The past week has seen #VolunteersWeek trending on social media. This is an annual celebration of volunteering of all kinds around the country. Over the years, I’ve volunteered in quite a few different roles and I can genuinely say that vounteering has given me some great experiences, both personally and professionally. So here’s a few of my thoughts on why volunteering is a great thing to do:

Meeting new people – and often people from different walks of life. When I moved to Manchester, for example, I became a volunteer guide at the Manchester Art Gallery (inspired by previous roles on a summer project at Erfurt Cathedral in Germany, and at the V&A); this gave me an opportunity to meet people outside of the university bubble. Many of the other volunteer guides are retired so it’s meant that I’ve got to know a different segment of Mancunians from fellow PhD students. It’s also interesting meeting the visitors who come on the tours — we have some regulars, as well as visitors to the city, and it’s always interesting talking to people.

Learning new things – both knowledge and skills. In my various guiding roles for example, I’ve learned about buildings and artworks that I knew little or nothing about before. Again, I think it’s healthy to have other intellectual interests beyond a PhD and I’ve really enjoyed learning about new things over the years and then sharing this knowledge with others. And through volunteering I’ve acquired or developed skills from cataloguing to public speaking to cleaning taxidermy!

Professional development. Yawn. But following on from the previous point, the skills I’ve developed through volunteering have boosted my CV and have undoubedtly helped me when applying for paid roles.

[Advance warning of ‘buzzwords’] ‘Social Responsibility’. This partly relates to the previous point in that ‘Public Engagement’ is now seen as an important aspect of an academic’s portfolio. One of the underlying reasons for this move is that universities receive large amounts of funding from the public purse and have realised that they should be ‘giving something back’. Some of my volunteering has directly arisen from my PhD research, such as my various activities relating to the exhibition ‘Burning Bright’ at the John Rylands Library. CV points was definitely a motivating factor but because I’ve been lucky enough to receive public money for my PhD research I also believe that the public should have the chance to hear about what I’m up to (and hopefully some are actually interested in it!).

All of the above add up to great experiences, which may sound a very vague and general point, but it’s a sincere one. The tick list above is really an indequate representation of why I volunteer; it’s the overall experiences that matter most to me, and some of the stories that I’ve taken with me: stories attached to objects I’ve encountered, stories told by people I’ve met through volunteering, and stories of my own experiences. From standing inside the world’s largest free-swinging bell to sharing a car with a stuffed fox, I can safely say that I have some memories to treasure from volunteering, and they’re worth more than any of the above!


Blakean Illuminations


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.

‘An entirely miraculous and supernatural event’

The post below is one of a series of Advent-themed images I have selected from the collections of the John Rylands Library which are being posted throughout December (not a full digital advent calendar, but based on the principle of that format).

I was, naturally, delighted that it was possible to include today’s image, and it merits a bit more unpacking than included in the short caption I was asked to write for the Rylands blog.

Usually, images of the Nativity feature a group of figures gathered reverently around the infant Christ, who is usually sleeping in a manger or lying on the ground. Blake’s design breaks pictorial convention, depicting the Christ Child leaping in the air, as if in a moment of miraculous birth. On the left, Mary swoons into Joseph’s arms, and on the right, another woman reaches out towards the leaping child – this latter woman is usually read as Elizabeth, and the child in her lap as John the Baptist.

The engraving by William Bell Scott is from a book of etchings after Blake’s works published in 1878. The full book can be viewed in LUNA. It’s worth comparing the engraving to the original painting, which can be viewed via the Blake Archive as whilst the engraving captures the spirit of Blake’s painting, certain details are lost or distorted – colour being the most obvious loss, and the shape of the star a notable distortion.

Scholars have suggested a number of possible textual sources for Blake’s innovative image of the Nativity, which I will not rehearse here; whatever his inspiration, it is a thought-provoking interpretation of this seasonal subject.

John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

This extraordinary image of the Nativity is an engraving by William Bell Scott after William Blake’s painting (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Bell Scott was fascinated by Blake’s design, which he described as depicting ‘an entirely miraculous and supernatural event.’ This extraordinary image of the Nativity is an engraving by William Bell Scott after William Blake’s painting (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Bell Scott was fascinated by Blake’s design, which he described as depicting ‘an entirely miraculous and supernatural event.’

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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

All manner of bodies

If ever another b-word vied for dominance in my current vocabulary over the name of a certain artist, “bodies” is currently putting up a good fight.


As mentioned previously, I’m involved in organising a postgraduate symposium called “Untouchable Bodies?” which will explore how interact with bodies (in various senses) and the social, political, ethical, religious and other constraints and concerns which influence these encounters. The event is on Friday (at the wonderful John Rylands Library), so we’ve been finalising details like how to structure the discussions around the Special Collections items we’re using, as well as more banal logistics like catering (accommodating the various bodily needs/choices of our delegates’ diets!).


I’m also involved in Manchester’s strand of the Research Councils UK ‘Schools and Universities Partnership’ as a ‘PhD Demonstrator’ for the Whitworth Art Gallery. My role is to deliver workshops, together with a science PhD researcher, on “Drawing Anatomy.” This will explore anatomy from both scientific and artistic approaches, and will in part be shaped by our own research interests.


As the Whitworth Art Gallery is currently closed, we are using the Manchester Museum as our venue. On Monday, we had a training session to develop the workshop, working with Denise Bowler (Secondary & Post-16 Coordinator at the Whitworth) and artist Sarah Sanders. We had fun trying to identify animals from their skeletons in the museum displays, and tried out various drawing activities. We have a trial session next month to test the workshop in action. Here is a piece of quick collaborative drawing – a monkey by me, to which Denise gave a friend:




Meanwhile, at Manchester Art Gallery, Grayson Perry’s tapestries have given way to an exhibition exploring twentieth-century sculpture and last week I spent a morning exploring it as part of a training day for the gallery’s volunteer guides (of which I am one). ‘Sculptural Forms: A Century of Experiment’ explores a broad range of sculptural practices in the twentieth century through three themes: ‘The Human Condition,’ ‘Abstraction’ and ‘Transformation.’


‘The Human Condition’ is obviously most pertinent to my interest in bodies. I’ll limit myself to mentioning two works here to avoid an overly-long post. The earliest work is the gallery’s cast of Rodin’s iconic ‘The Age of Bronze‘; first modelled in 1876, this work sparked controversy when it first appeared for its extremely life-like appearance (people thought that it had been cast from life), not conforming to the formal, idealised types of human figures which had dominated the art of sculpture. Rodin made numerous casts of this work; Manchester Art Gallery’s was cast in 1911 and was specially commissioned by the gallery as the first sculptural work in the collection.


Nearby is Eric Gill’s ‘Sleeping Christ‘ (c.1924). I’m a bit of a fan of Gill’s work (in fact, I recently had an essay published on Gill’s Stations of the Cross in Westminster Cathedral published by the Catholic Archives Society) so I was pleased to see this work on show. It also makes an interesting counterpoint to the Rodin for tour purposes – Gill championed ‘direct carving’ whereby the sculptor responds to the material s/he is working with to ‘find’ the form of the work within the material rather than first making a model (in clay, for instance) and he did not think much of Rodin. It seemed to go down quite well in my tour today.


Across the river in Salford, on Thursday night I went to the opening of another exhibition ‘Encountering Corpses‘ at Sacred Trinity Church which is part of a project at Manchester Metropolitan University. The exhibition features works by various artists which respond to the theme of death and the body. The launch put me in mind of Blake’s poem ‘The Little Vagabond‘ for the church was full of art, poetry, song, wine and spectacular cakes (see below). However, it was so busy that I barely managed to look at the works on display, but will be returning as part of ‘Untouchable Bodies?’ on Friday.




Finally, in thesis-land, I have been looking at Blake’s depictions of the crucifixion and therefore thinking about the ways he depicts Christ’s body on the cross and the implications this has for us as members of Christ’s corporate “Divine Body” (only accidentally well-timed for Lent). I’ll end with one example, Plate 76 of ‘Copy E’ of Jerusalem from the Yale Center for British Art (where I am excited to be going later this year):




Print made by William Blake, 1757-1827, British, Jerusalem, Plate 76, 1804 to 1820, Relief etching printed in orange with pen and black ink, watercolor, and gold on moderately thick, smooth, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

Encountering bodies at the John Rylands Library

On Friday I was at the John Rylands Library with two fellow PhD-er friends to see collections we’re using as part of an event called ‘Untouchable Bodies?‘ which we are organising in April.

The idea for the one-day symposium has arisen from a shared interest in bodies – Scott‘s research explores cyborg bodies, Kate is looking at how archaeologists deal with dead bodies, and I’m interested in Blake’s ideas about the body. From there we started to think about ways in which we think about and interact with bodies and particularly ideas of bodies as sacred, taboo, and ‘untouchable.’

We approached the John Rylands Library to host the event and incorporate a ‘collection encounter’ into the day. This will give us several representations of bodies from a range of cultures and time periods which we will use as a starting point for discussion of the theme, as well as thinking about the ‘(un)touchableness’ of historic collections.

Friday was a chance to look at the items we are going to be using and to identify specific plates we will look at and discuss. I’d chosen Blake’s illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which include a number of designs I have spent a lot of time thinking about for my thesis, and have written about for the JRL exhibition “Burning Bright”, but it was exciting to start to bring new questions to them as well as looking more closely at some designs I haven’t previously given much thought to.

Next up was Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), a foundational publication for the study of the human anatomy. Its many plates present an interest in the ‘minute particulars’ of the human body, studied and ‘opened up’ in fantastic detail.

Also up for discussion will be a book about mummies which will be a starting point for discussing the ‘untouchable’ qualities of mummies (a pertinent subject in Manchester which has long and esteemed history in the study of mummies), and a print of ‘Noli me Tangere’ (Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus when he says to her ‘touch me not’) from the Macklin Bible (1797).

It was fun to look at some items I wouldn’t otherwise be thinking about and to share different perspectives with Kate and Scott. I’m looking forward to giving them further thought in the coming weeks in preparation for the symposium, and to the discussions on the day itself.  Watch this space for more bodies-related musings.

More details about the event and the collections can be found on the event website.

Burning Bright online

I am pleased to announce that my online version of the exhibition “Burning Bright” is finally live!

The exhibition explores Blake’s practice as a book illustrator and his influence on Victorian writers, artists and designers.

I devised the format of and wrote the text for the online exhibition, which acts as a legacy version of an exhibition held at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, earlier this year. Please do read the Acknowledgements section for details of all those involved in the project.

Another busy patch.

I handed in various documents for my end of year panel earlier this week after an extended fight with Word to get all my illustrations to behave themselves (it seems surprising that in 2013, pictures still have a tendency to jump around within a document when you do something as simple as close it and re-open it). Not for the first time since starting my PhD, I felt rather like the figure of Milton on plate 15 of Blake’s poem Milton, who seems to be attempting to sculpt the figure of Urizen. You can view the image via the Blake Archive.

In other news, my online version of the John Rylands Blake exhibition should be going live soon, when the last of the technical work is done – watch this space for an announcement!

Meanwhile, Blake continues to take me in unexpected directions. On Friday I was looking at various oriental manuscripts and books in the John Rylands Library which were owned by a collector who probably knew Blake and so plausibly he may have seen. I didn’t find anything that’s going to radically transform my PhD (which is probably a good thing!) but I did come across various motifs which resonate with things in Blake’s works, although nothing specific enough to argue for a direct borrowing. And it was certainly a treat to see some beautiful pieces of artistry.

I’ve also been looking again at some of Blake’s own works in a new display at the Whitworth Art Gallery, which I’ll write a separate post on presently.

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!