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Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020


The Terrors and Wonder of London

25th October 2014

I have just been to the British Library to see ‘Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination’, which is full of old books, oil paintings of ruins and Hammer Horror films projected onto walls.  The curators have considered everything, from 18th century upper-class Gothic obsessions to the Whitby Goth Festival in 2014.

My favourite things are the titbits from London’s long-running Gothic obsession.  There is Horace Walpole’s flamboyant, mock-Gothic mansion, in which he ran tours so popular that he introduced a ticketing system.  There is the mysterious death of the young poet Thomas Chatterton who, not content with the Gothic obsession of his poetry, seems to have embraced Gothic entirely in his death by arsenic.

But my favourite story by far is the ghost of Cock Lane, whose mystery engulfed London, and sent upper-class ladies running to the streets of Smithfield, to hear the tap tap tapping of the ghost.  The drama gripped London until a stiff upperlip commission, including the supremely unimaginative Samuel Johnson, declared it a fraud.

Every class of London embraced Gothic – whether it was the novel or the Penny Dreadful, or characters from Varney the Vampire to Dracula, and from Spring-heeled Jack to Dorian Grey.

So, in honour of its obsession with everything dark, mysterious and hair-raising, I’ve collected some of London’s Gothic wonder nuggets.

The Hunterian Museum

New displays may give it a gloss but they can’t disguise the Gothic undertones.  John and William Hunter were brothers, pursuing the marvels of medicine.  John is considered the founder of ‘Scientific surgery’;  hence the collection has found its way into the Royal College of Surgeons. But it’s all rather unnervingly Frankenstein.  The pursuit of the advancement of science is laid out before you, creepily bottled in jars.  The displays are not for the faint- hearted, and if you’re squeamish you might want to give it a miss.Hunterian 1 copy

My chosen object (although it upsets me) is ‘The Irish Giant’, Charles O’Brien. At 7’7″ he spent his life as a novelty, part of freak shows and performances, and drank himself to death aged just 22.  John Hunter, ruthless collector that he was, bought his body for £130 from treacherous fishermen who were meant to be burying him at sea. And so he sits in the museum forever.   It is all inconsolably sad.  If you’re interested, Hilary Mantel has written a wonderful novel about him, called ‘The Giant O’Brien’.

The Old Operating Theatre

If the Hunterian is the collection, then the Old Operating Theatre is the location, the real deal. It was part of the old St Thomas’ Hospital, and is now a museum in the roof of a church, accessible only by an extremely narrow wooden spiral staircase.

The garret is a beamed attic, full of herbs, specimens, poison and pills.  A lot can be touched, smelt and handled.  Underlying it all is a slight queasiness.  The childbirth case is so full of sinister, twisted instruments that I find myself moving away.

The Operating Room itself circles down to the central table, where patients went under the knife;  from above students, academics, the incurably curious sat and watched. It was a teaching room and there is a quote from one such student – that there was ‘a continual calling of “Heads, heads” to those around the table whose heads interfered with the sightseers’ – that makes it all feel exceptionally ghoulish.

My chosen object, although it is not here, is a surgeon’s used frock coat. i am told that they were ‘stiff and stinking with pus and blood’.

The place is redolent of surgeons and body snatchers, although much of this in in the imagination, a testament to its atmosphere.  It was actually a charitable institution, offering operations to the poor from reputable doctors, a sort of pre-cursor to the NHS.  Still, I think to myself, I wouldn’t fancy my chances on that table . . .

They hold talks here some evenings.  The next one, on the 13th November, is called ‘Things for the Surgeon – the Body Snatchers of Georgian London’.

The Enlightenment Gallery, the British Museum

The British Museum might not seen an obvious Gothic setting.  The Great Court is flooded with light, a vast, open, modern space, and the antithesis of Victorian Gothic. But find your way to the Enlightenment Gallery, and it is a different story.  It is laid out as the museum might once have been, when it had only just transitioned form Sloane’s Cabinet of Curiosities.  The walls are lined with books, the cabinets filled with wonders divided thematically:  ‘trade and discovery’, ‘natural history’.

The Museum may be an Enlightenment institution but some objects have roots into deeper pasts.  My chosen object is from the ‘religion and ritual’ case.  Amongst charms and talismans, trappings of mystical rites long forgotten, are Dr Dee’s magical possessions.  His mirror is made from obsidian, deep black and alluringly smooth, and once used in seances to communicate with the dead.

Church of St Dunstan-in-the-East

There has been a church here since the Romans. Destroyed once in the Great Fire of London, it was finally ruined in the Blitz, consumed once more by fire, and so became a public garden.St Dunstan 1 cropped copy

The entrance is striking – a crumbling edifice for any Gothic novel, overgrown with plants and mosses.  Spooky, ghostly facades, once complete, now empty and lost, surround the gardens.  Though neat and kempt, there is a wildness and a silence that descends.  My chosen object is a window that hangs glassless.  i am disconcerted to find, as I look through it, that the modern City exists beyond this still place.  Be sure to go at dusk for maximum effect, and to avoid the strange juxtaposition of suits in their lunch-time breaks.

Parkland Walk, South

Parkland Walk is a streak of green through North London that should be a peaceful walk, shaded from the traffic.

Yet, at the Highgate end, are two abandoned railway tunnels.  For me, abandoned tube stations and tunnels are the height of urban Gothic.  The tunnels now house a bat colony, which somehow only makes them more perfect for a murder.  But my chosen object is at the other end of the walk.  Near Crouch Hill station is a series of brick archways, covered in graffiti.  Emerging from one, crouched and ready to pounce, is a small statue of a spriggan, overgrown with ivy trails and inspired by local stories of sprites who haunted this place. Stephen King came here and was moved to write a short story on the subject.  I can understand where he’s coming from;  the place feels haunted.

I discovered in my hunt that my favourite place have an immersive quality that wraps you up and encloses you. Your imagination deepens the darkness and your fear does the rest of the work.

The list is not exhaustive.  Apologies if your favourite Gothic corner of London has been left off.  Tweet your favourite Gothic places in London @MoMarcoPolo  #gothiclondon