Peyton Squires (final year Art History and French) has won the Wadsworth Prize for best review of the exhibition
Picturing Stories: British and French Romantic Illustrations
John Rylands Library, Friday, 9 August 2013 to Thursday, 9 January 2014
On display at the John Rylands Library in Deansgate Manchester until 9 January 2014, Picturing Stories: British and French Romantic Illustrations is a small exhibition covering the development of French and British Romantic illustration during the period 1770-1860. Acquired from the closer realms of Manchester’s own Whitworth Gallery and The Barber Institute of Fine Art in Birmingham, to the further afield intuitions of Paris’ Musée du Louvre, the works displayed in the exhibition traverse a wide range of French and British illustrations from the Romantic period showcasing the works of highly renowned artists such as Eugène Delacroix, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingre and William Blake, as well as the accompanying literary works by the likes of Byron, Dante and Walter Scott.
While there is a great deal for those with a keen interest in literature, art and illustration to enjoy, the accompanying labels and easy-to-read introductory pieces make the exhibition enjoyable for the general visitor and would complement any visit to the library, itself a place of significant cultural interest. In today’s society it would seem that the average citizen is habituated to the use of the image for illustrative purposes be it a photograph accompanying a newspaper article or illustrations lining the pages of a children’s book. That said, how many of us actually regard these as an art form rich in history and an artistic genre which has been practiced for countless centuries. Picturing Stories thereby provides an insightful look into the practice of illustration and how illustrations constituted as part of a number of well-renowned artists works such as Delacroix and Ingres. What is more, assuming that most visitors touring the library would simply view the books on their shelves as part of the interior decoration, in many ways the exhibition can be regarded as a testament to the often disregarded artistic genre of illustration, promoting the fact that the books flanking the shelves of the library are more than just century-old historical artefacts but many contain rich works of art.
Although the presence of the exhibition was not immediately clear upon entering the room the library atmosphere creates an excellent environment in which to regard at the images. The quiet, gothic surroundings seemed highly fitting to the Romantic era from which he illustrations derive, providing a poetic and almost sublime setting in which to view these imaginative, fantastical works, possibly reflecting the feelings of nostalgia and the sublime that these images would have had for the people seeing them at the time. Better still, through its setting the exhibition can be seen to presents a rare opportunity to view these works outside of the context of an art gallery and within the highly appropriate context of a library; a space much like the studies and other spaces in which many of these literary works were originally written. The way in which many of the illustrations are displayed within its original book with pages opened out portrays a sense of how the illustrations would have looked at the time.
As for the textual accompaniments to the exhibition, the introductory boards offer a concise and highly formative explanation of the historical, political and social background at the time, as well as the technical advancement of printing which went with it and helped to publish books ‘for a public avid for stories of adventure and romance’.
As is made clear by the exhibition introduction, the selected works effectively portray the exciting action and emotion of Romantic images and the reactions of curiosity, empathy and surprise intended for the viewer. Divided into interesting case studies such as The Crowd in the Revolution or Damsels in Distress, the layout of the works provides an ideal means by which to compare images on same theme, allowing the different works to form dialogues with one another and highlight to the spectator the similarities and differences between both well-known and lesser-known works within each range, be it a digital reproduction of an illustration or that within the original literary work. Moreover, the inclusion of certain sketches for illustrations provides an insightful visual understanding of the workings behind particular illustrations before the finished product, displaying how the final drawing or engraving may have differed from the original; something which is often not available to spectators viewing work in an art gallery.
The third case study, Sinners in ice: Dante’s Inferno, Canto 32, was especially interesting, displaying a fascinating range of illustrations, from Flaxman’s line drawing to the digital reproduction of Dorés illustration to L’Enfer de Dante Alighieri. It is interesting to note how each artist approached the theme. For example, in his pencil on paper drawing, Heads emerging from the ice, Delacroix places Dante and Virgil in the background of the scene, focussing instead on the sinners; a contrast to the works juxtaposed beside his.
As for the accompanying labels to the works, they were clear, providing concise and informative information explaining the narrative of each image whilst also providing relevant information including size, artist and the source of the image. A number of labels also noted how the style and techniques of the work were employed by artists to convey a certain meaning, as well as noting certain contrasts in style to other works exhibited under the same case study. That said, from an artistic point of view some labels could have been more informative in terms of the formal and painterly aspects of the images as opposed to focussing on the story and historical context of the image. The exhibition’s adjoining PDF with extended labels and additional information, however, is of significant use to those looking to grasp more knowledge and understanding of each individual work exhibited, which is also complemented by a large, informative introduction.
A DVD displaying a number of works showcased in the exhibition is also on display for visitors. With a voice-over narrating extracts from the literary works of each particular image displayed on the screen the DVD provides an insightful way for visitors to better understand the image and its narrative. Enabling viewers to focus on an image while hearing an extract to the literary work that it accompanies, this audio-visual tool also provides an accessible way for those with sight problems or children who cannot easily read the labels to access further information about the works in the exhibition. Assuming more funding was provided for the exhibition the DVD would have been much more effective if it was projecting onto a large screen with additional headphone sets.
Overall this is a well executed exhibition offering an invaluable chance for the public to view some rare literary works and their accompanying illustrations. The material has been well researched and the range of works evidently reinstate the exhibition’s rational, clearly and concisely displaying the development of French and British Romantic illustration.