Robes of Promise

In my final year of school, one of the texts I studied in English Literature was Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (another was Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience – my fledgling foray into Blake studies). The play, set in the early eighties, focuses on a group of eight boys at the fictional Cutlers’ Grammar School in Sheffield who are preparing for an entrance exam and interviews to gain places to study history at Oxford and Cambridge.


Studying the play whilst myself going through the process of applying for a place at Cambridge was somewhat surreal. Whilst the admissions process has changed in a number of respects (the seventh-term entrance exam is no more and efforts to widen access have improved), I could identify with the experience of the History Boys in some respects, particularly because my school, like Cutlers’ Grammar, had little experience of students applying for Oxford and Cambridge, and as such was feeling its way in its efforts to guide me through the alien application process.


At the end of one of my interviews at Cambridge, after the interviewer had already made closing remarks and I was gathering up my belongings, I was asked how I found studying the play whilst going through the admissions process. I don’t know if that was part of the interview; I suppose everything in an interview context contributes to the impression of the candidate. I can’t remember what I said, but whether or not it made a whisker of difference, I was lucky enough to get a place to study Theology at Magdalene and very much enjoyed my time there.


I’ve been prompted to cast my mind back to this experience recently for various reasons. Yesterday (9 May 2014) was Alan Bennett’s 80th birthday, so his name has been doing the rounds on Radio 4 and twitter (among other places no doubt), and last week I spotted Frances de la Tour, who played Mrs Lintott in the original stage cast and the 2006 film, in the British Library. But the chief reason is that I’m going back to Cambridge next week to collect my MA (by a peculiar tradition, a Cambridge BA matures into an MA; see details on the University’s website).


I’ve been back a number of times since finishing my degree, but this will be special in that it’s not merely a visit but, in a sense, the final rite of passage associated with my degree (as well as being probably the biggest reunion for members of my year at College). Among other rites and rules associated with the MA, the ceremony requires a different gown to the BA graduation, and, where once I felt like one of the History Boys, the prospect of robing up for my MA makes me feel like a figure from Blake-land.


As I’ve written before, Blake was quite disparaging about Cambridge; when he called Oxford and Cambridge “places of thought” in his poem Milton (13[14]:42; see another previous post), he was ironically referring to these universities as institutionalising “thought.” Milton is Blake’s imagined account of the poet John Milton’s undergoing a spiritual journey to correct his former errors. As part of this process, Milton “took off the robe of the promise, & ungirded himself from the oath of God” (14[15]:13).


The “oath of God” is the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, to which one then had to swear in order to be admitted to the University. Milton’s taking off “the robe of promise” is depicted in one of the illuminated book’s full-page plates. I didn’t and don’t have to sign up to the Thirty-Nine Articles and these days you can also opt of the Trinitarian formula by which degrees are traditionally conferred (see the University website’s outline of the ceremony). Nevertheless, when I come to robe up next week, I know I will feel like an anti-icon of the plate from Milton.


“places of Thought” and other Delights

“…Cambridge and Oxford, places of Thought”  (Milton 13[14]:42)

Blake liked to take long walks from his various homes in central London – to Peckham Rye where he saw angels in an oak tree, and to Hampsted Heath, where he visited his friend John Linnell. These open spaces survive, but around them the city has expanded and you have to get a lot further out to get rural open space and fresh air. It’s the same in Manchester, and since summer decided to appear, I’ve been feeling hemmed in by the city – we have plenty of parks but it’s not quite the same.

Open space was one of the delights of the first few days of August when I spent a long weekend in Cambridge, where it’s not far to walk from the city centre to fields along the river (not to mention a higher than average amount of green space in the city centre itself), and there were opportunities to make the most of it during my visit.

I was down (or up in Cambridge-speak) for a friend’s wedding, which was a lovely day, helped along by beautiful weather, the wonderful surroundings of Magdalene, and the company of good friends.

It was also a chance, after two abortive attempts in the last few months, to visit the prints and drawings room at the Fitzwilliam Museum to see their Blake collection. I looked at two boxes of watercolours, some I had seen before and others I hadn’t. I ended up looking at some I hadn’t even asked to see because they live in the same box, which was a nice surprise.

Apart from the works I had actually gone to look at, I was especially pleased to see the three watercolours of the story of Joseph (of the dreamcoat fame), which Blake painted c.1784-5 and exhibited at the Royal Academy. They are a completely different style to any of the works I am working on, which (with a couple of exceptions) date from 1795 onwards. You can view the Joseph watercolours on the Fitz’s website (Joseph’s brethren bowing before him, Joseph ordering Simeon to be bound, Joseph making himself known to his brethren) and compare them, for instance, with the watercolours of Paradise Regained (c.1816-20), which are also at the Fitz (view via the Blake Archive).

Joseph’s story is one I have a soft spot for because when I was a primary school my choir was the chorus for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor© Dreamcoat when it came to the local theatre, so I know that version of the story inside out (I think I could still roll off the words for the full two hours without too many mistakes).

I also looked at various works by other artists – either that he could have seen and potentially been influenced by, or contemporaries dealing with the same subjects. In the latter category I was looking at sketches which I had not found reproduced anywhere, so it was a complete unknown how they would compare to Blake’s – for the most part differences were more striking than similarities (I can’t put any comparisons to up because the images aren’t available online).

They also finally sell some Blake postcards (I’m fairly sure they’ve never had them when I’ve been before), so I have a few more to add to my pile which I can’t quite decide whether to find wallspace for (it is healthy to be able to not think about the PhD occasionally).

Revolutionary Light, The Whitworth Art Gallery

The Whitworth Art Gallery, the University of Manchester‘s art collection, has just opened its summer season (runs to 1 September). This programme is the final farewell before the gallery closes in the autumn for a major refurbishment, and the displays showcase highlights of the collection.

The season launched on 4th July with Nikhil Chopra’s 65-hour performance piece “Coal on Cotton” as part of the Manchester International Festival which ran from sunrise on the Friday to sunset on the Sunday. By happenstance, this coincided with the sun finally emerging from the heavens to bring the some summer weather across the country (yes, including Manchester!). The sun and light are themes running through various aspects of the programme, most explicitly “Revolutionary Light” which brings together works by William Blake, J M W Turner and Anish Kapoor.

Kapoor’s series of etchings, Blackness from her Womb are seen in the distance as one enters the building (you can see the Tate’s set of the etchings on their website). He created the prints in response to his visit to the Tate’s blockbuster Blake exhibition in 2000. Each print combines a single colour with inky blackness, creating strange, visionary designs with an intense play on darkness and light.

The Blake works are a series of six illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (which you can view via the Blake Archive) and the iconic Ancient of Days (shown on the exhibition page). Originally the frontispiece to his poem Europe (1794), and reported to be a representation of a vision Blake had at his home in Lambeth, he later reworked the design as a separate plate, and it is thought that he was working on this copy on his deathbed. All seven watercolours were given to the Whitworth in 1892 by John Edward Taylor, proprietor and son of the founder (also called John Edward Taylor) of the Manchester Guardian (which became the Guardian in 1959).

I have yet to look into Taylor’s interest in Blake; all I know at the moment is that he owned one other work by Blake – curiously enough from my point of view, a copy of Blake’s Large Colour Print, Naomi Entreating Ruth and Orpah to Return to the Land of Moab (1795) which he donated to the V&A in 1894 (you can view the work via the Blake Archive). What I would be interested to look into is whether Taylor realised how closely linked the Whitworth watercolours are: Europe, from which The Ancient of Days comes, is a kind of retelling of Milton’s Nativity Ode, and there is at least one clear iconographic link, between the compasses held by Urizen in The Ancient of Days and the figure of Peace in the first of the Milton illustrations (follow the links above to see for yourself). These points are well established in Blake scholarship now, and of course, you don’t need to have done the reading to spot the similarity between the compasses and Peace, but did Taylor know Europe well enough to realise that connection? Maybe I’ll look into it at some point.

As for the light in these images, well, the sun is at the centre of The Ancient of Days, but it is a dark sun, and seems to restrict the figure of Urizen. In the Nativity Ode we see dawn and night, blasts of light, stars and fire in this apocalyptic version of the Nativity.

Turner is famous for the presence of the sun in his works, and it is reported that his dying words were “The sun is god.” Alongside Blake and Kapoor, Turner’s sun-centric watercolours look relatively conventional. Blake and Turner is an enigma which I wonder about sometimes — although they were contemporaries, and both challenged the artistic conventions of their time (Turner rather more commercially successfully than Blake), there don’t seem to be any records of them ever meeting or commenting on one another’s works, but it is more than plausible that they were aware of one another.

There is plenty to delight in other displays at the Whitworth. “Continental Drift” showcases highlights of the collection by European artists and British artists with continental links. With or without my Blake hat on, a highlight were the Dürer woodcuts – several individual prints, plus the complete series to the Book of Revelation, displayed in dramatic lighting (you can see images of this series of prints, though not in order, via the British Museum’s website). According to the display caption, this was the first book ever created and published by an artist, making it a precursor to Blake’s own books, not to mention the profound influence the Book of Revelation had on Blake and his admiration for Dürer. Indeed, I think it was Samuel Palmer who reported that Blake had a print of Dürer‘s Melancholia I in his workshop (which is also currently on display at the Whitworth and can be seen via their website).

My visit hardly left me feeling melancholic, but I do feel that like that figure, I need to sit and ponder further on these rich displays.

among the starry wheels

…Cambridge & Oxford & London,

Are driven among the starry Wheels, rent away and dissipated,

In Chasms & Abysses of sorrow, enlarg’d without dimension…

Jerusalem 5:3-5


Blake didn’t think much of Cambridge (not that, as far as I know, he ever visited). As a bastion of Anglicanism and the institutionalisation of learning it stood for much that was anathema to his vision of Imagination; but Imagination, or at least, imagination, was alive and well in the English Faculty this weekend at the postgraduate conference “Adam’s Dream: Imaginative Incarnations in the Long Eighteenth Century.”

As an alumna of the University, it is always delightful to visit the city, and as well as attending the conference, it was a good chance to catch up with some old friends. In our undergraduate days, a favourite postprandial jaunt was a walk up Castle Mound to survey the city and the stars, a tradition upheld on the evening of my arrival, although unfortunately there were no starry wheels (dissipated or otherwise) to be seen amid clouds that burst the following day.

I gave a paper on Blake’s illustrations to Paradise Regained, which I think are among Blake’s finest creations but have been undeservedly neglected by Blake scholarship. I was particularly pleased to be able to give my ideas on these designs an airing in Cambridge as they are in the collection of the Fitzwilliam, the University’s art and antiquities museum. Regrettably, I wasn’t able to actually see the designs during my visit because they are not normally on display and the study room was closed during my visit, but it will be a good excuse for another visit at some point!

Other papers covered a wide range of material in terms of genre, content and chronology, and addressed their sources from a variety of approaches which made for very rich discussions which threw up fertile, and sometimes unexpected points of connection between different pieces of research (which is what makes for a good conference, but doesn’t always work out so fruitfully). I’ve come away with a long mental list of things I would now love to find the time to read (which I should probably write down to increase the chance of my actually getting round to it) and yet more stimulating thoughts to bring to bear on my research.

So I have to disagree with Blake. I’m not quite sure how to unpack his image of being “driven among the starry Wheels, rent away and dissipated, In Chasms & Abysses of sorrow” — are the starry wheels negative, or simply the darkness between the stars? I’m going to run with the latter here: even if the starry wheels of the sky were hidden on Friday, we were among them at the conference, with not a chasm in sight!