Spooky Halloween Picks: Art

Sheffield Gothic presents:

our Spooky Art Picks for Halloween

Its a Gothicists favourite time of the year, so what better time than Halloween to share some of our favourite spooky recommendations! Whether you prefer Terror Gothic or Horror Gothic, if you like your frights to be strictly PG, or if you just need a break from slaying all that evil – settle in with our spooky picks. And if you like any of our recommendations, or want to share some of your own, don’t forget to tweet us at @SheffieldGothic!

Daniel Gardner, The Three Witches from Macbeth (1775), National Portrait Gallery, Creative Commons


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Featuring three of my favourite eighteenth century ladies, Daniel Gardner’s 1775 group portrait of Anne Seymour Damer, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and Lady Melbourne as the three witches from Macbeth has to be my top art pick for Halloween. The swirling clouds of smoke rendered in gouache and chalk shroud the scene in mystery, whilst Melbourne’s enticing glance invites the viewer into their inner circle (you can almost hear them chanting ‘one of us’). If there were ever to be a Sheffield Gothic friendship portrait, I envision it would look a lot like this!

It was on a visit to the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle that I first came across this image amongst a display on the representation of witches in popular culture. There alongside the likes of Sabrina and Elphaba was my girl G (yes, I do always talk about the Duchess of Devonshire like she’s my best friend). As a political campaigner, patroness of the arts, and all round style icon, Georgiana may have bewitched the beau monde, but I was curious why she had been depicted as a witch…

The dramatic composition alludes to the love all three shared for amateur theatricals, and the image was most likely commissioned by Lady Melbourne as a means of promoting their connection. However, the portrait also rather knowingly plays on the women’s political influence. Where so many satirical prints served to mock their ‘pretensions’, this image celebrates the power of female friendship. Lady Mary Coke described the portrait in her journal, noting: ‘They have chosen that Scene where they compose their Cauldron, but instead of “finger of Birth-strangled babe, etc” their Cauldron is composed of roses and carnations and I daresay they think their charmes more irresistible than all the magick of the Witches’. Their charm certainly lured me to study eighteenth-century women’s writing. As a sculptor and writer, the wonderful Anne Seymour Damer has turned out to be a key subject in my thesis on the representation of women artists. It’s like all my research interests come together in this one image!

Henry Fuseli, Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers (1810-1812), Tate Britain


Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers ?exhibited 1812 Henry Fuseli 1741-1825 Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1965 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T00733

Henry Fuseli (1741-1825) painted several scenes from Shakespeare’s plays during his career, often focusing on the cruellest, eeriest, and most erotic moments of the plays, but Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers is, without a doubt, my favourite out of the lot. 

Fuseli’s painting, which was inspired by the Gothic and Romantic movements, depicts the immediate aftermath of Duncan’s murder as Lady Macbeth seizes control of the situation (and the bloody daggers used to commit the foul deed). 

Macbeth’s horror at his act of regicide is clearly displayed upon his face but it is fiercely matched by Lady Macbeth’s determination and strength. Lady Macbeth is spectral and wraith-like, standing out against the pitch-black background while she demands the blood-soaked daggers from her horrified husband, and her supernatural appearance lends a nightmarish quality to a scene which was already unnerving.

William Holman-Hunt , Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1867)


Isabella and the Pot of Basil

At first glance, Isabella and the Pot of Basil might not strike the viewer as particularly spooky, but if one looks closer – at both the painting itself and the poem that inspired it – there are certain unsettling details that qualify this piece of art as Gothic. Notice, for instance, the small skull on the basil pot, which makes the object look more like an urn than a vessel for herbs. This symbol is the only palpable hint at the sordid contents of the pot: the severed head of Lorenzo, recently exhumed from his woodland grave. Consider also how the plant towers over Isabella, its tendrils woven into her hair, as she gazes at something just beyond the picture. The virulence of the basil plant contrasts with Isabella’s wilting body, creating a disturbing sense that it has more life than she does. What’s more, the unmade bed in the background, coupled with her bare feet, suggest that it is evening – a time that is usually associated with clandestine acts. As Lizzie observes in Christina Rossetti’s ballad Goblin Market (1862): ‘Twilight is not good for maidens’. How true this omen rings, not only in Keats’s narrative poems, but also in the Gothic mode more generally.

J. M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


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As J. M. W. Turner joined the Abolitionists to end slavery in the British Empire and succeeded in 1833, Turner hoped to extend the good cause of anti-slavery campaigns to other regions, and this painting depicted the hope. Slavers Throwing overboard the Dead and Dying—Typhoon coming on or The Slave Ship (1840) referred to the terror of the slave ship Zong, which threw ailing and dead African slaves overboard in order to collect insurance payments. Turner was great at using colours and artistic techniques to show us shocking, oppressive power of capitalism, which supported racist and colonialist exploitation. Instead of straightforwardly showing the racialised bodies of African slaves, the painting shows only the hands of slaves struggling in the green water. Turner had not compromised on colour, as he used contrastive red and green, for the blood and the sea, to depict the violence of such precarious subjects, the owner of the blood, in the cruel maritime commercial network, represented by the ship and the sea, which has fully become infested by capitalist affairs since. With strong contrasting colours, the painting also shows the raging waters, which almost merge themselves with the setting sun. The painting shows both terror and chaos, and urges to challenge racism. If the painting does not evoke horror enough for you, John Ruskin, when he interpreted the painting,  has alluded to Macbeth when he sees “the multitudinous seas incarnadine” (Act II Scene 4, 63), with the blood of the slaves combined with great sea. This terror this painting has evoked reminds me of the present-day slavery, especially in the fishing industry around the world.

Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930), Art Institute of Chicago


Man and woman with stern expession stand side-by-side. The man holds a pitch fork and wears glasses.

Grant Wood’s American Gothic is to American Gothic what Fuseli’s The Nightmare is to European Romantic Gothic. Emblematic of a distinctly American Gothic tradition, American Gothic brought about the rise of Southern Gothic: epitomized by the works of Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, and Anne Rice, and films such as The Night of the Hunter (1955) and The Skeleton Key (2005), Southern or American Gothic creates a space that is both haunted by the past and continues to haunt the present. Oh, and of course, like The Nightmare, Wood’s painting is also ideal for parody. Painted by Wood in 1930, American Gothic depicts a father – holding a pitchfork – and daughter standing in front of a house in Eldon Iowa. Visiting Chicago this summer for the fifteenth International Gothic Association conference, we were lucky enough to visit the Art Institute of Chicago where the painting is currently displayed. Perhaps because there was a Gothic conference in town, or perhaps because the painting has become so iconic, there was a continual crowd surrounding the painting – but we all managed to appreciate the painting up close and get a few photos (I also raided the gift shop and bought as much American Gothic items as I could).

Among the seemingly endless parodies of Grant’s painting is its several Gothic cameo appearance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), a film reimagining Mary Shelley’s iconic Frankenstein against an unmistakably American, and musical, backdrop.  The opening sequence of the film includes a shot of the actors who will later play Magenta and Riff Raff standing in front of a church in the style of Wood’s painting, complete with pitchfork, while later Magenta and Riff Raff appear again as part of a futuristic version of American Gothic, but this time complete with laser pitchfork. Magenta and Riff Raff are both lovers and brothers, inviting us to be unsettled and to examine our discomfort surrounding their relationship. However, they also return us to the Gothic narrative that has been created around Wood’s painting. Although the original models were father and daughter, many falsely believe the painting to depict a husband and wife, and the legacy of this painting exploits this misidentification. Drawing upon this uncomfortable legacy, recent parodic incarnations of American Gothic include many depictions of Ivanka Trump and her father. No wonder, then, that America Gothic is one of Frank N. Furter’s chosen paintings displayed in his Castle.

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Rocky Horror Picture Show does American Gothic