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).

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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]…

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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.

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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!

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).

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.