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!

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helpful and lazy scribbles

I came across the latest additions to my archive of library book annotations a couple of weeks ago in V. Tinkler-Villani’s, Visions of Dante in English Poetry: translations of the Commedia from Jonathan Richardson to William Blake (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1989).

 

Among various scribblings, two jumped out at me. The first is actually potentially helpful to other readers of the book, informing where a source a mentioned can be accessed: DSC_0380

 

The other, in a different hand, is frankly lazy – marking the conclusion of the book as a handy quotation to conclude the reader in question’s own essay: DSC_0383

British Drawing at the V&A

The last couple of days of my London trip included visiting the V&A. One of the significant areas of this museum’s vast collections is works on paper (indeed, a number of watercolours by Blake were among the things I went there to see). Such works are not suited to prolonged periods on display and as a result are among those which get rotated on a regular basis.

Currently showing is a display entitled “British Drawing 1600 to the Present Day” which explores various ways in which artists engage in the practice of drawing: both as process and as finished work; in different materials, and achieving different effects.

I’d clocked before my visit that there was a Blake drawing in this display, so that was a good reason to take a look. An Angel Striding among the Stars (1824-27) is an exploratory drawing for Blake’s illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy. The caption highlighted that in this drawing, Blake seems to be experimenting with the figure of the angel, stating that it “catches Blake in the act of creation.” This observation struck me as wonderfully playful; does the curator mean that this image not only is an example of Blake’s creative process but might also be a representation of the act of creation? In other words, is the angel a creator, and perhaps a kind of avatar of Blake, the creator. I might be reading too much into the caption, but the dynamic pose of the angel is precisely the kind of pose Blake associates with creative energy.

There was plenty else besides of interest in the display. There were three drawings by Samuel Palmer, one of Blake’s disciples known as the Ancients. Two pages from a sketchbook date from about 1824, roughly the time when Palmer first met Blake Landscape with a Church Spire and Sketches of woodland, trees and a hilly landscape. Another drawing depicts a Nocturnal landscape with full moon and deer (c.1829-30) is an intensely atmospheric drawing – one of many inspired by the landscape of his home in Shoreham in Kent. Palmer’s ‘visionary’ landscapes share something of Blake’s woodcuts for The Pastorals of Virgil (which I’ve written about for the John Rylands’ ‘Burning Bright‘ exhibition).

On a decidedly non-Blakean note was an Alexander Cozen’s ‘Blot’ drawing; Landscape study (ca.1750-86). Cozens created imaginary landscapes beginning with a blot which then became the basis for the scene. Blake famously denounced blots; unlike Cozens, who use blots as a stimulus to his imagination, Blake believed that blots were without form and therefore without meaning (see, for instance, his comments on the drawings of Thomas Williams Malkin).

Other figures in Blake’s circle featured include John Flaxman, Henry Fuseli and George Romney, and other Blake-inspired artists were George Frederic Watts, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Stanley Spencer, so there was plenty else to occupy a girl’s interest. If you’re in the area, I’d recommend a look (and it’s a lot quieter than much of the V&A, not to mention the nearby Science Museum and Natural History Museum).

DGR’s Grave

Last weekend, I went in search of a Blakean’s grave.

When Blake died in 1827, he requested to be buried at Bunhill Fields, the Dissenters’ burial ground. Today, the site of Blake’s grave is unmarked; instead, there is a headstone which reads ‘Nearby lie the remains of William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophia.’ The exact spot of Blake’s burial has been discovered, and there is a proposal to mark the site but this has yet to come to fruition.

The grave I visited this weekend was that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the Pre-Raphaelites, who was a great admirer of Blake. DGR is buried at the parish church in Birchington in Kent. I used to pass this graveyard regularly when I took the bus to work in Margate but never got around to visiting the grave. Paying a visit to my old workplace (more on that in another post) was a good opportunity to finally make the pilgrimage.

There is a short account of DGR’s interest in Blake in the online exhibition I wrote for the John Rylands Library, Burning Bright.

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The monument was designed by Ford Madox Brown (another Blakean, and a sometime Mancunian – more on that another time perhaps), Rossetti’s friend and tutor.

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St Luke, patron saint of painters is depicted on the monument.

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Above is the winged ox, the beast of St Luke.

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At the top are three figures: on the right is DGR’s namesake, Dante, but I haven’t found information about the other figures –  the one in centre looks like an angel, so may be Gabriel; as for the figure on the left, perhaps it is a Charles, DGR’s other name, but it looks decidedly feminine. Notes on a postcard please.

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The inscription on the front of  the monument:

Here sleeps

Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti

Honoured under the name

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Among painters a painter

And among poets a poet

Born in London

Of parentage mainly Italian, 12th May  1828

Died at Birchington, 9 April, 1882

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On the back of the monument another inscription refers to the monument itself:

This cruciform monument

Bespoken by Dante Rossetti’s mother

Was designed by his lifelong friend

Ford Madox Brown

Executed by J. and H. Patteson

And erected by his brother William

And his sister Christina Rossetti