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This article is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

Pictures from a Library 17: George Cumberland Stella Halkyard

Laura Caradonna with George Cumberland’s fossil.
Laura Caradonna with George Cumberland’s fossil.
Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and the Director of The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

In William Blake’s exquisite watercolour Newton (1795/1805), held in the Tate’s collection, the naked form of the scientist, presented in profile, is caught in a moment of great concentration, wielding a pair of compasses and conjuring mathematical shapes. Picturing science but producing art, Blake presents Newton as an emblem of rational thought, sharp and governed by rules. This is a way of knowing to which Blake is opposed. Instead, his creative attention is lavished on the rock on which Newton sits. Blake encrusts this rock with myriad mysterious miniature life forms, which shimmer with colour and shape. And it is this world of lustre and light that Newton, the reductive scientist, firmly turns his back on.
Meanwhile, many miles away in Manchester, Laura Caradonna, a scientist of a different kind, is carefully cleaning an album of drawings in the Conservation Studio of the John Rylands Library. The book she works on carries a label pasted to the cover, which tells us that it contains drawings of ‘fossil heads of ecrinates and pentacrinites’ which were made by the late George Cumberland, author and amateur artist, and friend to William Blake.

As strata of dirt and detritus are removed with skills perfected at the British Library, the National Archives and the libraries of ...

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