Stranger than Fiction

After a successful London run at The Science Museum, conceptual artist and photographer Joan Fontcuberta’s Stranger than Fiction exhibition moved north to The National Media Museum in Bradford where we visited on a cold and wet December day. I had already researched online and seen some videos and read a bit of background information before going to this exhibition but despite doing this I was still surprised at how much was revealed. I knew that the exhibits we were going to see had been created and were not real though pretended to be so. The National Media Museum is split over several floors and this exhibition was also split up into two galleries (Galleries One and Two) over two floors. We visited in reverse order, seeing Gallery Two before Gallery One. Gallery Two featured two displays, Sirens (2000) and Karelia, Miracles & Co (2002). Unfortunately you could not take photos so the images I provide here are not from the actual exhibition.

Sirens (2000)

Out of the entire exhibition, my favourite area was most certainly Sirens (2000). Sirens was mostly comprised of a series of large photographs of fossils of Hydropithecus alpinus (human skeletons with a fish tail or mermaids). Hydropithecus alpinus (a form of sea cow) was said to be discovered by Father Jean Fontana (a play on the artist’s name) in 1947 in the foothills of the French Alps. These creatures or ‘mer-people’ were presented in the exhibition as verified by anthropo-palaentologists to be a link between the evolution of the sea and land animals. The site where they were found were stated as being a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Fontcuberta had so convincingly portrayed these discoveries, the large photographs were stunning and the way that they appeared to cling quite precariously to the side of eroded cliffs or appear to be discovered on the seabed was very cleverly portrayed and extremely playful. Some of the photos had stories attached to them about their discoveries and the lives that they might have lived Cerro de san vincente was a photo of a Hydropithecus and child and was accompanied by a description saying that they may both have died as a result of childbirth. The photo of The Bes rock shelter with two adult Hydropithecus skeletons had a description from Fontana’s diary stating that these were “…the Bes lovers, petrified and together for all eternity.” This brought to mind the evocative Cave of Swimmers scene in The English Patient where they discovered ancient cave paintings to people swimming in what became a desert. The Beaujeau skeleton was said to feature evidence of bone-making techniques and suggested that the hydropitheque had tools and perhaps had murdered the individual found.

Scientific archaeological techniques were presented as having analysed the age, sex and teeth of the hydropitheque where possible and had discovered that some had dietary deficiencies. The first skeleton discovered was from the Saint Benoit Waterfall preserved in the limestone and discovered due to erosion of the rock. The description accompanying this states that: “This landscape represents prehistoric life in its infancy where our ancestors used natural shelters as frail protection against the raging elements.” The language used here ans in other places of the exhibition was very poetic.

Aside from the huge photos in Sirens, there were two glass cabinets, one had a resin cast of a Font Chaude hydropitheque skeleton which looked remarkably realistic on the way that it was created it brought to mind many fossil casts that I have previously seen in museums and on television. I think this was because instead of creating a tail-fin out of bone he had printed an imprint of the tail on the rock which is just how you would see fossilised fish remains. A glass cabinet of curiosities relating to the finds was used to further anchor the exhibit to reality. In the cabinet amongst other items was a mocked up but very realistic looking and faux aged copy of National Geologic magazine (obviously based on National Geographic) with the seabed hydropitheque remains on the front cover. There were also Fontana’s pencil sketches of the hydropithecus skeletons, his rosary bead and wooden crucifixes. These cabinets of evidence further made the exhibit seem to appear be a real archaeological find or at least make people wonder if it was.

There was something incredibly haunting and poetic about Sirens that really resonated with me I think it was the combination of the huge glossy photos and the attempts to anchor these into a form of reality which was playful and created an inventive story that I really enjoyed. I think that Fontcuberta was trying to play with our idea of photography as representing the complete and utter truth, this is so pervasive in our culture and can be seen in the increasing reliance of photo and video identity to prevent and identify criminals but also in fashion photography where models are routinely airbrushed but we often forget this, hence the rise of depression, self harm and eating disorders in Western society.

The increasing availability of camera technology also increases the extent that people can create their own truth and fiction. The predominance of selfies and image adjusted photos  that people create and then use to represent as pictures of themselves which are not real but are presented as being so online. Therefore, Sirens was ahead of its time in this respect. I think it resonates even more today than it did fourteen years ago.

It seemed liked Fontcuberta was also making a statement about authority in society and that it was a monk who had first discovered this species was perhaps making a statement about religion and that a monk could be perceived as being the authoritative truth as a man of god and that these remains should not therefore be questioned. If he was making a comment on this then it was interesting that Sirens led into the next exhibition which had much to say about religion.

Karelia Miracles & Co (2002)

Wooden Cross in Demark

 Karelia Miracles & Co (2002) was a investigation by Fontane who went undercover as a novice monk to expose the fraudulent miracles that were said to be performed at a monastery. Karelia (an area between Finland and Russia) was said to be the location of the interdenominational Valhamonde Monastery where monks learned to perform miracles. Fontane was dressed as an Eastern Orthodox Priest though the exhibition seemed to be commenting on this and Catholic religion.

A video displaying short films of Fontane performing miracles was very comedic, my favourite clip was of him smoking in front of a tomb with an effigy of a man on top and when he inhaled the cigarette the smoke exhaled from the effigy! There was also a clip of him performing a speech which could not be heard or translated but was orated at a plinth very expressively with his hands bringing to mind dictators speeches and the accompanying subtitles at the end said although we couldn’t translate what was said it was a very important speech (or words to that effect). Again, in a different way this part of the exhibition was playful, with Fontacuberta making commentary on what he saw as  the fraudulence of religion and its beliefs and perhaps people who steadfastly stick to these and take everything that is presented to them as the gospel of truth without question. He looked at the absurdity of this belief through pencil sketches of the Karelian Tarot of Sound Advice which displayed cards such as: 1. Avoid at all costs being decapitated and 4. Do not take part in the fratricidal disputes of trolls. He then presented a selection of photos of ‘miracles’ most performed by Munkki Juhani (the undercover monk) which began with a photo of him teaching a group of Laponian meerkats to read and getting more and more bizarre and absurd including such miracles as The miracle of the flesh where an image of Che Guevara (confused with Jesus Christ) appears in a leg of Iberian ham. Apparently, “…depending on the sort of acorns the pig was fed this can also reveal the face of Adolf Hitler and, even more rarely, Osama Bin Laden…”

Other photos displayed showed the monk in a block of solid ice The miracle of cryonisation, or on fire on a boat in The Miracle of will ow the wisp and even walking on water and dolphin surfing! Two glass cabinets of other items from the investigation were displayed on top of aged stone tables that looked very catherdral-esque. One cabinet contained items such as a Mirror (Juhaney Grey) with a description beside it stating: ”…curiously it is an ordinary mirror that reflects what you put in front.” The other cabinet contained small photos from the investigation of journalist Joan Fontuberta from: Demystifiers without borders which is obviously a play on doctors without borders. The interesting objects in the second cabinet were relics consisting of what looked like small bird bones and a ring and also in a small box what was stated as being carcasses of Insects and arachnids from the third plague of Egypt.

This part of the exhibition was playful and the most comedic part of Stranger than Fiction I feel that it gave the idea of being able to discover who Fontcuberta is in terms of his sense of humour and felt like the most revealing part of the exhibition in that sense.

Fauna (1987)

Gallery One exhibited other parts of the Fontcuberta exhibition. The first exhibition was Fauna (1987) which I have to admit I myself and my accompanying visitor had strong reactions to. This part of the exhibition was completely different to what I was expecting. I was expecting to see lots of images of photo-shopped animals or creatures like a kind of photo bestiary. There were photos and descriptions of the animals, however there was also quite a lot of taxidermy of bits of different creatures stuck together! The visitor I went to the exhibition with had to leave the room as they instantly felt nauseous and I must admit I couldn’t spend as long as I had planned to in this part of the exhibition as I too started to feel ill. I do wonder if this was part of the intention of Fontcuberta for people to have a strong reaction to Fauna as no other visitors seemed to linger in this part of the exhibition and hurried through. My instant reaction was revulsion and disgust and it was incredibly grotesque. The parts I did manage to make notes of were that the narrative of Fauna which was that it was all the work of Professor of Tetraology (abnormal development in animals) Peter Ameisenhaufen (1895-1955) who catalogued and investigated all of these strange creatures but who disappeared mysteriously in the Scottish Highlands in 1955. I did wonder if Fontcuberta was making a commentary on this by inventing a sort of punishment for this Professor, was it that the same or a different strange animal(s) came for him in the lonely wilds of Scotland in revenge? He made it sound very ominous as to how and why this man had disappeared and does make you think how did this created narrative for this man actually end? Thank goodness the rest of the exhibition reverted back to photography again!

Herbarium (1984)

Aster Tataricus

Herbarium (1984) was the first set of photos you encounter and is comprised of a number of black and white botanical looking photos each said to represent a specimen of exotic plants. In actual fact the photos are comprised of a series of objects put together to represent a flower such as a rubber hose and pieces of plastic. These images were described as being influenced by the work of Karl Blossfeldt (1865-1932) a botanical photographer who specialised in detailed clos-ups of plants. I found this part of the exhibition fairly interesting as I love botanical illustrations. Again, Fontcuberta was displaying his playful and inventive nature here by trying to disguise the flowers as being real and not invented. You could not tell if the plant was real or not in a number of the photos which showed how successful his endeavour was in challenging the nature of truth.

Orogenesis (2002)

Orogenesis (2002) was a beautiful series of computer generated mountain-scapes that were created by using a program called Terragen which was originally created for geographers and surveyors that created maps of three dimensional landscapes. This series of mountain images were beautiful and were split into colour images and black and white ones. They did bring to mind Lord of the Rings landscapes with their powerful rocky mountains and sheer valleys which looked even more stark in black and white. Some of the images used paintings as their inspiration such as Orogenesis: Turner which was a stunning photo of what looked like a Bronte-esque Wuthering Heights moor-like terrain except it was covered in a dusting of bright red heather instead of purple heather and was inspired by William Turner’s The Burning of the House of Lords and Commons (1835). Fontcuberta also used paintings by Gainsborough and Cezanne to influence the images created in Orogenesis.

Constellations (1993)

Constellations (1993), was the last part of the exhibition and consisted of several photos that were starkly black with white dots on said to represent the night sky. Several of the images though did look like bird deposits on a car windscreen! After reading about this exhibition I found out that Fontcuberta actually did use his car windscreen to create these images with dust, deceased insects and other debris, some of which may have been bird-related to create these images. I am not sure how well these images did actually represent the night sky but it was an interesting experiment nonetheless.


In summary, I would say that the Stranger than Fiction exhibition was a mixed bag. I really enjoyed the Sirens exhibit which I thought was inventive in its narrative and beautiful in the imagery created. The Karelia Miracles & Co exhibit was also playful and very satirical take on authority and religion. Both of these exhibits I would happily go to see again. I also thought that Orogenesis was beautiful and creative and would go to see this again. Constellations and Herbarium were less interesting to me personally but I wouldn’t mind going to see these again if I was going to another exhibition. Fauna however, though it was a creative narrative and I liked the story behind it, especially the mysterious disappearance of the Professor, I was repulsed by the grotesque taxidermy and feel it went too far as the narrative could have been retained through photo-shopped images instead. I do know that this exhibition has been acclaimed internationally and this is just my personal reaction and is no reflection on the artist or his work. I felt that by including the taxidermy this may have  possibly been the deliberate intention of the artist to create strong reactions amongst visitors. Overall I would go to visit Stranger than Fiction again and especially recommend Sirens, Karelia Miracles & Co and Orogenesis.

Sherlock Holmes and Scotland Yard

It may be well known for anyone who has read  the Sherlock Holmes stories that he is no fan of Scotland Yard. Indeed, he viewed their methods as quite basic, and saw himself as necessary to solve the case. However, after the Sherlock Holmes novels, Scotland Yard was seen as having a more prestigious form of policeman the more modern ‘detective’, which was a much more specialised role. Although, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories may not have been entirely responsible for the change in attitude towards the Scotland Yard (The infamous unsolved Jack the Ripper case being another around this time), it certainly helped to fuel the public perception and fascination with modern crime, and crime fiction.

The late nineteenth century brought about great changes in the nature of policing, and Sherlock, in a sense captured this. For a start detection of crime, rather than prevention was seen to be an increasingly important part of policing. The idea of the policeman as the ‘bobby on the beat’, the main role of which was that of patrolling the streets, was challenged at this time by the much more sophisticated detective. One of the ways in which the detectives would distinguish themselves was by the use of advanced technologies and techniques at this time, one such being the Bertillon system for identifying criminals. The Bertillon system was originally created in France by Alphonse Bertillon (whom Holmes thought highly of). The system used different measurements taken from people that were seen to be constant such as length of the left foot. Sherlock becomes a master of using emerging technologies, and even surpasses the police and their application of them.

The mention of the typewriter, fingerprint and footprint detection were really revolutionary. By showing how modern technology and forensics are used to solve crime, Doyle presents in Holmes a man of science. A man for the modern age of modern policing, by which logic and science is seen as progress and the vision for the modern emerging 20th century.

Holmes, despite his initial contempt for Scotland Yard, is ironically a product of his time insomuch as he is seen as embracing the modern idea of detective work, albeit with new techniques and seemingly showing the way of progress in crime fighting. Indeed, Holmes’ use of techniques such as fingerprint identification pre-date the use by Scotland Yard themselves!

 French Poster Demonstrating the different measurements the Bertillon System uses:



Image from:

Elementary Holmes Exhibition

It was with some trepidation that we visited the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at The Museum of London. What would it consist of and would it deepen our knowledge of the character of Sherlock Holmes? Overall, results were positive. The exhibition as a whole seemed to consist of two halves. The first related to Sherlock Holmes in place and time relating specifically to London. What creates Sherlock’s London? The second part of the exhibition was, what are the individual elements that create the character Sherlock Holmes?

Sherlock’s London

There was some confusion at the start of the exhibition as you walk through a concealed entrance displayed as a continuous bookcase! The first part of the exhibition related more specifically to Sherlock’s London and how atmospherically that has become ingrained through not only the books themselves but also adaptations of the stories in popular culture.

Of course the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Sherlock’s London apart from the address of 221b Baker Street, is the all-encompassing fog. A number of Victorian and Edwardian paintings displayed this gloomy atmosphere such as those by John Atkinson Grimshaw – though this painting is actually of Liverpool all of the elements of Atkinson Grimshaw’s work can be seen, indeed if one did not know the location of the painting it could be Sherlock’s London itself.

John Atkinson Grimshaw’s ‘Liverpool from Wapping,’ 1875

With all of the industry pumping out gallons of smoke everyday, not to mention all the chimneys from domestic homes, fog or smog was a usual occurrence and this is reflected in the stories.

Before the black taxi cabs dominated London of course there were the Hansom Cabs which are very distinctive of Sherlock Holmes stories. These were important in shaping Sherlock’s London not just in physical appearance but also through the very distinctive sounds of the horses and wheels on the cobbled streets, which could be used of course to add texture to radio adaptations and films.

Sherlock’s London was also heavily emphasised in the stories by contrasting it with the suburbs and countryside that he visited outside of the capital. Of course when he travelled further he went by train as seen in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-2). This added another layer of texture by featuring trains of the time, stations of the time and exploring the unknown suburbs and countryside. Some of the best known tales where Holmes ventures outside London include The Adventure of the Norwood Builder (1903) and The Speckled Band (1892).

John Atkinson Grimshaw’s ‘Knostrop Hall, Early Morning’ before 1893

Elements of Sherlock the man

The second part of the exhibition focused more on the character of Sherlock Holmes and what was it that created and made him who he was and gave him depth? The glass cases displayed many items that tried to portray different elements of his character as well as looking at the society of the time and where the character’s development is in popular culture today.

Master of Disguise

When people think of Sherlock Holmes, what immediately comes to mind is the deerstalker’s hat, the pipe, a magnifying glass and his great overcoat. Although these seemed to be his regular clothes when he wanted to become someone else he could do so very convincingly. He uses a number of items to change his appearance including false noses, moustaches, different clothes and even moves or behaves differently becoming the part like an actor. In stories such as The Mazarin Stone (1921) he follows his suspect using a number of disguises and in The Man with the Twisted Lip (1891) he pretends he is an old man in an opium den.

The Mind of Sherlock Holmes

A Study in Scarlet

Though he is an outstanding detective, with a remarkable mind, Holmes has a number of unusual traits that some have said point to the possibility of him being diagnosed today with a form of Autism such as Aspergers Syndrome with perhaps a concurrent case of bi-polar disorder. These features of his mind and behaviour that point to this include the fact that Holmes does not have a wide circle of friends, he could be said to be a loner, he relies on Mrs Hudson for anything domestic at all, does not have a huge amount of empathy and becomes obsessive about a number of subjects. This is explored in the exhibition and Watson himself sums up this best in A Study in Scarlet (1887) when he assesses Holmes’s abilities and knowledge:

  1. Knowledge of Literature – nil.
  2. Knowledge of Philosophy – nil.
  3. Knowledge of Astronomy – nil.
  4. Knowledge of Politics – Feeble.
  5. Knowledge of Botany – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  6. Knowledge of Geology – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks, has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
  7. Knowledge of Chemistry – Profound.
  8. Knowledge of Anatomy – Accurate, but unsystematic.
  9. Knowledge of Sensational Literature – Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.
  10. Plays the violin well.
  11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer and swordsman.
  12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet

Detective Genius – Forensic Science

Sherlock Holmes was obsessed with analysing small pieces of evidence such as footprints and fingerprints to identify a suspect. He also put to use his encyclopaedic knowledge of the science of chemistry to uncover the truth behind a case.

In A Case of Identity (1891), Holmes found the suspect through his use of a typewritten letters that enabled Holmes to identify the exact typewriter that was used and thus trace the suspect. The forensic science that was utilised in the stories have had an influence on modern policing methods of detection as Sherlock Holmes used many advanced ways of analysing evidence for the time. For more information on Sherlock Holmes and policing please see Kyle’s excellent post.


Perhaps the stories of Sherlock Holmes could be said to have left a legacy of popularising Crime Fiction as a genre. Also the Metropolitan Police force in London promotes its headquarters as being ‘New Scotland Yard’ engrained in popular memory as the Scotland Yard featuring in the Sherlock Holmes novels. The Met hosts a national crime database system called the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System known as HOLMES, and the training course for use of this system is called ‘Elementary.’ This shows how important the Sherlock Holmes novels are in the popular imagination and the influence that they have had and will still continue to have for years to come. This exhibition is on until 12th April 2015 so if you are a fan of Sherlock Holmes check it out if you are able to.


Disobedient Objects at the V&A

Upon hearing about the exhibition, it struck me as odd that such an alternative, anti-establishment themed presentation was appearing at the Victoria and Albert. A museum I associated with a collections of fine bone china, and ancient Greek statues, a place that whilst interesting, seemed to be steeped in tradition.  It was quite a rainy, cold  day when I went to visit. Yet, this did not detract the visitors. When I first arrived I was taken back to my memories of the museum from childhood, still amazed by the beautiful Victorian entrance hall, with its high ceilings and chandelier.

Amongst the ornate marble pillars, I was struck by this seemingly out of place display. An immense hanging metal street barrier, with the exhibition name “Disobedient Objects” spread across it, that was created in a makeshift fashion, using yellow cable-ties.

From the very beginning it was a powerful message of how people in society would use seemingly everyday objects in protests get their message across.

2014-10-29 11.56.44The exhibition was clearly set out with an interesting theme of blackened walls, with strong vertical prison bars present throughout. It was well thought out in that the bars separated the different displays, but also connected the whole exhibit together. As all of the objects in the exhibition, one way or another represented the struggles of many peoples fight against injustice. The theme expressed this well. Indeed, it was very international in context, displaying many different causes from around the world. I would say that the exhibit really gave a sense of the connectedness of all people’s struggles.

2014-10-29 11.57.14The first objects that are presented are puppets that serve a dual purpose. The puppets themselves are two businessmen in the back following an Iraqi Woman, who appears to be carrying a corpse. In one sense this shows the crude reason of which the war was fought for. Which is often said for oil security. Yet there was also the message of how art is often valued for how much it will sell for. Part of this groups aim was to challenge this notion and say that art is not a business, and should not be valued in these terms. Rather, art should be valued for the way in which it expresses, and gets people to think.

 Another striking thing that the exhibition showed was the idea of the Book Bloc Shield, this was a giant cardboard shield, labelled with the name of a book. The example shown was that of the famous novel To Kill a Mockingbird. This was used during a protest around the closure of a library. The shield gave a bold statement by making people think how closing a library was a sin, referencing a famous line in the novel. This made me think how using a book as a shield, was in a sense suggesting how the use of knowledge, symbolized by the book, is the protection that society2014-10-29 12.17.29 has against ignorance as this example shows. Further, it directly addresses riot police and may get them to think about their actions. This shows how an object can directly question ideas.


Further, the effectiveness of simple  handmade placards was shown. Objects that are easily accessible can still present a powerful message. The placard created for the London student protests in 2011 demonstrates this. The overt sexual connotations of “dirty” are meant to shock, which is effective in raising attention so people will see how shocking their policies are.

Another exhibit that seemed quite interesting was the badges that were created opposing apartheid. The use of the badge, whilst not unique to the end apartheid campaign, is still a very clever way in which activists can work. It is a very personal item, yet also represents a broader idea. The badge, something that can be worn on a daily basis shows how people could visibly represent their opposition without having to place too much of a risk to themselves, but still making a difference. In a way it highlighted how disobedient objects were not necessarily only ones that were brought to protests or organised events, but could be part of a daily, perhaps more subtle form of resistance.

2014-10-29 13.23.53The ever-present issue of feminism was highlighted with the “guerrilla girls”. With a simple, easy to understand message this group of activists highlighted the common inequalities that exist. In particular the art world and the use of women’s bodies in it. The overt power2014-10-29 12.14.37 relationship of the subject and artist showed a drastic gender divide. The wearing of Gorilla masks, is not only effective in shocking the audience, but I thought was also a clever way to give anonymity to the activists. This anonymity is used to present the message that this is universal struggle for all women.

Another pleasant surprise that the exhibition gave was the way in which activists can use technology to assist them. At first glance, I thought I was going towards an interactive electronic display (a fixture quite common in museums nowadays). I thought this one was broken until I examined it further. It was a screen shot of a FloodNet attack to2014-10-29 12.12.57 fight back against the Imprisonment of Tehran protesters in 2008. To me this showed how the technology of the internet was not just a force for those in power, but also for those resisting. It also showed the global reach of the people fighting against the regime.

Towards the end of the exhibit, there was a wall that covered many on-going causes and how they are an ever present aspect of people and societies around the world. Although relatively short, I left the exhibition with a clear sense of how important, not only the causes were, but how the objects themselves could send a powerful statement, and even help bring forth change.

2014-10-29 12.16.12The V&A must be commended for such a daring exhibition (particularly for them), something that I would have thought may have been in The ~Museum of London. I thought at the time that the exhibition was interesting. However, it was not until a few days later that I realized how ground breaking this exhibition is. In a time where people no longer are passive receivers of information, yet are involved themselves, this exhibition, being about ‘ordinary’ people really taps into the spirit of the new social media age.

The exhibition is free entry and is open until the 1st February 2015 at the V&A in London – so make sure to check it out if you can!

Gothic Terror and Wonder

One dark and stormy night I approached a forbidding building and entered…not really it was a very rainy and grey day actually that I visited the Terror and Wonder Exhibition at the British Library! The exhibition as a whole was imaginatively laid out. It was displayed in chronological order starting with the earliest Gothic works of fiction and also looking at the cultural and social influences on Gothic fiction throughout history. If there is one criticism I would have about the exhibition it would be that there was too much on the earliest Gothic fiction areas and influences. I can see why they would want to include these influences but I feel that too much of the exhibition was weighted towards the very earliest Gothic fiction when perhaps three examples would have been enough.

Importance of Dreams and Nightmares

Image of French Revolution

Running throughout the exhibition was the influence of dreams on Gothic fiction with several writers stating that they were inspired to write their stories after a dream. What was recognised as the first Gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole was one such story. Walpole’s novel resonates with echoes of medieval romances, in fact aside from his writing; he was heavily influenced by Gothic architecture and interiors by building his ‘Strawberry Hill’ house in Twickenham in 1747 he is widely recognised as kick starting the Gothic Revival trend in architecture and interiors widely seen in the Victorian period. This residence became so famous and influential the exhibition tells us that over 10,000 people visited it including Queen Charlotte and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein: or The Modern Prometheus came to her in a waking dream whilst staying at the Villa Diodati in Geneva with her Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, John Polidori and Claire Clairmont. Seeing the actual manuscript of this novel dated 1816-17 was to me one of the main highlights of the exhibition. I remember reading it I read the original 1818 version as I had heard it was the better version and was entranced. Knowing loosely the story of Frankenstein from popular culture, I was surprised and interested to learn that Mary Shelley really makes you feel sincere compassion for the creature. Frankenstein explores the themes of agency, I felt that the creature was forced to behave negatively in his actions through necessity rather than choice through being shunned by society. It seemed to fuel an early socialist ideology or ideas along those lines.

Influence of Historical and societal change on Gothic Fiction

The industrialisation and rise of the working classes and urban poor was a definite influence on Gothic fiction. The French Revolution influenced the amount of gore that was present in fiction and also presented for the first time the threat of disenfranchised people. The occurrences of the French Revolution of 1789-90 influenced the Tales of Terror (1801) and Tales of Wonder (1802) respectively. With the guillotine being introduced as a new method of efficient and gory execution, never was there a more bloody and disturbing sight. The French Revolution as a threat to the status quo and the movement of Chartism and other uprisings must have panicked the middle classes and this fear was translated into the novels and plays of the time. The exhibition featured the figure of Jack Sheppard who was a thief and a jail breaker and became a cult hero of the poorer classes. This must have also fuelled the fear that the higher classes felt at the time.

The exhibition did highlight that the Gothic castle as a feature of early Gothic fiction was replaced in the early Victorian era with Newgate Prison. They stated that this prison was a modern ‘Castle of Otranto.’ This is echoed in several novels and stories of the time. Most notably those of Charles Dickens in such stories as Oliver Twist (1837-9) A Christmas Carol (1843), Bleak House (1852-3) and The Mysteries of Edwin Drood (1870) where the windy London streets are overcrowded with the urban poor and who knows what or who is lurking in that dark alleyway? The threat of this newly disenfranchised urban poor was seen as a real threat to the growing middle classes of the time, who were only too aware as the new employers of these people dependent on their labour and hard work that they could uprise at any time. I remember studying Great Expectations (1860-1) at school and who can forget the atmospheric beginning of Pip and the Convict on the fog enveloped marshes and the creepy first meeting with Miss Havisham? If these are not examples of the Gothic fiction I cannot think what is! I had not really thought about Dickens novels being particularly Gothic but of course they are in many ways especially when thinking of certain individual scenes that help to shape the novels as a whole.

 Women and Gothic Fiction

Portrait of The Bronte Sisters

Although there are criticisms of the strength of female characters in Gothic fiction, what is interesting is that a considerable amount of Gothic fiction was created by female authors. From the earliest examples such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797) through Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and including the Bronte sisters’ Wuthering Heights (1847) and Jane Eyre (1847). Women are still influential writers of Gothic fiction throughout the twentieth century and beyond.

Several of Daphne Du Maurier’s novels are Gothic in both atmosphere and setting. Like the Bronte sisters, Du Maurier was also heavily influenced by landscape. For her, like the Brontes moorland was also influential except hers was not the moorland of Pennine Yorkshire but was the moorland and coast of South Cornwall. Rebecca (1938) is her most famous novel, though my favourite novel and one of her most Gothic is Jamaica Inn (1936). I read Jamaica Inn before Rebecca and after reading them both I feel that the main character of Mary Yellen is much stronger than the main female character in Rebecca whose name we never learn and only know of by her husband’s name as Mrs de.Winter. Mary Yellen shows strength of character and physicality and is not easily intimidated unlike Mrs de.Winter who is heavily influenced by Mrs Danvers in believing that she will never be as good as Mr de.Winter’s first wife Rebecca. The enveloping moors of Jamaica Inn and the isolation of the inn itself makes the characters feel as if they are not part of a larger community and indeed a place or world separate from the rest a law unto themselves. Elements of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) could be echoed here due to the isolation of this setting and what happens when people are left to survive in a harsh environment without responsibility towards others. [Note: Rebecca was heavily influenced by The Villa Desiree (1926) by May Sinclair].

The End of Borley Rectory (1946) by Eric Dingwall et al explored the claims made by Harry Price that this Essex residence was the most haunted house in England. This book was also said to be an influence on the Shirley Jackson novel The Haunting of Hill House (1959). Angela Carter was a very strong figure in the changing nature of women in Gothic fiction. Her book The Bloody Chamber (1979) took traditional fairy tales and retold them with stronger female characters who were less dependent on men to save them and were more able to control their own destinies. My favourite story in this collection has to be The Company of Wolves where Red Riding Hood is brave and in control of her destiny and is not afraid of or intimidated by her own sexuality and growing up indeed she embraces it.

The enduring popularity of the ghost story The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and the collected works of MR James have also been taken on by female writers, most notable Susan Hill with the seminal The Woman in Black (1983) but who has written The Mask in the Picture (2007) The Small Hand (2010), Dolly (2012) and others. Another female author who has been influenced by the Gothic in recent years is Sarah Waters uses The Stranger Child (2009) to explore the concept of a haunted house and the closed neurotic atmosphere of domestic decay.


Whitby Abbey

The exhibition featured a whole room of everything Dracula from an 1897 first edition of the book which looked quite smart in its yellow hardback cover. Bram Stoker was influenced by the real life story of Prince Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-1476/77) who was a member of the House of Draculesti and was also known as Vlad Dracula. It seems fitting that a whole section of the exhibition displayed using vivid reds and blacks should be devoted to Dracula which is surely the quintessential Gothic novel and which has had so much influence on popular culture. The themes explored in this section of the exhibition looked at the topography of Dracula and the idea of the forest and the threat of the Other in the form of Dracula as a European predator of English Victorian women. The character of Lucy Westenra is presented as the threat of the new woman a more assertive modern woman who is not afraid to challenge the expectations put on her at the time. She has several suitors in the book vying for her in contrast to Mina Harker who is devoted to her fiancée Johnathan.

The strangeness of other cultures in terms of how they live differently to the English with different language, customs, religion, superstitions and even climate and environment are all explored through the novel of Dracula. There is a general arrogance typical to the time that the English way of live is superior such as dismissing the folk beliefs of the passengers in the coach at the start of the story. Victorian society was starting to go through changes at the time caused by better travel and technological changes. Women were staring to get more power and socialism was starting to rear up in Europe and all of these elements must have seemed threatening to the traditional stalwarts of the time. Therefore you can understand where these stories originated from.

The enduring appeal of Dracula in popular culture is also explored from the I am Dracula play by Bram Stoker which was hastily written prior to the novel’s publication through to the many Christopher Lee incarnations of Dracula in Hammer Horror films through to Broadway plays and [sic…other adaptations of the book into film include Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Nosferatu (1922) and my personal favourite the Count Dracula (1977) BBC Film]. I feel that the 1977 BBC film adaptation is one of the most faithful to the book as it includes elements often excised from other adaptations such as the character of Renfield.

A personal favourite exhibit in the Dracula part of the exhibition was the Vampire Slaying Kit that comprised of a wooden chest full of wooden stakes, a mallet, a gun, iron bullets, a cross, holy water, a bible and crushed garlic. The interesting note about these, was that these are apparently fairly common but were not really seen until the 1970’s which further promotes the influence that the films had on promoting the figure of Dracula indeed there have been over two hundred adaptations of the story.


The concept of duality can be seen in the characters from The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stephenson which strangely preceded the Jack the Ripper scandal which had similarities to the violent outbursts in the novel. Edgar Allen Poe’s story William Wilson (1839) about a doppelgänger preceded both Jekyll and Hyde and indeed Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Double of 1846. During the Victorian age when people were discovering new things about science every day and further exploring the concepts of psychology and psychiatry, trying to understand deviant behaviours and the difference between action and agency it is no wonder that these stories were created.


The enduring popularity of the undead in Gothic popular culture was also featured in the exhibition. From the accents of Obeah (Voodoo) seen in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966) through to the many zombie films such as The Magic Island. Plague of the Zombies [sic…28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead], zombie stories have always been a popular feature of gothic horror. Most recently in fiction, the exhibition featured Zombie mash ups of classic novels which began with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009) and includes Jane Slayre (2010), Alice in Zombieland (2012) and I Am Scrooge – A Zombie Story for Christmas (2009). Perhaps Frankenstein could be said to be the first Zombie story indeed what is the creature if not component parts of dead bodies assembled together then reanimated?

 Children and Gothic Horror

Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas

Moral panics of Gothic popular culture throughout history started from The Monk of 1797 through to the video nasties moral panic of the late 1980s. Campaign against the import of US horror comics between 1949-55 resulted in a change of law by introducing the Harmful Publications Act of 1955. Fairy tales have always had elements of Gothic fear in them, especially those of the Brothers Grimm with their deep forests and strange creatures. An evolution of this can be seen with more recent re-tellings of such stories such as Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and The Company of Wolves film (1984), Tinder (2013) by Sally Gardner (a retelling of The Tinderbox), Coraline (2007) by Neil Gaiman, Lemony Snicket (1999-2006), Gormenghast (1950), Alice Hoffman’s books, A Monster Calls (2001) by Patrick Ness, Goth Girl (2013) and Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror (2007) which is a mash-up of MR James and Edgar Allen Poe. Focus on how classic Gothic fiction is being re-packaged to appeal to a new generation exhibition showed a copy of Wuthering Heights with a new cover mirroring the Twilight books covers and also featuring the blurb ‘Bella and Edward’s favourite book’ on the front cover.

Another element that could be added to here is the adaptation of classic horror stories or reinvention of stories for a young audience especially in TV and film. The director Tim Burton immediately springs to mind with his Nightmare Before Christmas, The Corpse Bride and Frankenweenie. Also, The Simpsons’ Treehouse of Horror episodes that have featured for many years at Halloween since 1990.

 Film Adaptations

The exhibition also featured Gothic film and TV adaptations from literature including: Stephen King’s The Shining, (from which they also included the screenplay) The Wicker Man, Hammer Horror films and Hellraiser. There was a focus on The Hound of the Baskervilles and its parody by Aardman Animation The Curse of the Wererabbit. Throughout the exhibition at various times the parody of horror was explored from the time of the Romantic and throughout the Victorian period and beyond; there was an emphasis on satirising horror as displayed in Punch cartoons, through to Penny Dreadfuls of the Victorian era and including the overblown Hammer Horror films right up to now where we have seen mash-up fiction and parodied films such as Frankenweenie and The Curse of the Wererabbit.


Overall, the exhibition clearly showed the enduring popularity of Gothic literature and its influence on further popular culture. I think that the impression that I took away with me that yes, the Gothic does have an appeal to certain Goth and Emo subcultures but that it is also mainstream too through the pervasive influence of tales such as Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre and The Hound of the Baskervilles all of which have been adapted many times for film how the Gothic is not just something on the outer fringes of society but is very influential today and will be ever more so in years to come. If you can get a chance to visit the exhibition then I would highly recommend it, it runs till 20th January 2015.