The Number of the Beast

I’ve been very lax about blogging over the summer and it’s now definitely the season “stained with the blood of the grape” (Blake’s ode to Autumn is undeservedly much less well known than Keats’).

 

Summer brought with it a combination of research, holidaying, conferencing and encounters with the Number of the Beast.

 

First was the invention of a new rule for the card game S***head by my fellow PhD-ers Scott Midson, Rosie Edgley and Johannes Lotze relating to three sixes being played in succession (as the rule was not my invention I shall not divulge it here, but it is a pretty beastly rule). The invention came about en route from Manchester to Kent when they came to keep me company house sitting for my parents and the new incarnation of the game (known, unsurprisingly as “The Beast”) kept us amused throughout our sojourn in the Garden of England and has now become a firm favourite among our group of friends.

 

In other news, Blake’s watercolour The Number of the Beast is 666 (c.1805) is relevant in a tangential way to the chapter I am working on at the moment on Christ as the agent of apocalypse. A couple of weeks ago, I was adding some pictures in to some work to send to my supervisors, and as soon as I added in the aforementioned watercolour the file refused to save. After wasting half an afternoon panicking that maybe I should be superstitious after all and battling to save the file, I eventually realised that I had simply run out of space and thus solved the problem by deleting some other files. Now the good people in IT have given me some more storage so hopefully I can avoid such scares in future!

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).

DGR’s Grave

Last weekend, I went in search of a Blakean’s grave.

When Blake died in 1827, he requested to be buried at Bunhill Fields, the Dissenters’ burial ground. Today, the site of Blake’s grave is unmarked; instead, there is a headstone which reads ‘Nearby lie the remains of William Blake and his wife Catherine Sophia.’ The exact spot of Blake’s burial has been discovered, and there is a proposal to mark the site but this has yet to come to fruition.

The grave I visited this weekend was that of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the Pre-Raphaelites, who was a great admirer of Blake. DGR is buried at the parish church in Birchington in Kent. I used to pass this graveyard regularly when I took the bus to work in Margate but never got around to visiting the grave. Paying a visit to my old workplace (more on that in another post) was a good opportunity to finally make the pilgrimage.

There is a short account of DGR’s interest in Blake in the online exhibition I wrote for the John Rylands Library, Burning Bright.

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The monument was designed by Ford Madox Brown (another Blakean, and a sometime Mancunian – more on that another time perhaps), Rossetti’s friend and tutor.

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St Luke, patron saint of painters is depicted on the monument.

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Above is the winged ox, the beast of St Luke.

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At the top are three figures: on the right is DGR’s namesake, Dante, but I haven’t found information about the other figures –  the one in centre looks like an angel, so may be Gabriel; as for the figure on the left, perhaps it is a Charles, DGR’s other name, but it looks decidedly feminine. Notes on a postcard please.

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The inscription on the front of  the monument:

Here sleeps

Gabriel Charles Dante Rossetti

Honoured under the name

Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Among painters a painter

And among poets a poet

Born in London

Of parentage mainly Italian, 12th May  1828

Died at Birchington, 9 April, 1882

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On the back of the monument another inscription refers to the monument itself:

This cruciform monument

Bespoken by Dante Rossetti’s mother

Was designed by his lifelong friend

Ford Madox Brown

Executed by J. and H. Patteson

And erected by his brother William

And his sister Christina Rossetti

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.