The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Although I lived for three years barely a mile up from the British Library, I never went inside it. To compound this heinous sin, I did not obtain the (much in demand) reader's card I was entitled to as a student at the Cass Business School. What can I say: procrastination and ennui undid me. So now, if I ever want to do path-breaking research into the beginnings of art appreciation in London, say, I will have to jump through various hoops to (first) prove I am a bonafide researcher, and (second) to obtain the card that will admit me to the wondrous archives at this, the greatest repository of human knowledge.

But that's not the intent of this post. I want to talk to about the remarkably ugly bronze statue of a man wielding dividers that appears in the courtyard of the Library. I flinch every time I see it as I walk by on Euston Road. The muscles bulge, the head is over-large, the hair is somewhat decrepit and the whole crouching pose is reminiscent of a slave about to be beaten. I have often wondered who concocted this monstrosity (fascinating and repellent in equal measure though it is) and have since discovered the answer.

That fanatically religious and hallucinating artist and poet William Blake (he of Tyger, tyger, burning bright fame) created an etching in 1795 of Isaac Newton, skulking in isolation at the bottom of the sea and making measurements with a geometric device. Blake was opposed to the single-minded and narrow vision, as he saw it, of scientific materialism, a doctrine that was opposed to his own conception of the Universe and God's place in it. Blake's Newton is heroic in a sense - keenly concentrating and adamant in his pursuit of knowledge - but shows up his folly and lack of imagination in assuming that a mechanistic explanation for Creation is also a complete explanation. A God, Blake said, whose actions could be reduced to numbers and weights and measures, is no God, but only a demiurge acting out of compulsion and ignorance. His poem Jerusalem has the following section that fulminates against the Newtonian view:

For Bacon & Newton sheathd in dismal steel, their terrors hang
Like iron scourges over Albion, Reasonings like vast Serpents
Infold around my limbs, bruising my minute articulations

I turn my eyes to the Schools & Universities of Europe
And there behold the Loom of Locke whose Woof rages dire
Washd by the Water-wheels of Newton: black the cloth
In heavy wreathes folds over every Nation; cruel Works
Of many Wheels I view, wheels without wheels, with cogs tyrannic
Moving by compulsion each other; not as those in Eden: which
Wheel within Wheel in freedom revolve in harmony and peace

For whatever reason, the designers of the new British Library decided that a solid, heroic version of Newton would grace the piazza, ignoring Blake's underlying agenda. The Scottish sculptor, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, was tasked with its execution, and we see the result now: a four metre tall bronze crouching vision of homely concentration.


1. Christopher B. Kaiser: Creational Theology and the History of Physical Science (pp 328-329). Brill (1997).


Anonymous said...

Just Brilliant.
The etching. The sculpture - or rather idea of installing it there.
And your post.

Hi 5 to you!

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