Author Footnotes with Karen Mulhallen
Blake in Our Time began with a big bang. It was May 2006, my birthday, and I was in New York for a kind of a wake. Scores of Blake scholars, collectors, and booksellers gathered in New York City to witness the dividing up of a body of Blake work, a narrative sequence of water colour designs which were Blake’s preliminary meditations on Robert Blair’s The Grave. The designs had recently been discovered in a bin of a Scottish bookseller. The subsequent history, to their appearance in the auction room at Sotheby’s New York is a drama in itself, and a fairly egregious one. The Tate Gallery, among other bidders, had attempted to buy the drawings for the ‘British nation’ from the consortium who owned them, but the Tate was unable to meet the seller’s price. And so the drawings, which had never been seen or studied and which form a narrative of Blake’s own making, a sort of illumination of Robert Blair’s poem, were being broken apart as a sequence and sold each to the highest bidder.
The night before the sale, we lovers of Blake, forty or more, scholars, collectors, booksellers gathered in an upper east side Greek restaurant to dine – a last supper. The supper had been organized by G.E. Bentley Jr. and his wife Beth. Many had flown thousands of miles to get there, from the UK and from California, from Iowa City and Toronto, from North Carolina and Rhode Island.
Among the gatherers was the venerable scholar John E. Grant and a festschrift in his honour had recently been edited by Alexander Gourlay of the Rhode Island School of Design. And that was my Eureka! As I sat at the table, I asked myself why there hadn’t been a festschrift in GEB’s honour, after all with Grant he was the most senior of the bunch of us.
The next morning the sale took place and the following morning I grabbed a cab to head back to Laguardia airport to take my plane to Toronto. Twenty minutes later a big bang, as I flew through the air, hit a shield and a metal hinge between the driver’s seat and the back seat and fell out onto the highway.
So the festschrift (and the exhibition and symposium which followed in August 2010) began under strange and painful circumstances, but once begun the love and respect and gratitude of four generations of Blake scholars came forward to make a celebration of Bentley’s contributions, his legacy to Blake studies. All new work, all work created under Bentley’s historical, bibliographic, chalcographic, and cultural rubric.
Although the accident has left a permanent scar on my forehead, and Blake’s Grave drawings are now scattered to the four corners of the earth, never to be joined again, something grand came out of that gathering of scholars and that sense of the unity of Blake’s creation and of the critical importance of Bentley’s contributions to our understanding of Blake’s vision.
Karen Mulhallen is the editor of Blake in Our Time: Essays in Honour of G.E. Bentley, Jr.