The British Library’s latest exhibition peers out over two-and-a-half centuries of the Gothic. Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination is primarily focussed on gothic literature – but there’s also a sumptuous amount of art, design, illustration, sculpture and objet d’art, and explorations of goth music and its affiliated subculture.
The exhibition closes on January 20: so this is your last chance to see it – or you can use this feature to see what's on show if you won't get the chance check out what's there before it closes (or you're reading this after Jan 20).
The exhibition attempts to chart the origins and influences of gothic from the 18th century to the present day. You enter the exhibition to see original copies of Horace Walpole’s genre-defining novel The Castle of Otranto from 1764 (one shown here) – which includes most of the elements that we associate with gothic literature: from creaking sounds echoing around empty, decaying castle to realistic characters trying to deal with supernatural experiences.
Next to this is a video of modern creators discussing the influence of the gothic on their work: including author Neil Gaiman and director Ben Wheatley – who has recently moved from writing and directing surreal horror movies such as Kill List and A Field in England to directing episodes of the latest series of Doctor Who.
Read on to learn more about the exhibition, see out photos of what's on show and find out if it's as terrific as it sounds.
The first section of Terror and Wonder details its inception, as Walpole’s novel inspired other writers, as well as artists such as Fuseli – though here the British Library has substituted a more minor work by the artist for the iconic Gothic artwork, Fuseli’s 1781 painting The Nightmare – which is currently at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
From here you see how authors and artists have reinterpreted the Gothic to fit with their own fears and the terrors of their age – as well as mocking it in satires from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey onwards. Work from the 18th century are followed by Victorian horror shows and modern interpretations – and looking at what’s behind classic horror characters from Frankenstein’s monster and Dracula to Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde and Dorian Gray (and real villains such as Jack The Ripper).
Photo: An illustration from The Castle of Otranto
The focus is on British creators, but there are some notable foreign interpretations: mainly American, from Edgar Allen Poe and the ‘Frankenstein’ defined in make-up by RCA to Stanley Kubrick’s take on Stephen King’s The Shining, Mark Z Danielewski’s typographic torture of House of Leaves and even – unfortunately, perhaps – Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight ‘saga’.
Photo: A Limoges enamel casket owned by Horace Walpole, which depicts the murder of Thomas Becket.
While it’s great to see more recent works by Clive Barker and the Chapman brothers included, the exhibition’s final section fails to deliver on a promise of showing today’s gothic.
The chance to look at gothic influenced TV shows from the camp True Blood to the very very camp Lost Girl or how goth is played out by today’s teenagers, instead we get mediocre photography of goths in their 40s from Whitby Goth Weekend. It’s a disappointing end to what’s overall a well planned, thoughtful exhibition about what ‘gothic’ means culturally and an excellent guide to its history.
Photo: The travelling library of Sir Julias Caesar, owned by Horace Walpole.
Photo: Henry Fusili's Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma
Photo: This exhibit brings together first editions of the seven 'Horrid Novels' recommended to Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's satire of gothic literature, Northanger Abbey – including Eilza Parsons' Castle of Wolfensbach, a German story and Carl Grosse's Horrid Mysteries, a story from the German of the Marquis of the Grosse.
Xenophobia could be said to be also one of the defining chacteristics of Gothic literature.
Photo: A Gothic-inspired clock from the Victorian era.
Photo: The Dear Boss letter allegedly written by Jack The Ripper.
Not all of the horrors covered in this exhibition are fictional.
Photo: Coverage of Jack The Ripper in the illustrated Police News
Photo: A 'vampire killing kit', an objet d'art of possibly Victorian origin.
Photo: Horror comics drawing on Gothic traditions.
Photo: A storyboard from Hammer Horror's film version of Frankenstein.
Photo: Much of author, artist and filmmaker Clive Barker's work draws on the Gothic tradition, including his stage play Frankenstein in Love.
Photo: A banned poster for Clive Barker's horror film Hellraiser.
Photo: Fantasy and horror artist Ian Millar's take on the eponymous castle of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast.
Photo: Perhaps a holdover from the British Library's previous exhibition on British comics, a page from Grant Morrison and Dave McKean's Gothic-influenced Batman graphic novel Arkham Asylum.
Photo: Mark Z Danielewski's House of Leaves is postmodern take on the haunted House story that uses extreme typography to disorient, trick and bully the reader.
Photo: This triptych of artworks by modern art's enfant terribles the Chapman brothers is called Exquisite Corpse, and is named after the literary game invented by the Surrealists.
Photo: This were-rabbit from Aardman's stop-motion film starring Wallace and Gromit may seem out of place, but its humorous take on the werewolf myth is the same tradition as Austen's Northanger Abbey.
All photography by Dominik Tomaszewski