A little update

Tomorrow I (with my friend and colleague Scott) am running a workshop on using social media in academia. One of the platforms we’ll be discussing is blogging, which reminded me that it’s been a long time since I wrote anything here, so I am not setting the best example of good blogging practice.

It’s been a busy few months, which have included handing in my thesis, starting two new jobs, and relocating to Sussex. Accordingly, I’ve just updated my ‘About’ page:

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This blog was created whilst I was working on my PhD as a means of reflecting upon some of the experiences along the way, as well as various other projects and interests. It’s not a research blog, nor a guide to how to survive a PhD; primarily it’s somewhere for me to write up miscellaneous musings but which is open to anyone who wishes to read these thoughts.

My thesis, undertaken at the University of Manchester, was on the figure of Christ in the visual works of the poet-painter-prophet William Blake (1757-1827). The title of the blog is taken from Blake’s words about Manchester in his epic poem Jerusalem; the city is “…in tortures of Doubt & Despair” (Jerusalem, Plate 21). I suppose it evoked for him “dark Satanic mills,” but contrary to local legend, there’s no evidence to suggest he ever got much further north than Hampstead Heath. Whatever Manchester was like then, I wouldn’t describe it in such bleak terms today. However, Blake’s words about Manchester are an apt description of certain moments in the PhD experience; trying to understand Blake is a daunting and occasionally torturous experience, but there is excitement in the challenge and delight in the moments of insight.

I handed in my thesis in September 2015, and have since moved to work for the Diocese of Chichester, doing research related to art in churches in Sussex. Chichester is not far from Felpham, where Blake lived for three years, and although it’s where Blake was put on trial for sedition, he described it as “lovely mild & gentle” (Jerusalem, Plate 36) — first impressions suggest that these words ring more true than his damning assessment about Manchester.

So perhaps I need a new blog, with a new title, but between the new job and keeping thoughts about the PhD alive in preparation for the viva, I haven’t had chance to decide, so watch this space.

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I will probably be starting a new blog associated with my role in Chichester, but notes on a postcard about the future of my personal blogging are welcome!

#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!

#RhymeYourPhD

Here’s my attempt at the latest PhD hashtag which started doing the rounds today on twitter:

W​hat​ did​ Mr Blake
In the pictures he did make
​Have to say about
Jesus? No doubt
It won’t conform
To the theological norm.

Laden with Blakean fruit

As I mentioned a couple of posts ago, Blake’s ‘To Autumn‘ is a favourite of mine.

Here in America, the season is of course, known as Fall, and glorious it is too – parks resplendent with deep, fiery hues, and skies crisp and clear; here’s a shot taken at Yale’s Cross Campus:

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I think Blake would have enjoyed the intensity of Fall colour – lovely as Autumn is, there is a different quality to the colours here.

I haven’t come across many trees ‘laden with fruit‘, but I’ve been able to see much fruit of the Blakean kind (i.e. Blake works), both at the Yale Center for British Art where I’m based, and on a long weekend in to New York, where I took in works at the Metropolitan Museum and the Morgan Library.

It’s wonderful to be able to see so many works in person, and I’m looking not only at works that I’ve already done quite a lot of research on, but also at things that I might not otherwise be because they are on hand – both works by Blake himself and by his contemporaries. Whilst I’m here, I’m giving the business of writing up a bit of distance – I’m taking stock of what I’ve written so far and thinking about what I need to write to fill in the gaps, but not writing or editing in earnest. I’m sure when I get back to working on the script more intensely on my return, it will be the richer for spending time with the works themselves.

Beyond the walls of museums, Blake’s habit of cropping up all over the place confronted me twice during my ‘off-duty’ time in New York.

First, I was staying near Columbia University, and therefore had the chance to take in Corpus Christi Church (see picture below), where in a seemingly unlikely combination of life events, Thomas Merton became a Catholic whilst writing his Masters’ dissertation on Blake!

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Second, and more well-known, was Lee Lawrie’s ‘Wisdom’ above the entrance to the GE Building at the Rockefeller Center, inspired by Blake’s ‘Ancient of Days.’

10422138_10153572063845961_1645421751290256258_nLike Paolozzi’s (rather later) fellow compass*-bearing ‘Newton’ at the British Library, this figure towers over a place where large numbers of people pass every day. Both of these monumental sculptures seem to incite the beholder away from the tyrannical, short-sighted worldview which the plates that inspired them symbolise (at least, that’s the standard readings of the figures in both Blake plates, although both have been read in alternative ways, but that’s a matter better saved for discussion elsewhere) to a ‘wiser’ take on the world.

At more or less the halfway point in my time at the YCBA, the compasses can also serve as a metaphor of pointing two ways: a cause to reflect on my time here thus far, and to look forward to making the most of the fruits available for the remainder of my time.

* Last week during a talk on Blake, I was corrected by a mathematician than Newton and the Ancient of Days are in fact holding dividers, rather than compasses. This is of course a fair point, but ‘compasses’ is rather too ingrained in Blake scholarship for me to give up the habit of using the term.

Lakean

I have temporarily escaped Manchester’s “tortures of doubt and despair” for a break in the Lake District.

 

I feel somewhat errant to be in the land famously associated with (among numerous other luminaries) that other Romantic poet called William, but that slightly guilty feeling is probably in itself a sign that a bit of a break from Mr Blake is needed. Indeed, I’ve been feeling a bit fed up with WB recently; I think it’s partly a symptom of focusing on the work of a single person (something to bear in mind for forming a post-doc project), but this is accentuated by the fact that Blake is so prevalent in popular culture so he appears where I’m not even looking for him.

 

We’re actually staying in a house that was formerly owned by the Wordsworths (bought by WW’s son, also called William, and in the family for about a century). So inevitably, I’ve been thinking a bit about the two Williams. The topic has been addressed, but I decided to leave such books safely in Manchester.

 

I don’t know if WW had anything to say about WB, but WB owned an annotated a copy of WW’s poems and wasn’t particularly complementary. The two Williams are often characterised as divided by their concepts of Nature, WW celebrating it and WB seeking to transcend it. Some of Blake’s annotations seem to support such a dichotomy; for instance:

 

WW writes: The powers requisite for the production of poetry are, first, those of observation and description. . . . whether the things depicted be actually present to the senses, or have a place only in the memory

WB replies: One Power alone makes a Poet -Imagination The Divine Vision

 

On WW’s Poems Referring to the Period of Childhood

WB writes: I see in Wordsworth the Natural Man rising up against the Spiritual Man Continually & then he is No Poet but a Heathen Philosopher at Enmity against all true Poetry or Inspiration

 

But although WB thinks WW does not embody the Divine Vision, he isn’t anti-Nature (see my post [Romantic] Landscapes at Turner Contemporary). Indeed, one of my favourite passages in Blake is:

 

This World Is a World of Imagination & Vision I see Every thing I paint In This World, but Every body does not see alike… to the Eyes of the Man of Imagination Nature is Imagination itself. As a man is So he Sees. As the Eye is formed such are its Powers You certainly Mistake when you say that the Visions of Fancy are not be found in This World. To Me This World is all One continued Vision of Fancy or Imagination & I feel Flatterd when I am told So.

(Letter to Revd. Dr. Trusler, 23 August 1799)

So it seems that WB thought that WW didn’t see Nature with eyes of Imagination. Whether he was right, I leave to others who are more qualified to comment.

As for my own view of N/nature here, I’ll offer three (unBlakeanly banal) thoughts: first, I’ll avoid getting caught up in how problematic a term that is; second, it’s as wet as its reputation (see photos below); third, I’m happy that there is wild garlic at the end of the lane, which livened up this evening’s roast chicken.

More (B)Lakean thoughts to follow perhaps.

A measure of the amount of rain since our arrival – here are the stepping stones opposite our cottage yesterday evening:

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Here is the same stretch of the river this afternoon:

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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