What will we be reading in the year 2367?

John Rylands Library Special Collections Blog

A photograph of the decorated Milton alcove. The Milton alcove in the Historic Reading Room was decorated for the weekend.

Naomi Billingsley, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute, writes:

On 9 December 2017, the Library celebrated 350 years of Paradise Lost, on the birthday of the poem’s author, John Milton.

The events included talks from University of Manchester academics, projections of illustrations to Paradise Lost from the Library’s collections, and an intervention in the activity alcove that included information about editions of Paradise Lost in the collections and an invitation for visitors to nominate the book that they thought should still be read 350 years from now.

Although one visitor predicted that “There will be no books in 350 years”, we had over 100 more optimistic responses, nominating works that spanned thousands of years and from across the globe.

Image of response cards to the question 'which book will still be read in 350 years' time?' We received lots of responses to the question, ‘which book will still be…

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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.

‘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:

 

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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.

 

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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):

 

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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.

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.