Accidental Romant(i)ourism

The weekend before last, I broke a trip down to London for a week’s research by stopping to visit a friend in Olney, Buckinghamshire.

Amid country walks and good food, it actually turned out to be something of a Romanticist tourist trail (suggestions for alternative terms for such activity that avoid confusion with visitors to Roman sites welcome).

Olney was sometime home to the poet William Cowper (1731-1800). Less well-known now than some of his contemporaries, he was very successful in his lifetime, and had sufficient following to ensure that many of his possessions were preserved by his admirers when he died, so that the Cowper and Newton Museum in Cowper’s house in the town has a remarkable collection of his effects (having visited a good number of literary houses over the years, I can’t recall encountering such an extensive collection of items actually belonging to the writer in question).

There were even some unexpected Blakean connections. The museum was founded in 1900, largely thanks to Thomas Wright, local school-master and author, whose passions aside from Olney’s heritage included Blake – he even served as Honorary Secretary of the William Blake Society (a precursor to, rather than continuous with, the present Blake Society) for many years.

I knew that Blake had produced some engravings for William Hayley’s Life and Posthumous Writings of Cowper (1803), but I did not expect to find Blake’s original portrait miniature of Cowper in the museum. And this was actually one of two Blake miniatures in the collection, with another of Revd. John Johnson, Cowper’s second cousin and guardian, who visited Felpham in connection with Hayley’s Life and sat for Blake in January 1802. Two more updates have been duly made in my copy of Butlin’s catalogue raisonnée of Blake’s paintings and drawings.

These portrait miniatures are two of a handful of such works by Blake, which have a curious status within his oeuvre. The Cowper portrait was actually a study for Blake’s engraving of the poet for Hayley’s Life, after a portrait by George Romney, but usually such works were painted from life as keepsakes for loved ones (an equivalent these days is having a photo of loved ones as wallpaper on a mobile phone). Portraiture was not the sort of work that Blake relished; he complained that William Hayley gave him too much of such work, as the patron had for Romney. For Blake, such work was mundane, merely representing the superficial appearance of things.

On a side note, one important thing such works do show us is that Blake could do straightforward representation if he wanted to. So when we see figures with elongated limbs or contorted poses that commonly appear in the sorts of pictures that I work on, it’s not because Blake was a clumsy draughtsman: he broke the rules deliberately to make symbolic points.

But back to Olney.

The Newton of the museum’s name is Cowper’s friend and fellow Olney resident, Revd. John Newton (1725-1807). Newton was an abolitionist and hymn-writer, whose most famous lyric is Amazing Grace. A small section of the museum is devoted to his work. There is also a section on the local art of lace making, and another with general local social history collections. Outside are charming gardens, and Cowper’s summer house, which he used as a writing room. Today the visitor can only peer in to the little hut, to prevent us from adding to the graffiti from previous generations of visitors.

Cowper’s Summer House

Graffiti in the summer house

The weekend also saw a walk from Olney to nearby Weston Underwood, where another of Cowper’s residences was; that house remains a private home, but the Romantiourist can eat and drink at the Cowper’s Oak pub a few doors down, and visit Cowper’s Alcove, which looks out across fields – another of the poet’s favourite spots.

Cowper’s Alcove

Cowper’s Lodge

Cowper’s Oak

All in all, I had a lovely weekend catching up with a good friend also turned out to be a bit of a busman’s holiday for a Romanticist. But would an academic have it any other way?

(Romantic) Landscapes at Turner Contemporary

After a festive period dominated by deluge, on Thursday we finally had a bright, clear day, so I took a trip down to the sea in Margate, which is home to what JMW Turner called the loveliest skies in Europe and the gallery in the name of the same, Turner Contemporary.

The current exhibitions (just – finishing today) are “Turner and Constable: Sketching from Nature” and “Dorothy Cross: Connemara.” I obliquely promised a post on this exhibition when I last visited, but didn’t quite get around to writing it, partly because I realised I hadn’t taken in that much of the display owing to spending most of my time catching up with former colleagues (before my PhD I worked as a Gallery Assistant at TC).

“Sketching from Nature” explores the phenomenon of landscape painting in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; as the title suggests,it pays particular attention to the practice of painting in the landscape and Turner and Constable feature prominently, although there are also works by many contemporaries.

This is of course Blake’s period, but not very Blakean subject matter. Indeed, Blake is often read as hostile to nature and as rejecting landscape painting as an empty, fashionable fad. This is an oversimplification (see, for instance, details of a display at Tate Britain last year) and in fact something I’m thinking about in one of the chapters I am currently working on in my thesis (more on that another time perhaps).

There were at least two people connected with Blake represented in the exhibition. There were several works by John Linnell, a friend and patron to Blake in the later years of his life, and others by Cornelius Varley, brother of John Varley with whom Blake created his ‘Visionary Heads.’

Linnell was particularly known for his landscape paintings which are quite conventional in style, and looking at them with his interest in Blake’s work in mind is quite startling (see this slideshow of Linnell’s works in the Tate collection). Among other important gestures, Linnell introduced Blake to Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert – the younger disciples of Blake known as ‘the Ancients’ who also had a particular interest in landscapes (especially Palmer and Calvert) but were not represented in the exhibition.

As for Cornelius, I hadn’t heard of him before visiting the exhibition, but the surname jumped out at me as a likely relation to John. A quick bit of internet research revealed that Cornelius’ main occupation was making scientific instruments (see an article from Cambridge’s Whipple Museum). Most significantly, he invented the graphic telescope, which projected a magnified image of a subject onto paper, allowing the production of an accurate drawing. Cornelius used the telescope to sketch portraits and landscapes, as well as scientific drawings; Blake would have abhorred this method, which diminishes the role of even sensory perception, and still more the visionary perception Blake thought artists should aspire to.

The works by Cornelius in the exhibition pre-dated the graphic telescope, but I don’t think Blake would have thought much of them anyway (see his Tate slideshow). They were not actually the precise style one might expect with Cornelius’ scientific interests in mind – indeed, the indistinctness of some of the forms is a reason Blake would probably not have liked them (see his comments on linearity in the Descriptive Catalogue – available in the Blake Archive).

Blakean objections aside, it’s a shame that Cornelius’ invention was not mentioned (unless I missed it) in any of the exhibition literature (although it may be mentioned in the catalogue). Something else I found odd was that the term “Romanticism” seemed to be obstinately avoided, even in the room which explored idealised and imaginary representations of landscapes (again, I can’t speak for the catalogue).

I left the gallery just before sunset, and was hoping I might get one of the spectacular sort for which Margate is famous, but it was rather grey (see photo below – in spite of the poor quality of the mobile phone shot, it actually manages to make the sky look more interesting than it was through my own eyes). Whether or not the paintings inside should be called Romantic, the scene outside wasn’t on Thursday evening.

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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!