Category Archives: Art

Asleep or hallucinating: artistic responses to literature

The final Reading Art talk today rounded off the series nicely, with an excellent talk by Richard Schofield, Lecturer in Visual Communications at BCU. With particular reference to his work ‘I am still asleep’, a response to William Golding’s novel Pincher Martin, he discussed the ways in which an artist might respond to literature, raising some fascinating questions. This work, involving Richard’s immersion in the novel and creative responses to it, is not illustration; rather, he describes it as collaboration (with Faber & Faber’s agreement, if not Golding’s – though I’m sure the writer would have approved). Golding’s writing, often abstract in its descriptions, suggests atmosphere rather than concrete ideas, and it is these to which Richard’s work corresponds.


An ‘unfixed, or floating narrative’, characteristic of his previous projects, also appears in this work, in text which swoops around the images, virtually transparent.

I was struck by a quotation from Theodore Adorno which exemplifies Richard’s work:

The after-life of artworks […] transpires between a do-not-let-yourself-be-understood and a wanting-to-be-understood: this tension is the atmosphere inhabited by art.

After all, if you want to say something, art isn’t the quickest way to do it – but it might be the most powerful, or creative: atmosphere and ambiguity work together to create this tension. This collaboration allows the artist to use the work of literature as a filter to express his own subjectivity, bringing to it all kinds of other approaches, emotions, interests, etc. As Richard pointed out, visual and conceptual ideas are fused in writing, using a palette of words, which generates ideas. But the words are mechanical, selected from a tool-box of language, while the paint is molecular, about expressing thought in a different medium.


Richard’s latest work, ‘Slow Wet Tar‘, is on display at the Parkside Building, BCU, now.




‘Poetry is painting that speaks’

Poet Bethany Rivers, who is interested in ekphrasis and how poetry and painting are mutually inspirational, gave a reading and talk for the penultimate Reading Art lecture. She has been inspired by a number of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which gave rise to a particularly interesting discussion about Millais’ Ophelia and the ways in which Hamlet inspired both the painting and Bethany’s poem.

Bethany talked about ekphrastic practice, quoting Plutarch: ‘Painting is silent poetry, and poetry is painting that speaks’. The way poetry might describe a painting represents the poet’s view, of course, not every viewer’s image, and this potential for creating new images with words is a fruitful topic for a poet. Bethany read from her forthcoming book Off the Wall, which is entirely ekphrastic, and the audience enjoyed a lively discussion ranging from feminism to Shakespeare.

Painting and Poetry: Dante and Arthurian Myth

Paolo and FrancescaThe latest Reading Art talk, which I gave, was on particular works in the BMAG collection, focusing on works inspired by Dante and Arthurian myths. The subjects appeal to my own interest in myth, and I talked about two Dante-inspired works: Alexander Munro’s Paolo and Francesca (which I blogged about before), and the ever-popular Beata Beatrix. I read relevant extracts of poetry (from Rossetti’s translation, of course) and talked about the literary context. This is the sonnet from the Vita Nuova which I read to accompany Beata Beatrix:

To every heart which the sweet pain doth move,
And unto which these words may now be brought
For true interpretation and kind thought,Beata Beatrix (BMAG)
Be greeting in our Lord’s name, which is Love.
Of those long hours wherein the stars, above,
Wake and keep watch, the third was almost nought,
When Love was shown me with such terrors fraught
As may not carelessly be spoken of.
He seemed like one who is full of joy, and had
My heart within his hand, and on his arm
My lady, with a mantle round her, slept;
Whom (having wakened her) anon he made
To eat that heart; she ate, as fearing harm.
Then he went out; and as he went, he wept.

We also looked at Emma Sandys’ Lady Holding a Rose, and discussed Morgan le fayher representations of Arthurian women, followed by her brother Frederick’s depiction of Morgan le Fay. Finally, I talked about his Medea, which I’ve written about in more detail here.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of these talks is that people ask such interesting questions; afterwards, I spoke to a number of people who had attended, including a clergyman, a researcher and an A-level Art student, which was wonderful; it’s fascinating to hear the different approaches people have, and to enjoy stimulating conversation about mutual interests.

The next talk is this Saturday, April 16th, by Louise Chapman of Birmingham City University, talking about ‘Performing Aestheticism: Aesthetic Dress as Performance’.

Pre-Raphaelite paintings of The Lady of Shalott

On Saturday the first of the Reading Art talks took place at BMAG, given by Maria Cohut, a doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick. I can’t possibly do justice to Maria’s talk in a blog post, but she explored the poem and the paintings which it inspired in a way which really encouraged me to think about the interpretative gap between poetry and paintings – something that Tennyson himself was well aware of, in his criticisms of the illustrations for the Moxon Tennyson, which he often felt weren’t sufficiently close to the details of the poem. For Tennyson, poetry was the defining art, then (as well as the first chronologically) and thus images inspired by it should be faithful to it. But for the painters inspired by the poem, their art was inextricably linked to that of the poet, but nonetheless separate; their own interpretation was significant to them. Maria’s readings of the poem and paintings bridged this interpretative gap creatively – and made me think about the Lady’s hair in a whole new light! Below are some of the images she discussed – some more familiar than others.

Waterhouse The Lady of Shalott
John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott, 1888 (Tate Britain)
Half sick of shadows
John William Waterhouse, ‘I Am Half-Sick of Shadows’ said the Lady of Shalott, 1915 (Art Gallery of Ontario)


John William Waterhouse, The Lady of Shalott Looking at Lancelot 1894 (Leeds Art Gallery)
Holman Hunt
William Holman Hunt, The Lady of Shalott, 1905 (Wadsworth Atheneum)
Elizabeth Siddal, The Lady of Shalott at her Loom (n.d.), Jeremy Maas Gallery
Darvall, Henry, active 1848-1889; The Lady of Shalott
Henry Darvall, The Lady of Shalott, 1848-51 (Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage)
Sidney Meteyard, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, 1913 (private collection)
William Maw Egley, The Lady of Shalott, 1858 (Museums Sheffield)

Pre-Raphaelite Storytelling

An afternoon telling stories to children at BMAG was great fun. Using stories they had developed themselves based on the paintings in the Pre-Raphaelite galleries, students told stories to small groups of children, and we also read a few fairy tales and poems which were relevant to different paintings. It made me think about the different uses that stories have – and about how we can look at a painting and see a completely different story, if we want. The children who joined in were fascinated, thankfully! I spoke to a father of three girls who said he was delighted to have found an event which engaged his girls in art, encouraging them to look closely at the pictures and to think about what might be happening in the paintings, so it was definitely a worthwhile event!

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Children’s event: storytelling at BMAG

Easter Storytelling event for children of all ages at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

On Wednesday 6th and Thursday 7th April, 1-3pm, students from Birmingham City University’s School of English will be telling stories inspired by Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the Pre-Raphaelite Galleries, as part of the Reading Art project. This is a free event and no booking is required – just drop in and find us.

The students attended a storytelling workshop with professional storyteller Dawn Powell, where they learned a range of skills about telling stories. They then developed their own stories based on the Pre-Raphaelite paintings in the gallery. They are new to this but have learned a lot and their stories reflect their own creativity and enthusiasm, and it promises to be an entertaining event! Please come along and see us!