19. March 2013 · Comments Off on Burning Bright at John Rylands Library, Manchester · Categories: Reviews

Review — Burning Bright: William Blake and the Art of the Book

8 February 2013 – 23 June 2013

John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester M3 3EH



Manchester is now just a two hour train journey from London, so this intimate exhibition of Blake’s work is accessible to visitors and is also accessible to the eye, heart and mind.


On display are about 30 examples of his work as a commercial print maker – the bread and butter jobs that kept Blake in funds for most of his working life.  As works commissioned under the strictures of a commercial publisher, much of Blake’s natural obfuscation has been tempered by the commissioning process, leaving designs that can be more immediately appreciated.


The John Rylands Library is a wonder of late Victorian philanthropy.  The widow of a Manchester cotton trader, Enriqueta Rylands built and endowed the library in memory of her late husband.  The library opened to the public on 1 January 1900 and in today’s money, she spent over £50m on the building and its books.  In a late Gothic style, the architecture is somewhere between a medieval monastic library and a film set; the building itself has recently received a £17m restoration including the addition of modern glass extension containing a new entrance, shop and café.


‘Burning Bright’ is presented in the stacks of the library, 30 exhibits in glass cases, weaving in and out through the library’s shelves.  The exhibition resulted from a project stemming from the research of the art historian Dr Colin Trodd at the University of Manchester. A number of his students undertook a search through eighteenth and nineteenth-century books looking for prints by Blake that may have been overlooked or had not been individually catalogued. The students must have been amazed at what they discovered.  Besides identifying many individual prints by Blake within the pages of larger publications, the students also discovered an unknown copy of the Book of Job. Other highlights in the collection are two copies of Blair’s Grave and a copy of Young’s Night Thoughts – copy ‘O’ in the alphabetic numbering favoured by Blake scholars of the 26 copies that were hand coloured by Catherine and William.


The exhibition also explores the importance of Blake to later generations of artists by demonstrating a cascade of influence down through the generations.  Beginning with the small group of artists who gathered around Blake at the end of his life, The Ancients, it traces his influence through The Pre-Raphaelites, The Aesthetic Movement, The Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and ending with the Visionaries of the early twentieth-century.


In the dark atmosphere of the John Ryland’s Library, perhaps my favourite piece was Virgil’s Pastorals where Blake inverts day into night.  He achieved this visual effect through a complicated process that exasperated and almost alienated his client, the Revd Dr Robert Thornton. The good doctor was not happy with the proofs and went to a more conventional engraver to redo the work; however friends intervened and Thornton was persuaded to accept Blake’s recidivist tendency towards complexity.


The commission was Blake’s one adventure in wood engraving. The notes to the exhibition explained the process: Blake first drew a design onto a copper plated with a waxy liquid that could resist acid. Then he dissolved away the remaining surface using aqua fortis.  So far, so good – these are the standard, albeit technically demanding steps in relief etching, a process that Blake invented to create his illuminated books. However instead of printing the image onto paper, he printed the plate onto a block of wood to create a guide that he then used to engrave the final design into the wood, which was then used to produce the illustrations for the book.


One wonders if the notes to the exhibition can be correct here – the process seems so tortuous, if not incredible.  But then, this review was written in Sanskrit, edited in Aramaic before being finally translated into English.



March 2013

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