Thursday, 27 November 2014

Witches and Wicked Bodies

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of accompanying Willow C Winsham to the British Museum to view their Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition. As a blogger on all thing witchy, weird and wonderful, Willow was certainly in her element and as one who has always enjoyed the more esoteric side of things, I had a wonderful time too. It was particularly lovely to see some choice items of Georgian art with a witchcraft theme on show, perfect for me!

The exhibition gathers drawings, prints and some original literature and pottery from the British Museum's own collection, as well as a number of other institutions and private collectors. It traces the depiction of witches in art from the Renaissance to the Victorian era and features works by iconic artists including Goya, Rossetti and Delacroix.

In the evocatively lit gallery one becomes immersed in images that have become part of our folklore. Here witches ride on broomsticks and stir heavy iron cauldrons, there demonic women tempt pious men, animals spit and hiss in the thrall of their mistresses and the devil himself leers out of the pages of texts intended as a moral warning to the curious.

It was a thrill to see works by Dürer, so familiar from years of reproduction, and trace the earliest depictions of witches from tempting beauties to hook-nosed hags who have become the familiar Halloween costumes of the twenty first century. The exhibition also tells the stories of witchcraft's place in history through the ages, addressing the matter of criminality, punishment and hysteria that so often accompanied reports of sorcery. There is a strong focus on the biblical origins of witch myths such as Lilith and those of ancient history, including Medea.

It is fascinating to watch as these mythical figures of temptation go full circle through Goya's hideous hags and emerge into the nineteenth century as glamorous figures of mystery once. This is an exhibition that tells a story and one that I heartily recommend; if you are in London before the exhibition closes on 11th January 2015, don't miss it!


  1. I came upon a report of a witch in a newspaper in the early 19th century [1808 if I recall correctly, but I filed it so safely I can't recall where to go and look] which was a supposed witch who was committing fraud by pretending to do spells for neighbours, and telling them to hide money in a certain place, and if they went to check it the spell would be broken. A nasty con woman, but plainly by that time the newspapers were treating witches as frauds, showing a dichotomy between the educated, and the gullible ill-educated.

    1. It wasn't Mary Bateman, was it? I wrote a blog on her...

  2. How clever you are to work that out! yes, I've found the article in question and it was indeed. That's a blog from before I found you, I think, or one which I didn't read because it was when my mother was really ill. I'm now off to read it.

  3. Rather! and as I enjoy stories of cons like The Saint, and Hustle it brings home that there really is one born every minute - except that Bateman robbed from those who could ill afford it. it does, however, lead one to wonder if the credulous wealthy could be equally conned and whether there's a story in it somewhere. I already have a potential plot bunny with a supposed cunning man, but he takes bets on the life expectancy of inconvenient relatives who then conveniently die so he wins. A way of being paid for seeing them disposed of....