Trip Report: The Gothic Imagination

It’s been a museum-y month! Over the last little while I’ve written up trips to the V&A, the British Museum and the Fitzwilliam Museum. Now it’s time for the British Library! This past weekend I went with my wife to see Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination at the BL.


In one of my many intellectual-odd-job roles, I tutor kids doing GCSE English, and this year I’ve got several doing units on the Gothic genre, so now I feel extra informed. I don’t know that I have as much to say about the content of the exhibit as I have about some of the more historical things I go to, other than that I really enjoyed it. I had reservations about the comics exhibit in May, although on balance I thought it was good, but the contrast here is sharp: the BL nails this one down pretty hard.

Partly I think this may be because literature literature is more the BL’s speed, because the early history of the Gothic is a much more British affair (so the gaping US-shaped hole in the comics exhibit isn’t present) and partly because the resources the BL can bring to bear are so great. For instance, they jump on The Castle of Otranto (250 years old this year) with both feet, with tons of items from Horace Walpole’s home and library, including John Dee’s mirror.


The organisation is chronological, starting with Walpole and ending with Hellraiser, even more recent stuff and a photo exhibit about Whitby. Along the way, there are lots of cool little sub-displays, like showing all seven of the “horrid novels” recommended in Northanger Abbey together, or a thing on folk horror, or a look at the sensational crime reporting that went alongside the shift of Gothic horror to urban environments in the later 19th century. Speaking of incredible resources, this latter topic includes things like the Dear Boss letter:


And I mean these guys have got the lot: there’s a Lovecraft letter in there, just by way of illustrating how important “The Willows” is. There are cartoons, sketches, posters, letters, videos, recordings, paintings, black-letter tomes about the historical Dracula, production art, comics, newspapers — tons of stuff covering not just the literature but its social context.

This video is not in the exhibit, but I jotted down the title, which is a good one.

I mean, a museum exhibit is not a place where you go to get the full in-depth history of something. But one thing it can do really well is show you the juxtapositions, the connections between things, the trends shaping over time. The explanatory stuff didn’t talk about this at all, for instance, but just looking at the cartoons and so on you can see this trend developing of people taking the piss out of Gothic as a genre kind of because it’s so popular with women. You can see the same thing happen with other genres all around us.


So yeah. I liked it so much I’m going back in December. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it and if, like me, you know a bit about the genre but not an enormous amount it’s very informative. I wrote a ton of stuff about it in my notes and then I ran out of the patience to talk about each individual thing.

Anyway, speaking of horror, the Drivethru Halloween Sale is on until October 31st. During that time, you can get my bleak little early medieval horror ebook for a mere £1.25. Tomorrow I will hopefully be talking about pirates. And comic books. Aw yeah, serious historian over here.

Trip Report: The Gothic Imagination

Movie Monday: Gangs of New York (2002)

Not pictured: trousers.
Not pictured: trousers.

Today’s Movie Monday film is a little unusual — it isn’t strictly based on a historical character, although it is set against a background of historical events and contains many characters who did exist. Possibly. And today’s Movie Monday is a little unusual as well, in that it isn’t a review in the conventional sense: it’s mostly just me thinking out loud about this movie and its relationship to the source material.

Anyway, the film is an adaptation of a book by Herbert Asbury, which is all well and good. Asbury’s book is sensational reading, even if it is a little, well, sensational. Heck, that’s the best thing about it. I have already discussed its wonderful collection of scoundrelly gangster names. But it’s not a work of narrative, not really — it has, I guess you could say, a story, but it’s really all about a particular era in the history of New York, or a particular theme over several eras. It was written at a time when gangs were on the mind of Americans generally, but it isn’t any kind of analysis, just a collection of exciting tales.

He drew the weapon, levelled it in the hollow of his elbow and pulled the trigger. But his aim was poor and he shot himself in the arm, whereupon he screeched and fell to the floor. There he fired again, striking Poole in the leg. Bill the Butcher staggered forward under the impact of the bullet, clutching at Baker with outstretched arms. But the latter dodged, and as Poole fell heavily to the floor Baker drew a pistol and placed it against his chest.

“I guess I’ll take you, anyhow,” said Baker.

And all that sort of thing!

The film therefore tries to impose a human narrative where one is lacking, creating a protagonist in the form of Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), the Irishish son of noted hardcase Liam Neeson, who gets murdered by Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Amsterdam seeks revenge on his dad’s murderer, courts feisty thief Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), forms his own gang, etc., etc. And then there’s the 1863 Draft Riots and our hero goes to California.

Along the way, there are hell of knife fights.

It’s not a bad film, but it’s a mess in a lot of ways, and part of that mess is that director Martin Scorsese wants it all to mean something, which it does insofar as anything does, but it’s hard to see how it means what he wants it to mean.

Partly this is because the Draft Riots aren’t a really good way to illustrate the film’s central conflict. In the film, Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher decide to settle their differences with a big gang fight, only to find that the riots break out around them in a big chaotic battle sequence. But they aren’t necessarily rioters themselves, although they could be — we see Bill portrayed as anti-war early in the film, while DiCaprio represents poor Irish New Yorkers, who were among those who felt most threatened by free blacks and did most of the rioting. Scorsese gives Amsterdam a black pal to make sure we won’t mistake him for a racist (and hey, it’s Larry Gilliard Jr from The Wire, so that’s nice). But still, I’m not sure why we’re supposed to be on this guy’s side — or even if we are. And when the smoke clears, I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a catharsis or what. Like, there’s definitely been a lot of noise and shouting and explosions, and the personal story of Amsterdam vs Bill is resolved, and our hero has got the girl and so on, but I don’t know why that merits a big stirring song and a time-lapse shot of New York being built.

The historical Bill the Butcher, William Poole, was a nativist gangster and former boxer who was shot in 1855. The Old Brewery was a notorious slum, but it didn’t look like Goblintown from the Jackson Hobbit, it just looked like a big old building. Also it was gone by the war. I don’t even know if Nativism was a big thing in the 1860s — I think of it as something that happened mainly in the 1830s to 1850s, but I could be wrong. The Draft Riots are in Asbury’s book, because Asbury’s thesis is “gee whiz, New York has been a very violent place in the past and you people are acting like it’s a new thing.” But that doesn’t mean it’s the climax of some story about the assimilation of the Irish or something.

I suppose that this film is just an instance of the old history-movie problem; is this about the history, or is a story about the characters with history(ish) as a backdrop? If it’s about Amsterdam and Jenny and Bill, it’s just a crime drama and all these sweeping camera shots and the Bruce Springsteen song are woefully out of place. If it’s about the Draft Riots, it makes a hell of a mess of them.

But let me not be too critical. After all, Daniel Day-Lewis plays a hell of a good psychopath. More importantly, there are some amazing trousers in this movie.

Fuck outta here with those boring trousers, Amsterdam.
Fuck outta here with those boring trousers, Amsterdam.

And maybe if you’re going to make a movie of Asbury’s book — which is, after all, a mess of stories from different sources, more about colour than about accuracy or even point — “a hell of a mess” is the kind of movie you want to make.

Movie Monday: Gangs of New York (2002)

Trip Report: Silent Partners

Yesterday, we went to the Fitzwilliam Musem to see their “Silent Partners” exhibition, which is about artists’ mannequins, and is, as you might expect, pure high-octane nightmare fuel.

Just to give you an idea, the exhibit — which is more or less chronological in its structure — opens with a print of this goddamn thing:


That is “Smugglerius,” and that is a cast of the body of a person — a smuggler, probably — who was hanged, then flayed, posed to look like this:

That's "The Dying Gaul," and it's completely fucked in its own right.
That’s “The Dying Gaul,” and it’s completely fucked in its own right.

— and then used to teach art students anatomy. Which is among the nicer things people could think of to do with the bodies of their fellow sinners back in those days.

So we’re into weird territory right from the start, and we’re going to firmly stay there. Of course, it’s not hard to make mannequins creepy. Anything that resembles a human but clearly isn’t is unnerving, but there are limits. This is “Child Number 98,” a mannequin that we know was rented from a London “colourman” by John Everett Millais (they have the shop’s book on display showing the dates of the rentals):

'Child No 98'.

Now, that’s fucking creepy, but with the head off, so that you can see the big column/tentacle of faux-flesh that supports it, it looks like a more perverted Pyramid Head from Silent Hill.

What’s interesting is that the exhibition really acknowledges this. In the later stages, it gets into dolls and fashion mannequins as well as artists’ mannequins. One of the dolls is an Edison Talking Doll, and the plaque explains that the doll’s “disembodied, sepulchral voice” made it unpopular with children. There’s even a little recording, although for some reason it wasn’t working when we were there. See if you agree with the analysis.

When you’ve got sections of your exhibition called “Silenced Partners” or “Finding the Bodies,” that’s called leaning in.

I thought that some of the exploration of the social history of the mannequin was really interesting. Consider this image, The Black Brunswicker by the aforementioned John Everett Millais.

wgl100299So, the deal here is that it would have been totally inappropriate for the models (Charles Dickens’s daughter and some guardsman) to stand so close together, even, oh God, touching, for the hours it would take the painter. So Millais painted each of them posing against a mannequin and put them together.

I figure that gives it the necessary historical context to make it a blogworthy thing, right? But there’s much more that we didn’t have time to see, or that I don’t know enough to talk about. It’s definitely worth seeing, though — it’s informative, it’s creepy as anything. It’s on until 16 January, so if you get some time over the holiday I recommend you check it out.


Also this goddamn thing is in there what the fuck museum.

Trip Report: Silent Partners

Here Be Derpins

On Sunday I went with buddy Chris (whose new steampunk fiction blog you should check out) to a wargames show held at the Crystal Palace Sports Centre. I wrote about the show itself over on my gaming blog. Afterward, we went for a bit of a stroll around the park to see the famous dinosaurs.

These are fascinating artefacts. Built in and around 1854, they were apparently the first attempt to model dinosaurs in three dimensions. They are, as the Friends of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs website points out, “wildly inaccurate.” And furthermore, they’re just … well, see for yourself.

20141012_143914 20141012_143819-EFFECTS 20141012_143744 20141012_14373320141012_144141

A fearsome call echoes across the prehistoric landscape:


Seriously, though, it’s really neat to see these goofy missteps in the history of palaeontology become a thing that people take their children (and small dogs) to see. And I support the activities of any historical preservation group that dresses people up in pith helmets and poses them next to dinosaurs.

This bust of the guy who designed the original Crystal Palace is kind of alarming, though:

Here Be Derpins

More clumsily-rhyming murders than you can shake a stick at

I have mentioned this in person and on Twitter before, but not, I think, here. We live in an age of great blessings for the historian of the ephemeral. Consider if you will the broadsheet ballad. These things were the cheap entertainment of the 18th and 19th centuries, sold by itinerant ballad-sellers, street hawkers and low-rent merchants. They covered topics from war to politics to making fun of people from Somerset. And of course the covered murder.

Well, now there are scads of them scanned and posted online. Scads, I say, courtesy of the Bodleian Library and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Just click on either of those links and get browsing. I searched for “murder” on the Bodleian site and got dozens of hits, but honestly my search for “cannibalism” was more focused and equally entertaining.

05513 00498

This one is genius!

I will not save her life, said he, Nor make my pies of thee

And the crude illustration of an oval-faced homunculus gesturing at a man with an artificial nose and then someone getting burned at the stake.

God, there’s thousands of them.

I guess what I’m saying is I won’t be doing anything else for a little while.

More clumsily-rhyming murders than you can shake a stick at

Trip report: Witches and Wicked Bodies

As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife and I were in London last weekend, so after going to the V&A on Saturday we met up with friend Abi to go to the “Witches and wicked bodies” exhibit at the British Museum. This is another little one-roomer, and it’s mostly prints, posters, handbills, and books — that is, what-you-might-call-art rather than the artefacts you’d normally find in the BM. It covers the period from about 1450 to about 1900, with a few classical bits and pieces to show that witches aren’t just a late-medieval and later concept.

The main thrust is to show the evolving depiction of the witch, presumably as it goes hand in hand with evolving conceptions of the witch. And that is interesting — I’ll come back to it in a second. But there’s also just a lot of interesting art in this exhibit. I don’t know much about art, but it’s creepy and evocative.

Hans Baldung, Bewitched Groom, 1544 I think? That horse looks like a horse that just kicked someone, all right.
Hans Baldung, Bewitched Groom, 1544 I think? That horse looks like a horse that just kicked someone, all right.
Daniel Hapfer, Three witches beating a devil. I didn't write down the date. "Gib Frid" apparently means "uncle."
Daniel Hopfer, Three witches beating a devil. 1505-36. “Gib Frid” apparently means “uncle.”

A lot of this art is German, which is interesting because Germany in the 17th century is Witch Panic Central. This Daniel Hopfer piece is earlier than the majority of witch freakouts, but it’s definitely from an era in which people believed in witches. But witches are both serious business and a suitable object for comedy devil-beating images.

Martin Schongauer, St Anthony Tormented by Demons. That demon in the bottom right is just having a grand old time, but the one with the big nose on the left looks concerned.
Martin Schongauer, St Anthony Tormented by Demons. That demon in the bottom right is just having a grand old time, but the one with the big nose on the left looks concerned.

During the age of the witch trials, things get a little weird. Like, this broadside, “Witchcraft in Trier,” is from around 1600 — the Trier witch trials ended in about 1593. And it is a fascinating piece; clearly the product of genuine fear and horror and fascination. I can sit here and smile at it and go “man, that’s fucked up.” But it’s also a legacy of a really scary event that lead to hundreds of deaths.

The card next to this piece told me that a) Anonymous German lived from 1473 to 1531, and b) that this piece is from around 1600. I think a) is very likely to be wrong.

Or check out Matthaus Merian I’s “Witchcraft,” from 1626:


But I think that my favourite part of the whole exhibit was this Temptation of Saint Anthony by Jacques Callot (1635). I don’t think it is easy to see how Saint Anthony would be tempted by a giant goddamn dragon spewing other dragons out of its mouth or an armoured goblin shooting some kind of monstrous lion-cannon thing, but what do I know? Perhaps it’s a tribulation rather than a temptation.


Then you get into a later period and people start viewing witches in a more symbolic light.

Richard Earlom (after David Teniers): "The Witch." Late 18th/early 19th c, I can't remember. But check out that Cerberus. My wife pointed out to me that he is like a dachsund. I call him Derperus.
Richard Earlom (after David Teniers): “The Witch.” Late 18th/early 19th c, I can’t remember. But check out that Cerberus. My wife pointed out to me that he is like a dachsund. I call him Derperus.

And a Gillray caricature to class the joint up:


By 1890, witchcraft is all symbolic or romantic, presumably because no one really believes in it — but interestingly to me, this is what people think of when they think of witchcraft, not all that stuff with sticking people with needles and Vinegar Tom and angry disputes over who moved the branch an old lady left over a puddle. So the historical fact of the witch persecutions is married to a completely ahistorical understanding of what people meant when they said “witch.”

Anyone who tells you that the Halloween image of a witch is “historically inaccurate” should be punched in the gizzard or at least gently corrected, because honestly the horrible old hag with the broomstick and a black dress is way closer to the actual Thirty-Years’-War conception of a witch than Symbolic Serpent Moon Lady. As we have seen.

Lest I be misunderstood as taking a cheap shot at modern-day witches (who are usually much more clued in about this than people who just happen to know some witches), let me point out that Treadwell’s Books has an upcoming class on making witch hats.

Odilon Redon, Serpent-Auréole (1890)
Odilon Redon, Serpent-Auréole (1890)

So anyway: for me, the most interesting things were the prints and other popular materials from the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the King James Daemonologie and so on. But the whole thing is good — once again, it’s the BM, so the depth and range of their collection is excellent. It’s pretty tightly focused: 4-500 years, pretty much Europe only, but that allows you to see the same themes appearing and reappearing, both as expressions of widespread popular belief and as evidence of artists copying and inspiring each other. It’s one room, so it’s pretty manageable in time terms. And it’s free. Check it out if you’re in the area or visiting the BM for another reason; I’m not sure it’s quite enough to merit a visit all by itself. But then that’s what I did. It’s on until January.

Oh, and there’s a pretty cool display of Albrecht Durer’s Triumphal Arch downstairs, so you could check that out as well. That’s only on until mid-November.

Trip report: Witches and Wicked Bodies