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.

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‘The deep of winter came’

Europe, A Prophecy (1795), Copy A, Plate 5, Yale Canter for British Art.

Autumn or Fall seems to have given way to winter, at least back in England’s grey and drizzly land. I am missing the big blue skies of the East Coast; the clouds seem barely to have parted since I returned to Manchester!

On the other side of the Atlantic, my final couple of weeks saw dramatic fluctuations in weather, from snow the day before Thanksgiving to a day mild enough to sit out at lunch without a jacket on the last day of November!

In my last few days in New Haven I managed to see the last of the Blake works in the collection at the YCBA, and to make an excursion to Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut to see some eighteenth-century satirical prints (see details of the 2012 exhibition ‘Sacred Satire‘) and the memoirs of Blake’s patron Revd. Dr. Trusler.

I then travelled up and down the East Coast to see more Blake works in Boston, Washington, DC and Philadelphia, visits which also allowed me to catch up with a school friend and an uncle and aunt.

My day at the Library of Congress was particularly memorable – on the aforementioned snow day I was the only person in the Rare Books Reading Room for the first hour of my visit, and there were only two other readers later in the day. I sat opposite a window, watching the snow fall on a rather empty DC from where most people seemed to have left early for the long weekend.

Spending a lot of time with original works afforded numerous ‘minute particulars’ that will feed back into my thesis – noticing details that are lost in reproductions, or simply overlooked because, particularly for those that are less central to my project, the opportunity to see originals meant that I spent more time looking at the works.  I also gleaned insights and references from conversations with other scholars and curators, and from institutional files.

Now I need to take advantage of the uninspiring winter days and get my head down to make those minute particulars count as I return to the business of finishing my thesis.

More Musical Blake

One of the treats of Christmas in Canterbury is the service of lessons and carols in the Cathedral on Christmas Eve.

Marking the death of John Taverner this November, one of the choral pieces was the late composer’s setting of Blake’s ‘The Lamb,‘ a piece also featured in the most famous Christmas Eve service, King’s College Cambridge’s Nine Lessons and Carols this year. In fact, Blake was doubly honoured at King’s, with their new  commission for this year’s service being a setting of ‘Hear the voice of the Bard‘ by Thea Musgrave. (Incidentally, King’s is home to Copy W of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, from which both poems come; this copy is generally considered to be one of the finest printed by Blake and is among the most widely reproduced and therefore familiar.)

‘The Lamb’ is a somewhat fitting, if unusual, piece for Christmas, in that it can be read as a reflection on Christ as the Lamb who, as stated in the poem “became a little child.’

‘Hear the voice of the Bard’ is a less well known poem and was apparently one of a long list of suggestions made by the director of music at King’s, Stephen Cleobury. On her website, Musgrave writes that ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard’ “jumped right off the page” when she read the list; she states that she was “drawn to this poem because it reaches out for the larger beauty and mystery of our existence on earth independent of specific religious affiliation…Blake finds our ‘lapsed’ human souls in need of the refreshment and constancy of nature’s magical cycles — and also of the artist’s role in the musical ‘voice of the Bard.'”

It is not the most obvious Blakean poem for Christmas, but it can be read in Incarnational terms, speaking of ‘The Holy Word’ and of the Earth’s renewal. Its place in the service, between the first (God tells sinful Adam that he has lost the life of Paradise and that his seed will bruise the serpent’s head – Genesis 3) and second (God promises to faithful Abraham that in his seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed – Genesis 22) lessons reflected the prophetic nature of Blake’s bardic voice (although Blake of course thought that the advent of Christ was not received as it should have been and that the world had slumbered for eighteen-hundred years until he came along).

As for the settings themselves, Taverner’s was familiar, Musgrave’s of course was new. I found both perfectly nice pieces of music but there is an inherent strangeness in Blake’s words being sung in such an establishment styles and settings as by the choirs of Canterbury and King’s (notwithstanding Hubert Parry’s ‘Jerusalem’), so that they end up not feeling very Blakean.

There was, however, a truly (proto-)Blakean treat at Canterbury – a marvellous setting of Robert Southwell’s ‘The Burning Babe‘  by Jonathan Wikeley. I’m not the first to notice that Southwell’s poem could almost be a description of Blake’s painting The Nativity, although it seems unlikely that Blake might have known it, but they could be drawing on shared older sources. Anyway, the poem was a new discovery for me and the setting was full of the drama and energy in Southwell’s words. This doesn’t seem to have yet made it to the realm of the internet, but I will be keeping my eyes and ears out for a recording.

Happy Christmastide!

Revolutionary Light, The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester‘s art collection, has just opened its summer season (runs to 1 September). This programme is the final farewell before the gallery closes in the autumn for a major refurbishment, and the displays showcase highlights of the collection.

The season launched on 4th July with Nikhil Chopra’s 65-hour performance piece “Coal on Cotton” as part of the Manchester International Festival which ran from sunrise on the Friday to sunset on the Sunday. By happenstance, this coincided with the sun finally emerging from the heavens to bring the some summer weather across the country (yes, including Manchester!). The sun and light are themes running through various aspects of the programme, most explicitly “Revolutionary Light” which brings together works by William Blake, J M W Turner and Anish Kapoor.

Kapoor’s series of etchings, Blackness from her Womb are seen in the distance as one enters the building (you can see the Tate’s set of the etchings on their website). He created the prints in response to his visit to the Tate’s blockbuster Blake exhibition in 2000. Each print combines a single colour with inky blackness, creating strange, visionary designs with an intense play on darkness and light.

The Blake works are a series of six illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (which you can view via the Blake Archive) and the iconic Ancient of Days (shown on the exhibition page). Originally the frontispiece to his poem Europe (1794), and reported to be a representation of a vision Blake had at his home in Lambeth, he later reworked the design as a separate plate, and it is thought that he was working on this copy on his deathbed. All seven watercolours were given to the Whitworth in 1892 by John Edward Taylor, proprietor and son of the founder (also called John Edward Taylor) of the Manchester Guardian (which became the Guardian in 1959).

I have yet to look into Taylor’s interest in Blake; all I know at the moment is that he owned one other work by Blake – curiously enough from my point of view, a copy of Blake’s Large Colour Print, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (1795) which he donated to the V&A in 1894 (you can view the work via the Blake Archive). What I would be interested to look into is whether Taylor realised how closely linked the Whitworth watercolours are: Europe, from which The Ancient of Days comes, is a kind of retelling of Milton’s Nativity Ode, and there is at least one clear iconographic link, between the compasses held by Urizen in The Ancient of Days and the figure of Peace in the first of the Milton illustrations (follow the links above to see for yourself). These points are well established in Blake scholarship now, and of course, you don’t need to have done the reading to spot the similarity between the compasses and Peace, but did Taylor know Europe well enough to realise that connection? Maybe I’ll look into it at some point.

As for the light in these images, well, the sun is at the centre of The Ancient of Days, but it is a dark sun, and seems to restrict the figure of Urizen. In the Nativity Ode we see dawn and night, blasts of light, stars and fire in this apocalyptic version of the Nativity.

Turner is famous for the presence of the sun in his works, and it is reported that his dying words were “The sun is god.” Alongside Blake and Kapoor, Turner’s sun-centric watercolours look relatively conventional. Blake and Turner is an enigma which I wonder about sometimes — although they were contemporaries, and both challenged the artistic conventions of their time (Turner rather more commercially successfully than Blake), there don’t seem to be any records of them ever meeting or commenting on one another’s works, but it is more than plausible that they were aware of one another.

There is plenty to delight in other displays at the Whitworth. “Continental Drift” showcases highlights of the collection by European artists and British artists with continental links. With or without my Blake hat on, a highlight were the Dürer woodcuts – several individual prints, plus the complete series to the Book of Revelation, displayed in dramatic lighting (you can see images of this series of prints, though not in order, via the British Museum’s website). According to the display caption, this was the first book ever created and published by an artist, making it a precursor to Blake’s own books, not to mention the profound influence the Book of Revelation had on Blake and his admiration for Dürer. Indeed, I think it was Samuel Palmer who reported that Blake had a print of Dürer‘s Melancholia I in his workshop (which is also currently on display at the Whitworth and can be seen via their website).

My visit hardly left me feeling melancholic, but I do feel that like that figure, I need to sit and ponder further on these rich displays.