhibition in terms of the groupings of works but it will be quite a different beast in a number of ways.

Obviously the “visitor” will lose the physical experience of seeing each item discussed, and in this case, working within the structure of the University’s website, it will only be possible to have a “slice” of each image “on show” alongside the explanatory text (although the full image will be available to open in a separate window).

On the other hand, given that the exhibition focuses on Blake and the art of the book, a major limitation for the physical exhibition is that it is only possible to show one opening for each volume; in the online exhibition, it will be possible to showcase multiple pages.

The research has taken me to areas I might not otherwise have looked at in as much detail, which has both broadened my horizons and made me spot things which may actually have a bearing on some of the works I am looking at for my thesis.

This week I did get away from the computer a bit more, using some of the research I’ve been doing in relation to the web exhibition in a collection-based session at the Library on Blake and the Gothic. Blake was fascinated by the Gothic and the Library is a magnificent late-Victorian neo-Gothic building (images of the building are available via the University’s online image collections, LUNA).

The Gothic qualities of Blake’s works was also one of the reasons why he appealed to Victorian critics, artists and designers; the reception of Blake by these figures is one of the themes of the exhibition. In the collection encounter we also showed items associated with the Gothic phenomenon, such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and some spooky plates by Fuseli et al from Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. My online exhibition text will discuss all this material so watch this space.

I ran this tour twice; for one session I actually had just one visitor, but this made it much more of a conversation which was rather nice.

I also went down (or up) to Cambridge to a conference of visualising the Bible in the nineteenth-century; in fact it was very much mid-nineteenth century, so complemented my forays into the Gothic revival and Blake’s Victorian commentators. It was also a good opportunity to see some old friends and walk some dogs.

Now to refocus my doors of perception on Blake himself and get my first chapter of my thesis drafted.

And I almost forgot, I went to the Tate a couple of weeks ago to see their new dedicated Blake room. They have re-displayed their collection in a chronological hang, but together with Turner, Blake is divorced from his context, in his own chamber-like (maybe even church-like) space which one can access without passing through any other gallery. I’ve mixed feelings about this consequence of the new hang, but it was certainly a treat to spend time surrounded by Blakes!

among the starry wheels

…Cambridge & Oxford & London,

Are driven among the starry Wheels, rent away and dissipated,

In Chasms & Abysses of sorrow, enlarg’d without dimension…

Jerusalem 5:3-5


Blake didn’t think much of Cambridge (not that, as far as I know, he ever visited). As a bastion of Anglicanism and the institutionalisation of learning it stood for much that was anathema to his vision of Imagination; but Imagination, or at least, imagination, was alive and well in the English Faculty this weekend at the postgraduate conference “Adam’s Dream: Imaginative Incarnations in the Long Eighteenth Century.”

As an alumna of the University, it is always delightful to visit the city, and as well as attending the conference, it was a good chance to catch up with some old friends. In our undergraduate days, a favourite postprandial jaunt was a walk up Castle Mound to survey the city and the stars, a tradition upheld on the evening of my arrival, although unfortunately there were no starry wheels (dissipated or otherwise) to be seen amid clouds that burst the following day.

I gave a paper on Blake’s illustrations to Paradise Regained, which I think are among Blake’s finest creations but have been undeservedly neglected by Blake scholarship. I was particularly pleased to be able to give my ideas on these designs an airing in Cambridge as they are in the collection of the Fitzwilliam, the University’s art and antiquities museum. Regrettably, I wasn’t able to actually see the designs during my visit because they are not normally on display and the study room was closed during my visit, but it will be a good excuse for another visit at some point!

Other papers covered a wide range of material in terms of genre, content and chronology, and addressed their sources from a variety of approaches which made for very rich discussions which threw up fertile, and sometimes unexpected points of connection between different pieces of research (which is what makes for a good conference, but doesn’t always work out so fruitfully). I’ve come away with a long mental list of things I would now love to find the time to read (which I should probably write down to increase the chance of my actually getting round to it) and yet more stimulating thoughts to bring to bear on my research.

So I have to disagree with Blake. I’m not quite sure how to unpack his image of being “driven among the starry Wheels, rent away and dissipated, In Chasms & Abysses of sorrow” — are the starry wheels negative, or simply the darkness between the stars? I’m going to run with the latter here: even if the starry wheels of the sky were hidden on Friday, we were among them at the conference, with not a chasm in sight!

Just a quick update

Today is the start of the Easter break, but my next few weeks are set to be busy rather than relaxing.

Besides trying to keep on track with my research plan for the chapter I’m working on at the moment (which is on Blake’s depictions of Christ’s public ministry), I am preparing for two conferences at which I am speaking in April (details on my academia page). This also means I’ll be travelling around a bit, which is exciting — home to Canterbury for Easter (Mum says we should go and check out “the new boy”), then to Leeds and Cambridge for the conferences.

This week I’ve been tied in knots by Mary Magdalene — even putting aside debates about the appropriate spelling (regrettably, Blake himself spells it without the second “e”) and pronunciation of her name (I favour “mag-da-len” and “maudlin” only for the College), there is the confusion between various women in the Gospels who have been conflated into the personality of Mary M and assumed to be “adulterous.” As an alumna of Magdalene, it’s a minor bugbear of mine that various figures are conflated and confused with Mary M; Blake seems to do this to an extent but there are a couple of inconsistencies to cause me problems.

In other news, I have added a new section to my site, “Ephemera”, which will be a place for me to deposit various eclectic items. The inaugural item is Wasteland, which is a reflection on Margate, Turner and T S Eliot, which came out of my time working with a film installation of the same title by Mark Wallinger at Turner Contemporary.