Spotlight: Burning Bright: William Blake and the Art of the Book

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Just my cup of tea.

Most of us know William Blake for his poetry, and in particular I think many people will call to mind his ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’. I daresay that if you’re reading this blog you’ll also know quite a bit more about this fascinating man. But the Burning Bright exhibition at the John Rylands library in Manchester focuses on Blake’s artwork – chiefly the engravings that he did for others’ writing. Art historian Colin Trodd and his students at the University of Manchester uncovered a veritable treasure trove of Blake’s designs, and last week I had the pleasure of visiting this stunning building to take a look at some of the collection’s exquisite pieces. Unfortunately, when it came to the Blake displays picture-taking was prohibited, but the staff at the library have very kindly sent me a couple of images for you to feast your eyes on:

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Not too shabby, eh? I must admit, though, that images on a computer monitor are just no match for the real deal (so if you live anywhere near Manchester catch this exhibition before it goes! It runs until June 23rd). Being there in person, your experience is also enriched by the atmospheric beauty of the library. I couldn’t believe that for all the trips into Manchester I’ve made in 23 years of life, I’d never even seen the John Rylands Library’s late-Victorian neo-Gothic (Wikipedia comes through once again) exterior, let alone its enchanting Hogwarts-esque innards. When the receptionist gave me directions to get to the exhibit, I was not expecting to walk down here:

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Now, I know that comparing church-like Gothic architecture to Hogwarts is tired and unimaginative, but hear me out. I get a really magical feeling from buildings like this one, and that same ‘feeling’ is found throughout Blake’s work. He famously had mystical ‘visions’ which served as poetic and artistic inspiration the like of which Disney’s ‘Imagineers’ could only dream of. He took inspiration from Raphael and Michaelangelo in a society that favoured Rubens – a rationalistic and materialistic society. The John Rylands Library stands out against the metropolitan vibe of Manchester’s Deansgate in a comparable way. Pretty fearful symmetry, no?

The following quote from William Wordsworth sums up rather nicely:

“There was no doubt that this poor man was mad,
but there is something in the madness of this man
which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron
and Walter Scott.”

Blake was a truly original artist. He is right up there as one of my very favourite poets, and even studying him at school didn’t seem to sap the joy from reading his works. Going to see ‘Burning Bright: William Blake and the Art of the Book’ was without a shadow of a doubt one of the best lit-geek afternoons I have spent in recent memory, and I really do recommend it wholeheartedly. And although this exhibition wasn’t focused on his poems, BrewAndBook is a lit blog and it is only fair that I leave you with a little verse:

SUN

The Sun arises in the East,
Cloth’d in robes of blood and gold;
Swords and spears and wrath increast
All around his bosom roll’d
Crown’d with warlike fires and raging desires.

Let me know in the comments if you have been to this exhibition, or if you’ve been to anything worth shouting about recently! Who are your favourite poets, and does William Blake make the cut? I’d love to hear all about it.

Images of engravings courtesy of the John Rylands Library. (All other images are my own shoddy attempts)

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6 thoughts on “Spotlight: Burning Bright: William Blake and the Art of the Book

    • Thank you very much! That’s very kind of you to say. I looked like an extremely keen tourist when I was up-close and personal with the library’s logo, so I’m glad it turned out o.k!

  1. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be actually something that I
    think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me.
    I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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