Image of the Month: William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805).

Romantic Illustration Network

William Blake, 'Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre' (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.  http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856  William Blake, ‘Mary Magdalen at the Sepulchre’ (c.1805). Watercolor with pen and ink on paper. 17 1/4 x 12 1/4 inches (43.8 x 31.1 cm). Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.
http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1670856

February’s ‘Image of the Month’ comes from Naomi Billingsley, PhD Candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester, and recipient of a Bibliographical Society Studentship to assist with attendance at the third RIN symposium, ‘Literary Galleries’.

This is one of approximately eighty watercolour illustrations to the Bible produced by William Blake for his loyal patron Thomas Butts (a civil servant) between 1800 and about 1805 (several designs were added after this date but the majority were completed in this five-year period).[1] It is not clear how these designs originally functioned as illustrations: they may have extra-illustrated a large Bible or they might have been kept in their own portfolio or volume as a Bible in…

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‘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.

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.

Going to America

A week on Sunday I’m going to America – I’ll be spending a month at the Yale Center for British Art to consult their impressive Blake (and related) collections, then a week and a half zipping around the East Coast to clock a few more Blake pictures and to visit some friends and family.

 

I hope to post updates on here more regularly than I have been recently whilst I am away as a means of sending people my news. This post therefore inaugurates a new blog category so that all my ‘America’ posts will be stored in one place (which might have its uses for me afterwards).

 

Blake of course never went to America, but lots of rich Americans bought up his works, mainly in the early twentieth century, when there were a number of major sales which dispersed large Blake collections. The collection at YCBA was amassed by Paul Mellon; you can read about Mellon and his collection in a recent article by Matthew Hargraves, Chief Curator of Art Collections at YCBA.

 

Blake also wrote a poem entitled America, a Prophecy (1793), which among other themes, has to do with the American Revolution (see the Blake Archive for more information and to view seven versions of the illuminated plates).

 

On a more banal note, I am put in mind of Father Ted’s aborted trip to America (this is the only clip I can find on YouTube):

 

 

Hopefully that’s not going to happen (I’ve certainly not made any false promises about taking people with me), nor, I hope, will the flight be quite as eventful as this one:

 

Little Vagabonds

Print made by William Blake (1757-1827, British), Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Plate 43, “The Little Vagabond”, 1789-1794, Relief etching printed in dark-brown with pen and black ink and watercolor on moderately thick, slightly textured, cream wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

 

One of Blake’s Songs of Experience (1794), entitled “The Little Vagabond” compares a cold, miserable church to a warm, happy alehouse. It’s a typical Blakean indictment against institutional religion.

 

As a researcher of Blake (I’m still resisting calling myself a Blakean) at large in a religious studies department, I identify with the spirit of the poem in that my work is about Blake’s off-beat version of Christianity. Indeed, my friend Scott (who is working on cyborg theology) and I call ourselves the” rogue theologians” of the department because we’re both working on unconventional topics.

 

Thus, it seems in keeping with being a Blakean (albeit one in denial and “tortures of doubt and despair”) that I have started a new seminar series which takes place in a pub (which, ironically enough, used to be the HQ of the local temperance society) opposite the university campus. It’s aimed at getting PhD students from departments across the university to learn about one another’s research; each month one sciences and one humanities speaker will give a short talk about their work.

 

The first two sessions have been really stimulating and in today’s meeting we even had some cross-references to the one of last month’s papers. I’m looking forward to continuing the Blakean spirit and learning about more research taking place across the university over the coming months.