Tree of Life. Tree of Death.

Some months ago I wrote a post about a seminar series I began last spring which brings together researchers from humanities and sciences to talk about their research in the informal setting of a pub.

Last week it fell to me to give the humanities talk. Immediately I was faced with the difficulty of not having a projector to show images, so I had to go for the old-fashioned solution of a handout. I decided that rather than speaking in broad terms about my project I would instead speak about one image, or rather to discuss the image with the group. And I began by being somewhat provocative by quoting Blake’s late aphorism ‘Art is the Tree of Life. Science is the Tree of Death.’ In the spirit in which the event is intended, I hoped that we could prove Blake wrong.

The image we talked about was The Overthrow of Apollo and the Pagan Gods from Blake’s illustrations to Milton’s Nativity Ode (1809). I chose this image for a number of reasons: the set of watercolours is in the University’s soon-to-reopen Whitworth Art Gallery so anyone interested enough can go and see it easily very soon (there’s also another set of watercolour illustrations to the poem in the Huntington Library in California); it contains lots of symbols to unpack; it reproduces roughly actual size when printed on A4 paper.

So I was hoping that having begun by provoking a chorus of boos and heckles my audience would be determined to put Blake in his place. I wouldn’t say that there were any ground-breaking new insights into the image, but we covered all the salient points with observations from both sides (incidentally, I haven’t written at any length about these works in my thesis as they’ve already been analysed in detail elsewhere). I did, however, have minor palpitations when the reproductions of the whole series which I passed around to illustrate the context for the image were dispered in different directions (by a scientist); whilst the Nativity Ode illustrations happily remain together in the Whitworth, many of Blake’s works in series are dispersed across the world which presents frustrations and difficulties for the researcher.

Someone asked me quietly afterwards if I agreed with Blake, to which my response was twofold. First, in the aphorism I quoted, Blake was clearly being polemical. His attitude to science was generally quite negative (as epitomised in his portrait of Newton – at least in the standard reading of this figure), but it was not a black-and-white wholesale rejection (and in any case, ‘art’ and ‘science’ would not have meant exactly the same things for Blake as in the contemporary world). Second, if I really did think that ‘Science is the Tree of Death’ (and quite aside from the fact that I am dependent on the fruits of science in many aspects of my life – not least the digital technology that aids my study of Blake!), I would not have been in that room. And if I was in any doubt before organising these seminars, the events are a monthly reminder of the creativity that exists in both the arts and the sciences – and to not always take Blake too seriously!

‘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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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.

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.