#VolunteersWeek

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!

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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

Wandering London’s Charter’d Streets

I’m in the midst of a fortnight’s research in London. In addition to the primary purpose of seeing Blake works and rooting through archives for useful snippets of information, I have stumbled (quite literally, since I twisted my ankle earlier in the week) past many Blake-related places in London and I’ve sporadically kept a bit of a photo diary.

First stop this week was Tate Britain, which has one of the major collections of Blake works. I spent a couple of days in their archive and went to see various works currently in storage.

Monday lunchtime was bright and crisp so sitting outside in the open air (‘fresh’ is hardly appropriate for the atmosphere in London) was a welcome break from the dimly-lit archive room:

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Wednesday, by contrast was grey, as captured in this shot of the “charter’d Thames” whilst waiting for the gallery to open:

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Back to Tuesday, I also paid a brief visit to Westminster Abbey to make use of the new(-ish) cellarium cafe on another bright morning. Blake was sent to draw the monuments at the Abbey when he was an apprentice engraver (which I’ve written about for JRL’s ‘Burning Bright’):

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Thursday took in various places, including the library at the Royal Academy, an institution with which Blake fell out but which nevertheless holds useful information for researching him. Here it is in the sunshine:

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Sharing the quad at Burlington House is the Society of Antiquaries, for whom Blake’s master, James Basire, was the principle engraver, and for whom the drawings of the Westminster Abbey monuments were made:

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In Blake’s time, both of these institutions inhabited rooms at Somerset House, where I went on Friday, to see Stanley Spencer’s (a Blakean artist) paintings from the Sandham memorial chapel:

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Thursday also presented the opportunity to visit St. James’ Church, Piccadilly (just across the road from the RA), where Blake was baptised. I wanted a photo of the altar for thesis-purposes and also got some snaps of the font itself (by Grinling Gibbons) in which Blake was baptised:

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After my visit to Somerset House on Friday, I walked along the Strand to pick up the Northern Line at Charing Cross and passed a couple of other Blakean places. Somewhere near the Savoy and the Coal Hole Tavern was Blake’s last residence, at Fountain Court:

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Although the building has been destroyed, there is a painting by Frederick Shields depicting William Blake’s Room (1882) at Manchester Art Gallery.

A bit further along the Strand, roughly where the  Embassy of Zimbabwe now stands, was Henry Pars’ drawing school, where Blake was sent at the age of ten to learn the principles of drawing:

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Finally, I’ve been in and past the British Library a number of times this week. In the Piazza is Eduardo Paolozzi’s bronze behemoth Newton, after Blake (1994), which towers over the many researchers who walk past it every day, reminding them not to become entrapped in ‘Single vision & Newton’s Sleep’ in their thinking (or at least, I presume that is the intention, whether or not it is the reality):

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Also of interest here is the current exhibition ‘Georgians Revealed’ which explores Blake’s time, and which I hope I may get to next week. In the courtyard is a Georgian garden installation by landscape architect and historian Todd Longstaffe-Gowan:

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“In England’s green an pleasant land?”

Other permanent fixtures in the Piazza are two works by Antony Gormley. As I’ve written before, Gormley cites Blake as an influence on his own interest in bodies and forms.

Planets (2002) is a group of eight granite rocks, each inscribed with a figure crouching, curving, folding around the form of the piece of granite.

On his website, Gormley writes of these figures:

“I wanted to reverse Michelangelo’s slaves, where a quarried square rock had to conform to the represented body. In PLANETS…the outline of the body conforms to the stone, suggesting a dependency. The outline was carved to an adequate depth where the form was beginning to be self-revealed, so is on the cusp between a drawing and the arising of self-determined form.”

Blake might also be somewhere in the background; the scrunched-up, folded figures resemble Blake images such as plate 6 of The First Book of Urizen (1796):

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Gormley’s newer addition is Witness (2011) – an iron chair commissioned by the charity English Pen, which campaigns for the freedom to write to mark its 90th anniversary. A less obviously Blakean work, although surely a cause of which he would approve:

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Grayson Perry at the Manchester Art Gallery

Manchester Art Gallery is currently showing Perry’s tapestries The Vanity of Small Differences, created as part of a series of three programmes for Channel 4, In the Best Possible Taste, which explored notions of class and taste in England.

The tapestries are a modern take on Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a series of paintings and engravings which tell the story of Tom Rakewell who inherits a fortune at the death of his father, squanders it on wine, women and song, is thrown into debtor’s prison, and ends up insane the Bethlehem Hospital. Perry’s narrative charts the story of Tim Rakewell from his birth on a council estate in Sunderland, to becoming a middle-class businessman in Tunbridge Wells, a millionaire in the Cotswolds, and his death in a gutter.

The tapestries are as densely packed with symbolism as the Gallery’s famous Pre-Raphaelite paintings (Ford Maddox Brown’s Work and Holman Hunt’s Shadow of Death are particular highlights) – layers of references to Old Master paintings (explicit in the titles of five out of six of the works), cameo appearances by public figures and people Perry met when making the Channel 4 series.

Perry expertly combines craft, social commentary and humour in his work. He is a kind of artist-prophet – a role Blake also saw himself inhabiting but unlike Perry, who has recently expounded his thoughts on the art world from the establishment platform of the BBC’s Reith Lectures, Blake’s prophecy was not well-received in his lifetime. Blake also didn’t think much of Hogarth.

I wonder what Perry thinks of Blake and what Blake would make of Perry.