Cath Davies’ Vertical studio seminars, centred around the topic of death, clothing and Gothic characterisation (delivered in two parts) where both hugely engaging. Cath’s research centres around the macabre topic of death and decay characterised through a characters clothing.
To introduce this subject to us in the first week, her seminar focused on the character of Ms Havisham, from Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’; Havisham slighted spinster stuck in time on the day of her wedding, when her betrothed left her waiting at the alter; while the world moved on without her, she remained in her slowly decaying wedding dress and refused to dismantle her wedding spread in spite. Dickens’ describes her:
“I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone. Once, I had been taken to see some ghastly wax-work at the Fair, representing I know not what impossible personage lying in state. Once, I had been taken to one of our old marsh churches to see a skeleton in the ashes of a rich dress, that had been dug out of a vault under the church pavement. Now wax-work and skeleton seemed to have dark eyes that moved and looked at me. I should have cried out, if I could.”
The significance of Havisham’s dress is that it encapsulates her bitter attitude and perpetuates the image of death and sickness. She does not care that the dress no longer fits, that the fabric is disintegrating, nor that the wedding spread left from all those years ago is rotten and inedible; for Havisham, everything that she has become embodies what her betrothed did to her when he abandoned her, it is her way of enacting revenge. Much like how she uses Estella, to draw in suitors, with no intention of actually allowing them to so much as touch her exceptionally beautiful ward, she represents a break down in the society and the wider societal system of the day; this is all clearly reflected in her aged, faded and decaying wedding dress, the one that she refuses to put to rest.
This opening seminar was extremely engaging, in part because it drew me back to all the gothic literature, that I never seem to have enough time to read anymore, but mainly due to Cath’s intense interest in the topic and her obvious love for the character of Havisham. From the session, I came up with my own illustration of Ms Havisham, sat regally in her wedding dress;
My own interpretation is quite reminiscent of a death mask, not something that I did consciously, but very fitting of the subject in hindsight. I focused on the decrepit aged face and then worked that decay into the dress, starting with a simple design and working into it to age the garment, adding the details to the chair later, as I wanted to reflect how Havisham sits as, Estella, despiratly attempts to darn her disintegrating dress, in one of the more pivotal scenes in the book. Though this sketch was something that I did during the seminar, without any focus on getting it perfect or even keeping it particularly tidy, I did keep in mind all the key points that Cath focused on; the ill fitting dress, the skeletal appearance of the body within it and the way that Havisham almost fades into the decrepit world around her – I tried not to make her outline too clear, looking to give her the appearance of fading into the background around her. Cath stressed this importance, because it emphasises how Havisham represents death and decay; like her dress, Havisham, is not long for this world.
Which is something that Cath pointed out H.M Bock’s illustration:
In direct contrast to the, comparatively poor characterisation of the figure of Havisham in F. A. Fraser’s interpretation: