The Sublime

I originally wrote this during the time that I was undertaking the “Context and Narrative course. I never published it at the time and I felt that now was a good time to clean it up and publish it as part of this course as it goes in the subject of the sublime. This article was written after watching the BBC program ‘Art of Gothic’ on iPlayer.  In the program Andrew Graham-Dixon explores how a group of 19th-century architects and artists spurned the modern age and turned to Britain’s medieval past to create iconic works and buildings.

Having first seen Andrew Graham-Dixon on ‘The Art of Russia’, I like to watch some of the series presented by hum. I find him a knowledgeable art historian and a humorously succinct presenter.

In the first episode Graham-Dixon talks about the Age of enlightenment, and how the term ‘Gothic’ was seen by its Italian definition as barbaric and uncivilised. This definition of course, dismisses all of medieval art and culture. In Britain the reformation destroyed a lot of the middle age art and architecture as it was thought to be nothing more than catholic superstition. This architecture was ‘rediscovered’ by the Georgians who first used it in the building style of some their stately homes and in watercolour paintings of ruins and of dark and brooding landscapes.

This led to a revival in literature and art where the horror and shock value could be used to drive a narrative, some of which was driven by the shock at the French revolution. The British Aristocracy were, of course nervous at the events unfolding in France; the horror as the underclasses rising up and overthrowing the monarchy and how they welded the power of the guillotine to remove the heads of state.

Along with paintings of the landscape, the Georgians artists started to review earlier pieces of art with the same eye to the “Gothic sublime” for example, Salvatore Rosa’s ‘Witches at their Incantations’ (Rosa, 1646) (the phrase calls to mind Black Sabbaths ‘War Pigs'(Iommi, Osbourne,Ward and Butler, 1970)) and can be viewed with this idea of symbolic horror, the witches, the maiden, the mother and the crone gather round a tree from which hangs a broken necked body. Some tall birdlike skeleton watches over the scene, the dark eye socket glaring out at the viewer, a toad like creature sits at the bottom of the frame its red lined maw gaping open as if to reach out and bite the viewer if they get too close. It looks ready to reappear in a later Dali painting in a more mutated form.

Could the melancholic meditations at lost art and history have caused the Georgian period of romanticism, and the scientific discoveries of the time, opened their minds to the old fears and superstitions of ghosts and man made monsters? I believe this shows up in writing such as Thomas Parnell’s “A night piece on death” (Parnell, 1721), his graveyard poem reminds us that nothing is eternal and that life is short, his sombre moral message would inspire other writers to take up the idea and write poetry and novels reflecting on the romance of death and longing, and the language of the gothic novel.

This language can be seen in the Painting ‘The nightmare’ (Fuseli, 1781), It shows a woman in deep sleep with her arms thrown below her, and with a demonic and apelike incubus crouched on her chest. The creature may be a representation of what we now know as the condition sleep paralysis; Suffers talk about being held down by a creature on their chest or torso. Fuseli’s painting goes on, the symbolic representation of the mare by the horses head and the horrific nightmare thoughts running through the subjects mind.

Fuseli again takes us on a nightmare vision with ‘Percival Delivering Belisane from the Enchantment of Urma’ (Fuseli 1783), here the main subjects holds back Percival as he strikes out of the painting. His forceful stroke directed at Urma, the wizard, who cowers down hand held up to deflect the blow, Percival hopes to strike down Urma breaking the chains which hold down Belisane and an unknown person whose hand reaches into the frame from the right hand side. Will the blow be strong enough to release the lost souls represented by the nightmare ghostly faces on the left of the scene? Fuseli added a note to the painting when it was shown, directing the viewer to read the takes of Thiot. Lord Byron spent time looking for these tales in his library but could find no reference to these tales; when he asked Fuseli about them, Fuseli admitted that he had made the references up to add a layer of mystery to the painting. This painting pushes Fuseli’s narrative of subjective fear and the unknown disturbances of the mind.

The idea of the painting or novel being inspired by an ancient source can be initially found in the Novel ‘Castle of Otranto’ (Walpole, 1764), Horace Walpole was the first gothic horror novelist and this book with its, ghosts, monsters and villains who take over the body or soul of an innocent. It gives birth to the genre which flooded onto the scene. Walpole can also be credited with creating the idea of Gothic found footage which nowadays can be seen in ‘Blair Witch Project’, ‘Rec’ and ‘Cloverfield’
The idea of presenting a novel as a translation allowed Walpole to add a frisson of mystery to his novel, his Georgian readers would be unsure of the reality of the text.
A reflection of the idea of found art, again in represented in Strawberry hill, Walpole’s house in Twickenham, here the house that he built overflows with gothic architecture inside and out and presents the narrative that Walpole discovered a crumbling ruin and returned it to its gothic magnificence.

Lord Cobham, a contemporary of Walpole, while deeply embedded in the Romanesque architecture of the Gothic age, also took time to create a Gothic Folly on the estate, it was his own take of the medieval ruin with his temple of Liberty on his Stow estate. The temple designed by James Gibbs is very much a medieval Anglo-Saxon church with Gothic highlights dedicated to the Liberty from the absolute power of the monarchy and to the power held by the Whigs of the British Parliament.

Painters, Poets and Artists continued to produce work in this period, not always with the success of Walpole. ‘The Poems of Ossian’, (James Macpherson, 1760) is one of these works, MacPherson published his work in 1760, but it was in 1766 that Charles O’Connor, a well-known Gaelic Scholar, dismissed the authenticity of the work, a dispute which continued until 1952, where it was decided that the poems contained parts of older works from as early as 1310. The dispute however did not mar the influence of the poems as they became the initial influences for such works as ‘Fingal’s Cave’ (Mendelson, 1829) and the Opera ‘Ossian, ou Les Bardes’ (Les Sueur, 1804)
Like MacPherson, Thomas Chatterton, made waves with the Georgian public who were ravenous for more medieval style literature. Chatterton created a number of pieces which he claimed he had found in the attic of an old church. He declared that the work originated from a 15th century medieval monk called Thomas Rowley. He was able to pass his own work off as Rowleys’ mainly due the fact that few people at the time were familiar with medieval poetry, though ironically, he was denounced by Horace Walpole. Chatterton even went as far as the use the backs of 15th century manuscripts as a canvas for his own drawings. Chatterton was one of the first of the Gothic romantic deaths; Chatterton, finding himself destitute, poisoned himself at the age of 17, his death was represented in a play by Alfred du Vigny and the painting ‘The Death of Chatterton'(Wallis, 1856) he became the embodiment of doomed young genius.

Gothic literature now moved east, at the helm of William Beckford, who could be described as a Gothic literature rock star, his life was driven by his desires, as he burned through his inheritance at a eye streaming pace. His novel ‘Vathek’ was inspired by his own profligate, debauched lifestyle, he combined oriental influences with darker Gothic tones, the main character Vathek makes a Faustian deal with a oriental genie spirit so that he can live a life full of debauchery and fulfil all his desires. He tries to break the deal and is devoured by the “devil”. At first Beckford claimed that he had just translated a middle eastern text, but later withdrew that claim and admitted that he had written the novel. The scandals of his life meant that Beckford withdrew from society for 10 years and then on his return built his Gothic home which was the size of a cathedral when it was complete. His architectural design was so full of gothic imagery, that it flowed with arches, towers and stain glass windows. Unfortunately for Beckford his shield against the world collapsed under its own weight. It can now only be seen in the drawings in ‘The Delineation of Fonthill Abbey’ (Rutter, 1823). Rutter’s drawings show an immense palace on a biblical scale, people are physically dwarfed by the height and depth of the building.

Beckfords influence on other authors extended the reach of Gothic literature, one of the most prominent was Ann Radcliffe, whose novels such as ‘the Italian’ and ‘The mysteries of Udolphio’ were seen as a bad influence on young women. These novels were so popular, that you could say that they were the era equivalent of the Twilight novels, their readers were seen to be embedded in the books and that the books caused too much excitement in young women. Such was their popularity that Jane Austen wrote ‘Northanger Abbey’ (Austin, 1798) as a pastiche of Gothic novels, Austin poked fun at the seriousness of the Gothic Novel hoping to break its grip on English literature. Austin’s idea of a young women alone searching a mysterious house would and still does appear again and again in books and films such as ‘Rebecca’ (du Maurier, 1938), (Hitchcock, 1940) and the idea of inflamed imagination, ‘Suspicion’ (Hitchcock 1941)

As these books were being written and published, the French revolution continued, refugees from the revolution fleeing France, would on occasion encounter a young man called Matthew Gregory Lewis, Lewis was a junior British diplomat at the Hague, their stories to him of what was happening in France, influenced Lewis to write ‘The Monk’ (Lewis, 1796). Lewis claimed to have written it quickly in a space of less than 10 weeks and when it was published, it became the prime example of British Gothic horror; the plot was scandalous and convoluted and it became the most important Gothic novels of its time. The metaphorical narrative reflects a warning about the corruption of life which is contained in every-man.

The first episode has focused mainly on the literature but it has shown that there is a cross between the arts and that painting was influenced and the Gothic themes were starting to be explored.


Suspicion –

1 thought on “The Sublime

  1. Pingback: Exercise 1.6 – The Contemporary Abyss | Leonard Scott Landscape

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s