Posted by: regisreed | November 13, 2020

Haunting History: Doré’s London, A Pil-GRIM-age

In looking at the London illustrations by Gustave Doré, I was struck by the ways in which many of the works held an eerie quality to them, almost as though they were part of a Victorian Gothic novel. Dark scenery and a heavy play with shadows spoke to Dracula‘s chilling tale, obscure figures to Turn of the Screw ghost stories; the etchings of each image bleeding into the covers of Goosebumps children’s novels. Close analysis of some of these illustrations, that I’ve chosen because of their haunted nature, might give us some interesting ways to think about how drawings open the mind to new interpretations of moments captured in history, different from those captured, for example, by camera. What can an illustration do that a camera might not? Are there some emotions, senses of things, that can only be accessed through an inherently artistic sphere such as an etching or drawing? I don’t have a clear answer for these questions, but I think they might lend some really interesting layers in our discussion of the visual and its role in stories, history, and Victorian life.

“Image 3” – Gustave Doré, London: A Pilgrimage

Image 3, pictured above, was the first to catch my eye, mainly because of the way everything in it molds together. The figures walking down the middle isle melt together as they recede into the background. A male figure to the right, leaning over a pile of fish, blends in with them, and is nearly lost at first glance. These add a muddied quality to the image, and give it a sense of uncanniness, like something is just a bit off. The tightness of the space also lends the image a claustrophobic feeling, highlighted further by the dim lighting and heavy shadows. Almost like a river of bodies, the people move through the isle; the fish sitting on the bank watching them pass by. To the middle left stands a figure with a basket of fish on his head. Commonplace, but from a farther out view his figure morphs and becomes giant, obscure, and borderline monstrous. Paired with the fish all around, it feels almost like a reference to Creature From the Black Lagoon, or something similarly scary.

“Image 10” – Doré, London: A Pilgrimage

Image 10 was another I looked at, drawn as I was to its fogginess and lack of clarity. Whatever was used to make the print left lines running across it, which appear almost to be smoke and give the image a sense of unease, the view becoming wavered by shadow. The moon, working as the only light source, also adds an eerie quality to the image, as it lies just out of reach and unable to break the darkness. Due to this poor lighting, it is difficult to make out which forms are human and which are fog, which lends the photo a ghost like feeling. The second man in on the left has solid black eyes, making his face appear nearly skeletal. Two other figures lean against what appears to be a bar, having the same effect on their faces. All three look ghostly, like specters crowding, and add to this haunted reading. A figure in from the right is similarly ghost-like, disappearing right into the fog as though he were not made of flesh and blood.

“Image 15” – Doré, London: A Pilgrimage

I’m fascinated by the ways that these images rely so heavily on shadow, and have limited light sources, particularly so because of what it does for the image and its tone. Image 15 captured my attention for multiple reasons, the first of which being its etching of buildings. The lining of them have the energy of a Tim Burton film, Gothic and sketch-like; the darkness giving the feeling of horror novel suspense. The lines, stretching vertically, work to convey the idea that the buildings they make up are melting into the street floor, aided further by the streets’ own texture. The reflection of light on the cobblestone highlights the unevenness of it, and gives it a wormy, rotted, wet and damp appearance. The people placed in the image are also of interest, clumped together as they are in small groups. None move through the street, and their attention seems to be one one another or looking into the road, as though waiting for something to happen. They are also all out at night, which seems odd. What are they waiting for? Why are they out of doors? These all add to the tone of the image, which reads as dream-like, dark and opaque.

“Image 27” Doré, London: A Pilgrimage

Image 27 is one of the most odd illustrations in the set, having an uncanniness to it possibly rooted in the way that one can look at it and continue to discover little details. The figure posed on the bed looks directly at the audience, drawing them into the image and creating a sense of uneasiness, as though they were intruding on something secret. His eyes are dark and his facial expression is hard to read, smiling a bit as if amused, but at the same time unreadable. In his hand he holds what appears to be an extended pipe, though at first glace it might read as a cane or wand, it’s end holding a small orb. The candle is placed down, creating harsh shadows upon the faces of everyone in the image, and harkening back to the classic telling of campfire scary stories. The left most figure leans on a crutch, which gives the scene a bit of context; perhaps this is a medical man. Other pieces in the image, such as the herbs hanging on the wall, build on this reading. The black cat, notorious for its supposed connection to witches, is placed on the stairs lining the right side of the illustration, which takes the previous idea of this being a medical man’s home and move it into a place of theoretical witchcraft or the occult. The background figures add to this, their forms shrouded in darkness, fading into it in some cases, and their eyes the same black as the man on the bed. The eeriness of that man, the obscurity of the other figures, and way that they all are looking at the audience, lends the piece a real sense of haunting.

Carmilla - Wikipedia
D.H. Friston, The Dark Blue
File:Frontispiece to Frankenstein 1831.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Frankenstein, Theodor von Holst

For reference, I have placed a few classic Gothic novel images above. Their use of shadow and lighting is incredibly similar to the images I noted from London: A Pilgrimage. The image from Frankenstein even further shows different style choices Doré might have made, like the eyes. In this image, Victor, the man standing, has notable eyes, where as those in the Doré images most often have eyes of full pitch, making them unreadable and scary. The image pulled from Carmilla has Carmilla, the demon vampire, casted in shadow as Lucy, the innocent woman on the bed, is covered in light. This is a pretty standard representation of evil versus good. In London: A Pilgrimage, Doré most often has middle class/poor people in scenes where the lighting is dimmed and shadows dominate, which sets up an interpretation of these classes similarly as evil, or wanting to drain the life, i.e. resources, out of the good and upper class.

What are all these images doing, though? Why are these readings important? I think a possible answer to this lies in the audience the images are intended for. These images are supposed to convey everyday life in Victorian London, and to some extent they are a “real” representation of the middle and poor/working classes to individuals outside of those. If such illustrations are so easily interpreted as uncanny, uneasy, or haunting, then that acts as a representation of the these classes to others. I am wondering if these images might be dangerous, conveying such ideas, and about the ways in which they might lead to harm for these communities. I am also curious about the intentions of Doré, who must have seen the ways that these images resemble so many others done for horror novels and ghost stories of the time. His use of shadow, darkness, and obscurity of figures, all things he had control over, even if limited by the tools he had to work with, manipulates the daily life of the lower classes into a work of fiction.


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