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.

Blakean Illuminations

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Earlier this week I was in London for a part-work, part leisure trip – taking in a couple of exhibitions and getting my hands on an obscure pamphlet on a Blake picture in the National Art Library.

Among the exhibitions was the British Library’s ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, which traces the rich cultural phenomena of the Gothic from the eighteenth century to the present day. The early part of the exhibition took me back to thinking about Blake and Gothic for ‘Burning Bright’ at the John Rylands Library in 2012. There were a number of familiar objects in the display here, including Blake’s own Night Thoughts engravings and several pages from Vala/The Four Zoas.

There were no huge (/terrifying) surprises in the narrative set out here, but it was good to be introduced to some objects I was not familiar with, and particularly to find out more about later iterations of Gothic.

That evening, however, I did encounter a gothic surprise: on a stroll around London’s Christmas lights, I turned off Oxford Street onto South Molton Street to see the scene above. 17 South Molton Street is where Blake lived after his return to London in 1803 (following three years in Felpham, Sussex), and is the only one of his London residences still standing.

Although a brief internet search suggests that these lights have been on South Molton Street for several years, I don’t recall seeing them before. What I could not find out was whether or not the lights are intended to be Blakean – if any reader knows, I would be delighted to hear from you. But whether intentionally so or otherwise, the gothic arches of light are appropriate for this Blakean setting. Blake called Gothic ‘living form’ (On Virgil) and Gothic motifs appear frequently in his images – a famous example is Angels Hovering over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805) in which the angels form an arch reminiscent of the gothic ‘ogee’ arches Blake knew from Westminster Abbey.

The Blakean resonance of the illuminations is further reinforced in their fourfold structure. In Blake’s mythos, to be fourfold is a characteristic of the spiritual state; thus, the spiritual London is fourfold, the Human is fourfold, there are four gates to the celestial city of Golgonooza, and so on.

Is this mere accident? Are the lights celebrating Blake or the posh shops that now populate South Molton Street. Either way, if the ghost of Blake happens to visit his former home, I hope he’d appreciate the former and enjoy the irony of the latter.

Work in Abundance

I haven’t posted in a while; this is largely owing to spending too much time at my computer, rather than too little.

I spent much of last week manacled to my laptop working on the text for the online version of the John Rylands Library’s Blake exhibition. It’s a curious process re-writing an exhibition for an online manifestation — it will basically follow the physical exhibition in terms of the groupings of works but it will be quite a different beast in a number of ways.

Obviously the “visitor” will lose the physical experience of seeing each item discussed, and in this case, working within the structure of the University’s website, it will only be possible to have a “slice” of each image “on show” alongside the explanatory text (although the full image will be available to open in a separate window).

On the other hand, given that the exhibition focuses on Blake and the art of the book, a major limitation for the physical exhibition is that it is only possible to show one opening for each volume; in the online exhibition, it will be possible to showcase multiple pages.

The research has taken me to areas I might not otherwise have looked at in as much detail, which has both broadened my horizons and made me spot things which may actually have a bearing on some of the works I am looking at for my thesis.

This week I did get away from the computer a bit more, using some of the research I’ve been doing in relation to the web exhibition in a collection-based session at the Library on Blake and the Gothic. Blake was fascinated by the Gothic and the Library is a magnificent late-Victorian neo-Gothic building (images of the building are available via the University’s online image collections, LUNA).

The Gothic qualities of Blake’s works was also one of the reasons why he appealed to Victorian critics, artists and designers; the reception of Blake by these figures is one of the themes of the exhibition. In the collection encounter we also showed items associated with the Gothic phenomenon, such as Walpole’s Castle of Otranto and some spooky plates by Fuseli et al from Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery. My online exhibition text will discuss all this material so watch this space.

I ran this tour twice; for one session I actually had just one visitor, but this made it much more of a conversation which was rather nice.

I also went down (or up) to Cambridge to a conference of visualising the Bible in the nineteenth-century; in fact it was very much mid-nineteenth century, so complemented my forays into the Gothic revival and Blake’s Victorian commentators. It was also a good opportunity to see some old friends and walk some dogs.

Now to refocus my doors of perception on Blake himself and get my first chapter of my thesis drafted.

And I almost forgot, I went to the Tate a couple of weeks ago to see their new dedicated Blake room. They have re-displayed their collection in a chronological hang, but together with Turner, Blake is divorced from his context, in his own chamber-like (maybe even church-like) space which one can access without passing through any other gallery. I’ve mixed feelings about this consequence of the new hang, but it was certainly a treat to spend time surrounded by Blakes!

Burning Bright. Part 1: Kindling

This is a post I wrote a couple of weeks ago for the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project through which I took part in training about how to develop public outputs from research. Apologies there is some repetition from previous posts here. Things have moved on in the past two weeks, so this will serve as a precursor to an update I hope to write at the end of the week.

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My project is linked to the exhibition “Burning Bright” at the John Rylands Library which examines William Blake and the world of the book.  The exhibition includes books illustrated by Blake and explores his impact on subsequent generations of artists and writers. Blake’s influence continues to “burn bright” and activities alongside the exhibition encourage visitors to take creative inspiration from his work.

Blake’s work as a visual artist is the focus of my PhD — specifically, I am examining the role of Christ in Blake’s images — so I had a ready-made opportunity to relate my research to public audiences. There are three strands to my contribution to the exhibition programme: creating a workshop for school groups inspired by the exhibition, devising a tour for the public programme, and contributing to an online version of the exhibition. After months of meetings, planning and looking at books in the reading room, things are coming together, so I’m going to share how things are shaping up.

Schools workshop: Blake and the Bible

Taking as its inspiration Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job, a copy of which is in the exhibition (and was only recently discovered in the Rylands collection), my workshop will explore different ways of retelling stories from the Bible, with students creating their own version of a Bible story. I’m going to give the students a choice of producing either a design in the format of Blake’s Job illustrations (which have an image in the centre with commentary and designs in the margin) or a newspaper article.

Preparing for this workshop has involved lots of discussion with the education team and I’ve sat in on some other workshops in the education programme to help get a feel for what works well. There are also two MA students, Liz and Amy, running workshops alongside the exhibition, and each of us has chosen a different theme. I sat in on one of Amy’s workshops last week, which was on personification, with pupils writing personification poems, and it was fantastic to see how well the pupils engaged with the theme.

I’m going to be running my session for five groups between years 7 – 10 in the middle of May and I’m looking forward to seeing what results come of it!

Rylands Blake workshops

Advertising for the exhibition education programme.

Public tour: Blake and the Gothic

This tour will explore Blake’s fascination with the Gothic, inspired by the John Rylands Library itself which is a grand neo-Gothic building. This will be an opportunity to show visitors items from the collection not included in the exhibition — by Blake himself and by others interested in the Gothic to weave a narrative between Blake and the library building.

Preparation has involved lots of delving through books from the collection and I’ve been spoilt for choice because the collection is so rich in this area, so I have had to be very self-disciplined in deciding what to use. Stella Halkyard who looks after visual collections at the library and curated “Burning Bright” has been a great source of advice and arranged for me to see the massive volumes of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery (it takes two people to move them) which contain some fantastically spooky engravings of subjects from Shakespeare by Blake’s friends and foes.

I’ll be running this tour twice in June.

Burning Bright online

Once all the books in the exhibition have been returned to the stores at the end of Jun, “Burning Bright” will continue to burn in the shape of an online exhibition. This will provide a legacy for the exhibition itself and for the activities which have taken place alongside it. Work produced in the schools workshops is being photographed as are the fruits of printing workshops offered as part of the public programme. I will also be writing up a version of my Gothic tour. The funding from the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project will help to pay for the photography of items in the collection for the online exhibition.

I was part of a meeting about the online exhibition last week and the provisional designs look great, so I’m excited about seeing how it will come together. I’ve come up with an idea for the structure which I need to discuss with the web team, and I need to finalise my order for the photography department, then start writing it all up.

Birds B&W

An example of work produced in a printing workshop, inspired by one of Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job.