GOTHIC AT THE GOTT 4: DARK CENTRE

Posted by Dr David Annwn Jones on May 30, 2015 in Uncategorized tagged with , ,

Suddenly a new location appears on the TV: we see fresh crop circles created by groups of homicidal aliens who are taking over the planet. Watching this, a room of dumbstruck Americans look blank as the name of ‘WAKEFIELD’, an English city unknown to them flashes up on the screen. This scene from M. Night Shyamalan’s SF horror film Signs (2002) has puzzled critics but, as the BBC realized in shooting Jonathan Strange, Wakefield draws artists seeking the unsettling and uncanny.

In featuring engravings of locations so crucial to the first upsurge of Gothic writing, like Setterington’s image of Wentworth House, with its dynastic feud and rival hall’s folly in relation to Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, and also the Gothic Revival, the Gott now finds itself the hub of a vibrant Gothic horror culture in West Yorkshire. Such a position is both crucial and exciting .

Through my studies at the Gott, I have personally witnessed how staff at the Hepworth make research in their facility a welcome experience. Luckily, I was able to make this point during an interview with Ciaran Reynolds of the Hepworth . It became obvious that Ciaran in conversation is very enthusiastic about the Gott. He commented: ‘This is a fantastic collection which hadn’t been available to the public before. It is a great resource and our considerable achievement is that we’ve managed to digitize the collection for much wider public access. We’re also proud of the online cross-referencing system involving different search categories.’ The scanned versions of the images are stunningly good and allow further enlargement for detailed scrutiny. Ciaran said he had noticed that visitors first seek out the engraved nearest location to where they live but then range further afield in searches. He also says staff particularly enjoyed compiling the ‘Curiosities’ section where they placed images ‘which just didn’t fit anywhere else.’ On a usual day, Ciaran assists and gets verbal feedback from visitors also in the form of comment cards and reactions to the Gott are very positive. Regarding the Gothic, he said that the most prominent Gothic links presently appreciated in the collection are the engravings of Whitby Abbey and their relevance to Dracula. We also discussed the primary importance of the buildings at Wentworth to Otranto. The print ‘Western elevation of Horbury church’ is a reminder that Sabine Baring-Gould served as a curate here a few miles out of Wakefield and later wrote the most famous book on werewolves, which influenced Stoker in his portrayal of vampires. Ciaran is fascinated by such connections and, though he wasn’t aware of any other researchers of the Gothic currently studying these important images, he welcomes such research and sees many potential opportunities in the Gott’s connections with the Gothic.

The Gott is, as I’ve hinted, the centre of a network of vital Gothic buildings, traditions, culture and production. Last year saw the exhibition of new art specially designed for the setting of the Museum gallery at William Gott’s Armley Mills factory, December 2013-January 2014.

Amongst the work showcased at the Armley were exhibits by young artists, Amy Gregory and Miranda Jones.

Amy Gregory’s ‘Brontë‘ is a quintessentially Gothic creation.

Bronte -Amy Gregory

The monumental Victorian floral dress steeped and stiffened in wax is also an embodiment of feminine domestic paralysis and constraint: the garment which would normally flow in space is fixed and caught a downpour of set liquid. Does dress define woman or vice versa? This work seems the relic of an unspeakable tragedy but also appears as the mobile ghost of its own absence, swishing by us in its stasis. In Jane Eyre and the neo-Gothic Wide Sargasso Sea, Bertha Rochester is the vengeful destroying angel of her house/prison, the candle-bearer. Candles burn houses and people but in Amy’s work, the missing wearer has somehow been subsumed into the status of a candle. Garment as waxwork: the dress uncannily outlives its wearer.

 

Pinhole 2.3 – Miranda Jones

Miranda Jones says that, in her macabre and menacing pinhole camera shot above, she ‘wished to challenge the limitations of a selfie and is position within the fine art environment.’ The self-defining subject, a living negative, is viewed and caught recording its own dark nativity. Mysteries of  a darkly-occluded yet burgeoning human being are evoked, as the self-imaging presence seems to float eerily towards us out of the frame. Norms of self-portraiture are transgressed and challenged. Postmodern selfie  is paradoxically realised inside proto-modern pinhole. Starkly unique in conception, Miranda’s Gothic-themed work also joins a growing group of innovative camera-artists recorded elsewhere in Lyle Rexer’s Photography’s Antiquarian Avant Garde, The New Wave in Old Processes (2005). The relatively new practice of selfie taking becomes as haunting in this artist’s work as videos and TVs are in the horror film Ringu1998 and EVPs are in White Noise (2005). 

 
There are also a number of notable Wakefield artists who have produced a range fine Gothic-themed works, amongst them: Charlotte and Sean Mannion,

Weirdly person Gothic doll – Charlotte Mannion

Charlotte Mannion’s ‘Weirdly person’ has a feeling of spontaneity and vivacity and draws upon the worlds of Gothic carnival and masquerade as well, perhaps a zone of dark fairy tale.  As an object, this Gothic doll is both festive and threatening, humorous and monstrous. Who would dare present this risky effigy to a child? The stylized slash of eye-shadow, elongated eye-liner and exaggerated swerve of lipstick slitting upward to the eyes give this figure an unforgettable potency. The energy of the wires bristling fiercely around the tight blue metallic hairbun give the whole a tremendous and playful dramatic intensity. Charlotte writes that this is one of several ‘three-dimensional creatures of otherness’ that she has created. She continues: ‘When considering those ” outside” I imagine the transformed , changed, altered. The undiscovered.’ In exploring her thoughts on the doll, Charlotte uses poetic notes, capturing an eerie woodland scape akin to those inhabited by natural imps demons and sprites: ‘ There, something else inhabits / I’m sure / This wooded glen / Morphed /Flits /Sucks/ Laps / Prow- ed / Unperplexed / Not I’.

 

There’s a dark, atmospheric power to Sean Mannion’s painting featured below, with its vast tenebrous spaces, hints of Cyclopean stone-work and blood-toned shapes curving in the shadows. The difficulty of seeing into the stygian darkness of the painting seems part of its ambiguous and perhaps ominous drama here. To my mind it recalls the work of Salvator Rosa, his brooding rock-scapes and half-definable figures bathed in shade.   In fact, this work was influenced by the Goya canvasses and prints  in the Prado and also references early work by John Walker

Painting -Sean Mannion

The grottos and subterranean temples of ancient spiritual beliefs linked to the human subconscious (those cave walls at the back of our minds), seemed to be evoked and perhaps this is the reason why the field of visuality seems to be fluctuating and changing as we look creating a sense of theatrical relativity. Sean writes that he likes the dark, shadowy nature of the work. With the painting’s sense of depth and spaciousness, he experiences it as a ‘scary stage set’. He writes:  ‘I liked the idea of being able to walk through and into the scene and find other forms and imagery in the background that you can’t see up front.’

I am extremely grateful to the illustrious  comic and graphic novel artist artist, Staz Johnson for taking time out of his busy schedule to allow me to feature two of his stunningly-illustrated pages from Dracula, The Graphic Novel: Original Text (2010). The detail and kinetic energy of this realisation makes this perhaps the best of all graphic adaptations of Dracula. Staz uses blocks of jagged darkness and bright highlights to envisage this muscular young Dracula’s domination of Mina.

Dracula and Mina from Dracula – Staz Johnson

This is a post-Coppola bloodsucker manifest in all his tooth-and-claw glory, but Staz also gives us the authentic moustachioed wall-crawling Count as Stoker first imagined him.  His eye for illuminating Gothic detail too is really exceptional. Note the shadow-shafted obelisk serving as a bedpost crossing the blank mirror. The sheeny bed-clothes are a masterly rendition sharp light and shade.

The Castle from Dracula – Staz Johnson

Skewed angles, soaring viewpoints and juxtapositions make reading this comic an exhilarating experience, and bring the vampire’s savage incursions to vivid life. Wakefield resident, Staz enjoys a thriving career in successive art. He has drawn for Marvel and DC; amongst his titles are The Avengers, Spiderman, X Men, Wolverine, Thor and he has recently contributed to Klarion. He has also appeared on T.V. and at Sheffield Film festival and ComicCon.

Level after level of Andrew Smales’s composition, ‘Poison Ivy’ , draws us into an encounter with a shape-shifting and fluctuating femme fatale.

 

Poison Ivy -Andrew Smales

Gothic nightmare encounters fairytale and Steampunk in this creation where fore- and after-images flex and change. Norman and Gothic arches soar and reflected through a hoard of diabolically-complex mechanisms. Diverse surfaces and devices recede and rise towards us. The watcher is drawn into a spin:  an hallucinatory scape where strange machines and clockworks whir and oscillate. The fire-haired subject exerts a powerful erotic magnetism, her eyes upturned as if in appeal to the upper left of the picture-space yet, even while we register her apparent vulnerability, we are aware of her machinations, her dark arts set to ensnare us. Andrew’s work is regularly featured at the Bram Stoker International Film Festival.

This short survey reveals a wealth of Gothic-themed art in the vicinity. Wakefield and its surrounds also hosts many Gothic events. Regularly on Halloween, Yorkshire Scare Ground Scream Park provides a terrifying real-time horror experience in their 24-acre property at the aptly named Hell Lane, off Black Road, Heath. ‘The Wakefield Express’ has presented features on the Wakefield Witches: Margaret Morton and the Bentons of Kirtkthorpe were all charged with the dark arts and uttering curses. Morgana, currently based in the Ridings, is one of the most prominent and well-established shops selling Goth clothing and accessories in Britain. There are themed ghost tours at Pontefract Castle. Also at Pontefract, (occasional flooding allowing), one can view the famous Hermitage. This is a genuine and atmospheric medieval dwelling for hermits carved into the rock, with its upper oratory complete with domed ceiling and a steep spiral staircase dropping to a hidden well. The oratory features an altar and the stair-wall a carved skeleton. It is a dark and haunting place and its proximity to the mound of the Cluniac minster and ruined Castle surely evoke the subterranean hermit’s rooms of Sophia Lee’s The Recess, the best of Gothic quasi-historical novels. Sandal Castle was the setting for Heartbreak Productions’ al fresco version of Dracula in 2013. Even the young are not spared! Yew Tree Youth Theatre produced Moira Buffini’s A Vampire Story at the Wakefield Orangery in 2014. Perhaps it is no accident that Wakefield’s Theatre Royal has featured productions of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, The Rocky Horror Show, a terrifying version of Wilkie Collins’s Haunted Hotel, Susan Hill’s Woman in Black and the aforementioned Mist in the Mirror.

The Theatre Royal seems to harbour a particular affinity for horror and this seems written into the past of the building. It is a very well-kept secret but this theatre also played a key role in the history of horror projection. In April 1829, the theatre mounted a benefit performance for the widow and dependents of that doyen of the Phantasmagoria lantern horror show: Philipsthal. According to a poster, this show featured: ‘A Marvellous Tomb Scene!! Also The Fairies’ Midnight Revel with hundreds of fancy-formed supernatural beings and also: ‘The Execution of the Earl of Derby with the Executioner on the Scaffold, &c.’

The fact that the Gott, now recognised as such an internationally-important collection and also as a potent resource for Gothic researchers, students and artists, is situated at the centre of such a wide range of local activities and histories is cause for celebration.  It also holds great potential for new and ongoing explorations of this ‘dark centre’.

(The author would like to express his grateful thanks, in the writing of these posts, to the staff at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield, and also to the artists whose outstanding work features above. In each case, copyright remains with the artists.)

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