Consisting of over 24,000 individual items, prints form the largest part of the collection in the Courtauld Institute of Art. Rotating displays in the print room curated by the print room assistants, like myself, offer visitors the chance to see part of this extensive collection. To complement the current exhibition in the Courtauld, which reconstructs Goya’s Witches and Old Women album, I have selected prints that show artistic responses to witchcraft for the current print room display.
Witches and Supernatural Spirits charts a fascination with witchcraft from the sixteenth century through to the 1850s. These haggard creatures, brewing potions over blazing fires, provided artists subjects to demonstrate their skill at representing grotesque figures in dramatically lit settings. Perhaps most striking was a witch’s unnatural act of flying, which the earliest treatise on witchcraft, the Malleus Maleficarum (1486), described as being achieved through the application of a magical lotion to the body. Parmigianino explores this by showing a witch mounted on a chimerical animal, at the moment when its feet leave the earth.
Like many sixteenth-century artists, Johann Wilhelm Baur’s Witches’ Sacrifice, responds to contemporary accounts from the European witch-hunts. This macabre print shows a witch crouching over her victim, lying within a magic circle, as she slits his throat. What I find particularly curious about this etching is the artist’s sense of humour. He show one of the flying devils in the billowing smoke in the upper left farting into the fire below whilst looking out at us and laughing.
Researching for this display I was struck by the fact that so many works illustrate descriptions in literature of witchcraft, many of which are embedded in our culture. Perhaps the most well-known are the three witches from Macbeth, who famously predict the fate of the play’s hero. This print comes from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, a project begun in 1786 by the engraver and publisher John Boydell to produce of an illustrated edition of Shakespeare’s plays based on paintings by the most prominent painters of the day. Here Richard Westall conjures up the witches’ foreboding prophecy by showing the figures shrouded in smoke.
Written in 1790 Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’Shanter (1790) describes the drunken Tam stumbling across a dance attended by witches and warlocks in a haunted church. In his illustration to the poem published in 1855 John Faed shows Tam, having been discovered, fleeing on his horse Maggie, pursued by an array of monstrous creatures. Here the printmaker James Stephenson demonstrates a masterful use of light and shade to convey the atmosphere of the nocturnal encounter and highlight the ghoulish features of the pursuers.
The display, along with rest of collection of works on paper, can be viewed by visitors to the print room. As well as offering visits by appointment the print room is open for drop-in session every Wednesday during term time from 13.30-16.00.