This year marks the 350th anniversary of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, the story of the fall of Satan and the destruction of Paradise. With this in mind, Manchester’s Portico Library is staging an inspiring and enlightening exhibition.

Alongside the library’s own first edition of the illustrated text and associated volumes loaned from partner archives are drawings, paintings and textile works by contemporary female artists Chloë Manasseh, Helen Mather, Kate Shaw and Ilona Kiss, all invited by the Portico to respond to the themes of Milton’s masterpiece. Their work sits cheek by jowl with historic illustrations by John Martin, William Blake and Gustave Doré and others, offering new perspectives on age-old themes.

Portico Library, image by Paul HusbandWith Paradise Lost victim to a butchering in the 18th century by Richard Bentley, and later dogged by denials of Milton’s place in the canon (T.S. Eliot being the famous one), criticisms of this magnificent poem have been notable. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that women have rarely illustrated the work. While Paradise Lost may have been the first time that man was recognisable in Satan, Eve (as usual) bears little resemblance to the female sex. The artists involved in this exhibition have reacted mostly to notions of paradise with Ilona Kiss showing images of the fallen angel using her technique of realising the limbo between sleep and waking.

Portico Library, image by Paul HusbandI am intrigued by the similarities between Helen Mather’s Paradise Blanket and Kate Shaw’s landscapes. Shaw uses colours that celebrate every speck of a mountain range but also hold a synthetic beauty, a skin-deep, two-dimensional preen of colour hailing our superficial view of perfection. Mather’s work is grown organically from market research with various groups focusing on our ideas of paradise, how it looks, sounds and smells. Kiss and Chloe Manasseh have directly researched the Portico’s collection. Manasseh’s work – Delicious Paradise and Tender Grasses – are inspired by Milton’s descriptions. She has created voluptuous plants in sumptuous colours, all extravagantly painted with plump strokes. 

I love the artists chosen by the Portico, and how complex and abstract they are compared to the traditions implied by the other known artists on show. Kiss set alongside Blake seems to have the same conceptions, but where our focus is purposefully directed in Blake’s work, Kiss offers glimpses reflective of the ambiguity Milton created. What side Milton is on in the battle between good and evil has never been resolved, and no one can say for sure where his sympathy lay. His indulgence in language jars with his puritanism. His personification of Satan makes the devil attractive and instantly recognisable, yet his fall, and his failure, are revelled in. Paradise Lost, Portico Library, image by Paul Husband

From first-hand experience, I can tell you that employing a personification of Satan to depict mankind’s darker characteristics doesn’t mean that people will hate him. I used Milton’s fall of Satan as inspiration for the character Peter in my play The Bubbler, a man eaten up with bitterness whose only release is to rain down misery on others. I changed the ‘Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven’ to ‘Better to be the manager of Cash Generator than to serve on the counter at NatWest’. I thought I had created the worst person I could think of. Everyone loved him.

aradise Lost, Portico Library, by Paul HusbandEmma Marigliano and curator James Moss are passionate about their work. If you think about it, librarians and curators are gatekeepers to knowledge and inspiration, so it is perfect when they love what they do.

Moss told me: “Since taking on curating the exhibitions at The Portico Library just over a year ago I’ve worked towards making the most of its unique history and collection, plus the central location, to bring together grass-roots North West artists with established international contributors, all drawing inspiration and subject material from the collection.”

For me, one of the most exciting things about this exhibition is the work they wanted to show us but couldn’t. Among the 25,000 books at the library, there is an early copy of The Autobiography of Satan by John Relly Beard. They felt it would accompany the exhibition perfectly. But it has disappeared. This led my imagination – and that of my friend Lucia – to wander. We began concocting theories as to why it had disappeared, and talked of work we could write around it. Writers don’t need facts. We don’t need to know someone nicked it, or it fell down the back of a bookshelf. Our only our role is to find a good story to tell. As de Plancy says in his missing work: “Theologians should leave to the poets the depiction of Hell, and not themselves seek to frighten minds with hideous paintings and appalling books.”

And as Ian Brown says of our vanity and arrogance: “I don’t need to sell my soul, he’s already in me.”

By Cathy Crabb 

Photos by Paul Husband


You can find out about upcoming exhibitions at the Portico Library here