A new old name

Followers may or may not have noticed that I haven’t posted much over the past few months, apart from re-posting material from my other blog, associated with my work in the Diocese of Chichester. In part, that blog has absorbed some of what I might previously have written here.

But my lack of other writing here also reflects my uncertainty about what to do with this blog. I started it whilst writing my PhD on Blake in Manchester; its title, ‘Tortures of Doubt and Despair’, quoted Blake’s words about Manchester, and reflected my feelings at certain moments in the research process.

Having finished the PhD and relocated, I wondered what to do with this blog. Should I scrap it altogether? Should I rename it, and if so, to what?

As you will see, in the end I decided simply to rename the blog with my own name – at least, my initials and surname. I have also changed the url to naibillingsley.wordpress.com

As ever, I look upon this blog really as my own space to write down various different kinds of musings with no expectation that they will be of use or interest to the wider world. If they are, much the better!

Expect more repostings from my Bishop Otter Scholar blog, and other occasional bits of writing and ephemera. Thanks for reading!

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#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!

Blake(an?) stars at the Whitworth

As mentioned in my last post, this weekend marked the re-opening of the Whitworth Art Gallery. Blake was given a prominent role in the opening celebrations in a variety of weird and wonderful ways.

I’m going to begin by getting my grumble out of the way. Perhaps the most talked-about aspect of the opening celebrations was Cornelia Parker’s ‘Blakean Abstract’ which involved graphene — a new super-material created by scientists at the University of Manchester — made using a speck of graphite from the back of a Blake drawing in the Whitworth’s collection. The graphene was used to activate a meteor shower over Whitworth Park on Friday evening. This was hailed as a remarkable collaboration between art and science, a product of the gallery’s status as a university art gallery. Fair enough. But it was a show that was essentially put on for an invited audience as part of a launch party the evening before the gallery opened to the public. Apparently it was visible in the surrounding area, but the park itself in which the gallery is situated was closed, and it was not advertised as a happening that anyone could witness (I only found out the timing by asking, although in the end an ill-timed cold and a rain shower put me off hanging around outside on a cold, damp evening in the hope of a second-rate view of the piece). I do not begrudge VIPs their private party, but to make the headline happening a closed event seems to me a great shame. It is also not very Blakean to make art for VIPs  — he hated all forms of institutional hierarchy. Perhaps one could argue that the lack of advertising piece to the general public mirrors Blake’s own failure to promote his work, but the view available to those not invited to the party must have been an inferior one, so the injustice remains. Perhaps there was a worry about numbers, but I find it difficult to believe that the meteor shower would have attracted a (significantly) bigger crowd in the park than the fireworks which took place as part of the public programme on the Saturday night (more on that presently).

I’d also like to take issue with ‘abstract’. I assume Parker intended the term to be read in at least two ways: first, analogous to Blake’s poem ‘The Human Abstract‘ or the abstract that I will have to write to summarise my PhD thesis, the term can refer to the ‘abstract’ of the Blake drawing used to produce the graphene; second, in reference to the nebulous form of the piece. The latter reading makes ‘Blakean abstract’ an oxymoron; for Blake:

The great and golden rule of art, as well as of life, is this: That the more distinct, sharp, and wirey the bounding line, the more perfect the work of art; and the less keen and sharp, the greater is the evidence of weak imitation, plagiarism, and bungling.

(A Descriptive Catalogue, 1809)

Having said that, the idea of lighting up the sky with sparks and stars does resonate with a lot of imagery in Blake’s works — both visual and verbal. One might also object that Blake would have shuddered at the idea of his work being brought together with science in light of his negative view of the contrary discipline, but he liked experimenting with materials as much as the next artist, so he might have embraced graphene just as quickly as Cornelia Parker.

Right, grumble over; I’m glad I got that out of my system! But this complaint did not take away from the marvellous day I had at the public opening extravaganza yesterday in which Blake’s presence continued.   Cornelia Parker’s show inside the gallery included further Blakean references in casts of the gaps between pavements at Bunhill Fields — where Blake is buried — and in Jerusalem — a place Blake visited frequently in his imagination but not in the flesh. Personally, I could take or leave these pieces, but the notion of making use of negative space does have some interesting resonances with Blake’s printing practices and his statement in The Everlasting Gospel‘thou readst black where I read white’ (although Parker doesn’t mention these points in her guide to the exhibition, so I might be trying too hard to read them through a Blakean lens).

Of greater interest to me are eight Blake works included in the display of watercolours that forms one of the ten opening exhibitions. Among other pieces in this display are views of eighteenth-century London and works by JMW Turner, thus presenting Blake alongside his contemporaries. The hang is Victorian-style, which means that the works are hung densely, and some above eye-level. This means that they are not all easily viewable, but it’s always refreshing to see works displayed in different ways, and one can spot different things by seeing works from different angles and alongside different neighbours. I look forward to returning to see these works again over the next few months — and eavesdropping on what other visitors have to say out them!

As darkness fell, some of the Blake works works were projected onto one of the new wings of the building (and, inexplicably, a drawing by Blake’s namesake William Blake Richmond). Blake himself wished that his works could be produced on a grand scale adorning public buildings, an ambition which was not realised in his lifetime, but which a digital projector now makes readily realisable (if not in the form which Blake himself imagined).   The evening closed with a firework display accompanied by (or accompanying) the Halle Youth Choir singing settings of Blake’s poems. It began with the rather ‘contrary’ juxtaposition of the pastoral ‘The Shepherd’ and ‘The Lamb’ and bursts of fire. But Blake himself delighted contraries and perhaps in the latter the aptly-named ‘Two Tigers Fireworks’ had in mind Blake’s fiery ‘Tyger‘ and the famous line ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ ‘The Lamb’ of course, is Jesus, but so is the Tyger — so the juxtaposition was, for me, a reminder that I need to do justice to the mild and the angry in Blake’s Christ in my thesis.

The final piece was the old favourite, Parry’s Jerusalem – ‘burning gold’, ‘chariot of fire’ and not least, on Valentine’s day, ‘arrows of desire’ were brought to life as fireworks. The arrangement rather too messed about with the rousing anthem for my liking, although I did enjoy the alteration of ‘the dark Satanic mills’ to ‘these dark Satanic mills.’ Blake was probably not, as some locals seem to think, talking about the mills of Manchester (at least, not specifically — as the title of this blog attests, he was quite capable of naming and shaming places when he wanted to), but nevertheless, the song speaks to Joseph Whitworth’s ambition to build a public space ‘for the perpetual gratification’ of the people who lived among Manchester’s mills. And now, Manchester’s New Jerusalem — or Golgonooza, Blake’s city of art — has been renewed once more.

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Fireworks by Two Tigers Fireworks to the soundtrack of Blake’s poetry bring an explosive close to the Whitworth Art Gallery’s opening celebrations on 14th February 2015.

Escaping doubt and despair

Blake’s words about Manchester have been haunting me recently. With those wonderful days in the print room of the Yale Center for British Art seeming to be a distant memory and the conference I was organising that provided a temporary distraction over and done with, I am now faced with eight months to finish my thesis (‘less than one pregnancy’ as a friend of mine has pointed out). This time will largely be spent revising the chapters I’ve been writing over the past two years or so, and I’m also trying to make mental head space to think about the next project in order to apply for jobs. So my version of the January blues has been an identification with Manchester and Liverpool’s ‘tortures of doubt and despair.’

What I needed was something to reinvigorate me; to remind me that once upon a time I was excited to be starting my research project, and something to spark ideas to spur me on in the coming months. The conference held to coincide with the Ashmolean’s exhibition ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ on Saturday was just the thing.

The day began with Martin Myrone of the Tate speaking about Blake and the Gothic. He richly illustrated that ‘Gothic’ is a complex, even messy term, which applies to Blake’s works from a number of angles, beginning and ending with reflections on the image from The First Book of Urizen which is the poster-boy for the exhibition (and on the Tate’s separate print of the plate).

Next up was a panel on satire, with David Worrall arguing that Blake’s satirical manuscript An Island in the Moon is an experiment in writing for the theatre, and Susan Matthews exploring the fascinating Copy D of Europe and its annotations, thought to be by George Cumberland (noting that we have had a stark reminder of the resonance of ‘satire’ and ‘Europe’ in recent weeks).

After lunch was a panel on some of Blake’s interactions with literary texts. Michael Phillips (curator of the exhibition) presenting Shakespearean aspects of Blake, and Luisa Cale (who organised the conference) on Blake’s engagement with the subject of the Lazar house from Paradise Lost. The highlight for me here was Bethan Stevens’ paper on Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil which wonderfully illustrated the need to attend to the text Blake is illustrating here, which has been virtually overlooked in scholarship on these designs, which has focused primarily on the oddity of these woodcuts within Blake’s oeuvre and the influence of the designs on the so-called [see below] ‘Ancients’. So a trip to see the copy at the John Rylands Library is on the cards for me.

After everyone had had a quick caffeine boost, Andrew Lincoln discussed a passage from The Four Zoas in which Blake uses violent imagery of harvest in a vision of the Last Judgement; I’ve recently been thinking about several images by Blake which use related imagery, so the paper highlighted to me some interesting parallels and differences in this passage which I haven’t really given any thought to until now (albeit later than the images I’ve been looking at). We then heard from Nicholas Shrimpton, speaking about Francis Oliver Finch, a lesser-known member of the so-called ‘Ancients’; ‘so-called’ because, as Shrimpton demonstrated, this term was probably only given to the group retrospectively.

Finally, Saree Makdisi (in a glimpse of his forthcoming book Reading William Blake) spoke about ‘Blake, Time and Eternity’ arguing that Blake’s works seek to displace the reader-viewer’s perception of linear time through their constantly shifting, non-linear, overlapping, looping (non-)narratives and as such take the reader-viewer into the state of eternity. Not only was this a compelling reading of the problematic nature of Blake’s books, but, to extrapolate from Makdisi’s argument, also the kind of repetitions, parallels and disjunctures that had emerged in the various perspectives on Blake presented throughout the day. As in a particular Blake book, so with the universal Blake – the difficulty with reading the complex web of interconnections between his works should be viewed sub specie aeternitatis.

With that tall order — and numerous ‘minute particulars’ to chase up — I came away feeling altogether more positive about the prospect of the next eight months of Blake.

‘The deep of winter came’

Europe, A Prophecy (1795), Copy A, Plate 5, Yale Canter for British Art.

Autumn or Fall seems to have given way to winter, at least back in England’s grey and drizzly land. I am missing the big blue skies of the East Coast; the clouds seem barely to have parted since I returned to Manchester!

On the other side of the Atlantic, my final couple of weeks saw dramatic fluctuations in weather, from snow the day before Thanksgiving to a day mild enough to sit out at lunch without a jacket on the last day of November!

In my last few days in New Haven I managed to see the last of the Blake works in the collection at the YCBA, and to make an excursion to Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut to see some eighteenth-century satirical prints (see details of the 2012 exhibition ‘Sacred Satire‘) and the memoirs of Blake’s patron Revd. Dr. Trusler.

I then travelled up and down the East Coast to see more Blake works in Boston, Washington, DC and Philadelphia, visits which also allowed me to catch up with a school friend and an uncle and aunt.

My day at the Library of Congress was particularly memorable – on the aforementioned snow day I was the only person in the Rare Books Reading Room for the first hour of my visit, and there were only two other readers later in the day. I sat opposite a window, watching the snow fall on a rather empty DC from where most people seemed to have left early for the long weekend.

Spending a lot of time with original works afforded numerous ‘minute particulars’ that will feed back into my thesis – noticing details that are lost in reproductions, or simply overlooked because, particularly for those that are less central to my project, the opportunity to see originals meant that I spent more time looking at the works.  I also gleaned insights and references from conversations with other scholars and curators, and from institutional files.

Now I need to take advantage of the uninspiring winter days and get my head down to make those minute particulars count as I return to the business of finishing my thesis.

A Tyger?

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Endpaper. David Bindman, William Blake: His Art and Times (London: Thames and Hudson, 1982). Manchester Metropolitan University Library.

MMU is home to the Manchester School of Art, thus, I suppose, the more creative than average intervention to this book. Is it a Tyger?

‘Manchester’

I battle up the Oxford Road,
Where every day the rain does flow;
I go into survival mode
Because I have somewhere to go.

In every broken brolly,
In each poster-plastered tree,
And the odd abandoned trolley –
Signs of ‘Welcome’ Week I see.

How the pizza-seller’s cry
I’m beginning to detest,
And I am weary at the fly
-ers, vouchers, and the rest.

And then, through midnight streets I hear
The youthful fresher’s curse,
As he or she sheds a tear,
Crying “This week’s emptied my purse.”

 

Disclaimer: This quickly-typed venting of chaos-induced angst is in no way an attempt to do justice to Blake’s masterpiece “London,” nor is it an accurate portrait of Manchester – only a snapshot of the Oxford Road bubble in this annual week of madness.

Imbibing Blake

Yesterday I went on a research trip to Manchester’s Brew Dog Bar. Actually, if I’m honest, I didn’t anticipate that this was going to be a research trip, but upon arrival, according to my usual custom, I squinted at the blackboard for a name I’ve never seen before (I always forget that I need my glasses for beer selection), and spotted “Vagabond Pilsner.”

If this name isn’t a reference to Blake, it should be; his poem “The Little Vagabond” contrasts the cold church with the “healthy & pleasant & warm” ale-house.

Brew Dog’s philosophy is quite Blakean in many respects. It is a craft brewery which has its genesis in the dissatisfaction of the founders with industrially brewed beer, echoing Blake’s rebellion against the industrial revolution and the commercialisation of the art market in his time. And just as Blake expresses his ideas with prophetic zeal, so Brew Dog professes to have a “mission…to make other people as passionate about great craft beer as we are” (source: Brew Dog’s website).  Also, like Blake, Brew Dog are not afraid to be controversial, although I think they risk being (unashamedly) gimmicky, which I would like to think Blake was not (though some have suggested that Blake cultivated an über-eccentric persona).

I know of another Blakean beer, Bombardier’s “Burning Gold” which takes its name from one of Blake’s most famous verses, calling itself “a tribute to all that is celebrated in English beer.” Maybe there are more Blakean brews out there — notes on a postcard please — what I would really like is to find one with a Blakean crown cork to add to my collection (which might almost trump my ongoing search for one with an “NB” monogram).