Andrew Graham-Dixon unpacks the fears and fantasies of the British Gothic
17 November 2015
Eminent art critic, journalist and television presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon gave a fascinating keynote lecture at Oakham to open Fear & Fantasy week.
Andrew’s talk focused on the rise of the British Gothic, and how it was used to express the fears and fantasies of a nation hurtling into modernity. Beginning with the origins of the Gothic revival at Horace Walpole’s fanciful Strawberry Hill House, Andrew took the audience on a journey into the haunting world of Victorian Gothic architecture, imagery and literature, explaining how its ideology reached far into the twentieth century and can even be identified in culture today.
“Culture is basically a repository for people’s fears and fantasies,” said Andrew, as he demonstrated how artworks which appear to be poles apart aesthetically can be seen as part of the same Gothic tradition. For example, he argued, JMW Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway would have been a truly terrifying vision to contemporary viewers – the idea of travelling at such a speed that the landscape blurs as you steam past it would have seemed fantastical were it not a burgeoning reality. At the same time, Henry Fuseli’s earlier work, The Nightmare, is perhaps a more overtly Gothic work that also presents fearful imagery, and was a probable influence on Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel Frankenstein.
Essentially, Andrew stated, “the Gothic of fear and fantasy is telling us what’s wrong with the world”, and he suggested that this is even true of society today. Describing the phone as "the most Gothic thing in the universe today", he commented that he believed technology was "alienating us from ourselves". On the trend of taking selfies in front of well-known works of art, he said, “I think people are frightened of not having experiences, and so they create this fantasy that they really are having the experience.” In reality, of course, the selfie-taker is looking into the camera rather than at the artwork.
The lecture ended with numerous questions from the audience, with one student astutely asking, “Is it contradictory that the Gothic is founded on fear, and is also supposed to inspire fear?” The question provoked some discussion, coming to a consensus that it was contradictory, but it also could be an exorcistic process for the artist, or to alert people to what is going on.
Fear & Fantasy week continues until Thursday 19 November, with other guest speakers including micro-sculptor Willard Wigan and garden designer Adam Frost.