Mind-Forg’d Manacles: William Blake and Slavery. Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester, 26 January-6 April 2008. Blake’s Shadow: William Blake and His Artistic Legacy. Whitworth Gallery, 26 January-20 April 2008.
TWO Blake exhibitions were to be seen at the same moment at Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery in 2008. The first, which was touring Britain, originated in 2007 as a dual anniversary: 250 years after Blake’s birth, and the bicentenary of the abolition of the British transatlantic slave trade. Called Mind-Forg’d Manacles: William Blake and Slavery, it was curated by David Bindman, who wrote one of the two essays in the catalogue, published by the British Museum (the other essay is by Darryl Pinckney); the catalogue claims that the British Museum has “the most complete representation of Blake’s work anywhere in the world,” and everything in the exhibition came from there.
I will discuss this after the other, which was curated by Colin Trodd (University of Manchester) and Heather Birchall (Whitworth Gallery). While called Blake’s Shadow, the exhibition was not drawing attention to the Spectre in Blake, but to the shadow Blake’s work has cast over three groups: his contemporaries, and then the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Virtually all the pictures and books on display were to be found in the holdings of the Whitworth Gallery, with one or two from Manchester City Galleries. While it was very pleasant to note how much material there is in the possession of the gallery that could be brought in so easily, the limitation also made the exhibition, however carefully put together, necessarily appear patchy, especially in contrast to Mind-Forg’d Manacles.begin page 143 | ↑ back to top
Yet there was also much to admire in the concept of Blake’s Shadow. In the first group of works were pictures by Calvert, Flaxman, Fuseli, Linnell, and Palmer, and five pen and ink and watercolor by Stothard. Also, though Dickens’s artist George Cattermole (1800-68) was classed as a Victorian, it was good to see his Unidentified Historical Scene, both Gothic and Scott-like, but also suggesting some of the Blake of the Poetical Sketches, such as “King Edward the Third.” The second group comprised work that comes after Gilchrist’s Life (1863), Swinburne’s Critical Essay (1868), and the Burlington Fine Arts Club exhibition of 1876. The first of these laid much emphasis on Blake as a book illustrator, and therefore, in a pre-Morris way, as an artist integrating design with craftwork and with the production of artifacts; the effects of this are seen in Walter Crane’s wallpaper design, and in the work of all the artists here: William Linton, John Everett Millais, John Trivett Nettleship, George Richmond, Charles Ricketts, D. G. Rossetti, Frederic Shields, Simeon Solomon, Henry Stock, and G. F. Watts, whose huge Chaos (c. 1875) works on an entirely different scale—an overstated one—from anything Blakean, or the woodcuts or book illustrations made by Blake and his contemporaries. The Shields work included William Blake’s Work-Room and Death-Room (1882), showing Blake’s lodging in Fountain Court, looking over the Thames, with angels dimly seen, hovering over the bed where Blake died; the D. G. Rossetti sonnet written for Shields about the picture, “This is the place,” was also quoted in full. A certain quasi-Catholic spirituality is evident in both the painting and the poem; Rossetti was outstanding for bringing together Blake and Dante in his thinking, and the influence of his reading of Dante is apparent. Shields’s contribution to the exhibition included another picture featuring London: The Plague of London: Solomon Eagle Denouncing the Impenitent (1863). Solomon Eagle, a figure written about by Defoe, and also depicted by Cruikshank, becomes a Blakean prophet (a radical Quaker, he denounced London’s sins during the plague of 1665): this Nonconformist tradition suggests another Blake, more marginal, more mad, but as interesting as the Dante Blake was so ambivalent about.
The section devoted to “Modern and Contemporary Blake” included Austin Osman Spare, Paul Nash, David Jones (another artist and poet), Ceri Richards, Cecil Collins, Leslie Hurry, John Craxton, Keith Vaughan, Patrick Procktor, Anish Kapoor, and Christopher Bucklow. A final section, “Blake and Popular Culture,” stressed the filmwork of Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man) and Gus Van Sant (Last Days). Here, the exhibition would have needed much more substantiation to have been effective or less suspiciously cliché-like. While a few of the artworks from the twentieth century required a certain special pleading, and assumed a dehistoricized Blake, the exhibition was beautiful in places, and useful in showing how many Blakean shadows there are and how many have been the appropriations of his work: that there is no single Blake is apparent from all the images that can claim to have drawn from his already plural and composite art.
Mind-Forg’d Manacles was full of essential material: for example, some of Blake’s sixteen engravings for J. G. Stedman’s Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition, against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, which appeared in 1796, some Gillray cartoons, and William Hackwood’s design for the 1787 medallion inscribed with the words “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” and used by Josiah Wedgwood. The main part of the exhibition, however, was given over to plates from the Songs, notably “The Little Black Boy,” and then to Visions of the Daughters of Albion, The First Book of Urizen, The House of Death, one of the twelve color prints, America, Queen Katharine’s Dream, various designs for Night Thoughts and The Grave, and Milton and Jerusalem. Everything here was interesting, obviously, and well presented, but I couldn’t help wondering at the certainty of some of Bindman’s interpretations, which consequently seemed oversimplifying, as with his characterizations of Innocence as related to childhood, and, for “London,” that “the poem expresses the idea in its reference to ‘mind-forg’d manacles’ that enslavement to false values and the materialism of society can be self-inflicted.” Of course this is true, but there are three caveats: manacles do not necessarily suggest slavery, and so the use of the trope of chains is a little imprecise for considering the issue of the slave trade; the manacles are not, in the expression in “London,” necessarily self-inflicted, and education and the church and state, to say nothing of the minds of others, do the work of inflicting effectively enough for Blake; and third, however much “mental slavery,” one of Bindman’s headings, may mean, it is not the same as physical slavery, and runs the danger of minimizing what slavery meant, and perhaps means: it makes slavery too metaphorical a concept.