The taste for Gothic tales and poems, focusing on themes of magic, terror and romance, was the great popular cultural phenomenon of the late eighteenth century. The images in this room suggest some of the parallels and exchanges between the literary Gothic and the visual arts. A range of artists is displayed here, including: Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797), Catherine Blake (1762–1831) and Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740–1812)
Joseph Wright, A Philosopher by Lamplight 1769
An old man in the costume of a hermit or philosopher contemplates human bones in a lamp-lit cave, while two small men or boys dressed as pilgrims (the shells in the hats identify them as such) approach with trepidation. The exact subject of this painting is uncertain; it may relate to several different literary sources. Wright has been more concerned with creating a sense of weird mystery; note the strange discrepancy of scale between the hermit and the young men.
John British Dixon after Joshua Reynolds, Ugolino 1773
This print reproduces Reynolds’s painting of the imprisonment of Count Ugolino de Gherardeschi (died 1288), from Dante’s Inferno (1319–21). Thrown into prison after a political intrigue, Ugolino was left to starve along with two of his sons and two grandchildren. The painting represents the moment when he hears the door being permanently sealed, and he is suddenly awakened to his dreadful fate. He will eventually commit a horrid act of cannibalism.
Joseph Wright, Study for ‘The Captive King’ c.1772–3
This drawing has been linked to a lost painting of ‘Guy de Lusignan in Prison’. The detail of the crucifix leaning against the pillar suggests a setting in the crusades. Guy was a Frankish king, defeated by the Saracens (middle-eastern Muslims) in 1187 and taken prisoner by them. Wright sometimes struggled with perspective; the annotations are by his friend, P.P. Burnett, who he had asked for help in this respect.
Thomas Ryder, after Joseph Wright, The Captive published by John and Josiah Boydell, 1 October 1786
This print reproduces a painting of an episode in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768). The novel comprises the reflections of the sensitive traveller, Yorick. In Paris, threatened with arrest, he reflects upon the terrors of the Bastille, in a section titled ‘The Captive’. By focussing imaginatively on a single, suffering prisoner, Yorick is able to conjure the deepest emotions, which the reader is invited to share.
John Hamilton Mortimer, The Captive
Like the larger print after Joseph Wright of Derby, shown nearby, this drawing illustrates the episode of ‘The Captive’ from in Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768). A Sentimental Journey was one of the great popular novels of the time. Several scenes were taken up by visual artists. The episode of ‘The Captive’ was admired for its evocation of melancholy horror, which anticipated the Gothic novel.
John Downman, Robert, Duke of Normandy, in Prison 1779
This painting represents a horrid subject from British history. Robert, Duke of Normandy (1054–1134), the eldest son of William the Conqueror, was imprisoned by his own brother, Henry, with whom he had argued, in 1106. He spent the rest of his life incarcerated, dying in Cardiff prison. According to legend, Robert was cruelly blinded by having hot metal bowls pushed into his eyes.
William Blake, Lear and Cordelia in Prison c.1779
The ageing British King Lear lies sleeping on his daughter Cordelia’s lap while in prison. Lear’s wilfulness has split the kingdom, and Cordelia laments the fate of her father and of the nation. This is one of a group of drawings by Blake dealing with British history made around 1779. His source for this scene though was Nahum Tate’s reworking of Shakespeare’s King Lear (1681).
John Raphael Smith after Henry Fuseli, Belisane and Percival under The Enchantment of Urma from The provenzal tale of Kyot published by John Raphael Smith, 25 August 1782
This print reproduces a lost painting and represents a Gothic scene of Fuseli’s invention. An evil wizard, watches over an imprisoned maiden and an enchanted knight (Percival). Fuseli’s painting of the succeeding action, with Percival woken, appears in Room 3. The velvety qualities of mezzotint were seen as peculiarly appropriate to Gothic subjects of this sort.
Philip James De Loutherbourg, Visitor to a Moonlit Churchyard 1790
A figure stands in the overgrown ruins of an abbey, contemplating the remnants of an old painting showing the Resurrection. Above the figure of Christ a sundial throws a long moonlight shadow, suggesting the imminence of death and the possibility of Christian salvation. The ruin is identifiable as Tintern Abbey in the Wye Valley. This was one of the most visited tourist sites of the late eighteenth century, favoured because of its emotive historical associations with the Protestant Reformation.
Thomas Robinson, The Hermit of Warkworth 1793
The subject is from Thomas Percy’s poem The Hermit of Warkworth (1771). The Hermit weeps as he tells the tragic tale of Sir Bertram and Isabel to a pair of eloped lovers. In the background, Sir Bertram mourns by the side of Isabel, the women he loved but who died accidentally by his sword. The Hermit’s narrative climaxes with the revelation that he was that ill-fated hero.
Maria Cosway, Nightscene: A Woman and Two Children, One Apparently Dead, at Seashore 1800
This drawing, and the drawing of a prison scene shown nearby, are from a group of designs created by Cosway to illustrate the poem The Wintry Day by Mary Robinson (1758–1800). Robinson’s poem contrasts the fates of the rich and the poor. The latter undergo a variety of Gothic travails, in this case on a ‘bleak and barren heath’.
Maria Cosway, Prison Scene c.1785–1800
This design illustrates Mary Robinson’s poem The Wintry Day (1800). It is one of a set of drawings published as prints in 1804. It represents the sad fate of the poor, suffering ‘on the prison’s flinty floor’. The publisher felt he had to apologize for the artist’s exaggerated style: ‘Mrs Cosway’s designs, it must be admitted, are sometimes eccentric, but it is the eccentricity of genius’.
Richard Cosway, A Nun Surprising a Monk Kissing a Nun in a Church Interior c.1785–1800
Nuns feature heavily in the erotic literature and art of the eighteenth century. For readers in the Protestant world, the rituals and institutions of Catholicism were as titillating as much as they were morally reprehensible. Gothic novelists made the most of such associations by returning repeatedly to medieval Italy or Spain as a setting.
Catherine Blake, Agnes c.1800
The pregnant nun Agnes has been imprisoned. Surrounded by filth and rotten corpses, she eventually gives birth to a short-lived child. She is shown here embracing the corpse of that infant. The source of this scene, Matthew Lewis’s novel, The Monk (1796), was a literary sensation, a shocker that pushed the bounds of taste. Still, this painting was a gift from the artist to the wife of her husband, William’s, most important patron.
James Gillray, Tales of Wonder! 1 February 1802
Gillray shows a group of women reading from Lewis’s famously lurid novel, The Monk (1796). A review of The Monk from 1802 summed up the morally righteous view of the novel: ‘all the faults and immoralities ascribed to novels, will be found realized in the Monk. Gillray’s print mocks the taste for such salacious and violent materials among the middle classes.
Henry Fuseli, Huon and Amanda with The Dead Alphonso 1804–5
The romantic hero Huon comforts his lover Amanda, when they discover the body of the goodly hermit Alphonso. Fuseli painted this scene as one of a series of twelve canvases commissioned by the publisher Caddell & Davis as illustrations to a new English edition of Christoph Martin Wieland’s epic German poem Oberon (1780). The poem focuses on the adventures of Huon, sent on a mission to a fantasy Baghdad by the emperor Charlemagne.
William Blake, Churchyard Spectres Frightening a Schoolboy c.1805
A schoolboy, satchel in hand, runs terrified from a female ghost. To the right, a bearded ghost holds a flaming birch, suggesting a schoolmasterly character. This watercolour was probably prepared by Blake as an illustration to a new edition of Robert Blair’s gloomy poem, The Grave (1743). It refers to the relatively light-hearted section that suggests the schoolboy has been prey only to the phantoms of his overexcited imagination.