Escaping doubt and despair

Blake’s words about Manchester have been haunting me recently. With those wonderful days in the print room of the Yale Center for British Art seeming to be a distant memory and the conference I was organising that provided a temporary distraction over and done with, I am now faced with eight months to finish my thesis (‘less than one pregnancy’ as a friend of mine has pointed out). This time will largely be spent revising the chapters I’ve been writing over the past two years or so, and I’m also trying to make mental head space to think about the next project in order to apply for jobs. So my version of the January blues has been an identification with Manchester and Liverpool’s ‘tortures of doubt and despair.’

What I needed was something to reinvigorate me; to remind me that once upon a time I was excited to be starting my research project, and something to spark ideas to spur me on in the coming months. The conference held to coincide with the Ashmolean’s exhibition ‘William Blake: Apprentice and Master’ on Saturday was just the thing.

The day began with Martin Myrone of the Tate speaking about Blake and the Gothic. He richly illustrated that ‘Gothic’ is a complex, even messy term, which applies to Blake’s works from a number of angles, beginning and ending with reflections on the image from The First Book of Urizen which is the poster-boy for the exhibition (and on the Tate’s separate print of the plate).

Next up was a panel on satire, with David Worrall arguing that Blake’s satirical manuscript An Island in the Moon is an experiment in writing for the theatre, and Susan Matthews exploring the fascinating Copy D of Europe and its annotations, thought to be by George Cumberland (noting that we have had a stark reminder of the resonance of ‘satire’ and ‘Europe’ in recent weeks).

After lunch was a panel on some of Blake’s interactions with literary texts. Michael Phillips (curator of the exhibition) presenting Shakespearean aspects of Blake, and Luisa Cale (who organised the conference) on Blake’s engagement with the subject of the Lazar house from Paradise Lost. The highlight for me here was Bethan Stevens’ paper on Blake’s illustrations to Thornton’s Virgil which wonderfully illustrated the need to attend to the text Blake is illustrating here, which has been virtually overlooked in scholarship on these designs, which has focused primarily on the oddity of these woodcuts within Blake’s oeuvre and the influence of the designs on the so-called [see below] ‘Ancients’. So a trip to see the copy at the John Rylands Library is on the cards for me.

After everyone had had a quick caffeine boost, Andrew Lincoln discussed a passage from The Four Zoas in which Blake uses violent imagery of harvest in a vision of the Last Judgement; I’ve recently been thinking about several images by Blake which use related imagery, so the paper highlighted to me some interesting parallels and differences in this passage which I haven’t really given any thought to until now (albeit later than the images I’ve been looking at). We then heard from Nicholas Shrimpton, speaking about Francis Oliver Finch, a lesser-known member of the so-called ‘Ancients’; ‘so-called’ because, as Shrimpton demonstrated, this term was probably only given to the group retrospectively.

Finally, Saree Makdisi (in a glimpse of his forthcoming book Reading William Blake) spoke about ‘Blake, Time and Eternity’ arguing that Blake’s works seek to displace the reader-viewer’s perception of linear time through their constantly shifting, non-linear, overlapping, looping (non-)narratives and as such take the reader-viewer into the state of eternity. Not only was this a compelling reading of the problematic nature of Blake’s books, but, to extrapolate from Makdisi’s argument, also the kind of repetitions, parallels and disjunctures that had emerged in the various perspectives on Blake presented throughout the day. As in a particular Blake book, so with the universal Blake – the difficulty with reading the complex web of interconnections between his works should be viewed sub specie aeternitatis.

With that tall order — and numerous ‘minute particulars’ to chase up — I came away feeling altogether more positive about the prospect of the next eight months of Blake.

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(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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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.