Drawing Fears: Victorian Anxieties

I’m exploring the way drawing something that’s troubling or scary can affect the way I feel about it. In part 1 I drew a large spider.
This is part 2.


After sketching a very large spider to see if drawing it would make me less frightened, I started to make a list of things that scare me or make me anxious or troubled – to see if any of them could be sketched and if I could include them in my experiment about fear and drawing. It turns out not to be quite so easy; hospitals, deep water, and plumbing are all too large, inaccessible and non-specific, though I could give them a go. Illness is too abstract and generalised, though I could break it down into component parts. Spreadsheets are simply not sketchable, or at least what worries me about them isn’t. I thought of guns – which definitely scare me, and are sketchable but I don’t have access to any and in fact have rarely seen one, (except once or twice on armed police officers at airports) and for the purposes of this experiment I have to draw from the real thing, and a photo will not do.

But making a list was instructive because I began to see a pattern; what these things have in common is a sense (for me) of something unpredictable or unknowable that I’m not able to control or understand, something that makes me feel vulnerable and powerless and even threatened.

Back in Victorian England there were plenty of things that scared people, that they didn’t understand and that they had no control over whatsover.

In the museum at Cliffe Castle there’s a display cabinet of Victorian Curiosities, and the largest exhibit is a stuffed lamb with two faces. I’d wanted to sketch this for some time because although it doesn’t frighten me, it does fill me with a complexity of different feelings and I wanted to let them rise to the surface so I could sort them out.

What I’m looking at here is rather lovely but also strange, weird, and faintly disturbing and I feel amazed (that it could have lived to grow to such maturity), concerned (how well did it function? Did it suffer?) which it must have; sad (because in some way I’m sure it did), and perplexed and slightly horrified (to think that people at that time displayed creatures like this – both alive and dead – as a form of entertainment). As I drew it I became filled with a desire to stroke it, to run my fingers through the tight curls of the fleece on its neck and back and to feel the fluffy cloud of wool that is its tail, and its top-knot. I felt my heart soften as I carefully drew the three (out of the four) eyes that I could see from where I was standing. I love this lamb.

But above the sheep and to its right is an object I thought was a mishapen fruit stuck with cloves and in the few minutes left before the museum closed I sketched it, looking closer and closer – until I realised it definately wasn’t a dried fruit, and then read the label. And with a jolt suddenly felt differently about what I was looking at. That’s it at the top of this post – and here it is again.

This is a counter-spell.

‘When one is bewitched, there must be a violent counter-spell to break the witch’s power: a sheep’s heart, pierced with pins and nails to break the spell of a black witch. Black witches were supposed to bring about the death of sheep and cows by casting a spell over them, or by surreptitiously introducing the poisonous leaves of the yew tree into their food. By taking the heart of a sheep which had fallen victim to these machinations, piercing it with pins and nails, and hanging it up in the chimney, the spell was supposed to be broken.’ — The Times, 5th March, 1917

Let me tell you, there’s a big difference between drawing something you already find troubling, and exploring that fear – and sketching something you think is benign, that looks rather nice, and then discovering it’s not at all what you thought it was. This gets more interesting all the time.


7 thoughts on “Drawing Fears: Victorian Anxieties

      1. Of course! Share widely. I found the interview totally fascinating. I recall you saying ina recent post that drawing in a public place drew (pardon the pun) people to you, whereas photography could raise suspicions. McNaughton says that too. The sketches of her aunt fit right in with your current interests as well, I thought.

      2. Her experience is obviously the same as mine. I do know urban sketchers who have attracted a negative response on some occasions and I’d say that the way you appear (as in any encounter) probably has a lot to do with it – so that just having a sketchbook in hand instead of a camera is no magic bullet. I also know there are a few photographers who seem able to put everyone so much at their ease that they don’t feel threatened or uncomfortable, but this is a rare talent in photography I think.

  1. Again completely fascinating, strange, curious and so interesting. The way you have captured the lamb(s?) and heart has such a tenderness to them. You make me want to look again, and again.

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