Escaping doubt and despair

Blake’s words about Manchester have been haunting me recently. With those wonderful days in the print room of the Yale Center for British Art seeming to be a distant memory and the conference I was organising that provided a temporary distraction over and done with, I am now faced with eight months to finish my thesis (‘less than one pregnancy’ as a friend of mine has pointed out). This time will largely be spent revising the chapters I’ve been writing over the past two years or so, and I’m also trying to make mental head space to think about the next project in order to apply for jobs. So my version of the January blues has been an identification with Manchester and Liverpool’s ‘tortures of doubt and despair.’

What I needed was something to reinvigorate me; to remind me that once upon a time I was excited to be starting my research project, and something to spark ideas to spur me on in the coming months. The conference held to coincide with the Ashmolean’s exhibition ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ on Saturday was just the thing.

The day began with Martin Myrone of the Tate speaking about Blake and the Gothic. He richly illustrated that ‘Gothic’ is a complex, even messy term, which applies to Blake’s works from a number of angles, beginning and ending with reflections on the image from The First Book of Urizen which is the poster-boy for the exhibition (and on the Tate’s separate print of the plate).

Next up was a panel on satire, with David Worrall arguing that Blake’s satirical manuscript An Island in the Moon is an experiment in writing for the theatre, and Susan Matthews exploring the fascinating Copy D of Europe and its annotations, thought to be by George Cumberland (noting that we have had a stark reminder of the resonance of ‘satire’ and ‘Europe’ in recent weeks).

After lunch was a panel on some of Blake’s interactions with literary texts. Michael Phillips (curator of the exhibition) presenting Shakespearean aspects of Blake, and Luisa Cale (who organised the conference) on Blake’s engagement with the subject of the Lazar house from Paradise Lost. The highlight for me here was Bethan Stevens’ paper on Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil which wonderfully illustrated the need to attend to the text Blake is illustrating here, which has been virtually overlooked in scholarship on these designs, which has focused primarily on the oddity of these woodcuts within Blake’s oeuvre and the influence of the designs on the so-called [see below] ‘Ancients’. So a trip to see the copy at the John Rylands Library is on the cards for me.

After everyone had had a quick caffeine boost, Andrew Lincoln discussed a passage from The Four Zoas in which Blake uses violent imagery of harvest in a vision of the Last Judgement; I’ve recently been thinking about several images by Blake which use related imagery, so the paper highlighted to me some interesting parallels and differences in this passage which I haven’t really given any thought to until now (albeit later than the images I’ve been looking at). We then heard from Nicholas Shrimpton, speaking about Francis Oliver Finch, a lesser-known member of the so-called ‘Ancients’; ‘so-called’ because, as Shrimpton demonstrated, this term was probably only given to the group retrospectively.

Finally, Saree Makdisi (in a glimpse of his forthcoming book Reading William Blake) spoke about ‘Blake, Time and Eternity’ arguing that Blake’s works seek to displace the reader-viewer’s perception of linear time through their constantly shifting, non-linear, overlapping, looping (non-)narratives and as such take the reader-viewer into the state of eternity. Not only was this a compelling reading of the problematic nature of Blake’s books, but, to extrapolate from Makdisi’s argument, also the kind of repetitions, parallels and disjunctures that had emerged in the various perspectives on Blake presented throughout the day. As in a particular Blake book, so with the universal Blake – the difficulty with reading the complex web of interconnections between his works should be viewed sub specie aeternitatis.

With that tall order — and numerous ‘minute particulars’ to chase up — I came away feeling altogether more positive about the prospect of the next eight months of Blake.

Advertisements

Missed un-misseds

2015 is upon us and among the various loose-ends I’ve been dealing with at the turn of the year, I discovered the beginnings of a post about a conference which I attended in July. My intention had been to write myself a summary of the conference, but after making a start on 23rd July, I never quite got round to finishing it. On the principle that something is better than nothing, and because it finishes at a point which is actually now quite timely, I’m posting it below.

 

There are other things that I intended to write about last year that didn’t even get the beginnings of a post; here’s a list of some of them – all exhibitions, which I’d recommend visiting (where still current):

Sublime: The Prints of JMW Turner and Thomas Moran – display at the New York Public Library (to 15 Feb)

I maintain a nostalgic interest in Turner since my time at his gallery in Margate (see also below), and Moran was a new discovery for me.

Dürer, Rembrandt, Tiepolo: The Jansma Master Prints Collection from the Grand Rapids Art Museum – display at the Museum of Biblical Art, New York (to 11 Jan)

I was sent to MOBiA by a friend who wanted a copy of the catalogue from a previous exhibition, and by a happy coincidence, the current display showcased the work of master-printers who had turned their art to Biblical subjects. Although not mentioned in the title, Blake’s own Illustrations to the Book of Job were among the examples on display, alongside his revered Dürer and despised Rembrandt (as well as Tiepolo, Manet and Pechstein), although I would still have enjoyed the exhibition without the Blakes!

From Neo-Classicism to Futurism: Italian Prints and Drawings, 1800–1925 – display at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC (to 1 Feb)

I was in the NGA to see works by Blake in one of the study rooms, but had time during the lunch break to see a bit of the galleries (more than I managed in some other museums I visited for research appointments). The first part of the display was of particular interest, with some striking parallels between the Italian neo-classicism and the neo-classicism that marked Blake’s work in the 1780s (in itself clearly reflecting Italian influence, although he didn’t visit himself).

Anarchy and Beauty: William Morris and his Legacy, 1860-1960 – exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (to 11 Jan)

My Christmas present to my parents was tickets to this exhibition. We all enjoyed the show and mum is now trying to get hold of a William Morris wallpaper for her latest decorating project. On Blake’s influence on the Arts and Crafts Movement, see ‘Burning Bright‘ — again! (somehow Morris didn’t feature directly, but he likewise was inspired by Blake).

Jeremy Deller: English Magic – exhibition at Turner Contemporary (to 11 Jan)

The NPG tracked Morris’ legacy to 1960; Deller’s show brings Morris alive again for the twenty-first century. Conceived for the Venice Biennale in 2013, ‘English Magic’ takes Morris as a central character, bringing him ‘back to life’ as an inspirational artist-protestor – a tradition in which Deller places himself (and in which both follow in a line which includes Blake).

 

I’m making no pretense at a resolution to blog more prolifically or consistently this year, so expect a continuation of ecclectic fits and bursts on Blake and other matters. (My main ambition for the year is to make it to the other side of the PhD).

=======

Again to London and to the Moon

The end of last week saw my fourth trip to London in the space of six weeks, this time for a conference on ‘Blake, the Flaxmans and Romantic Sociability’ at Birkbeck.

 

The venue itself, the Keynes Library, had a tangential Blake connection, being in the former house of the economist John Maynard Keynes, whose younger brother Sir Geoffrey Keynes was a Blake collector and scholar (I think JMK himself had some interest in Blake – certainly there was an interest in Blake among his circle of friends, the Bloomsbury Group).

 

John Flaxman (1755-1826) was a sculptor and a friend and patron of William Blake (see his entry on the Tate website). The conference explored various aspects of the work of both artists and ways in which their work intersected. One example is Blake’s manuscript An Island in the Moon (1794) which (see the Blake Archive’s entry on the manuscript) seems to satirise the social circle of Harriet and Anthony Stephen Mathew of which both Blake and Flaxman were sometime members (although of course, with Blake, a single way of reading the work is never enough; wikipedia [approach with the usual caution] summarises some of the debates).

 

The proceedings opened with Michael Phillips discussing Blake’s confrontation with George Michael Moser, keeper at the Royal Academy. This gave a sneak preview of some of Phillips’ research for the exhibition which he is curating, William Blake: Apprentice and Master, which opens at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum this December.

…[ends]…

=======

Apprentice and Master is now showing until 1 March. Having spent much of today curled up, reading the catalogue for Phillips’ exhibition, I’m very much looking forward to paying a visit next week.

The Number of the Beast

I’ve been very lax about blogging over the summer and it’s now definitely the season “stained with the blood of the grape” (Blake’s ode to Autumn is undeservedly much less well known than Keats’).

 

Summer brought with it a combination of research, holidaying, conferencing and encounters with the Number of the Beast.

 

First was the invention of a new rule for the card game S***head by my fellow PhD-ers Scott Midson, Rosie Edgley and Johannes Lotze relating to three sixes being played in succession (as the rule was not my invention I shall not divulge it here, but it is a pretty beastly rule). The invention came about en route from Manchester to Kent when they came to keep me company house sitting for my parents and the new incarnation of the game (known, unsurprisingly as “The Beast”) kept us amused throughout our sojourn in the Garden of England and has now become a firm favourite among our group of friends.

 

In other news, Blake’s watercolour The Number of the Beast is 666 (c.1805) is relevant in a tangential way to the chapter I am working on at the moment on Christ as the agent of apocalypse. A couple of weeks ago, I was adding some pictures in to some work to send to my supervisors, and as soon as I added in the aforementioned watercolour the file refused to save. After wasting half an afternoon panicking that maybe I should be superstitious after all and battling to save the file, I eventually realised that I had simply run out of space and thus solved the problem by deleting some other files. Now the good people in IT have given me some more storage so hopefully I can avoid such scares in future!

Heaven in a Wild Flower

Blake’s Auguries of Innocence begins with the famous lines:

 

To see the World in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

 

Here, Blake expresses a sacramental worldview – encountering and celebrating the divine in the everyday, and particularly here in the natural environment.

 

I’m prompted to think about sacramental worldviews after a day in the Lakes which took in various sites of such interest.

 

First, driving along Ullswater, we came across A host, of golden daffodils; | Beside the lake, beneath the trees, |Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

DSC_0752 - Copy

 

Wordsworth isn’t being explicitly sacramental in these famous lines, but in comparing the wild flowers to “the stars that shine | And twinkle on the milky way” and describing them flashing upon his “inward eye” he seems to expressing that they have a deeper significance than their superficial loveliness. Anyway, it’s another Wordsworthian site ticked off the list.

 

Next stop was the primary destination of the day’s drive: St Mary’s Church, Wreay – an extraordinary little church made somewhat famous recently by Jenny Uglow’s book The Pinecone, which is an account of the building and its creator, Sarah Losh. The church is remarkable for its carvings which chiefly draw on imagery from the natural world, much of which is also imbued with symbolism from both Christian and pagan traditions. There are also a good number of angels, which might have pleased Blake – I wonder if Sarah Losh saw angels in the trees around Wreay:

 

DSC_0756

 

Finally, we took in the town of Keswick and the nearby Castlerigg Stone Circle, presumably some kind of place of worship, set in a particularly stunning setting and surely a site where people have reflected upon the relationship between the world and the sacred over the millennia:

DSC_0792

 

All of these encounters of the sacramental resonate nicely with the themes of two conference I’m involved in which have both been launched this week (please do have a look and spread the word):

 

First up, in September is “Religions, Environments and Popular Culture” which will, as the title suggests, deal with the intersections between the world (natural, built, and imaginary) and the sacred.

 

A few months later, in January 2015, we will be hosting the Society for the Study of Theology’s annual postgraduate conference on the theme of “Images, Icons and Idols” which aims to encompass a broad range of theological topics, not least explorations of the sacramental. Indeed, partly prompted by re-reading David Jones’s essay Art and Sacrament, I’ve recently been thinking a bit about the inter-relationship(s) of sacrament, art, theology and sign.

 

Sarah Losh’s creation, for instance, can be said to be art as (sacramental) sign-making, inspired by a sacramental worldview. The same could be said of Auguries of Innocence.

Welshcakes for St David

When I was an undergraduate, I spent three years living in a College that did not like its students to cook and as a result provided rudimentary kitchen facilities, which generally consisted of a plug-in electric hob and a microwave. This set-up not being conducive to baking in the strict sense of the term, Welshcakes (which can be griddled or shallow-fried) became my signature offering for puddings, tea parties, bicycle rides and any occasion (or none) when cake was required.

Welshcakes, then, are for me one of those foods that unlock many fond memories. They’re also a bit of a family tradition – the recipe I use came to me from my Grandmama, who is half Welsh (as was my Grandfather, which I only found out this week, thus making me two eighths Welsh).

These are simple cakes, but deliciously moreish. I also enjoy the process of making them – rubbing the fat into the flour, patting out the dough, cutting the circles, frying, flipping and letting them cool at least long enough not to burn any tongues! It forces me to slow down and simply immerse myself in the ritual of it all.

An annual excuse to make Welshcakes is St. David’s Day (1st March) – the feast day of the patron saint of Wales. This year, it is providing me with an excuse to make Welshcakes to take on a walk in the hills to escape the city and to fuel a planning meeting for a conference I’m organising in April.

A quick note on ingredients: traditionally, Welshcakes are cooked in lard, which gives a distinctive flavour and texture, but in order to be able to feed vegetarians (as St. David himself was), I usually end up cooking them in butter, which is delicious in a different way. A variation which works well is ‘Christmas Welshcakes’ with dried cranberries and perhaps some finely grated orange zest.

DSC_0637

Welshcakes

8oz / 100g self raising flour

tsp ground mixed spice (you can buy a jar of mixed of sweet spices or use any combination of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, according to your taste)

pinch salt

3oz / 75g demerara sugar

4oz / 100g cold butter, cut into 1cm cubes

3oz / 75g sultanas or currants

1 large egg, beaten

a little milk if needed

Lard or butter for cooking

Sift flour, spice and salt into a bowl, stir in sugar, then rub in the butter until crumbly.

Add the fruit, and then the egg to form a firm dough (adding milk if needed).

Roll or press out on a floured surface to 5mm / 1/4″ thick. Cut into rounds.

Heat a heavy frying or griddle pan and rub with lard or butter. Cook the cakes over a low heat for about a minute on each side – until lightly brown.

Leave to cool.

NOTE: the pan should be heated first, then the heat reduced to cook the cakes.

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.

There is a Blakean in the House

Today I gave a paper at the Ecclesiastical History Society’s Postgraduate Colloquim at the John Rylands Library. Papers were on “any topic in the history of Christianity,” thus allowing me to speak about Blake under the surprising auspices of a society which in name in manifestly un-Blakean (for Blake’s opinion of institutional Christianity, see his “Garden of Love” and “The Little Vagabond”).

I spoke about Blake’s illustrations of the Temptations of Christ — a subject with liturgical resonance in Lent, although Blake does typically innovative things with it. I think my audience enjoyed a dose of pictures as a change from parish records, and some of the papers I heard gave me some useful food for thought.

With delegates from both History and Religious Studies departments, there were quite a few discussions about disciplinary distinctions. Lots of people asked me whether I am an Art Historian; in a sense of course, I am, although I have always studied under the auspices of Religious Studies. Blake resists disciplinary distinctions, which is part of his appeal for me – indeed, as I’ve written before, one of the reasons I chose Religious Studies as my first degree was the range of disciplines it encompasses.

Meanwhile, my first panel is out of the way. This is a biannual “exam” to discuss the progress of my research with my two supervisors and a third person from within the university. I actually have a member of staff from the Whitworth Art Gallery as my third panel member; it was good to have an external perspective on my work and having someone from outside academia proper brought some enriching suggestions for my work. So I’m now moving on in earnest to my first chapter, which is on Blake’s conception of Christ’s ministry in the Gospels. More on that in due course.