Blakean Illuminations


Earlier this week I was in London for a part-work, part leisure trip – taking in a couple of exhibitions and getting my hands on an obscure pamphlet on a Blake picture in the National Art Library.

Among the exhibitions was the British Library’s ‘Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination’, which traces the rich cultural phenomena of the Gothic from the eighteenth century to the present day. The early part of the exhibition took me back to thinking about Blake and Gothic for ‘Burning Bright’ at the John Rylands Library in 2012. There were a number of familiar objects in the display here, including Blake’s own Night Thoughts engravings and several pages from Vala/The Four Zoas.

There were no huge (/terrifying) surprises in the narrative set out here, but it was good to be introduced to some objects I was not familiar with, and particularly to find out more about later iterations of Gothic.

That evening, however, I did encounter a gothic surprise: on a stroll around London’s Christmas lights, I turned off Oxford Street onto South Molton Street to see the scene above. 17 South Molton Street is where Blake lived after his return to London in 1803 (following three years in Felpham, Sussex), and is the only one of his London residences still standing.

Although a brief internet search suggests that these lights have been on South Molton Street for several years, I don’t recall seeing them before. What I could not find out was whether or not the lights are intended to be Blakean – if any reader knows, I would be delighted to hear from you. But whether intentionally so or otherwise, the gothic arches of light are appropriate for this Blakean setting. Blake called Gothic ‘living form’ (On Virgil) and Gothic motifs appear frequently in his images – a famous example is Angels Hovering over the Body of Christ in the Sepulchre (c.1805) in which the angels form an arch reminiscent of the gothic ‘ogee’ arches Blake knew from Westminster Abbey.

The Blakean resonance of the illuminations is further reinforced in their fourfold structure. In Blake’s mythos, to be fourfold is a characteristic of the spiritual state; thus, the spiritual London is fourfold, the Human is fourfold, there are four gates to the celestial city of Golgonooza, and so on.

Is this mere accident? Are the lights celebrating Blake or the posh shops that now populate South Molton Street. Either way, if the ghost of Blake happens to visit his former home, I hope he’d appreciate the former and enjoy the irony of the latter.


Encountering bodies at the John Rylands Library

On Friday I was at the John Rylands Library with two fellow PhD-er friends to see collections we’re using as part of an event called ‘Untouchable Bodies?‘ which we are organising in April.

The idea for the one-day symposium has arisen from a shared interest in bodies – Scott‘s research explores cyborg bodies, Kate is looking at how archaeologists deal with dead bodies, and I’m interested in Blake’s ideas about the body. From there we started to think about ways in which we think about and interact with bodies and particularly ideas of bodies as sacred, taboo, and ‘untouchable.’

We approached the John Rylands Library to host the event and incorporate a ‘collection encounter’ into the day. This will give us several representations of bodies from a range of cultures and time periods which we will use as a starting point for discussion of the theme, as well as thinking about the ‘(un)touchableness’ of historic collections.

Friday was a chance to look at the items we are going to be using and to identify specific plates we will look at and discuss. I’d chosen Blake’s illustrations to Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, which include a number of designs I have spent a lot of time thinking about for my thesis, and have written about for the JRL exhibition “Burning Bright”, but it was exciting to start to bring new questions to them as well as looking more closely at some designs I haven’t previously given much thought to.

Next up was Andreas Vesalius’ De Humani Corporis Fabrica (1543), a foundational publication for the study of the human anatomy. Its many plates present an interest in the ‘minute particulars’ of the human body, studied and ‘opened up’ in fantastic detail.

Also up for discussion will be a book about mummies which will be a starting point for discussing the ‘untouchable’ qualities of mummies (a pertinent subject in Manchester which has long and esteemed history in the study of mummies), and a print of ‘Noli me Tangere’ (Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus when he says to her ‘touch me not’) from the Macklin Bible (1797).

It was fun to look at some items I wouldn’t otherwise be thinking about and to share different perspectives with Kate and Scott. I’m looking forward to giving them further thought in the coming weeks in preparation for the symposium, and to the discussions on the day itself.  Watch this space for more bodies-related musings.

More details about the event and the collections can be found on the event website.

A Practical Diversion

I spent Saturday at the John Rylands Library. For a change, I wasn’t trawling through 200-year-old books or having a meeting to plan projects, but actually getting my hands dirty creating prints in response to the Blake exhibition.

The workshop, “Line and Light”, was part of the public programme to accompany the exhibition. Inspired by the Rylands’ magnificent hand-coloured (by William and Catherine Blake) copy of Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, the workshop took us through the process of creating and printing a plate, then colouring it in watercolour.

We were using silver card, rather than metal, to create out plates, which has numerous advantages for a workshop of this nature, not least being rather easier to work with (a great bonus for someone as out of practice in drawing with even a pencil and paper as I am) and it still allows experimenting with various techniques to create different effects.

I made two plates, both taking images from “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” from Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job — probably the most famous design in this series.

I had great fun, even if the results are very amateurish, but maybe I will leave it for less than years this time before I turn my hand to making pictures instead of writing about them.

Here is my first plate (but my favourite of the two), which takes elements from two of the vignettes in the margin of “When the Morning Stars Sang Together” which depict the six days of Creation — this is the creation of the beasts of the air and the sea, and the sun, moon and stars.

Birds Plate

Here is the coloured print I made:

Birds Coloured

After this impression, I added some additional texture to the plate in the sky:

Birds B&W

The second plate I made is basically a straight borrowing of the Morning Stars themselves:

Morning Stars Plate

Again, I coloured the the first impression, with less shading:

Morning Stars Coloured

I then tried using a special tool to add lines to darken up the background:

Morning Stars Stage 2

Finally, I made it even darker by adding cross-hatching (although it turns out not very evenly, but I ran out of time to fix this):

Morning Stars Stage 3