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Paolozzi’s Newton

The recent controversy over Paolozzi’s projected sculpture for the new British Library has highlighted the attitude, typical in its attempt to tame the revolutionary, of the British to William Blake; a classic example is the singing of Blake’s “Jerusalem” (in reality the conclusion of the Preface to Milton), as set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, at rallies of the Women’s Institute or the Conservative Party. The project is for a massive bronze sculpture, some 12 feet high and set on a podium similar in height, based on Blake’s color print Newton. After an alarm caused by the cancellation of government funding for this and other works of art commissioned by the Library, the casting of the final bronze is, at the time of writing, due to commence at any time.

The controversy began with two letters in The Times on 10 August 1992, from Richard Willmott of Brighton College and Brian Alderson. Astonished at “the cultural gaffe” that had led to the commission, Willmott pointed to Blake’s attack on Newton “for a mechanistic and materialistic view of the universe which gave no room to the imagination.” Alderson started by referring to the lack of original Blakes in the British Library (the illuminated books are staying in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum). He too suggested that the British Library had failed to understand the artist’s meaning. On 13

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (born 1924), Sir Isaac Newton,[e] bronze, approx.   366 cm. Photo courtesy of the British Library Board, London.
August there were two replies. The first, from the architect of the British Library and a member of the committee that had commissioned the work, Colin St. John Wilson, described Blake’s image of Newton as “an ambivalent combination of Michelangelesque splendour and disdain for scientific obsession with the measurable” and pointed out that “This equivocal attitude to the values of science is shared by many eminent scientists as well as laymen.” The Chairman of the British Library Board, Michael Saunders Watson, suggested that “Where Blake’s figure is impotent and exposed to the elements, Paolozzi’s is immensely strong and powerful” and went on to claim that “It is entirely appropriate that Britain’s biggest civil building project of this century should be dominated by such an important work which so aptly symbolises the bringing together for the first time of the British Library’s incomparable collections in the humanities and sciences.” The following day the sculptor himself wrote, stating that when the architect had commissioned his sculpture “He was sure that I saw the work as an exciting union of two British geniuses. While acknowledging that Blake may have been indulging in satire, the image represents to me a fusion of nature, science, poetry, art and architecture begin page 45 | back to top linked by the classically beautiful body of Newton crouched in the position which brings to mind Rodin’s Thinker.” More recently, in the Times Literary Supplement for 19 March 1993, the controversy was revived with a letter from Christopher and Muriel Armstrong arguing that “To judge from the photograph . . ., Sir Eduardo’s figure does nothing to blunt the power of Blake’s satirical conception, of 1795, which should be compared with his picture of the creating ‘Ancient of Days’ of 1794 . . . Blake detested Newton and all that he conceived him to represent . . .” They go on to say that “The Trustees are, however, in good company . . . since the newly opened Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge has given pride of place in their Library to Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s model of his rejected monument” and they jokingly ask over which “of these illustrious doorways shall we see inscribed Blake’s words . . . ‘May God Us Keep / From single vision and Newton’s sleep?’”

Strangely, Paolozzi had already used Blake’s image of Newton in another context, as one of a number of portraits of the eminent British architect Richard Rogers. This was in the context of an exhibition of Paolozzi Portraits held at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from May to August 1988. The exhibition was a culmination of several years of portraits by Paolozzi and included portrait busts of Richard Rogers, smiling and unsmiling, but the catalogue also illustrated two other projects based on the Blake print, one for a relief, the other for a three-dimensional sculpture. It was seeing this three-dimensional sculpture, or something like it, that led Colin St. John Wilson to commission the large version for the Library. Paolozzi’s own statement in the catalogue said nothing about his indebtedness to Blake but Robin Gibson, in his foreword, wrote of “Paolozzi’s preoccupation with Blake’s print of Newton, both for its formal and symbolic relevance” (7). Robin Spencer, in his essay on “Paolozzi as a Portrait Sculptor” compared Blake’s image to Rodin’s Thinker and suggested that Paolozzi had chosen the image more for “Blake’s belief in the primacy of Poetic Genius, and the ability of the senses. . . to see through and beyond materialism to an eternal truth . . .” and hence “as an allegory of the modern architect” (18-19). At the time Richard Rogers was Chairman of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery, where I then worked, and I mentioned to a friend of the sculptor how surprised I was at this identification of our chairman with Blake’s negative image of unenlightened reason. Eighteen months later, as his contribution to a series of “Picture Choices,” Paolozzi chose Blake’s Newton, accepting that “Ironically Newton concentrates on reducing the universe to mathematical dimensions” but going on to say that “While Blake may have been satirising Newton, I see in this work an exciting union of two British geniuses. Together they present to us nature and science, poetry, art, architecture—all welded, interconnected, interdependent. The link is the classically beautiful body of Newton crouched in a position which may bring to mind Rodin’s Thinker with all that implies . . .” This statement clearly defined and gave authority to the arguments of the friends and defenders of the sculptor. Given the multiplicity of scholarly interpretations of Blake’s works and the fact that we here have one artistic genius working on material created by another, perhaps we should not try to impose too strictly a Blakean interpretation on Paolozzi’s sculpture.

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