Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination (British Library)

Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse. Etching on paper. London, 2000. Tate: Purchased 2000 (c) Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman

Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman, Exquisite Corpse. Etching on paper. London, 2000. Tate: Purchased 2000 © Jake Chapman and Dinos Chapman

Terror and Wonder, the latest exhibition to be presented by the British Library, is an overview of the Gothic genre from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) to the work of Jake and Dinos Chapman, via Byron and the Blair Witch Project, Hammer and Hitchcock, and all the unimaginable tales and creatures in between.

Although the focus is largely literary, which is unsurprising in the context of the British Library, the exhibition is highly decorative in its presentation and a well-considered tribute to the genre. Dimly-lit and theatrically decorated rooms host an extensive range of objects, all framed with sound and projection elements, from the dictated diary entries of Lord Byron and Sir Brooke Boothby, to looming shadows and flashes of the awakening Frankenstein. The overall effect is fittingly phantasmagorical.

Mary Shelley, manuscript of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Mary Shelley, manuscript of Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

As an overview of the Gothic genre, in all its forms and fantastical expressions, there are occasional leaps in the curation of the exhibit that seem either under-explained or over-ambitious, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps. Having perceived the intricacy with which Mary Shelley and Matthew Gregory Lewis weaved their Gothic narratives, the almost fanatical excitement of Walpole’s interiors at Strawberry Hill, or indeed the obsessive darkness of a look from Alexander McQueen’s ‘Dante’ collection, the flashy realism of Martin Parr’s photographs from the Whitby Goth Weekend served as a rather gauche conclusion to the exhibition. Perhaps this was the point. Though brilliantly composed, Parr’s photograph of a costumed Goth in mourning attire, sat with a seagull and a fish & chips next to a girl in a neon pink beanie hat, is a sad indictment of a genre that has given us some of our greatest works of literature and film.

The exhibition is strongest when it traces the over-arching themes and aesthetic elements of the genre across time periods, countries and authors. One of the pioneering aspects of Walpole’s Castle for Gothic literature is its mysterious origin story, for the author originally presented it as a ‘found’ manuscript, purportedly penned by an Italian in 1529 and rediscovered in the library of “an ancient Catholic family in the north of England”. This is compared to the nameless narrator of Daphne de Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’, and in the Lemony Snicket pseudonym of Daniel Handler, who includes faceless author photos and oblique dedications throughout his children’s book series.

A vampire slaying kit on loan from the Royal Armouries on display in Terror and Wonder © Tony Antoniou

A vampire slaying kit on loan from the Royal Armouries on display in Terror and Wonder © Tony Antoniou

It is these connections and comparisons that inspire the most wonder; mapping the development of a narrative style across hundreds of years, and observing the aesthetic elements as they morph and transform. Fear is a deeply perceptive barometer of a culture at any one time, and it is an emotion that seems to fuel much of our media discourse today. We frame our society in terms of what we fear most, and it is in this way that the Gothic genre plunges far beyond special effects, shock and gore, and intricate aesthetic details.

Enter if you dare. 

William Ballantyne-Reid is a third-year BA at the Courtauld, specialising in Gender and Queer theory, with a focus on Post-War and Contemporary American art.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is at the British Library until 20 January 2015.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain (British Library)

Georgians1Georgians Revealed, currently on at the British Library, marks the 300th anniversary of the accession of George I in 1714. The king and his successors would lend their name to a period in British history characterised either as vulgar and rowdy or as excessively obsessed with decorum and ideology. The British Library aims to showcase it from a more neutral perspective. Upon entering the first room, where from the ceiling hang garlands of prints displaying different aspects of Georgian life, we read that the Georgian period saw “unprecedented economic, social and cultural changes”.  With this opening statement, the exhibition sets itself an important, but difficult task: to give a general account of “the Georgians” by considering change as the determining characteristic of their times. Unfortunately, because of the isolationist perimeters chosen, the lovely display does not quite manage to do so.

As would be expected from the British Library, the exhibition impresses with an astonishing number of precious books and other printed material, mostly from the Library’s own collections. A section on “Reading for Pleasure” explains that the period saw a rise of relatively new types of books and prints, such as encyclopaedias, newspapers and commercial pamphlets. A fine example is the 1807 botanical encyclopaedia The Temple of Flora by Robert John Thornton, which is on display. As an institute promoting and facilitating access to the book, however, the British Library could have gone beyond illustration, addressing and questioning more clearly the importance of print culture to the Georgians.

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. 'Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic' Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

I.R. and G. Cruikshank. ‘Tom & Jerry at a Coffee Shop near the Olympic’
Pierce Egan, Life in London. London, 1823 (British Library. 838.i.2)

Although prints and books are the most prominent features throughout the exhibition, several themes are complemented by the inclusion of paintings, costumes, and decorative arts. In a section on the social custom of drinking tea, a display is made up of Joseph van Aken’s 1720 painting An English Family at Tea, a wooden tea table, some porcelain, and two pamphlets on “The Conversations and Reflections at the Tea Table”. In another section, the birth of the fashion industry is brought to life by several costumes. In confronting us with these recognizable facets of modern life, the exhibition comes closest to fulfilling its promise of revealing the making of modern Britain.

But whose Britain is this anyway? The exhibition focuses on the emerging middle class, which grew to constitute one-third of the country’s population, and on London. While choosing to focus on the capital might seem reasonable because of the influence of the Georgian court on the eponymous era, generally speaking the exhibition seems to somewhat limit itself by indulging in the Georgians’ self-referentiality. These were chaotic and uncertain times: change always involves some sort of loss. The middle class appears to have responded to global expansion by establishing a popular culture that faced very much inward, as in the case of the strict rules of etiquette addressed by the exhibition. Although these reactionary dynamics are mentioned, the exhibition insists on presenting the Georgians only as ushering in modernity as progress, thereby allowing them to remain in an historical comfort-zone.

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk

Despite these remarks, however, the stylish display, engaging themes, and beautiful materials presented surely make Georgians Revealed worth visiting. When doing so, do not miss Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s The Georgeobelisk, a complimentary garden installation in the Piazza, which is part of the Cityscapes Garden Festival.

Esther van der Hoorn is an MA student at the Courtauld.

Georgians Revealed: Life, Style and the Making of Modern Britain is on at the British Library until 11 March 2014.