Witches and Apparitions

By the late eighteenth century, most people had stopped believing in witches and ghosts. These supernatural creatures were associated with supposedly childish rural folk or superstitious Catholic foreigners. Paradoxically, these themes became all the more prevalent in the wider culture. The supernatural visions of Fuseli and Romney are shown here, along with comical variations by the caricaturists Gillray and Richard Newton (1777–1798)

John Runciman, The Three Witches c.1767–8

John Runciman The Three Witches circa 1767-1768

John Runciman
The Three Witches circa 1767-1768
Ink and body colour on prepared laid paper, 235 x 248 mm

Lent by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

This fluently executed design probably shows the three witches from Shakespeare’s Mabceth (1606), clustered together in wicked conspiracy. John Runciman made a profound impression on his contemporaries during his short life. With his brother Alexander, he was among the first artists to treat Shakespeare as the source of heroic subjects, presenting scenes and characters freed from the trappings of stage presentations.

Alexander Runciman, The Witches show Macbeth The Apparitions c.1771–2

Alexander Runciman The Witches show Macbeth The Apparitions circa 1771-1772

Alexander Runciman
The Witches show Macbeth The Apparitions circa 1771-1772
Pen and brown ink over pencil on paper, 616 x 460 mm

Lent by the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

The tragic Scottish king Macbeth is subjected to the alarming sight of the three witches casting the spells that will conjure prophetic visions. The drawing seems to compress the images drawn by the famous spell of the three witches – ‘Double double toil and trouble’ – with the culminating dance around the cauldron: ‘Like elves and fairies in a ring’.

John British Dixon after John Hamilton Mortimer, An Incantation 20 July 1773

John British Dixon after John Hamilton Mortimer An Incantation 20 July 1773

John British Dixon after John Hamilton Mortimer
An Incantation 20 July 1773
Mezzotint 610 x 486 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

In the gloomth of a primitive cave, a witch casts a mysterious spell while her young female companion reels back in horror. Although he died young, Mortimer’s art exerted an important influence in the late eighteenth century. Pictures like this seemed to combine sensational effects with a noble pictorial style.

George Romney, The Ghost of Darius Appearing to Atossa c.1778–9

George Romney The Ghost of Darius Appearing to Atossa circa 1778-1779

George Romney
The Ghost of Darius Appearing to Atossa circa 1778-1779
Black chalk on nine sheets of laid paper 1015 x 1270 mm

Lent by National Museums Liverpool, The Walker

This scene of bleak supernatural warning illustrates the Greek dramatist Aeschylus’s play The Persians. The defeated Persians suffer at the hands of the conquering Greeks. The lamenting Chorus is suddenly interrupted by the ghost of the former Persian king, Darius, who rises from the grave to tell his people that they can no longer fight the enemy.

Henry Fuseli, Samuel appearing to Saul in the Presence of the Witch of Endor 1777

Henry Fuseli Samuel appearing to Saul in the Presence of the Witch of Endor 1777

Henry Fuseli
Samuel appearing to Saul in the Presence of the Witch of Endor 1777
Pen and wash on paper, 302 x 402 mm

Lent by the Kunsthaus, Zürich, Graphische Sammlung on loan from the Gottfried Keller Foundation

A scene from the Biblical book of Samuel. The armies of the Philistines are gathering to attack Israel; the prophet Samuel is dead, and Saul has driven out ‘those that had familiar spirits, and the wizards’. But, feeling abandoned by God, Saul goes in disguise to hypocritically seek advice from a witch. In Fuseli’s drawing, Saul collapses dramatically at the conjured appearance of the ghost of Samuel.

William Blake, The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel 1783

William Blake The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel 1783

William Blake
The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel 1783
Pen and watercolour on paper, 283 x 423 mm

Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

The ghost of the prophet Samuel is being conjured by the Witch of Endor, at the instruction of Saul, King of Israel. In the past, this supernatural theme had embarrassed Protestant commentators in Britain. They were generally sceptical about the possibility of the paranormal. But the story proved attractive for artists looking for Gothic subject-matter.

John Downman, The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies 1781

John Downman The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies 1781

John Downman
The Ghost of Clytemnestra Awakening the Furies 1781
Oil on panel, 508 x 648 mm

Lent by the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

The subject is from the Greek tragedy The Furies by Aeschylus. The ghost of the wicked Clytemnstra arouses the demonic ‘Furies’ to pursue her murderer, Orestes. Downman’s picture is crowded with grotesque, almost caricatured, detail. This work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1782. A critic said it was ‘proof how artists sometimes lose themselves, and mistake their talents’.

Henry Fuseli, The Weird Sisters or The Three Witches 1783

In one of his best-known compositions, Fuseli presents a dramatically stylized portrayal of the three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606). This painting was exhibited in 1783. A critic of the time commented: ‘He draws correctly, but his Imagination, impetuous but not full, is the most incorrect Thing imaginable!’. The composition was lampooned by James Gillray in 1791, in a print shown nearby.

The subject is taken from the Greek tragedy, The Furies, by Aescyhlus. The ghost of the evil murderess Clytemnestra is rousing evil spirits, who will pursue her murderer Orestes. This is a design from the series of line illustrations that Flaxman created in 1794 for Georgiana, Countess Spencer. These were highly admired for their simplicity, which seemed to evoke the spirit of the classical past.

BANQUO: What are these
So wither’d and so wild in their attire,
That look not like the inhabitants o’ the earth,
And yet are on’t? Live you? or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her chappy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips: you should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

William Shakespeare,
Macbeth (1606), Act 1, scene 3

James Gillray, Weird Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon published by Hannah Humphrey, 23 December 1791

James Gillray Wierd Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon

James Gillray
Wierd Sisters; Ministers of Darkness; Minions of the Moon published by Hannah Humphrey, 23 December 1791
25 x 35 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

Here, Gillray uses Fuseli’s painting The Weird Sisters as the basis of a political satire. The Home Secretary Lord Dundas, William Pitt the Prime Minister and Lord Thurlow, the Lord Chancellor, are cast as Fuseli’s witches. The moon is made up of the distinctive profiles of George III and Queen Charlotte. The print satirises the uneasy and unnatural alliance of these politicians, and the reputed lunacy of George.

John Flaxman, The Ghost of Clytemnestra Arousing The Furies

The subject is taken from the Greek tragedy, The Furies, by Aescyhlus. The ghost of the evil murderess Clytemnestra is rousing evil spirits, who will pursue her murderer Orestes. This is a design from the series of line illustrations that Flaxman created in 1794 for Georgiana, Countess Spencer. These were highly admired for their simplicity, which seemed to evoke the spirit of the classical past.

Henry Fuseli, The Mandrake: A Charm c.1785

Henry Fuseli The Mandrake: A Charm circa 1785

Henry Fuseli
The Mandrake: A Charm c.1785
Oil on canvas, 635 x 765 mm

Lent by the Paul Mellon Collection, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven

Fuseli shows a grotesque witch digging up a Mandrake root. According to legend, the Mandrake had mystic powers; it would scream or send out noxious fumes on being dug up. When this painting was exhibited in 1785, a critic wrote: ‘We have frequently had occasion to admire the enthusiasm and eccentricity of this artist’s imagination; but here it is genius run mad.’ He noted how odd it was that the witch’s daughter was so fashionably dressed.

James Gillray, Shakespeare Sacrificed – or – The Offering to Avarice 20 June 1789

James Gillray Shakespeare Sacrificed – or – The Offering to Avarice

James Gillray
Shakespeare Sacrificed – or – The Offering to Avarice 20 June 1789
Etching, 505 x 385 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

This print satirises the print publisher John Boydell (1719–1804), and his Shakespeare Gallery. The Gallery showed paintings commissioned from British artists. It was meant to be a great patriotic effort, but Gillray suggests that Boydell’s motives were mercenary. The figures appearing in the smoke are comical versions of characters from the paintings. You can find several of these figures in paintings in this and the following room.

George Romney, Margery Jourdain and Bolingbroke conjuring up The Fiend c.1790

George Romney Margery Jourdain and Bolingbroke conjuring up The Fiend

George Romney
Margery Jourdain and Bolingbroke conjuring up The Fiend circa 1790
Pen and grey ink and grey watercolour wash over graphite on paper, 382 x 562 mm

Lent by the Syndics of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

This is a scene of diabolical conjuration from Shakespeare’s 2 Henry VI (1590-1), Act 1. Here, Bolingbroke, the sorcerer, and the priest Southwell, meet with Margery Jourdain to raise the fiend and question him about the future.

Robert Thew after Henry Fuseli, Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost Published 29 September 1796

Robert Thew after Henry Fuseli Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost

Robert Thew after Henry Fuseli
Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus and the Ghost Published 29 September 1796
Stipple engraving on paper, 500 x 635 mm

© 2006 Kunsthaus, Zürich. All rights reserved

In a moonlit scene at the castle of Elsinor, Hamlet breaks from his friend Horatio’s hold and thrusts himself in the direction of the mysterious apparition of his dead father. This engraving reproduces a large painting which is now lost, created by Fuseli for the Shakespeare Gallery. It was one of the painter’s most admired images.

Richard Newton after George Montard Woodward, Laying a Ghost!! 1 October 1792

Richard Newton after George Montard Woodward Laying a Ghost!! 1 October 1792

Richard Newton after George Montard Woodward
Laying a Ghost!! 1 October 1792
Coloured etching,and aquatint, 358 x 248 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

A country parson tries to exorcise a comically skinny ghost. One of the lumpen peasants accompanying him urges him on. The power of exorcism (‘laying’) was strongly associated with Catholicism, rather than the supposedly more rational Anglican church. It was viewed as outlandish and superstitious.

George Montard Woodward, Gravedigger and a Ghost c.1795

George Montard Woodward Gravedigger and a Ghost circa 1795

George Montard Woodward
Gravedigger and a Ghost circa 1795
Pen and watercolour on paper, 255 x 220 mm

Lent by Derbshire Record Office, Derbyshire County Council

A gigantic spectre of the most traditional sort is shown looming over a simple-looking gravedigger in a country churchyard. This is one of a group of supernatural designs by Woodward. Some of these were engraved by the caricaturist Richard Newton. They present a broad comic vision, playing on stereotypes relating to the superstitious nature of simple country people.

George Montard Woodward, Gravedigger and Monster c.1795

George Montard Woodward Gravedigger and Monster circa 1795

George Montard Woodward
Gravedigger and Monster circa 1795
Pen and watercolour on paper 170 x 125 mm

Lent by Derbyshire Record Office, Derbyshire County Council

A bizarre-looking supernatural creature alarms a gravedigger, who drops his spade in surprise. Woodward’s watercolour makes the most of this opportunity for physical comedy. The spectre is a crazy, halfanimal, half-human creature, most resembling a giant puppy with diminutive wings. The gravedigger is a stocky rural type.

Richard Newton, One Too Many! 10 November 1792

Richard Newton One Too Many! 10 November 1792

Richard Newton
One Too Many! 10 November 1792
Coloured etching, 305 x 429 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

A group of drunken men in naval uniforms are startled by the appearance of an armoured ghost, who joins them for a drink! This caricature plays on the idea that supernatural apparitions were only the result of drunkenness or gluttony. The ghost has a comically material appearance, derived from the heroic vision of the supernatural apparent in Fuseli’s famous image of old Hamlet’s ghost (recorded in an engraving by Robert Thew, shown in this room).

Henry Fuseli, Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head 1793–4

Henry Fuseli Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head

Henry Fuseli
Macbeth Consulting the Vision of the Armed Head 1793–4
Oil on canvas, 1630 x 1300 mm

Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington

Shakespeare’s Macbeth has asked the ‘Weird Sisters’ to predict whether he will become King. The apparition of an helmeted head warns, ‘Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff’, referring to his political rival. Fuseli noted that he had made the features of the spectral head resemble Macbeth’s own: would not this make a powerful impression on your mind?

THUNDER. FIRST APPARITION: AN ARMED HEAD.
MACBETH. Tell me, thou unknown power-
FIRST WITCH. He knows thy thought: Hear his speech, but say thou nought.
FIRST APPARITION. Macbeth! Macbeth! Macbeth! Beware Macduff, Beware the Thane of Fife. Dismiss me. Enough.

William Shakespeare,
Macbeth (1606), Act 1, Scene 3

Henry Fuseli, The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches 1796

Henry Fuseli The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches 1796

Henry Fuseli
The Night-Hag Visiting Lapland Witches 1796
Oil on canvas, 1016 x 1264 mm

Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Bequest of Lillian S. Timken, by exchange, and Victor Wilbour Memorial, The Alfred N. Punnett Endowment, Marquand and Charles B. Curtis Funds, 1980

This scene of supernatural wickedness is derived from a simile in John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667). In the foreground, a witch squatting next to a child laid onto a stone slab is momentarily distracted by the arrival of the ‘night hag’. That figure is the horserider surrounded by a weird glow and accompanied by a pack of hounds. Witches dance wildly in the mid-ground. They are celebrating the imminent sacrifice of the child.

… About her middle round
A cry of Hell-hounds never-ceasing barked
With wide Cerberean mouths full loud, and rung
A hideous peal; yet, when they list, would creep,
If aught disturbed their noise, into her womb,
And kennel there; yet there still barked and howled
Within unseen. Far less abhorred than these
Vexed Scylla, bathing in the sea that parts
Calabria from the hoarse Trinacrian shore;
Nor uglier follow the night-hag, when, called
In secret, riding through the air she comes,
Lured with the smell of infant blood, to dance
With Lapland witches, while the labouring moon
Eclipses at their charms.

John Milton,
Paradise Lost (1667), Book II, ll.613-26:

William Blake, Hecate c.1795

William Blake, 'The Night of Enitharmon's Joy (formerly called 'Hecate')' circa 1795

William Blake
The Night of Enitharmon's Joy (formerly called 'Hecate') circa 1795
Colour print finished in ink and watercolour on paper
support: 439 x 581 mm
Presented by W. Graham Robertson 1939

View the main page for this artwork

A witch, stripped to the waist, is accompanied by two youthful figures, apparently a boy and a girl. Above their heads we can see the silhouette of a bat in the gloom, and a weird feline-faced bat-winged thing. Among the rocks to the left, are a wide-eyed owl, a newt or toad, and an ass. The subject of this print has been much discussed. It was traditionally called ‘Hecate’.

James Gillray, Nightly Visitors 21 September 1798

James Gillray Nightly Visitors 21 September 1798

James Gillray
Nightly Visitors 21 September 1798
Coloured etching,with aquatint, 365 x 258 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

This is an attack on the politician Charles James Fox (1749–1806) for his support of Irish independence. He is assailed by a group of headless ghosts, fronted by the spectre of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. The French had landed in Ireland in August 1798, and a bloody rebellion had followed. St Ann’s Hill in London was Fox’s home, and was identified as the source of anti-government feeling.

William Blake, Richard III and The Ghosts c.1806

William Blake Richard III and The Ghosts around 1806

William Blake
Richard III and The Ghosts around 1806
Pen and black ink, and grey wash, with watercolour, 306 x 190 mm

© Copyright the Trustees of The British Museum

Pen and black ink, and grey wash, with watercolour on paper Shakespeare’s Richard III is assailed by the ghosts of the many victims of his plotting and violence. To the left, the ghost of Henry VI leads one group of spectres; to the right Lady Anne, the dead wife of Richard, leads another. The spirits of the two murdered princes, the sons of Edward IV, are shown between the legs of King Richard.

William Blake, Hamlet and his Father’s Ghost 1806

This represents Hamlet meeting the ghost of his father, in the scene of Shakespeare’s play where the apparition tells his son the gloomy truth about the incestuous and horrid plots surrounding him. While Blake painted extended series of illustrations of Dante and Milton, he represented subjects from Shakespeare infrequently. When he did, his designs, as here, tended to take on a relatively conventional format.

James Gillray, A Phantasmagoria – Scene – Conjuring-up an Armed Skeleton 5 January 1803

James Gillray A Phantasmagoria 5 January 1803

James Gillray
A Phantasmagoria 5 January 1803
image: 279 x 245 mm

With permission of the Warden and Scholars of New College, Oxford

The three witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth (1606) are shown wearing the features of contemporary opposition politicians, including Charles James Fox. The print criticises the Peace of Amiens made with France in 1802, which was perceived as sacrificing Britain’s interests. The feigned oval suggests that the whole scene may be a phantasmagorical projection of the type popular at this time.

Henry Fuseli, The Mandrake: A Charm c.1812

A witch is shown digging up a Mandrake root, while a young female companion collapses in horror. According to myth, the humanshaped root would shriek or give off a deadly gas on being dug up. Although this composition dates to around 1812, it is closely based on an oil painting first exhibited by Fuseli in 1785. You can see this picture nearby.

Henry Fuseli, The Witch and The Mandrake c.1812

Henry Fuseli The Witch and The Mandrake circa 1812

Henry Fuseli
The Witch and The Mandrake c.1812
Pencil over indications of red chalk on paper, 428 x 545 mm

Lent by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, Bequeathed by Francis Douce, 1834

 

This is one of a pair of drawings that was the basis of etched prints created by Fuseli around 1812. They both represent a haggardly witch digging up the magical Mandrake plant. In this design, the Mandrake is shown as a tiny humanoid creature. The root was long associated with witchcraft, and was thought to have powerful aphrodisiac or poisonous effects.