London: Terror and Wonder + Witches and Wicked Bodies

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So I went to two different exhibitions last week, and as they had related subject matter (which would have been nice to post about in the lead up to Halloween, but alas Terror and Wonder didn’t even start til November), I’m combining them into one post.  The first of these is the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibit in the Print Room of the British Museum, which is free, but they make you work for it – the Print Room is at the very top of the museum and you have to climb about a million sets of stairs to reach it (though I’m sure there’s probably lift access available). I haven’t always had the best luck with special exhibitions at the British Museum, even the ticketed ones…I went to one on erotic Japanese art last spring and it made me so angry that I never ended up blogging about it because what I had written was just one long irate rant (even angrier than my usual posts) and I felt that my rage at how stupidly, ridiculously overcrowded it was prevented me from having anything positive to say about the exhibition.  However, due to my continued unemployment, I was able to visit Witches and Wicked Bodies early on a Friday afternoon, and I think the time I went combined with the fact that the exhibit doesn’t seem to be that well-advertised and is out of the path of the casual museum visitor meant that there were only about twenty other people looking at it (which would be a lot for some smaller museums, but the exhibit was spread out over two huge rooms, so it still seemed pleasantly empty).

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As the exhibit is in the “Print Room,” the focus is on prints and drawings of witches throughout history, starting with the early modern period (my crappy photographs of these prints are illustrating the entire post, even the parts about Terror and Wonder, because the British Library doesn’t allow photography).  The exhibit tracked the changing perceptions of witches over the centuries, from the 16th and 17th centuries, when being charged with witchcraft was a very serious matter indeed, especially once James I (VI of Scotland) became King of England, and could extend his persecution of witches over the whole of Great Britain; to the Victorian era, when witches were no longer portrayed as old hags and were shown instead as nubile young women.  There were at least fifty different prints here, including quite a few showing the witches of Macbeth, with detailed descriptions of each.  I love dark, weird old art like this and so I really enjoyed this exhibit.  They also had a small display tracing the evolution of Hogarth’s engravings in another corner of the gallery, so it was really a win-win.  In my opinion, this was that rare exhibit that was actually worth braving the hordes of tourists in Bloomsbury (also you don’t have to go through the Egyptian Gallery to get to the Print Room, which is a bonus!), and if you have an interest in witchcraft, I recommend popping into the British Museum to check this out before it finishes in January.  4/5.

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And moving on to the British Library, where I headed directly after seeing Witches and Wicked Bodies, to see their special exhibit on the Gothic imagination.  Terror and Wonder costs a tenner, so it was a bit of a splurge for me, museum-wise, but it was on a subject that interests me so I just sucked it up and hoped it would be worth the money (unlike a literature class I took as an undergrad, also called the Gothic Imagination, that might have been ok if the professor hadn’t been a total creep).  Again, because I visited during off-hours, I just waltzed up to buy a ticket and walked right in, but it might be worth booking in advance on the weekends.  I don’t think I’ve ever been to a temporary exhibit at the BL before, so I don’t know what the usual set-up is, but I feel like they really made an effort to get into the Gothic spirit, as all the walls were painted either black or blood red, and there was dim lighting and lots of gauzy black curtains hung about the place.

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Since it was held at the British Library, after all, most of the focus was on literature, and the exhibit began with Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto, and the Gothic architecture of his Strawberry Hill House; moving on to the overblown fiction of Ann Radcliffe, which rather hilariously included a display of the seven “horrid novels” recommended to Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey.  The major Gothic monsters, Frankenstein’s creature and Dracula, each got an extensive section, as did real-life “monsters” like Jack the Ripper.  They were even projecting clips of a number of Gothic films on the walls: cue my staring at that dishy Colin Clive in The Bride of Frankenstein, and averting my eyes from the extreme creepiness of the final scenes of The Wicker Man.

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They had many wonderful books and objects in this exhibition, but some of my favourites were a portable library owned by Sir Julius Caesar (who lived in the 16th century, was visited by Elizabeth I at his estate in Mitcham, and was utterly unconnected to the Roman of the same name) that was disguised as a giant book, containing about forty small volumes hidden inside; a broadside about one of the Whitechapel Murders, showing gruesome sketches of the victim that somehow also managed to be quite campy; a stage playset for Dracula designed by the brilliant Edward Gorey (I love John Bellairs’s Lewis Barnavelt series, especially the early editions that were illustrated by Gorey), and finally, one of the Were-Rabbit models used in the Wallace and Gromit film, which was adorable.  This exhibit was surprisingly big – when I read that it featured 200 objects, I thought, “That’s nothing, you could cram that in one room!” but everything was spread out and contained nicely informative captions, and every time I thought I was reaching the end, I’d turn a corner and find more stuff!

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I was taken right through to modern horror films and fiction, which left me with some new books to check out, particularly some of the children’s literature (you can laugh, but I do still really love a lot of children’s fiction.  For example, I own a couple of Chris Priestley’s scary story books, and some of them honestly did freak me out.  That’s coming from an adult, albeit one with an overactive imagination who doesn’t like being left alone in a dark room at night, so make of that what you will).  It ended with a display of some photographs from Goth Weekend in Whitby, which was probably the weakest section of an otherwise strong exhibition.  I don’t often think things are worth their entry fee, but with Terror and Wonder, I think £10 was justified, because I left impressed, and feeling sufficiently entertained. The only caveat is that due to the set-up, wherein the exhibition space was divided into a number of smallish, oddly-shaped rooms (which admittedly added to the atmosphere), I could see it being unpleasantly crowded at peak times.  As it was, there were only a handful of people in most of the rooms with me, and there still tended to be small pile-ups around the more interesting objects as everyone crowded around at once.  So, if you can, try to visit during a weekday.  Anyway, it’s on until the end of January, and I’m actually blogging about it in good time for once, so if you’re a bit morbid like I am, I’d definitely advise that you go see it.  4.5/5, and a minimal amount of bitching from me.  How unusual!

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