Thursday, 16 June 2016

Historical consultant for BBC1 series 'THE LIVING AND THE DEAD'

The Living and the Dead: BBC1

How did the Victorians lay out their dead?  And could they tell how long a corpse had been lying in the woods? 

These were the day-to-day questions that were thrown at me by the production team of ‘The Living and the Dead’.  The BBC series, starring Colin Morgan and Charlotte Spencer, will be seen for the first time on i-Player (17th June) and then on BBC1 from 28th June. Described by the writer Ashley Pharoah as ‘Thomas Hardy – with ghosts’, this was a gem of an idea.  And I was delighted to become historical consultant for the project. 

I was asked to advise on everything from nursery decoration in the 1890s, to Victorian autopsies.  Because, although it opens in the glorious meadows of Somerset, these are scary stories, with undercurrents of insanity and the threat of the unknown.  The writers wanted to tackle 19th century anxieties about the boundaries between superstition and science.  And the impact on a young couple, who were thoroughly modern in their outlook about politics, business and the life of the mind.

Since 1837, the Victorians witnessed advances in technology which could have seemed almost magical.  The electric telegraph carried words from India to England in a matter of minutes.  Sound recordings brought back the voices of the dead.  And a fine film of silver on glass capture faces through thin air, and preserved them as photographs.  These were wonders.  The barriers between the past and the present, the ethereal and the earthly had been transcended.  So, what was next?  Could science explain ghostly apparitions?  Could electricity or radio waves enable us to make contact with the spirit world? These questions were very real for many intellectuals, and worth investigating.  The Society for Psychical Research was founded in the 1880s by physicists and philosophers.   They carried out serious studies of telepathy and mesmerism.  They collected a ‘Census of Hallucinations’.  Conan Doyle, creator of the famously logical Sherlock Holmes, was a leading figure in these investigations, writing for the Spiritualist magazine Light throughout the 1890s.

It should not surprise us, then, that Nathan Appleby, the figure at the heart of The Living and the Dead should try to understand the supernatural experiences of his neighbours through a scientific lens.  He is a psychologist: a new breed of doctor in a discipline that focussed on the thresholds between the normal and the abnormal.  He understands that the workings of the brain, in our conscious and unconscious states, are not yet fully explored.  When he encounters a disturbed young woman, it is reasonable for him to want to help her, using his cutting-edge techniques.  And yet he becomes increasingly baffled as the series unfolds.  Science does not seem to be able to supply the answers, however much he wrestles with the facts.

Alongside Nathan, we have the fascinating character of his wife, Charlotte.  The women in this story are just as robust and varied as the men – it is one of the great strengths of the series.  Charlotte is an alluring amalgam; a mixture of Bathseba, from Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, and du Maurier’s New Woman.  She is a professional photographer.  (Cue lots of conversations with the team about Julia Margaret Cameron and Christina Broom.)  She is also ready for the challenge of running a new project, bringing in modern machinery to an ancient farm, and seeing the potential of the railway.
During the course of the series, we see their relationship, tested to its limits by Nathan’s obsessive desire for knowledge at all costs.  But let’s not spoil the story!

So where did my researches take me, as I tried to piece together the very modern world of Nathan and Charlotte, as it came conflict with the older traditions of the farm hands and wise women?  I found myself wondering whether a vicar would have a pint in the pub.  And what advanced literature his daughter might read.  I thought about Charles Voysey and his delightful designs for children.

And I discovered more than I might like about early forensic medicine.  The curator at the Old Operating Theatre Museum sent me some grisly reading about blood flow, body temperature and rigor mortis.  So that dealt with the corpse in the wood. 

What about laying out the body? Well, as you will see, the bare bones of information that I supplied were transformed by the directors into a gorgeously lit scene.  The camera follows a slow silent ballet around the figure who is being tenderly prepared for burial.  This extraordinary piece of choreography shows how the words on the page can take flight, and create a rare magic.  We can only imagine what the pioneering photographer Charlotte Appleby would make of it.

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I am happy to speak to groups of all sizes. Here are some of the lectures I offer:

Please contact me on for more details about booking arrangements.

Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

3. Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

4. New Art for the New Woman

Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

8. Victoria's Secrets: Exploring Victorian London

The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.