Lectures are in the ArtsHouse: 10.45 for morning members: 13.30 for afternoon members.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Speaker: Susan Owens


This fascinating lecture on the changing nature of ghosts explored their depiction through art, literature, drama and photography. One of the earliest portrayals of a ghost was shown through a painting by an unknown artist of St. Edmund coming back from the dead to kill Sweyn, the Danish king, who had been menacing people of Bury St. Edmunds for money. The blue covered background gives the impression of eternity to St. Edmund. Ghosts prepared mortals for death as is shown in the De Lisle Psalter of The Three Living and the Three Dead where three kings out hunting are confronted  with three walking corpses who are warning the kings to change their ways otherwise they will end up like this! Similar images can be found in churches such as in St. Andrew’s Church in Wickhampton as a warning to all, no matter what their status. Later ghosts were depicted as part of the imagination so they did not actually exist.However,as they kept appearing ,books were written to explain their appearance such as the devil in disguise as a person known to someone to trick them or as an indication of a melancholy personality.

Revenge Tragedies contained ghosts and in Hamlet by William Shakespeare, Shakespeare explores differing perceptions of ghosts; the uneducated guards think they see one, with Horatio commenting the sightings were “but fantasies”, whereas Hamlet himself sees a spirit damned. Ghosts were portrayed as having wings, cloven hoofs and a tail. The dress of ghosts was portrayed differently by artists over the ages; some were in a shroud like dress as seen in John Flaxman’s painting of The Ghost of Clytemnestra Arousing the Furies or a white sheet such as portrayed in a painting of The Ghost of Darius appearing to Atossa by George Romney. One ghost was shown to us as in a shirt in a Thomas Rowlandson caricature! Titian depicted ghosts in clouds; transporting them from earth to heaven. James Gillray drew the Duke of Cumberland’s ghost as naked and in a billowing cloud! William Blake used water colour for a luminous glow in, “The Ghost of Samuel Appearing to Saul.”Jacob Marley’s ghost in “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens appears as transparent in the illustration for the novel. The idea of ghosts haunting houses may have come from “The Castle of Otranto” by Horace Walpole where ghosts are everywhere: in a corridor, in a crypt, as a painting and even the house itself seems to be living and breathing. This book ushered in a whole period of Gothic literature and art with tales of terror and paintings of skeletons and ghosts.


During the industrial revolution and the influence of the British Empire, people stopped being afraid of ghosts and invited them into their houses in the form of spiritualism. An albumen silver print shows Georgiana Houghton in a picture with a supposed spirit. She claimed her drawings were guided by the spirits of great artists such as Titian. The idea then came about that a camera could identify a ghost which the naked eye could not. The National Trust encourages the belief in ghosts in their houses even though in their book about them, no ghosts are shown in the black and white photographs; readers are encouraged to use their imagination. Ghosts personify the past so we value ghosts as we refuse to be erased by time.