As today is the anniversary of the birth of Sir Isaac Newton (according to the Gregorian calendar at least, although Newton himself was actually born on Christmas Day, 1642, under the Julian calendar), this seemed an opportune moment to discuss the image that has become part of the logo for this site and has, for me, long served as a good example of zoamorphosis in action.
Blake’s iconic image of Newton, compass in hand, was first designed circa 1795 and another version printed in 1805. Although, as with so many of Blake’s designs, somewhat neglected during his lifetime, it became one of Blake’s exceptional images during the twentieth century, not least insofar as it influenced Eduardo Paolozzi, the sculptor responsible for the huge bronze outside the British Library.
This version, unveiled in 1995, was not the first time Paolozzi, who initially trained as a commercial artist at Edinburgh before being introduced to Surrealism at the Slade in the 1940s, is not the sculptor’s first treatment of Blake’s rendition of Britain’s most famous scientist. Paolozzi’s interest in Blake began during his time at the Slade when Blake was regularly displayed at the Tate under the directorship of Sir John Rothenstein, and intensified when Francis Bacon produced his studies of Blake’s life mask in the 1950s.
Paolozzi has spoken of his admiration for Blake’s idiosyncratic classicism (for example in his illustration of Laocöon) and he first began working on Newton inspired models in plaster and other materials (after the manner of Canova’s terracotta “sketches”) in the mid to late eighties. In “Master of the Universe”, produced in 1989, he began to mechanise the form of Newton, as well as adding some personalised touches such as glasses that accentuated the links Paolozzi found with Newton as well as Blake.
In an interview with Fiona Pearson not long after the British Library statue was unveiled, Paolozzi said that he enjoyed the “ironic tension between Blake’s castigation of Newton’s wish to order the universe and the accepted wisdom that one should celebrate Newton’s intellect and discoveries”. This draws attention to a double play of mutation that takes place within the image: Newton, as the classical imago of British science and rational enlightenment, is transformed by Blake into the beautiful but static (and, indeed, statuesque) image of Urizenic rationalism, almost blind to the beauties of the strange, submerged world around him in Blake’s colour print.
Paolozzi, in good, Blakean style (remember, this is the artist who insists that he must create his own system or be enslaved by another man’s) refuses to accept his Romantic forebear’s conception of the great demi-god Newton. Instead, he converts the marble-painted eyes to bronze and adds a pair of spectacles, instruments of myopia certainly, but also a focus for the task of concentration that he must perform as an artist. Blake’s Newton inspires Paolozzi again and again, but not towards any slavish copy: rather, as a true artist, his business is not to reason and compare but to create his own vision.