My project is linked to the exhibition “Burning Bright” at the John Rylands Library which examines William Blake and the world of the book. The exhibition includes books illustrated by Blake and explores his impact on subsequent generations of artists and writers. Blake’s influence continues to “burn bright” and activities alongside the exhibition encourage visitors to take creative inspiration from his work.
Blake’s work as a visual artist is the focus of my PhD — specifically, I am examining the role of Christ in Blake’s images — so I had a ready-made opportunity to relate my research to public audiences. The Afterlife training has helped me to refine my ideas for contributing to the exhibition programme by examining some of the issues around public engagement and creating a space for discussion with other researchers and cultural organisations.
There are three strands to my project: creating a workshop for school groups inspired by the exhibition, devising a tour for the public programme, and contributing to an online version of the exhibition. After months of meetings, planning and looking at books in the reading room, things are coming together, so I’m going to share how things are shaping up.
Schools workshop: Blake and the Bible
Taking as its inspiration Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job, a copy of which is in the exhibition (and was only recently discovered in the Rylands collection), my workshop will explore different ways of retelling stories from the Bible, with students creating their own version of a Bible story. I’m going to give the students a choice of producing either a design in the format of Blake’s Job illustrations (which have an image in the centre with commentary and designs in the margin) or a newspaper article.
Preparing for this workshop has involved lots of discussion with the education team and I’ve sat in on some other workshops in the education programme to help get a feel for what works well. There are also two MA students, Liz and Amy, running workshops alongside the exhibition, and each of us has chosen a different theme. I sat in on one of Amy’s workshops last week, which was on personification, with pupils writing personification poems, and it was fantastic to see how well the pupils engaged with the theme.
I’m going to be running my session for five groups between years 7 – 10 in the middle of May and I’m looking forward to seeing what results come of it!
Advertising for the exhibition education programme.
Public tour: Blake and the Gothic
This tour will explore Blake’s fascination with the Gothic, inspired by the John Rylands Library itself which is a grand neo-Gothic building. This will be an opportunity to show visitors items from the collection not included in the exhibition — by Blake himself and by others interested in the Gothic to weave a narrative between Blake and the library building.
Preparation has involved lots of delving through books from the collection and I’ve been spoilt for choice because the collection is so rich in this area, so I have had to be very self-disciplined in deciding what to use. Stella Halkyard who looks after visual collections at the library and curated “Burning Bright” has been a great source of advice and arranged for me to see the massive volumes of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery which contain some fantastically spooky engravings of subjects from Shakespeare by Blake’s friends and foes.
I’ll be running this tour twice in June.
Burning Bright online
Once all the books in the exhibition have been returned to the stores at the end of Jun, “Burning Bright” will continue to burn in the shape of an online exhibition. This will provide a legacy for the exhibition itself and for the activities which have taken place alongside it. Work produced in the schools workshops is being photographed as are the fruits of printing workshops offered as part of the public programme. I will also be writing up a version of my Gothic tour.
The funding from the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project will help to pay for the photography of items in the collection for the online exhibition. This proposal came in part from discussions during the Afterlife training and afterwards with the team at the library. The images will be a sustainable resource for the online exhibition itself and for other projects at the library, and will be useful for my own and others’ research.
I was part of a meeting about the online exhibition last week and the provisional designs look great, so I’m excited about seeing how it will come together. I’ve come up with an idea for the structure which I need to discuss with the web team, and I need to finalise my order for the photography department, then start writing it all up.
An example of work produced in a printing workshop, inspired by one of Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job.
Naomi Billingsley, PhD candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester.