Terror & Wonder at The British Library; October 2014
As I scuttled along the train tracks into the smoke to visit the British Library’s new exhibition Terror and Wonder; The Gothic Imagination I started to ask myself a few questions about Gothic culture, such as, where will they start the story? Where will objects come into the presentation (for that is important to me from my perspective) and how important will they be in the presentation of the theme? …And come to think of it how does one distill the Gothic into a sentence?
My questions were answered rather emphatically for the most part. Arriving, the exhibition is suitably dark, lit atmospherically, and its use of colour is sparse; all understandable of course given the theme though when colour is used it is quite magnificent. The large and imposing luminous LED electric white sign looms as one enters immediately giving you a sense of wonderment, of spectacle, and reminding one that it is not all doom and gloom in the Gothic psyche. There are chinks of light; recurring themes of romance, often unrequited, in its purest form, myth, magic and music all dart like fireflies from the more gruesome and murky undergrowth.
Horace Walpole’s ‘The Castle of Otranto’ of 1764 is the suitable starting marker on the darkly lit map that wonders through the well-plotted labyrinthine Gothic narrative. Walpole had a marked interest in interiors and design and as such transformed the legendary Strawberry Hill into a Gothic hymn od design, his collection of objects were not relics to him but they instead fired his imagination as the ‘Gothic Bard’, which I thought was so important to note. He went to the trouble of creating large pieces of furniture from scratch to fit with his personal idea of what the Gothic mantra should represent, and a replica of a large mirror that still resides in Strawberry Hill greets you in the exhibition as you wander down the staircase. The reproduction didn’t speak to me in the way the original would, as with these copies, that can never be achieved, but it did illustrate the lengths Walpole was prepared to go in his quest to be fully in tune with all that is Gothic.
Glorious books and manuscripts line many of the display cabinets, showcasing illuminated texts from Frankenstein to Dracula, from authors such as Eyre, Shelley, Dickens, the Brontes, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Poe and Stoker but I was most looking forward to seeing Edward Young’s ‘Night Thoughts’ which were illustrated by the wonderful William Blake. These large plates were typically beautifully illustrated by Blake in the most imaginative and captivating ways. Moving on, it was also good to again to be reminded of ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, the final novel by Charles Dickens. The novel was unfinished at the time of Dickens's death and his ending for it is unknown. Consequently, the identity of the murderer remains subject to debate. The theme of mystery in the Gothic movement is always apparent, and this, coupled with the moody atmosphere (even the very name of Edwin is distinctly Gothic) and the mazy cobbled Victorian streets, make for a Gothic treat of the first order.
Other ephemeral highlights included the Penny Dreadfuls of the Victorian era, the most notable being that of Sweeney Todd. These wonderful little odes to Gothic, now fragments lost to a new age, were lurid serial stories appearing in parts over a number of weeks, each part costing one penny. Graphically they were fascinating.
My eyes then wondered to a photograph of the Bronte sister’s house, The Parsonage, which immediately got me animated. Typical of strong Georgian country house architecture, it was surrounded by moorland and a graveyard, and was impossibly romantic. Yet, it had something that one could not put ones finger on. For me there is always that element with the very best Gothic infused objects or buildings; these physical structures possess something otherworldly, not always, and it is never forced, but they do exist. Staying with the location theme, Whitby, in Yorkshire, gets its inevitable and worthy nod as the modern-day capital of Gothic culture, and it is close to my own heart, having visited many times as a child with family close by. It still provides one today with a place to escape to, quite distinctly another world.
Returning from my daydream with the scent of sea air in my nostrils and back to the exhibition in earnest it became apparent quickly that although the use of manuscripts and fiction is an essential route for the exhibition to reference texts alongside new or recurring Gothic themes, the exhibitions use of three-dimensional objects was where my interest piqued. These included what at first glance I thought to be a mystery clock but turned out to be an 1840s alarm clock featuring a skeleton at the helm of a ships wheel, the whole resting on a coffin. Wonderfully realised, if a little garish, it captured what a lot of Gothic matter tries to do; IE the memento mori, or reminder of death but portrayed in playful or humorous way and by doing this it essentially tries to alleviate any fear that one has of ones own passing.
Another source of wonderment was that of the rather whimsically named ‘Dr Dee’s Spirit Mirror’ used by the Elizabethan mathematician, astrologer and magician John Dee (1527-1608/9) as a 'shew-stone', one of many polished translucent or reflective objects which he used as tools for his occult research. The mirror, made of highly-polished obsidian (volcanic glass), was one of many Mexican cult objects and treasures brought to Europe after the conquest of Mexico by Cortés between 1527 and 1530. This had a huge magnetic pull to people in exhibition and as such I had to wait a little while to properly view it. As the best dealers will tell you, it is the story that an object harbors that sells it, if one has to do any of this work for it, it is not as desirable as it could be; needless to say the mirror needed no conjuring of stories, it simply shouted them through its Perspex cage.
The Pièce de résistance object wise, and one that will garner the most press attention, was surely the very fine example of a vampire slaying kit. It comprised of a two-tier metamorphic mahogany casket with the top layer containing a percussion cap pistol with an octagonal barrel for firing silver bullets (silver was thought to kill a Vampire immediately). The lid holds a crucifix and rosary beads, to ward off ‘evil spirits’ with the main section holding three glass phials, including 'holy water' and 'holy earth' (which I though a nice touch). Then there was the obligatory mallet and four wooden stakes, plus a Book of Common Prayer, dated 1857. A handwritten extract from the Bible, quoting Luke 19:27, reads, ‘But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me’. I have sold such a kit myself (with many a tale to tell on that!) which was a more primitive example, but the quality of this one is the finest that one could ask for, made to the highest order, probably a special commission I would guess at the height of the clamour for the story of Dracula. They mentioned in the subtext to the kit that there were only approximately seventy such kits in existence. Mumbling to myself in probable disagreement, (I think there are a few more) I moved on to the next section of the exhibition.
One particular segment of the display hit a strong cord with myself particularly subtitled “Decadence & Degeneration” with the intro; The final decades of the 19th century heralded a dark renaissance in Gothic fiction. The 1880s and 1890s – commonly known as the Victorian fin de siècle – witnessed the volatile transition between the old order and the modern world; decadence and degeneration went hand in hand”
This notion of decadence and degeneration is important in the way I present many of the objects and furniture I sell day to day; simply distilled the sheer beauty in the decaying of once decadent objects and the contrasts of the ‘old money’ to todays modern world is always a contrast I enjoy exploring, and so it seems, the Gothic authors of the nineteenth century did too. In my opinion, it is this clash of cobwebs and gesso, dust and silk, that is part of the tapestry of what the Gothic tries to do.
As the exhibition emerged from the fog of high Victoriana it swerved into more contemporary times with movie posters, scripts and exerts of films such the Wicker Man of 1973, projected onto draped curtains. Hearing the odd scream from the 1930s version of Frankenstein certainly punctuated the entire display further with the odd exclamation mark! As it descended into the here and now I became a little disinterested, for part of what makes Gothic work on a base level for me personally is that it is always more effectively portrayed in the past; thus I wondered back the way I had came and re-visited the exhibition again, this time in reverse.
In summary, I think one has had to have had a sense of loss in ones own life to connect fully with much of what is going on here, the returning Gothic theme of ‘loss and loneliness’ is an apt one as is the fine line that authors tread that separates pleasure and pain which many Gothic texts explore and many leave somewhat unanswered. The dark lurking within the genetic inheritance of the sophisticated and modern is a key string to the Gothic bow for me at least.
For a dealer in objects and art, many of which I have quite simply had to own because they display a Gothic, theatrical or romantic theme, this was a stellar illustration of the fragility and decay that entrenches not just the human soul but lives through a select few objects and works of art, and it provides a welcome, perhaps belated, spotlight on the theatrical nature of the Gothic culture as a whole with its emphasis on spectacle and the seemingly supernatural, making it irresistible to me.
As philosopher Roger Scruton once said “Through the pursuit of beauty we shape the world as a home, and in doing so we both amplify our joys and find consolation for our sorrows”. I believe the Gothic movement in its purest sense allows one to do just that; and clearly so does the British Library…Terror and Wonder, indeed.
For more details about the Exhibition click here