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.


On the 20th of June 2012 I had the pleasure of attending Curators in Dialogue on the Persistence of Histories, part of the Revival: Utopia, Identity, Memory project led by Dr. Ayla Lepine, the current Andrew Mellon and Research Forum Post-doctoral Fellow.

As one of a series of events associated with this project, the evening’s presentations by Dr Scott Nethersole (Courtauld Institute of Art), Abraham Thomas (design curator, V&A) and Sonia Solicari (Principle curator Guildhall Art Gallery), were followed by a lively panel discussion chaired by Dr Caroline Arscott.

Revivalism was presented as a creative act that entails varying degrees of historical referencing ranging across historical periods, cultures, and media. The presentations addressed how collections, spaces and exhibitions can function as vehicles of revivalism, while the discussion brought up issues such as concepts of kitsch versus irony, the use of the term ‘neo’ and the different forms of mediation that are put between one period and another. By the end of the night, it was clear to me that revivalism has little to do with the recreation or reconstruction of forms from the past. Rather, it is about constructing new meaning through what Dr Nethersole called aestheticized evocations.

What struck me most were the layered levels of revivalism that were present in all three presentations. Each revealed revivalisms within revivalisms that extended beyond simply the appropriation of stylistic references.

Dr Nethersole spoke of his curatorial decision to evoke, but not replicate, the original viewing conditions of 15th Century Italian altar pieces in order to emphasize their function within a church setting. For example, Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (c.1450), is placed within a classicizing Florentine Renaissance context as a result of its permanent setting in its own small room in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery, itself a post-modern neo-classical revivalist design. However, it was originally hung as one of many elaborately framed altarpieces in a church, and when it was acquired by the National Gallery it was framed in a Victorian gothic revival frame. By emphasizing the viewing conditions over a continuous historical narrative, Dr Nethersole was able to achieve a revival of 15th century displays that created new opportunities for interpretation of the objects.

Abraham Thomas addressed the importance of the Alhambra for Owen Jones in the creation of his Grammar of Ornament (1856), and the subsequent interest in his version of Arabian motifs from the Egyptian Khedive. The romanticized photographic image of the crumbling and exotic Alhambra combined with Jones’ 19th century interpretations of its decorative motifs inspired the Egyptian leaders who sought impressive palaces that represented the latest in design and technology and yet harkened back to a non-western culture.

Finally, Sonia Solicari spoke of the self-conscious engagement with the reinterpretation of historical motifs as central to determining a definition of Victorian revivalism, or neo-Victorian. Here, the complex layers of mediated evocations at work in any revival were most apparent. The Victorian era was loaded with historical revivals: from Gothic, to Middle Eastern, to craft, and these were combined with vast advances in science and technology to create what we now consider Victorian ‘style’. Twenty-first century culture has engaged with its own revivals of these references, through steam-punk, taxidermy, a renewed interest in craft techniques and the cabinet of curiosities. In planning an exhibition of current neo-Victorian art, Solicari is faced with determining not only what makes an object neo-Victorian, but also why we are turning to this era once again. Her examples included Timorous Beasties’ ‘Devil Damask’ flocked wallpaper and Dan Hillier’s artwork for ‘Flush’, a track by Losers feat. Riz MC and Envy.

I left the talks wondering about the political motivations behind revivals. Though this was not addressed directly by the presentations, it was nonetheless apparent in the objects that were talked about and the various curatorial approaches to exhibiting revivalism that were offered to us throughout the evening. I am looking forward to delving deeper into revivalism, and its many facets at the conference in November.