Home » Exhibitions » Exhibition Review : Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination at the British Library , 3 Oct 2014 to 20 Jan 2015

Exhibition Review : Terror and Wonder – The Gothic Imagination at the British Library , 3 Oct 2014 to 20 Jan 2015

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination opens at the British Library exploring Gothic culture’s roots in British literature and celebrating 250 years since the publication of the first Gothic novel.

The Gothic genre in literature is one of the most popular and this exhibition looks at it origins and how it has influenced writers and how it has evolved and influenced film, fashion, music, art and even the Goth subculture.


It is perhaps appropriate that the genre’s origins has a strange and mysterious beginning, in 1764 Horace Walpole lived in a large villa in Twickenham and had a dream that led  him writing what is considered the first Gothic novel, The Castle of Oranto. However Walpole was a well-known and respected figure and rather than risk ridicule claimed that the book was a translation of an ancient Italian book.

It was with certain irony, that when the success of the book was assured, Walpole then revealed he was the creator of the story. But the unexpected consequence of his actions was other writers then began to present work based on previously undiscovered text. Most notable of these were Thomas Chatterton who was roundly admonished by Walpole and was to die at a young age in poverty. The exhibition has a rare manuscript by Chatterton as well as many items connected with Horace Walpole.

Within the late 18th century and early 19th century the gothic genre flourished with novels about the medieval past usually based in Castles. abbeys and ruins. They usually featured scheming monks, heroic noblemen and virginal heroines. In the exhibition is copies of some of the successful books of the period, the scandalous The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.

However it was in the Victorian age that Gothic moved away from castles and moved into the dirty and teeming streets of London. Vampires, Demon Barbers and other urban monsters began to make an appearance and became increasingly popular with all sections of society.

Towards the end of the 19th century, another Gothic theme developed that of decadence and degeneration, in the  heyday of the British Empire writers began to sound the warning that the endless pursuit of luxury and pleasures would inevitably lead to moral decay. In a way the rise of killers like Jack the Ripper began to feed into the imagination that it was not supernatural monsters we had to fear but rather ourselves and our often dual personalities. The exhibition features the famous ‘Dear Boss’ letter which was taken seriously by the police at the time.


The beginning of the 20th century did not lead to the decline of interest in the Gothic genre but rather increased it by using the new technologies of film to create new interpretations, classic films like  Nosferatu would bring extra fear to the vampire genre. Other films still traded on other Gothic fears Alfred Hitchcok especially trawled London folklore to produce the Lodger. Later in films Gothic became associated with the horror genre which used the old gothic novels as a loose storyline with a few modern twists.


All the way throughout the exhibition is treasures from the British library collections including manuscripts of classic Gothic novels such as Frankenstein, Dracula and Jane Eyre. There are also works by  William Blake, Mary Shelley, Charles Dickens, the Brontës, Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, MR James, Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter and Neil Gaiman.


The exhibition also makes full use of film clips, film posters, costume designs and props. some of the highlights are clips from Nosferatu, Hitchcock’s The Lodger and the Wicker Man. Also included is Clive Barker’s original film script and sketches for Hellraiser, as well as Stanley Kubrick’s annotated typescript of The Shining.


There are also paintings, prints, and photographs celebrating the Goth lifestyle.


This exhibition really does enter into the spirit of the Gothic genre by creating spaces in which the different media interplay, strange shapes are projected onto curtains that divide some of the galleries. You sometimes see objects only by a flickering light and the film clips produce piercing screams. But the exhibition also pays homage to the way that Gothic has been parodied over the centuries with a model of the Wallace and Gromit’s  Were – rabbit  and a  Victorian Vampire Hunting kit.


After 250 years the Gothic genre is still very popular and the exhibition will appeal to a wide range of people who are interested in the many strands of the genre.  The exhibition has been put together with lots of imagination and a small amount of terror , it also shows fear can be fun.

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information and to book tickets , visit the  British Library website here

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