Part 1 of Michael Phillips’s description of organizing the Ashmolean Blake exhibition of 2014–15 appeared last week. Here is the continuation.
SJ: Once you had the framework of Blake as apprentice and master, how did you determine which other works you wanted to include? What came next?
MP: First I needed to see the galleries that would be used for the exhibition. I also needed to obtain a floor plan to use at home to be able to check the wall space available for hanging exhibits and the floor space available for display cases.
There were four large rooftop galleries that had recently been built as an extension to the Ashmolean specially for temporary exhibitions. The three largest galleries would be used for the exhibition proper. With the help of the museum’s designer we established that together they could exhibit upwards of 200 objects of the sizes I had in mind. The much smaller fourth gallery would be used for ticket and catalogue sales, but there was also space to do something rather special to complement the exhibition. Here I would set up a nineteenth-century star-wheel rolling press and on specified days, as visitors exited the exhibition, I would print impressions from the replica relief-etched copper plates of the illuminated books that I had recreated.
Of the three main galleries the middle gallery has an extremely high ceiling of over 40 feet. At one end of this gallery there is a niche beneath the descending wall, measuring approximately 11 feet in depth by 8 feet in height and extending the width of the gallery. This immediately struck me as a space in which to recreate Blake’s printmaking studio located in the ground floor front room at No. 13 Hercules Buildings from 1791 to 1800. The width of the ground floor was almost exactly that of the depth of the niche and the height that of the ceilings in Hercules Buildings. Using part of this space, Blake’s printmaking studio could be reconstructed to scale, the walls of the niche forming the sides of the studio, with the fourth side left entirely open to view; as though the wall separating the passage from Blake’s printmaking studio that ran down the right side of of No. 13 Hercules Buildings from the front door to the back had been taken down, leaving the room exposed to view. Beneath the niche would be Blake’s studio, with the works on display extending out and beyond it; the same works that of course had been produced in his actual studio in Lambeth on his wooden copper-plate rolling press, exactly like the one that I would research and have built to be seen here in the exhibition. On the wall above the niche stretching up to the gallery ceiling I envisioned reproducing on a giant scale the figure of Los at his anvil from plate 73 of Jerusalem.
The three galleries also offered a natural division with which to define and mark off into three sections the narrative of the exhibition. The first gallery would be concerned with Blake’s education, his attendance at Langford’s auction rooms, Pars’s drawing school, apprenticeship to Basire, Westminster Abbey, the Royal Academy Schools, Poetical Sketches, An Island in the Moon, Tiriel and his early commercial work. The theme of the second gallery would be innovation, Blake now the master artist-printmaker, creator of the illuminated books, a unique method of colour printing, and his invention of the monotype leading to the Large Colour Prints of 1795. Finally, inspiration would be the theme to develop in the third gallery, taking the narrative into Blake’s last years, his 1809 exhibition, the illustrations to Virgil’s Pastorals, the illustrations to the Book of Job and to Dante, and of course the Ancients, how the young Samuel Palmer, Edward Calvert and even younger George Richmond were inspired by Blake, by what they saw and learned from him during their visits to the Blakes’ two rooms in Fountain Court.
Returning to Edinburgh I spent the next several months working out in detail for each gallery the exhibits to hang on the walls and display in cases, all in the hope that they would be granted and in the end bring the story to life. For each prospective lender I would need to draft a loan request to be signed off by the director before being sent out, amounting to more than 30 institutions and private collectors, in addition to detailed requests for loans to submit to the Bodleian Library, Oxford college libraries, as well requests to exhibit works from Ashmolean’s collections. From having curated exhibitions for Tate Britain and especially the more recent exhibition for Paris, I knew that everything would depend upon these requests being successful.
I had learned the hard way that such applications were not to be taken for granted. When I was invited to be guest curator of the exhibition of Blake mounted by Tate Britain, my special responsibility was for creating what became known as the Lambeth section. For this I drew up a list of Blake’s works from the period as well as secondary works that for the first time illustrated the political and social contexts of Blake’s life and work at the time, including prints, photographs and related historical documents—for example, from the Public Record Office the records of political prisoners in Newgate. I then submitted my lists to my colleague on the curatorial staff of Tate Britain, Robin Hamlyn, who prepared the loan requests that were then signed off and sent out and without exception granted, an elaborate and protracted bureaucratic process that I was kept all but entirely and blissfully ignorant of from first to last.
When I was invited to curate the exhibition of Blake for Paris the experience was very different, not least as I was left to negotiate all of the loans myself until everything was in readiness for the City of Paris to make formal application. I began by making enquiries with various potential lenders as to what loans would be available, naïvely assuming that every institution in Britain with substantial holdings of works by Blake would be keen to support the first major exhibition of Blake in France. At least one major institution refused outright to help and many others hesitated. I turned to my friend Randal Keynes and through him to the family of the late Sir Geoffrey Keynes and was greeted with warmth and enthusiasm for the project and that of course works on loan from Sir Geoffrey’s collection that were still in the possession of the family would be available to loan to Paris, a project Geoffrey would have responded to enthusiastically. One institution after another then agreed to help until I had gathered the loans I needed from nearly 30 different lenders, including works from all the major collections of Blake in Britain, except the first I had approached. Armed with loan agreements for works by Blake from every major and minor institution in Britain I asked again if they still preferred not to have a presence in Paris for the first major exhibition of Blake in France. I was granted what I needed.
Gathering the loans for the exhibition in Paris had also made me aware that any work that had been exhibited in recent years would not be available because it had to be “rested”, that is, stored away from exposure to light for 10 years or more to preserve it for later generations. In this respect the great demand for works by Blake for exhibition had limited what would be available. Then there was the matter of a conservation report required to establish that the work was in sound condition. If the work was in sound condition, and available for consideration, only then would an application be considered.
An application for each work was required and each and every application had to justify why it should be included in the exhibition. For example, if the work was one of a sequence of preliminary drawings and touch proofs leading to the production of one of Blake’s great graphic images, it would be crucial to show each significant stage in the sequence to appreciate the evolution of the work to completion. For example, never before had all three examples of any one of the Large Colour Prints been exhibited together side by side, demonstrating that each version of the same image was in fact distinct, a true monotype. This was the justification I used successfully to be able for the first time to show all three examples of The House of Death side by side.
It was crucial to begin the process by first making informal enquiries to sound out what the response to a particular request would be before formal application was entered into. This took months, involving numerous phone calls, emails, letters, visits, lunches and suppers. Only when everything was set was I in a position to draft the loan application justifying the works needed from that institution to pass on to the museum to be signed off by the director and posted. So when it came to applying for the 200 or so loans that would be needed to mount the exhibition at the Ashmolean I knew what I was up against, or so I thought. At least, so I assumed, such protracted negotiations and detailed justifications would not be needed in applying for loans within Oxford.