William Blake has long been a source of fascination for scholars and popular media alike; often portrayed as a tortured visionary, his unusual biography and unorthodox views on religion and free love have provided ample material for exploration. Having been relatively ignored during his lifetime, his work has since influenced the Pre-Raphaelites, Modernists such as Yeats and Paul Nash, and musicians from Vaughan Williams to Bob Dylan. Subsequently, the Ashmolean Museum’s ‘Master and Apprentice’ exhibition (running until March) has been remarkably popular, spawning a plethora of associated events from the wide-ranging Inspired by Blake festival, to last week’s ‘Heaven and Hell’ LiveFriday. These events, held on the last Friday of every month, open the museum to the public after hours, providing an evening of entertainment on a particular theme. Previous LiveFriday themes have included ‘Egyptomania’, based around the 2014 Tutankhamun exhibition, ‘The Art of Theatre’, and ‘LoveFriday’, but the Blake event was by far the best LiveFriday that I have been to. It struck the right balance between providing entertainment for both children and adults, managing to achieve an engaging immersion within Blake’s eclectic and captivating world.
The ‘Master and Apprentice’ exhibition highlights the multidisciplinary nature of Blake’s output, and the LiveFriday events took the opportunity to capitalise on this theme. The sheer variety of events on offer shows the extraordinary impact Blake’s influence has had across a variety of media, from live performances of Blake’s poetry to shadow puppet theatre. This was aided by a subtle change in format from the early LiveFridays, where many of the most interesting events were only accessible if you had pre-purchased tickets. For Blake Friday, however, all the events were free so long as you were prepared to queue. While this meant that I missed out on a couple of events that I would have been interested to see (such as the staging of Alan Ginsberg’s HOWL) due to the sheer number of people attending the evening, it meant that in three hours I got to see a new play by Howard Coase, a lecture on Blake, a talk about Blake and myth, and hear Schola Cantorum perform. This is in contrast to my previous experiences of LiveFriday, which mainly constituted ambling through the ongoing activities aimed primarily at a younger audience.
My evening started with Schola Cantorum’s stunning performance of vocal settings of Blake’s poetry. An inspired piece of programming placed John Tavener’s setting of ‘The Lamb’ alongside its partner poem from Songs of Experience, ‘The Tyger’, set by the Swedish composer Emil Råberg. The young composer is best known for his works for singers, taking up a residency with the South Iceland Chamber Choir in 2014. It was beautifully executed by the choir (especially by the bass section) and a delight to hear, particularly as Råberg’s work is rarely programmed in England. Another clear highlight of the evening was Howard Coase’s play As I Said, written for the LiveFriday. A familiar name from Oxford-based theatre, Coase’s works consistently prove themselves to be some of the most inventive new writing in Oxford, and As I Said is no exception. Inspired by Blake’s poetry and biography, the short dialogue examines perceptions of creativity and mental health in a clever and occasionally disconcerting way. At times humorous and at others decidedly uncomfortable, it confronts the Romantic, idealised notion of the psychologically tortured genius suffering for his art. The initial assumption is that Blake is speaking, and it is only towards the end of the play that the protagonist is revealed to be speaking from the 1950s, awaiting horrific brain surgery to try and cure them of their schizophrenia. While it may not have been the finest of Coase’s writing, it provided a novel slant on Blake’s biography and fulfilled its role for the evening perfectly.
A slightly more inexplicable experience was John Harris Dunning’s lecture entitled ‘Blake and Graphic Novels’. Given that Blake’s relief etchings were revolutionary in allowing for a complete integration of words and images, this seemed an obvious starting point for discussing Blake’s influence on the graphic novel, with Chapter V (entitled ‘Fearful Symmetry’) from Alan Moore’s Watchmen immediately springing to mind as a case study, closing as it does with lines from Blake’s poem ‘The Tyger’. However, the writer and curator managed to give an absolutely fascinating half-hour lecture that seemed to have very little to do with Blake and his relation to comics. The premise of his talk was that Blake’s visceral and unorthodox communication of his mysticism was crucial for the narrative and visual development of the graphic novel, so often concerned with expressions of the other-worldly and fantastic. From this point he proceeded to give an intriguing account of various personal explorations of spirituality, from the C17th occult philosopher John Dee and his companion Edward Kelly attempting to communicate with the dead (allegedly they fell out after Kelly claimed that the angels wanted Dee to share his wife with Kelly), to artist and poet Aleister Crowley’s organisation of drug-fuelled ‘happenings’. That Blake was able to express his visions in a unique and compelling way provided the frail link between these anecdotes, but it was only towards the close of the lecture that the graphic novel (or, indeed, Blake) surfaced, with the aforementioned chapter from Watchmen making the briefest of appearances. While the title may have been somewhat misleading, I nonetheless thoroughly enjoyed the lecture and learned a lot about Dion Fortune and her intriguingly titled novels.
As always, the intermittent periods spent wandering between events (this time accompanied by members of Oxford University Dramatic Society dressed as Blake’s visions) provided a wonderful opportunity to explore the museum’s regular exhibits, from Swedish runestones to pre-dynastic Egyptian material. I wish I could have seen more of the events, particularly OUDS’s performances of Blake’s poetry, and monologues from plays that explore hallucinations and visions, but clashes between some events on the programme were inevitable in such a packed schedule. The events that I did see were insightful, fun, and informative, and I look forward to the next LiveFriday.
For more information about the Blake exhibition or future LiveFridays, please visit the Ashmolean’s website.