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Spirals, Orbs, Stars: Blake, Watts, and the Geometry of Creation

Research Lunch – Sarah Weston

  • 16 February 2024
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Online

In many ways, William Blake (1757–1827) and George Frederic Watts (1817–1904) were entirely different artists. Blake died in relative obscurity, a “Pictor Ignotus”; Watts catapulted to meteoric fame during his lifetime. Blake derided Venetian artists for their muddy colours and mushy forms, preferring hard, bounded, wiry outlines; Watts embraced the exact kind of art Blake reviled, melting colours and shapes, diffusing figures and forms into wispy, atmospheric vapours. Yet, for all their differences, Watts and Blake were wonderfully kindred spirits. This paper puts these two visionary artists into conversation, arguing that Blake’s symbolism, mythology and cosmic vision of the universe were deeply embedded in Watts’s artistic psyche. Sketching a shared vocabulary of orbs, circles, spirals, geometer-Gods and whirlwinds of creation, this paper examines these two bookends to the nineteenth century alongside contemporaneous mathematical texts and drawings, focusing particularly on Blake’s roiling creation story, The First Book of Urizen(1794), and Watts’s plans for The House of Lifeseries (begun in 1848) – two projects that attempted, or dared, to capture the cosmic swirl of the universe.

Image credit: William Blake, A Prophecy, Plate 1, Frontispiece, 1794, colour-printed relief etching in dark brown ink, with oil, watercolour, and pen and black ink. Image courtesy of the Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1992.8.4(1)

About the speaker

  • Sarah Weston is an Assistant Professor of English and Art History (by courtesy) at Washington University in St. Louis.  

    She specializes in art and literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a particular interest in William Blake, Romanticism, and the history of science and mathematics. Weston is currently working on a two-book study of Romantic art, literature, and mathematics, investigating the invention of our modern relationship to numbers and data. Her work has been generously supported by the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, Huntington Library, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale Center for British Art, Lewis Walpole Library, Gale, and the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Weston leads several digital humanities projects, including BlakeTint, which traces Blake’s shifting use of color across the illuminated books. When she is not researching, teaching, or writing, you can find her in the printshop, learning and replicating eighteenth- and nineteenth-century printmaking techniques. Weston holds B.A. degrees with honors and distinction in Art History and English from Stanford University, an MPhil in Eighteenth-Century and Romantic Literature from the University of Cambridge, and a PhD in both History of Art and English from Yale University.