The Blake Archive’s April 2021 publication is an exhibition on Blake’s biblical illustrations. This is the story of how it came to be.
In 2017 Sheila Spector wrote to the editors of the archive about a list that she had compiled of Blake’s biblical illustrations, ordered by book and verse. She wondered if the archive could serve as a repository for this resource, which the Blake community could update and correct, like a wiki.
While the archive didn’t have an obvious place, the Blake Quarterly, which has a tradition of publishing useful lists, accepted it. Then, in 2018, I discovered that the archive was about to inaugurate a wing devoted to digital exhibitions. What if we could build a future exhibition around some of the illustrations in the list?
I wrote to Sheila with the idea and she responded encouragingly. Kendall DeBoer, a University of Rochester graduate student who was an archive assistant at the time, assessed the number of works on the list that were already in the archive and established that there was plenty of material to draw on.
For the annual Blake Archive planning meeting—known as Blake Camp—in 2019, I made a short video presentation of the concept, and got the green light to solicit contributions. The group developed organically: Sheila, of course; Kendall, who was already involved; Naomi Billingsley, who had recently published a book on Blake’s visionary art; Jared Powell, a UNC graduate student and archive assistant who has a degree in religious studies; and Jennifer Davis Michael, who was enthusiastic about the idea when she heard of it from Sheila. I am proud that this is the first exhibition with participants beyond the UNC, California, and Rochester archive teams.
Each contributor decided on a theme, picked the images that s/he wished to discuss, and set to work, so that by the time of the virtual Blake Camp in 2020 we had several drafts to present as proof that the exhibition was taking shape. One of the meeting’s agenda items is always the publication schedule for the upcoming year, and I requested a spot “soon, but not too soon,” which is how we secured an April 2021 date.
Between then and now we have finished and edited the submissions and received much assistance from the UNC team in transforming Word documents into the exhibition format and preparing images. I knew in theory how the layout would look, but the first time I saw all the images gathered together in the gallery space I was quite moved.
Many of the illustrations have already been published in the archive (under the categories of Water Color Drawings Illustrating the Bible and Paintings Illustrating the Bible), some are works for which the archive has images that it hasn’t yet published (such as the Westminster Abbey drawings that are now at the Bodleian Library), and a few come from outside sources. We’re grateful to the New Art Gallery, Walsall, for providing an image of Christ in the Carpenter’s Shop and allowing us to display it in Jennifer’s gallery. It’s especially interesting when two contributors discuss the same illustration from different perspectives: Jared examines Gothic influences in The Judgment of Solomon, while Sheila looks at it from an esoteric point of view.
To return to the beginning of the tale, we have made Sheila’s list available—there’s a link in the introduction that precedes the galleries. It can’t be edited in a community fashion, but we hope that visitors to the exhibition will download it and find it valuable for their own explorations of Blake’s biblical art.