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The fascination with ghost stories and the macabre in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century England is well known. Such authors as Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) revived and popularised the genre of the Gothic novel and Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus was published in 1818.

It was evident from the workshops that BACA students were already familiar with traditions of Gothic literature which have survived to this day. They were able to evoke an atmosphere of suspense or the supernatural in their own creative writing. One student’s inventive illustrated short story echoed this tradition as well as images from the Dalziel Achive, such as this hybrid creature (left, 1866) or machinery (right, 1859):

You can read the story illustrated by this student – and others too – by scrolling down to the final section of this page, New Ghost Stories.

To learn more about the history of the Gothic genre, BACA students looked at two illustrated books from the 1820s The British Dance of Death (editions published between 1823 and 1825) and Rudolf Ackermann’s compilation of ghost stories (1823).

The British Dance of Death

The British Dance of Death is based on a longstanding subject in print culture where death, personified as a skeleton, accosts people of all ages and walks of life. Hans Holbein the Younger had designed a famous dance of death in 1526 and the theme interested artists throughout the nineteenth century. The British Dance of Death was published in a finely bound book with an essay or verses printed beside each subject’s death. According to the introduction, the illustrations were etched after unpublished drawings by Benedictus Antonius Van Assen, several are signed by the printmaker J. Gleadah and the opening illustration or “frontispiece” is by Isaac Robert Cruikshank. All of the illustrations appear to have been coloured by hand as the colour scheme of this edition differs from that in another copy in the Wellcome Collection.

Two students described how the frontispiece conveys the supreme power of death:

“In this picture, I can see death. He is wearing a crown and has a cape which suggests he’s the King of the world.”

“This image is showing a skeleton holding a scythe and wearing a crown [suggesting] death is a ruler and the fact that he is shown with a globe may mean [he] rules earth.”

The dance of death emphasizes the levelling power of death which is captured in this student’s prose poem:

“We are all equal in the face of death. One fateful day, we will all be plucked out of our pretty little coffins where we have been so sweetly resting. His huge skeletal hand will grip us tightly by the skull as he grins with malicious glee. He will decide whether we end up at the front of the golden gates or whether we will have to savour the taste of eternal hellfire.”

One student remarked that death is “killing men and women with different obsessions.” This is an apt description as The British Dance of Death often shows figures like the dancer (pictured above) engrossed in pleasures or vocations which are unceremoniously interrupted by death.

Another student remarked on the similar appearance of death’s victims throughout the book:

“Death who is a skeleton holding an arrow is killing the same man and woman who are maybe a couple over and over again and they get different jobs every time.”                     

Although The British Dance of Death shows different people meeting their fate, this student’s comment reminds us that dances of death use a repetitive structure and generic figures.  Take for example the images of the dancer and female student (above), where the young women depicted look strikingly similar in costume and hairstyle.


This student’s comment also recognises that death’s victims are represented in stereotypical ways often defined only by their profession. Sometimes the victim’s occupation is drawn into the theme of the print, for instance the night-watchman does not see death approaching him despite his lantern while the dancer becomes death’s partner. 

 Death and the Fishwoman echoes a less macabre genre of serial prints which represent tradespeople selling their wares, known as “cries” to represent the traders calling out to advertise the items they are selling. Marcellus Laroon the elder (1653-1702) had made a well known series of Cries of London in the seventeenth century and many versions followed well into the nineteenth century.

One student was struck by the image of Death and the Warrior:

“The theme is war and death is going to kill the soldier because he has killed many of the opposing soldiers. This book was from the 1800s.”

This helpful comment allows us to see the work in context: with editions dating from the early to mid-1820s, the Napoleonic Wars (1797-1815) were part of the living memory of many people at the time. This print is informed by some aspects of battle painting and costume series of military uniforms that consumers of prints may well have been familiar with. It suggests why the dance of death was so often reworked for new contexts and audiences as it could be used to capture a generation’s experience of mortality.

One student updated the subject of Death and the Physician imagining themselves in the place of the patient in a piece of creative writing:

“As I walk into the doctor’s my heart rate spikes. The second I enter, I collapse to the ground, cracking my head like an egg on the damp wooden floorboards. The doctor completely ignores the blood gushing from the side of my head. I was going into a trance and my world went black.”

Ackermann’s Ghost Stories

With the full title Ghost Stories: Collected with a Particular View to Counteract the Vulgar Belief in Ghosts and Apparitions and to Promote a Rational Estimate of Phenomena Commonly Considered Supernatural, Ackermann’s compilation of ghost stories offers a corrective to the irrational aspects of the Gothic genre which had been satirised by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey (1803, published 1817). Ackermann’s book is compiled of mainly anonymous short stories where a suspected supernatural presence has a rational explanation. In Marianne (pictured above and below) a young woman is mistaken for a ghostly apparition.

Despite its criticism of the effects of ghost stories on the reader, the etched illustrations in this book, with their subdued colour schemes, use the same imagery of dimly lit Gothic interiors and mysterious figures. The vaulted ceiling, leaded windows and deep shadows in this scene from The Green Mantle (below) are just one example.

Instead of presenting gothic images with a rational explanation as Ackermann did, students of BACA used wood engraved advertising images and illustrations from the Dalziel archive as the source for supernatural stories. Interestingly, our historical distance from these images already lends them a haunting quality.

New Ghost Stories

One student responded to the ethereal appearance of a bride and bridesmaids and dark shadows in this print from the Dalziel archive, dated 1882-1883. This illustration inspired a sad and poignant ghost story:

The Lost Bride

The bride is happy for her wedding today. She puts on her dress and veil. She smiles and looks through her window gazing at her bridesmaids. They talked for what seemed like hours before they came to welcome the bride on her special day. They burst through the door with put on smiles. One of the bridesmaids “accidentally” stomp[s] on her dress [….]

‘My dress’ she screams getting teary ‘I’m sorry’ the bridesmaid smiles then pulls her veil out. The bride runs out before they can do more. The seven girls laugh.

The bride puts on a smile-like mask then grabs her bouquet. She walks out as the music plays, pushing the door.

‘AAAH’ the bride screams as paint falls on her.

She slips and breaks her neck on the floor. She die[s].

Her body floats out of the body now a ghost, crying with […] stained skin and messed up clothes. She looks upon the bridesmaids. She drops her flowers. All seven bridesmaids do not show sadness, not guilt, [not fear], not even [happiness]. They show nothing. They do not care about her passing.”

Another Victorian image that provoked creative responses was this advertisement for pen nibs dated 1886, wood engraved by Dalziel after JB Browne. The advertisement shows a central figure writing, surrounded by cherubs. The print already combines the everyday and otherworldly. As you will see, the student writer overturned the sweet and sentimental qualities of the image to create a macabre scene. For a visual response to this print, see the students’ linocuts in the section Beyond the Archive.

“A woman was writing a letter to her true love with cupids. Or so she thought.

The were bloodthirsty demons seeking death. One of the demons thought about ink poisoning her the others agreed in thirst for blood.

She sat not knowing about what is happening. She was thinking about the man she loves.”

Two students used the following image from the Dalziel Archive (1882-3) of children wandering on a snowy woodland path. This set the scene for some spine-chilling stories:

“The brothers had been playing outside when they came across a strange wood they had never seen before. They decided they were going to investigate (as they had never seen it before). As soon as they stepped into the forest the sky was almost red. They didn’t think anything of it.

The brothers lived with their mother and father. Their mother loved them with all her heart but their father didn’t like them at all. The brothers on the other hand loved both their parents equally. As the brothers walked into the forest they saw a shadow figure running towards them. That was the last time they were seen.”                                                                                                                               

Another story is entitled The Forbidden Forest:

“In the 1830s, two children went into the forbidden forest. It was dark and gloomy. There was close to no sound. No living soul dared to venture into the mystical forest. Although these kids were unaware of the dangers of these woods. The siblings wandered around amazed by the wonders of nature. It was almost dark when they snapped out of it. They [got] scared about the fact that is getting dark.”

In the next piece, a student uses the idea of the forest at night to imagine a terrifying scene:

“Two young lads went into the forest and fell asleep simultaneously. They woke at 3am (the spooky hour) [….] They walked then saw … a tree! It was actually a human. They ran and went in[to] a tree but it was another human.”

A final word-image short story brings together several themes from the workshops: the story of a child’s progress and adventure, and a character whose body is a hybrid of parts like that of Frankenstein’s monster. Let’s start with the illustration:

In this case the supernatural figure incorporates forms from nature calling to mind Dalziel’s illustrations for ‘Wood’s Illustrated Natural History’ (1861- 1863).

The student’s accompanying illustration is reminiscent of the images of factories and machines by Dalziel:                                                                

“The boys had toiled hard in the snow journeying far and wide and trying to find their dog that had [run] away. As another foot crushed into the snow they heard barking and whimpering and more snow started to fall covering their dog’s tracks. They turned a corner and reached a fork in the road. One of them reached an abandoned building and heard barking inside. Inside he saw what looked like a factory with tubes and conveyor belts with trapdoors as well. His brother was shrieking. As he saw his brother and tried to call out this mouth was covered and his arms and legs tied up. Their dog was too. A man appeared mutated, an arm of a yeti, the claw of a crab. He bellowed looking down: ‘You [mere] peasant! My body is incomplete, I am more than mortal. You were a test subject. I want a dog’s fur leg but safety first!’ He then started laughing hysterically.”

The hybrid “collage like” body of the man in this short story and the many images and narratives that this writer draws upon in shows how the influences in the archive can be synthesized with humour and originality.  

Student contributors: Alicia, Alisha, Cerys, Gordon, Jake, Lillian, Lucie-Lee, Nianna, Reuben, Robert, Rose, Sam, Sonny, Tamia, Thai.           

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