Sunday, 20 February 2011

Seductive "High" Society, Wellcome Trust

Read full article on Writing Raw literary magazine.
Doctor and Mrs Syntax with a party of friends, experimenting with laughing gas, T Rowlandson after W. Combe,Wellcome Library

The words “opium den” may conjure visions of backpacking across Thailand, or, for the more literary-minded, the first scene of Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, where choirmaster John Jasper buries his savagely repressed feelings in a London opium den. Opium has not only inspired literary texts (think Georgette Heyer’s delicate damsels who are in constant need of revival through a laudanum tincture), but it has also started wars and destroyed empires. As the Wellcome Collection reminds us, it was the East India Company’s export of opium to China in the nineteenth century, in exchange for silk, tea and porcelain, that led to the Opium Wars.

'Allenbury's' throat pastilles, Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain

“High” Society is a collection of paintings, original manuscripts, objects, machines and videos that is simultaneously seductive, poignant and amusing. While a complex chart spells out the dangers of drug abuse, and tells us that the US has spent $2500billion on its War on Drugs in the last forty years, a series of haunting black-and-white photographs by Tracy Moffat shows us the relationship between a sinister maid, and her mistress who is hooked on laudanum. The mistress, in the grip of an overwhelming hunger, lolls naked on her bed, as her maid feeds her habit. While not as decadent or lascivious as Pre-Raphaelite Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Bottles that depicts his favourite muse Lizzie Siddal as a mere charcoal sketch in the background of the opium addiction that led to her death, Moffat’s stark pictures capture the tragic eroticism of being in the grip of a beast that is in the end all-consuming and much bigger than you.

The Bazaar of Constantinople, J.F. Lewis, Wellcome Library

Then there is “Drawing produced under the influence of hashish,” an eccentric ink-on-paper rendition by Jean-Martin Charcot from 1853, where strange figures that could be Jesus or the Pied Piper, walk across the page, while dancers with extensive plumage and tight skirts cavort with strangers. LSD blotters give us an exotic scene of a Japanese woman sitting next to a lantern, absorbed in her reading, and another of a Kama Sutra-like couple sharing a coy moment. These blotters are printed over a sheet of small perforated squares, and look like whimsical pictures on an Asian fan, but are, in fact, vehicles for the illicit production of LSD.
There are also artefacts of anti-drug movements. While a nineteenth-century Chinese pamphlet warns of the dangers of opium, fifty years later in Chicago, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union parades down the street with placards that read “Drinkers not drys make the gangster.” A nineteenth-century English flyer entices men to join High Shot House in Twickenham. “Established (in 1886) for the treatment of gentlemen suffering from Inebriety, the Morphis Habit and the Abuse of Drugs,” the Priory-like premises boast of “roomy and comfortable” accommodation, a recreation room with a billiard table, walks to Kew Gardens and Richmond Park, and all the “usual appointments.” The entrance fee is £1 1s, with additional weekly charges for a minimum of a thirteen-week stay.
Beware that you could spend hours trawling through this enchanting and very well-researched exhibition.
High Society
Wellcome Collection
Till February 27th
Read my review on London Festival Fringe

Read review in The Playground soon.


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