Monday, 9 May 2022

Paolozzi’s statue inspired by
Blake and Newtown brings
together belief and reason

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s 12-ft bronze sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton outside the British Library (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

As two of us walked from Euston station to King’s Cross at the weekend, we stopped at the British Library to admire Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s magnificent 12-foot bronze sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton.

Paolozzi’s statue in the Piazza was completed in 1995. It depicts Sir Isaac Newton in his search for knowledge, and has become, perhaps, the British Library’s most famous resident.

Paolozzi’s Newton is inspired by William Blake’s 1795 watercolour of Newton (1795) illustrating how Newton’s equations changed our view of the world to being one determined by mathematical laws.

Blake’s original watercolour shows Newton surrounded by the glories of nature but oblivious to it all. Instead, he is focused on reducing the complexity of the universe to mathematical dimensions, bending forward with his compass.

Paolozzi’s six-tonne sculpture was cast by the Morris Singer Foundry, established in 1848 and best known for the Trafalgar Square lions.

Sir Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (1924-2005) was a Scottish artist, known for his sculpture and graphic works. He is widely considered to be one of the pioneers of pop art. His interpretation of Newton was inspired by both Newton and Blake together – one representing science and the other representing poetry, art and the imagination.

He decided that this synthesis would be perfect for the British Library: ‘While Blake may have been satirising Newton, I see this work as an exciting union of two British geniuses. Together, they present to us nature and science, poetry, art, architecture – all welded, interconnected, interdependent.’

For example, in this sculpture, Newton’s body resembles a mechanical object, joined with bolts at the shoulders, elbows, knees and ankles, demonstrating the relationship between nature and science.

The architect Sir Colin St John Wilson commissioned this sculpture as it embodies the purpose of the British Library as a place serving humanity’s endless search for truth, both in the sciences and the humanities.

The statue is based on an extremely rare colour print and watercolour of Newton by William Blake that is now in the Tate Gallery. It is so rare, in fact, that only two versions of this print exist.

The mathematician, philosopher, physicist, astronomer, alchemist, theologian and author Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is widely recognised as one of the greatest mathematicians and physicists of all time and among the most influential scientists, and he was a key figure in the Enlightenment. His book, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), established classical mechanics. He formulated the laws of motion and universal gravitation that formed the dominant scientific viewpoint until it was superseded by the theory of relativity.

Newton was a fellow of Trinity College Cambridge and the second Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a devout but unorthodox Christian who privately rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. He refused to take holy orders in the Church of England, unlike most fellows of Cambridge colleges in the day.

He spent the last three decades of his life in London, as Warden (1696-1699) and Master (1699-1727) of the Royal Mint, and was President of the Royal Society in 1703-1727.

The poet, painter, and printmaker William Blake (1757-1827) was largely unrecognised when he died 100 after Newton. as an English. Today, however, Blake is seen as a seminal figure in the history of the poetry and the visual art of the Romantic Age. He lived almost his entire life in London and produced a diverse and symbolically rich collection of works that embrace the imagination as ‘the body of God’ or ‘human existence itself.’

Blake’s great works of art include his ‘Ancient of Days’ (1794), drawing on Daniel 7, while his best-known poem is ‘Jerusalem.’ In that poem, Blake described England over 200 years ago as a ‘green and pleasant land.’ When his poem was slightly altered by the composer Sir Hubert Parry, it became the unofficial anthem of England.

The poem, written as a tribute to John Milton, was inspired by a myth that Christ once travelled to England with Joseph of Arimathea, and that they had visited Glastonbury. This myth is reflected in the original title of Blake’s short poem, ‘And did those feet in ancient time.’

Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’ is contrasted sharply in his poem with an England that is being overrun by ‘dark Satanic Mills.’

It is not that Blake is yearning for a flight to the countryside from the cities of the Industrial Revolution. But looking at the Albion Flour Mills built in Southwark by John Rennie and Samuel Wyatt, he saw this tall new building as a symbol of the destruction of another era and of the oppression of the workers and their families.

Blake saw the new cotton mills and collieries of his time as a mechanism for the enslavement of the masses and the destruction of culture:
‘And all the Arts of Life they changed into the Arts of Death in Albion ...’

The words of the anthem are, paradoxically, an apocalyptic warning about a future England that is faced with choice between either embracing a more open way of life or of oppressing the masses.

William Blake’s notebook, with drafts of his poems and many drawings, is part of the manuscripts collection at the British Library. In Folio 12 in his notebook (‘The Rossetti Manuscript’), in pen and black ink with pencil, Blake has written part of the poem ‘You don’t believe’ along the left-hand edge.

In this poem Blake refers to Newton:

You don’t believe — I won’t attempt to make ye:
You are asleep — I won’t attempt to wake ye.
Sleep on! sleep on! while in your pleasant dreams
Of Reason you may drink of Life’s clear streams.
Reason and Newton, they are quite two things;
For so the swallow and the sparrow sings.

Reason says ‘Miracle’: Newton says ‘Doubt.’
Aye! That’s the way to make all Nature out.
‘Doubt, doubt, and don’t believe without experiment’:
That is the very thing that Jesus meant,
When He said ‘Only believe! believe and try!
Try, try, and never mind the reason why!’

So, in Paolozzi’s sculpture at the British Library, Blake’s belief in miracles can be seen to provide a contrast to Newton’s self-excluding observational stance.

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi’s sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton was inspired by William Blake’s watercolour (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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