Working as I do at the university allows me the occasional pleasure of a visit in my lunch break to the Whitworth Art Gallery. I was drawn in on this particular visit by this spring’s William Blake exhibitions. William Blake, Urizen in Chains

The two concurrent exhibitions offer a substantial quantity and breadth of Blake related material to peruse – if I were an enthusiast I would have found a single lunch break, even that of PhD student, too short a time to take it all in.

However, I am not an enthusiast and I entered with only a vague familiarity of Blake’s visual style and little understanding of his poetry.

First up was Mind Forged Manacles, the show exploring Blake and slavery. Here we see Blake’s reaction to both the enslaving of people, to which he was fiercely opposed, and the enslaving of the mind – those ‘mind forg’d manacles’, to which he seems to have had an uncommon insight and awareness of.

Over and again I peered at engravings and watercolours that powerfully and often unnaturally expressed the struggle from chains to freedom. The rich and powerful man, with all his ability to control the lives of others, is a slave to his own minds greed and wants. In a worse place, perhaps, than even the slave in iron chains who at least is aware and yearns for freedom.

It seems clear that Blake thought mental chains to be as significant, as desperate, and as crippling, as physical chains, though perhaps not aching with the same pangs of injustice.

‘I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.’ – A quote form Jerusalem (the origin of that famous anthem) is written large on the wall of the exhibition.

I was particularly interested by (and perhaps could most quickly relate to) the reference to ‘Chains of reason – the mind self enclosed and confined, unable in its self absorption to reach beyond the rational’ – a sentiment echoed by G. K. Chesterton’s writings on the limits of the rational logician.

The second exhibition, Blake’s Shadow, explores the influence of Blake from his life to the present day. I confess to being slightly less enthusiastic about this side of the show. The mental power required to grasp the often subtle links and references had faded somewhat in a post lunch slump. It is clear that to fully appreciate this you must be willing to put the work in.

I was grateful, however, of the peaceful moments I enjoyed with headphones on listening to a varied landscape of Blake inspired music, including Billy Bragg’s Jerusalem, Fat Les’s of the same, The Fugs, with ‘Ah! Sunflower weary of time’, Nick Drake, David Axelrod, The Doors, Bob Dylan… a veritable aural feast, and a delightful way to round off my visit.

Drop in and take a look if you get a chance (exhibition runs until the 6th April), but don’t expect to be blown away by overpowering wall hangings, as nearly all of Blake’s powerful and evocative images are smaller than an A4 sheet of paper.