Tree of Life. Tree of Death.

Some months ago I wrote a post about a seminar series I began last spring which brings together researchers from humanities and sciences to talk about their research in the informal setting of a pub.

Last week it fell to me to give the humanities talk. Immediately I was faced with the difficulty of not having a projector to show images, so I had to go for the old-fashioned solution of a handout. I decided that rather than speaking in broad terms about my project I would instead speak about one image, or rather to discuss the image with the group. And I began by being somewhat provocative by quoting Blake’s late aphorism ‘Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.’ In the spirit in which the event is intended, I hoped that we could prove Blake wrong.

The image we talked about was The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods from Blake’s illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (1809). I chose this image for a number of reasons: the set of watercolours is in the University’s soon-to-reopen Whitworth Art Gallery so anyone interested enough can go and see it easily very soon (there’s also another set of watercolour illustrations to the poem in the Huntington Library in California); it contains lots of symbols to unpack; it reproduces roughly actual size when printed on A4 paper.

So I was hoping that having begun by provoking a chorus of boos and heckles my audience would be determined to put Blake in his place. I wouldn’t say that there were any ground-breaking new insights into the image, but we covered all the salient points with observations from both sides (incidentally, I haven’t written at any length about these works in my thesis as they’ve already been analysed in detail elsewhere). I did, however, have minor palpitations when the reproductions of the whole series which I passed around to illustrate the context for the image were dispered in different directions (by a scientist); whilst the Nativity Ode illustrations happily remain together in the Whitworth, many of Blake’s works in series are dispersed across the world which presents frustrations and difficulties for the researcher.

Someone asked me quietly afterwards if I agreed with Blake, to which my response was twofold. First, in the aphorism I quoted, Blake was clearly being polemical. His attitude to science was generally quite negative (as epitomised in his portrait of Newton – at least in the standard reading of this figure), but it was not a black-and-white wholesale rejection (and in any case, ‘art’ and ‘science’ would not have meant exactly the same things for Blake as in the contemporary world). Second, if I really did think that ‘Science is the Tree of Death’ (and quite aside from the fact that I am dependent on the fruits of science in many aspects of my life – not least the digital technology that aids my study of Blake!), I would not have been in that room. And if I was in any doubt before organising these seminars, the events are a monthly reminder of the creativity that exists in both the arts and the sciences – and to not always take Blake too seriously!

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Some Favourite London Paintings

This week I spotted Time Out’s ‘100 best paintings in London‘ doing the rounds on twitter.

 

Ask my brother what response you’ll get if you ask me what ‘the best’ or ‘my favourite’ is, and he’ll tell you (because he’s seen it frequently) that I’ll roll my eyes and give an equivocal response along the lines of “Well I like this about X and that about Y.”

 

So I couldn’t expect to agree with Time Out’s pick because I don’t really see how you can rank Piero della Francesca’s 1450 Baptism of Christ (which clocks in at #5, National Gallery) against Richard Dadd’s 1855 The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (at #21, Tate). I was also, of course, interested to see where, if at all, any of Blake’s works were placed – in case you’re interested, Tate’s Ghost of a Flea (c.1819-20) clock in at #42, just about JMW Turner’s 1839 The Fighting Temeraire (National Gallery), which was once voted the Nation’s favourite painting and seemed to be the only Turner work many visitors to Turner Contemporary wanted to see when I worked there (but had failed to check whether it was actually on loan there, which it wasn’t; cue lots of of disappointed/angry visitors).

 

Nevertheless, this did get me thinking about my favourite London paintings, so here it goes. First, a few disclaimers. As a resident of the North, I should add that London doesn’t have a monopoly on great paintings, and perhaps I’ll get round to writing about a few of my Manchester favourites at some point, but as a sometime Londoner, this is my take on Time Out’s survey. These are in no particular order – just numbered for sake of knowing how many I’ve got up to. It’s a highly personal selection – these are all paintings that have stayed with me in some way. I’ve also limited myself to one work per artist per collection, and I haven’t included any works on paper. Apologies for hyperlinks rather than illustrations; chasing permissions for reproductions is rather involved!

 

1. Stanley Spencer’s The Resurrection, Cookham (1924-27, Tate). Oddly enough, it was this rather than a Blake work that first popped into my head as missing from Time Out’s list. This is a monumental painting, which always stops me in my tracks when I see it.

 

2. William Blake’s The Agony in the Garden (c.1799-1800, Tate). This is Blake at his most innovative – handling a popular subject in Christian art in an idiosyncratic way.

 

3. Blake’s The Christ Child Asleep on a Wooden Cross (c.1799-1800, V&A). Like The Agony in the Garden, this is one of about fifty tempera paintings illustrating the Bible which Blake produced for the Civil Servant Thomas Butts, one of Blake’s most important patrons. I wrote about this work in a piece of coursework when I was an undergraduate, which was the starting point of my fascination with Blake’s pictorial works. I also used to include it in tours when I was a volunteer guide at the V&A.

 

4. Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (1450, National Gallery; see above). I have to agree with Time Out putting this among the top picks. A masterpiece in composition and symbolism. Although there’s no way Blake could have known this work, I find it a helpful pendant for reading his version of this subject in his watercolour illustrations to Milton’s Paradise Regained (c.1816-20, Fitzwilliam Museum).

 

5. I also agree that Dadd’s The Fairy-Feller’s Masterstroke (1855, Tate; see above) is a top pick. I’d like to learn more about Dadd, but this is another work that I always stop at when I’m wandering around the Tate (though in contrast to Spencer’s Resurrection, this is a work to be viewed at close-quarters).

 

6. The Wilton Diptych (c.1395-99, National Gallery) came somewhere near the bottom of  Time Out’s 100. This is an English masterpiece, whose importance is enormous, in spite of its small size. I remember an engaging lecture about this work when I was an undergraduate, as well as looking at it during my MA.

 

7. Henri Rousseau’s Surprised! (1891, National Gallery). One of the first paintings I can remember learning about – aged about eight, when our teacher gave us a potted history of art, got us to create our own versions of masterpieces (including this one, which might still be somewhere are my parents’ house), and took us on a trip to the National Gallery to see some of them. I wonder if he knew Blake’s Tyger.

 

8. Albrecht Dürer, Saint Jerome (c.1496, National Gallery). This is a work I wrote an essay on for my Master’s at King’s College London, which was taught in collaboration with the National Gallery. It’s a little devotional panel which depicts St. Jerome in the wilderness on one side and a fiery vision on the other. There’s a great article on this painting by Andrew Graham Dixon for the Independent, available here.

 

9. JMW Turner, The New Moon; or, ‘I’ve lost My Boat, You shan’t have Your Hoop’ (exhibited 1840, Tate). There had to be a Turner picture given the many hours I spent with Turner pictures during my stint as a Gallery Assistant at Turner Contemporary. This one was the headline image for the big Turner show that was on whilst I was there, ‘Turner and the Elements‘ so in a way it stands for the exhibition as a whole. This image was a favourite among visitors and staff alike, with its charming subject and its location near to the site of the gallery in Margate. I don’t know if it was cleaned at some point in recent years, but the image on the exhibition website is closer to my memory of the colours than that on the Tate’s website.

 

10. Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus (1601, National Gallery). Another well-known favourite which came somewhere fairly high in Time Out’s list. It’s another of those pictures that grabs you as soon as you enter the gallery it’s in (fortunately it’s hung high enough that it can easily be seen over the inevitable crowd hovering around it) with its extraordinary vividness and drama. It’s also here because mention of Caravaggio always brings to mind my brother doing an impression of one of our school teacher who was a particular fan of the artist.

 

11. Pietro Gerini, The Baptism of Christ (1387, National Gallery). This is another work which brings back memories of my MA. This work was included in the exhibitonDevotion by Design’ which ran the summer at the end of my MA, prior to which it underwent a year and a half’s conservation (you can hear/read about the conservation here). One of the courses on the MA taught at the National Gallery focused on altarpieces and the other on John the Baptist and this work encompasses both themes. Why it really sticks in the memory is that we got to visit the conservation studio during the cleaning process and got to see some bonus fish in the river which had been added by a later hand and were subsequently removed to restore the work closer to its original state.

 

12. John Singer Sargent, Gassed (1919, Imperial War Museum). This iconic image from the First World War reminds me of taking A-Level English Literature for which our synoptic unit was literature from and about the First World War, so we were encouraged to read and see as much material as possible on that theme. I took myself off to the Imperial War Museum, where this painting hangs, on the way to a university open day (which is actually the first time I can remember making a solo excursion to a museum or gallery). Like Spencer’s Resurrection, this work has special resonance in this anniversary year of the outbreak of the First World War and it’s re-entered my consciousness via John Keane’s 1991 Ecstasy of Fumbling which is currently in the exhibition ‘Sensory War’ at Manchester Art Gallery. Keane was an official war artist in the Gulf War; this is a self-portrait of the artist during a gas alert taking its title from a line in Wilfred Owen’s First World War Poem Dulce et Decorum est which describes a gas attack. A postcard of Sargent’s painting is among the collage elements of Keane’s work.

 

13. William Hogarth, A Rake’s Progress (1733, Sir John Soane’s Museum). This is actually a set of eight paintings which were the basis for a set of prints which tell the rise and fall of the fictional character Tom Rakewell (you can read about the narrative by following the link). They’re in here largely because of the experience of visiting them at the Soane’s Museum (which I only got around to doing this summer), where they’re hung in a room eccentrically, but ingeniously, containing a series of panels hidden behind the wall panels – a design which both increases hanging space and protects works on the inner layers from the light. A Rake’s Progress has inspired some brilliant re-workings of Hogarth’s moral tale, including Grayson Perry’s The Vanity of Small Differences tapestries, which we had at Manchester Art Gallery earlier this year and were fun to discuss with visitors. I also ended up seeing them again at the Foundling Museum in the summer, where I ended up getting into conversation with some other visitors to impart my MAG guide knowledge.

 

14. John Martin, The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3, Tate). John Martin’s paintings are awesome in the true sense of the word. Some years younger than Blake, they’re sometimes compared as religious eccentrics, although their careers took rather different paths – John Martin was far more (commercially) successful in his lifetime (although he is less well-known now). They also handled their subjects in very different ways; to make a gross generalisation, their modes of composition were: Blake = dominate a small canvas/piece of paper with figures and go easy on the scenery; Martin = dwarf a few tiny figures in a vast, dramatic landscape with brooding sky on a large canvas.

 

15. Claude Monet, The Water-Lily Pond (1899), or ‘The Bridge’, as I think of it. Another seemingly unimaginative choice, perhaps, but this is another work that takes me back to primary school, when another teacher got us to create out own version of the painting, no doubt destroying numerous paintings making all the ‘dots’. Mine still hangs over the fireplace in my parents’ living room.

 

16. The Triumph of Orthodoxy Icon (c.1400, British Museum). This icon celebrates the end of the Iconoclast Controversy in Byzantium in 843 – a subject I wrote essays on during both my undergraduate and Masters’ degrees. This work sort of stands for Byzantine icons in general, which I find interesting for the rich theology behind them and the sheer ancientness of some extant examples (although this icon is from several centuries after the end of the iconoclast controversy).

 

So there’s sixteen works off the top of my head; I’ll probably realise I’ve forgotten some others I love before to long, but if nothing else, I’m glad this has set me thinking about pictures other than Blake’s!

Encountering bodies at the John Rylands Library

On Friday I was at the John Rylands Library with two fellow PhD-er friends to see collections we’re using as part of an event called ‘Untouchable Bodies?‘ which we are organising in April.

The idea for the one-day symposium has arisen from a shared interest in bodies – Scott‘s research explores cyborg bodies, Kate is looking at how archaeologists deal with dead bodies, and I’m interested in Blake’s ideas about the body. From there we started to think about ways in which we think about and interact with bodies and particularly ideas of bodies as sacred, taboo, and ‘untouchable.’

We approached the John Rylands Library to host the event and incorporate a ‘collection encounter’ into the day. This will give us several representations of bodies from a range of cultures and time periods which we will use as a starting point for discussion of the theme, as well as thinking about the ‘(un)touchableness’ of historic collections.

Friday was a chance to look at the items we are going to be using and to identify specific plates we will look at and discuss. I’d chosen Blake’s illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which include a number of designs I have spent a lot of time thinking about for my thesis, and have written about for the JRL exhibition “Burning Bright”, but it was exciting to start to bring new questions to them as well as looking more closely at some designs I haven’t previously given much thought to.

Next up was Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), a foundational publication for the study of the human anatomy. Its many plates present an interest in the ‘minute particulars’ of the human body, studied and ‘opened up’ in fantastic detail.

Also up for discussion will be a book about mummies which will be a starting point for discussing the ‘untouchable’ qualities of mummies (a pertinent subject in Manchester which has long and esteemed history in the study of mummies), and a print of ‘Noli me Tangere’ (Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus when he says to her ‘touch me not’) from the Macklin Bible (1797).

It was fun to look at some items I wouldn’t otherwise be thinking about and to share different perspectives with Kate and Scott. I’m looking forward to giving them further thought in the coming weeks in preparation for the symposium, and to the discussions on the day itself.  Watch this space for more bodies-related musings.

More details about the event and the collections can be found on the event website.