The idea that the dead can return to haunt the living is ingrained in the British imagination. Ghosts are part of the very fabric of Britain. But have you ever thought about what our ghosts look like? You might think that their appearance hasn’t changed much over time. But it has – and we know this because for centuries artists have been depicting them. On church walls, medieval artists painted ghosts not as insubstantial spirits, but as hideous walking corpses. Illustrations to popular ballads show ghosts wearing shrouds, tied up at the tops of their heads – but undone at the feet to allow them to walk. And the Victorians caught see-through ghosts on film.
Telling the fascinating story of ghosts in English culture, this lecture draws on diverse and intriguing visual sources – medieval manuscripts and church-wall paintings, political caricatures, photography, paintings, magic lantern slides, film stills and folk art. It explores what ghosts’ changing appearance reveals about them – and us.
Susan Owens is a writer and freelance curator with a degree in English literature from Somerville College, Oxford, a Masters in History of Art from the Courtauld and a PhD from University College London. Formerly Curator of Paintings at the V&A, where she was responsible for oils, watercolours and drawings from 1800 to the present day. Previously she worked for the Royal Collection as Assistant Curator of the Print Room at Windsor Castle. She publishes and lectures widely on British art. Amongst many publications are The Art of Drawing: British Masters and Methods Since 1600 (2013); Amazing Rare Things: the Art of Natural History in the Age of Discovery (2007; co-authored with David Attenborough, Martin Clayton and Rea Alexandratos), and Watercolours and Drawings from the Collection of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (2005).