‘The deep of winter came’

Europe, A Prophecy (1795), Copy A, Plate 5, Yale Canter for British Art.

Autumn or Fall seems to have given way to winter, at least back in England’s grey and drizzly land. I am missing the big blue skies of the East Coast; the clouds seem barely to have parted since I returned to Manchester!

On the other side of the Atlantic, my final couple of weeks saw dramatic fluctuations in weather, from snow the day before Thanksgiving to a day mild enough to sit out at lunch without a jacket on the last day of November!

In my last few days in New Haven I managed to see the last of the Blake works in the collection at the YCBA, and to make an excursion to Yale’s Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut to see some eighteenth-century satirical prints (see details of the 2012 exhibition ‘Sacred Satire‘) and the memoirs of Blake’s patron Revd. Dr. Trusler.

I then travelled up and down the East Coast to see more Blake works in Boston, Washington, DC and Philadelphia, visits which also allowed me to catch up with a school friend and an uncle and aunt.

My day at the Library of Congress was particularly memorable – on the aforementioned snow day I was the only person in the Rare Books Reading Room for the first hour of my visit, and there were only two other readers later in the day. I sat opposite a window, watching the snow fall on a rather empty DC from where most people seemed to have left early for the long weekend.

Spending a lot of time with original works afforded numerous ‘minute particulars’ that will feed back into my thesis – noticing details that are lost in reproductions, or simply overlooked because, particularly for those that are less central to my project, the opportunity to see originals meant that I spent more time looking at the works.  I also gleaned insights and references from conversations with other scholars and curators, and from institutional files.

Now I need to take advantage of the uninspiring winter days and get my head down to make those minute particulars count as I return to the business of finishing my thesis.

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:

DSC_0304

Here is the same stretch of the river this afternoon:

DSC_0305

(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.

DSC00424