Knole escape

Apologies for the appalling pun.

I’ve just spent a week at home in Canterbury. The idea was to have more or less a complete break from the PhD (although it was, a good opportunity to see a book in the special collections at the University of Kent which we don’t have in Manchester – the lady on duty seemed quite excited when I told her this). Inevitably, however, Blake has been catching up with me one way or another, as in day in Leeds the previous weekend (see post “Blake Spotting”) and my visit to “Curiosity” at Turner Contemporary (see post “The Rhino and the Flea”).

On Tuesday, I went with my parents to Knole, a vast National Trust property in Sevenoaks. Dating back to the fifteenth century, parts of the house were built by the Archbishops of Canterbury. The palace was taken over by Henry VIII at the Reformation, and during the reign of Elizabeth I, passed to Thomas Sackville. The Sackvilles continue to live at Knole today. I thought it was a fairly safe bet that Knole would be a complete Blake break, but it wasn’t quite.

The first discovery, in the Orangery, were a set of casts of classical reliefs, which according to an interpretation panel were thought to have been made by Blake’s friend, John Flaxman. Some of Blake’s early work is strongly influenced by classical sculpture and Flaxman’s neo-classical work (for instance, his Joseph watercolours, mentioned in my post “Places of Thought“).

In the main house, a whole room was devoted to paintings by Blake’s arch-enemy, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Of the most interest was Reynolds’ Ugolino (available to view via the National Trust’s website), a scene from Dante’s Inferno which Blake also painted – needless to say the two handle the subject rather differently (see Blake’s painting of c.1826 via the Fitzwilliam Museum’s website). Apparently (again going on the in-house information) Reynolds’ painting caused quite a sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1773 so perhaps Blake would have been aware of it.

The house also has a set of copies of Raphael’s cartoons for the Sistine Tapestries. Blake actually mentions the cartoons in his 1809 “Descriptive Catalogue” (available via the Blake Archive) and there seem to be connections (some indirect) between the cartoons and a number of Blake’s designs I’ve been looking at for my PhD.

So not quite a complete switch-off, but still a nice day in the Kentish countryside.


“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).

Recent Discoveries

1. Mary Magdalene is probably more important than I first thought, but I have various ongoing issues writing about her: a) how to pronounce her name, b) whether I should adopt Blake’s (and as far as I can tell the standard eighteenth-century) spelling which omits the final “e” (my spell-check doesn’t like it, nor does my College loyalty), c) whether or not I need to refer to all the women associated with her as “Magdalene” (see Just a Brief Update). She’ll definitely be getting a section in the chapter I’m working on at the moment and maybe I’ll try to write a conference  paper on her (speaking about her would get round b) but raise the stakes for a)).

2. New parts of the library (new to me that is), namely Theatre, Law. My usual haunts are English and Art History, History probably coming in third, and increasingly less often Religion. Previous novel excursions have included Economics, and, most unexpectedly of all, Physics.

3. I missed a chance to see some Blakes in Cambridge. As previously bemoaned, I wasn’t able to arrange to see the Blakes I was hoping to at the Fitzwilliam, but I have since discovered that they actually currently have some of his tempera paintings on display, which I’ve never seen “out” there before. I have seen the one that’s relevant to my research before, but it’s always interesting to see things on display, not least to be able to eavesdrop on other visitors’ conversations! I know I’ll be visiting Cambridge again in August so fingers crossed they might still be out then.

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!