Thunderbolts and lightning

Fire in the sky has always exerted a powerful hold on our imagination, even as early scientists started unlocking the secrets of atmospheric electricity.

A key scientist in the study of electricity, Faraday saw it as a manifestation of God’s natural laws.

A key scientist in the study of electricity, Faraday saw it as a manifestation of God’s natural laws.

“Electricity is often called wonderful, beautiful; but… the beauty of electricity or of any other force is not that the power is mysterious, and unexpected, touching every sense at unawares in turn, but that it is under law, and that the taught intellect can govern it largely.” Michael Faraday, 1858

It might come as no surprise that Michael Faraday, one of the most influential scientists in the history of electricity, would declare a rational foundation for the thrilling force to which he dedicated much of his life. Though he dismissed emotional responses, there were many people for whom electricity still inspired awe, surprise, astonishment and terror: the feelings we often characterise as the sublime. Experimentation and research on electricity, which began in earnest in the 18th century, came to understand it and harness its forces, but electricity continued to arouse the passions and the imagination – in Faraday’s time and well beyond.

Atmospheric electrical phenomena such as thunder, lightning and auroras inspired fear and fascination for millennia, long before their connection to electricity was understood. Thunder and lightning were associated with the gods, from Zeus of the Ancient Greeks and Thor of the Norse pagans to the Japanese Raijin. They usually signified divine displeasure and punishment for human wrongdoing. Lightning’s symbolic significance as God’s power and sovereignty over humankind continued in the Judaeo-Christian tradition:

“His lightning lights up the world; the earth sees and trembles.” (Psalm 97)

The terror, havoc and destruction wrought by lightning strikes has proved a popular subject for artists.

The terror, havoc and destruction wrought by lightning strikes has proved a popular subject for artists.

For the Native Americans and Inuit peoples of Canada the symbolic charge of the northern lights was more benign. The Aurora Borealis was taken by the Odawa people to be a sign of the protection of the demigod Nanabozho, creator of the world. Other groups saw the northern lights as a messenger from the spirits. For the Inuit they signified the presence of the dead and lit the path of new arrivals as they passed over into the heavenly realm.

The 18th century saw an explosion of experimentation and investigation into atmospheric phenomena, culminating in Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment of 1752. He proved the electrical nature of lightning by flying a kite with a metal key attached during a thunderstorm, and managing to harness some electrical charge. During the Enlightenment lightning came to be understood and portrayed in Faraday’s terms: an operation of nature that obeyed certain physical laws. Nevertheless many scientists and laypeople alike – including Faraday himself – continued to regard lightning as a sign of God’s power and judgement.

The English surgeon John Freke, who wrote a treatise in 1746 on the nature of electricity, stated that through electricity “you may be acquainted with the immediate officer of God Almighty,” and that it “seems to be the cause, under HIM, both of life and death”. When Robert Harrington wrote his Elucidation of the Phaenomena of Electricity and Magnetism in 1796, his objective was the investigation of “the TRUTH, sensible that the more enlarged [Man’s] ideas of God are, the more he will venerate him”.

Scientific discoveries did not displace the conviction that electrical forces were divine. A spectrum of imaginative and emotional responses coexisted alongside rational attitudes characteristic of the age of reason. But Faraday was not alone in his disregard for them.

In his 1837 book on electricity, Secretary to the short-lived London Electrical Society William Leithead took scientists to task for rhapsodising and forgetting “the sober language of philosophy”. He observed that “the lecturer on electricity has generally sought rather to excite astonishment, than to satisfy or call into exercise the reasoning powers of the mind”. And yet Leithead himself was apparently not immune to this weakness. He opened his chapter on atmospheric electricity with an excerpt of Summer by the poet James Thomson, whose expressive power was anything but rational:

“By conflicting winds together dash’d,
The thunder holds his black tremendous throne,
From cloud to cloud the rending lightnings rage:
Till, in the furious elemental war
Dissolv’d, the whole precipitated mass
Unbroken floods and solid torrents pour.”

A mythical (and mythologizing) depiction of Benjamin Franklin's famous kite experiment.

A mythical (and mythologizing) depiction of Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment.

When writing about Franklin’s discoveries, Leithead effused that Franklin “had pierced the bosom of the cloud and called forth from the heavens to the earth the spirit of the storm”. Presenting Franklin as a mythical, almost superhuman idol was not uncommon. Immanuel Kant described him as “a modern Prometheus” who robbed fire from the gods to bestow on humankind. Benjamin West’s portrait of Franklin shows him in a truly divine role, astride the clouds and surrounded by angelic assistants.

Many 18th- and 19th-century artistic representations of thunder, lightning and auroras reflected the sublime emotions the phenomena provoked. Depictions of tempestuous skies lacerated by bolts of lightning, often witnessed by terrified bystanders just out of danger’s reach, resounded with feelings of bewilderment, dread and awe. Poetic responses to the kaleidoscopic northern lights, which dwarfed their human witnesses with cosmic magnificence, dramatised wonder and stupefaction to a hyperbolic degree.

The wonder of electricity was not confined to atmospheric phenomena. Other natural manifestations of electricity, such as those found in the animal world, inspired curiosity and wonder, prompting scientists of the 18th century to embark on exotic adventures. Meanwhile, lay audiences’ appetite for sensational and shocking electrical displays was flourishing.

John Gerrard: Frogs in Space

Artist John Gerrard talks about his new commission, a live simulation of an astronaut and a frog in zero gravity.

In this video, artist John Gerrard talks about his newly-developed commission for Electricity: The spark of life. Gerrard’s X. laevis (Spacelab) responds to Luigi Galvani’s famous 18th-century experiments on the effects of electricity on amputated frogs’ legs, and to a video of a frog in zero gravity shot aboard the NASA space shuttle Endeavour in 1992.

Gerrard’s live simulation features a frog suspended in space between the hands of an astronaut, calling attention to the scientific relationship between humans and animals, and anticipating a future in which sustaining life beyond Earth may become critical to human survival.

A body apart from the head

In the first of our two-part exploration of the head, Rob Bidder looks back at how the importance of our noggin has affected language and influenced capital punishment. Don’t lose your head…

The philosopher Alan Watts once said that most western people think of themselves as existing somewhere between the eyeballs and the ears, inside their head driving their bodies around.

David rests his hand on Goliath's severed head.

David rests his hand on Goliath’s severed head.

Some civilisations have located the soul, or the self, in other areas of the body. The Ancient Egyptians believed the seat of intelligence was the heart, giving little status to the brain: they didn’t even bother to embalm it after death, instead scooping the brain out and disposing of it. Plato believed a tri-part soul resided in the head, heart and liver. But in our neurocentric times we most often see ourselves firmly as residents of the skull.

In some ways it seems strange to focus on the head so much, the little nut on top of a tall mound, but considering the head contains most of the sensory organs with which we form our subjective reality, and with which many of us communicate our worldly experience, it’s easy to see why we are such a head-centric society.

Our language reveals just how important heads are to us in the general scheme of things: headteacher, head of state, head chef, head table, headline, headstrong…all examples of how the word “head” has come to mean the important part of a larger whole. The word “capital”, itself from the Latin for head, is also significant: capital letter, capital city and, of course, the way we talk about money as capital within our current economic system of capitalism (the individual units of money, like coins and notes, also contain a head portrait of the head of state).

Sidebar: there are other phrases that cast doubt on how far we should trust our bonces. “It’s all in your head”, for example, suggests that our brains may not be that reliable after all and perhaps we would do better to “follow our hearts”.

It follows that if the most important part of the body is the head, then to decapitate a person (perhaps under the auspices of capital punishment) is a strong statement indeed. Decapitation has been a common form of execution all over the world and still continues to be practiced in many countries today.

Famously, after decapitation, the heads of traitors were skewered on spikes outside the Tower of London; a gruesome political statement of the power of the State and a warning to would-be deviators from the status quo. Cutting off someone’s head is a highly symbolic, political act. It’s hard to imagine the same sort of control and fear of state being communicated if a severed hand or leg were impaled on a spike.

We may view decapitation to be a brutal and gory method of execution (with good reason), one that in a contemporary context shocks and disgusts our cultural sensibilities. However, historically it was seen as a slightly more honourable way to die, preferable to the usual torture, drawn out dismemberment and ritual humiliation common in medieval and early modern execution. In contrast, decapitation was considered quick and merciful and was usually reserved for nobility.

Inscription reads: John Calas a French Protestant broke on the Wheel.

Inscription reads: John Calas a French Protestant broke on the Wheel.

How quick and how merciful it was, though, was usually determined by the skill of the executioner with their axe or broad sword. Unfortunately, the executioner’s prowess rarely matched their ambition, with the intended mark often missed, resulting in many messy blows needed to get the head off.

In France 1789, a physician named Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested the use of a machine that decapitated condemned prisoners painlessly as opposed to the laborious hacking of a traditional sword beheading or the more commonplace, and barbaric, Breaking Wheel. The Guillotine, as it became known, became the icon of the Revolution, responsible for separating the heads from the bodies of tens of thousands of people.

Ironically, Guillotin himself was against capital punishment and didn’t even invent the machine, but hoped its introduction would lead to the gradual end of the death penalty in France. Unfortunately this was a slow process with the cold neatness of “Le Rasoir National” proving to be more popular than suspected. The last beheading by Guillotine in France took place as recently as 1977.

So what next for the bodyless head? In the second part of our look at heads, we will explore what it is like to be a head floating in a jar, sometime in an imagined future.

Rob is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Te Manawa: an Arawa warrior

Inspired: Tattoos as pain relief

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

L0035683 Plaster cast, man of the Arawa tribe showing Maori tattooing

Plaster cast of the face of Tauque Te Whanoa, a Rotorua native, of the Arawa tribe.

The Treating Yourself cabinet in our Medicine Man gallery contains two tattoo exhibits. One of them is a facial plaster cast depicting Tā-moko, traditional Maori tattooing. Incisions are made into the skin using uhi (chisels) made from albatross bone; the skin is carved, leaving it with grooves, rather than a smooth surface, in which soot is rubbed for colouring.

Moko designs are very much about belief and spirituality; never just decorative, they have to be earned. A mark of rank, they are generally concerned with ancestry and Iwi, or tribal, information. Captain Cook often remarked on these practices during his Pacific voyages and reputedly coined the word ‘tattow’, or tattoo, from a local word.

Body modification and personal adornment seems as popular as ever. Whatever the motivation for being permanently inked, we encounter it throughout the ages and across cultures. Mummified human remains, ceramic figurines and art all give us a glimpse into historic practices. Getting a tattoo is usually viewed as a painful event; however, a view into the past suggests that it may have served as, and maybe had its origins in, a procedure for pain relief.


Te Manawa: an Arawa warrior.

The discovery of a 5300 year old mummy in the Alps has shed light on many aspects of life at that time. This particular mummy, nicknamed Ötzi, has been extensively studied and scanned. To date, over sixty tattoos have been identified on his body. Consisting of simple line-work, it was initially thought these may be stylised art or symbols. Closer inspection does not support the idea of decoration: being situated on likely areas of pain such as the lumbar spine, wrist and hip suggests that the tattoos may have been therapeutic. Indeed, the scans have confirmed that Ötzi had osteoarthritis and other old wounds in these areas.

Just like Maori tradition, perhaps Ötzi’s lines and dashes are part of a belief system. In this case, he may have believed in the enchanted properties of tattoos to hinder pain. Further examination possibly reveals a medically related explanation: many of the tattoos tally up directly with known acupuncture lines. With so many individual tattoos, Oetzi seemingly trusted in their power to heal. Whether he realised that there might have been more to it than his belief alone, we don’t know.

Rock is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.

Obsessed with Buffy, much?

It’s 20 years today since Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted on our television screens. Russell Dornan celebrates the progressive, poignant, hilarious and scary series, drawing out unexpected parallels with Wellcome Collection.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“It’s a great idea! Come on.”

Opening Credits

Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s opening credits.

Those are the first ever lines of dialogue from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the greatest television show ever made. It’s also an accurate summary of my own internal dialogue when starting an article exploring Buffy’s themes through Wellcome Collection. But after writing a similar piece about how Britney Spears relates to Wellcome Collection, which is slightly more of a stretch (!), Buffy seemed like a no brainer.

For anyone not blessed enough to know Buffy (we can’t all be perfect), here’s a wee summary: in every generation there is a chosen one. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons and the forces of darkness. She is the slayer.

Buffy Summers is also a sixteen year old high school kid in California, at first seeming like the archetypal blonde girl we’re used to being a victim in slasher films. But this girl slashes back. Balancing school, first relationships, friends and the apocalypse, the series sees Buffy go through the final years of high school, off to college, dropping out and trying to hold down a job; finding and losing love several times.


High school was tough.

All the while she protects the (mostly unaware) public from the constant threat of demons, evil and the end of the world. And she’s not alone: her friends (and frenemies) support and hinder her in equal measure, their strength as a group often winning out over the monster of the week. Their victories are often thanks in part to the research they carry out together in the library. Wait, we have one of those!

“You kids really dig the library, don’t you?”

We’re lucky at Wellcome Collection to have a world-renowned library specialising in the study of medical history. We’re even luckier in the way the subject is explored in our collections, from life to death and everything in between, including charms, magic, contagions, demons, folklore, sexuality, monsters and the apocalypse. The Scooby Gang (Buffy’s group of friends and helpers) would be right at home carrying out their research with us.

GENERAL Scooby Gang Library

The Scooby Gang getting the low down on the Big Bad.

“You always know whats going on. I never know whats going on.”

“You weren’t here from midnight till six researching it.”

Unusually for a television show aimed at teenagers, characters in Buffy spend a lot of their time poring over books and manuscripts, trying to find the answers they need to fight the current threat. I won’t go into any more detail about this here because Mark A. McCutcheon wrote how Buffy “routinely dramatises research in action as a public good” and it’s worth a read on his blog.

Below are just some of the demons the gang on Buffy might research at Wellcome Collection.

My focus instead is a specific episode of the show. Buffy and series creator Joss Whedon (Avengers) were known for pushing what a television show could be, regularly re-thinking how a 45 minute episode could challenge its own set up (and writers, directors, actors), offering the audience treat after treat whilst transcending its genre conventions.


The conventions of a musical allowed the series to explore something different.


Characters revealed their true feelings through song and dance.

Standout episodes include The Body (exploring the initial shock, grief and brutal physicality of death after opening with Buffy’s mother’s sudden passing); Once More With Feeling (the very clever musical episode where a demon compels Buffy and Co to sing their hearts out, revealing their most guarded secrets to one another in ways that are funny, heartbreaking and true-to-character); and Restless (a low-key and surreal dream sequence season finale exploring the lead characters’ psychologies, looking at their past, present and foreshadowing their futures).

Despite there being myriad episodes I could focus on, there was always one that stood out for me. Not just for its own sake, but because its (Wellcome Collection friendly) themes ripple through the wider Buffy series in different ways. Which brings me to revealing that the episode is…


The tenth episode of the fourth series, Hush takes place when Buffy is in college and is widely recognised as a landmark episode of television (and is the only one in the series to be nominated for an Emmy Award for writing).

HUSH gentlemen wide shot floating YT

The Gentlemen make their way through a silent Sunnydale.

In Hush, a group of ghoulish fairytale villains called The Gentlemen arrive in Sunnydale. They steal everyone’s voices, leaving people unable to scream or call for help when The Gentlemen kill them. Buffy and friends have to solve the mystery of the deaths, as well as the town-wide silence, all the while communicating without speech.

After routinely receiving high praise for his dialogue, Joss Whedon wanted to challenge himself by writing an episode largely without any; in the 44 minute episode, only 17 minutes contain any dialogue. Come with me now as I explore Hush, drawing out links with Wellcome Collection and what it means to be human…or otherwise.

“If the apocalypse comes, beep me”

The episode begins with a prophetic dream sequence, vaguely foreshadowing what is to come. This trope is employed many times in Buffy, as it happens to be one of the special abilities of the slayer. In fact, the very first episode starts (after the opening credits) with Buffy dreaming about things she’ll encounter later in that series. You can read more about Buffy’s visions here. The series regularly features prophecies of great evil emerging and ending the world.

Prophecies crop up in our own collections as well (of course they do). For example, the manuscripts of visions and prophecies that include “the Sibyl’s prophecy”. The Sibyl was a pagan prophetess and various medieval works interpret the Sibyl’s dream in which she foresees the downfall and apocalyptic end of the world. It doesn’t mention a slayer, though… Find out more the Sybil’s Prophecy at the British Library.

Visions and prophecies including Sybil's prophecy.

Visions and prophecies including Sybil’s prophecy.

An interesting side note, The Gentlemen (the villains of the piece – more on them later) came to Whedon in his own dream.

“To read makes our speaking English good.”

The dream sequence begins with Buffy sitting in an auditorium at college. Buffy’s psychology Professor Maggie Walsh introduces the topic of the lecture, which turns out to echo the overall theme of the episode: language. Walsh says:

L0030499 Speech and Voice, G. Oscar Russell, 1931

Diagram illustrating voice.

“Talking about communication, talking about language. Not the same thing. It’s about the way a child can recognise and produce phonemes that don’t occur in its native language. It’s about inspiration: not the idea, but the moment before the idea; when it’s total, when it blossoms in your mind and connects to everything, before the coherent thought that gives it shape, that locks it in and cuts it off from the universal. When you can articulate it, it becomes smaller. It’s about thoughts and experiences that we don’t have a word for.”

Joss Whedon wrote the episode to show how people do or, rather, don’t communicate. The first third of the episode is full of dialogue; it’s almost frantic with characters miscommunicating or reflecting on their inability to speak to certain people (e.g. Buffy and her current love interest, Riley). Each line of spoken dialogue enforces the idea that once talking stops, communication can really begin.

Take this exchange between Xander and Anya:

Anya 2

Non-verbal communication can be much more effective sometimes.

I care about you.
How much? 
What do I mean to you?
Well, I… we, you know, we spend… we’ll talk about it later.
I think we should talk about it now!
If you don’t know how I feel…
I don’t! This isn’t a relationship. You don’t need me! All you care about is lots of orgasms!
OK… remember how we talked about private conversations? How they’re less private when they’re in front of my friends?

Xander can’t express himself to Anya and use words to tell her how he feels; meanwhile all Anya wants to do is talk, but she says something inappropriate because, as an ex-demon, she’s “newly human and strangely literal”. Meanwhile, father-figure Giles just wants everyone around him to shut up. Language gets in the way of communication because it limits people’s expression of the sometimes unspeakable ways they feel. Joss Whedon explains further:

“As soon as you say something, you’ve eliminated ever other possibility of what you might be talking about. All of these [character moments] fed into the main theme, in a way that nothing I write will ever again. It is so inevitably coherent because it’s about, not writing, but about talking.”

By removing everyone’s ability to speak, the characters must find new ways to communicate with each other. This is particularly interesting to watch in a show famed for its snappy dialogue. Buffy’s group of friends are lost without their quick witted repartee and idiosyncratic way of talking (Bonnie Kneen wrote about “Buffy Speak” in detail for the Oxford Dictionary’s blog).

V0015461 Franco-Prussian War: Civil unrest in Paris. Wood engraving a

Civil unrest.

The revelation that they’ve lost their voice hits each person differently: some think they’re suddenly deaf, others blame members of the group. But everyone is initially horrified and confused, and this is even more pronounced in the wider town. Buffy and Willow walk through Sunnydale, passing crowds of scared people unsure of what’s going on. As communication becomes more difficult, the sense of community starts to erode: they walk passed a closed bank but see people hurrying into a still open off-licence; religious fundamentalist groups gather in the streets. Read more about communication and community in Hush here.

The Gentlemen have stolen their voices, but they’ve also taken away much more: the silence isolates members of the community, rendering them even more ineffective in the face of this horror. The political overtones of miscommunication and the silencing of the people are clear (and as relevant today). As Noel Murray wrote for A.V. Club:


The Gentlemen: only a little bit creepier than the real villains in the world.

“…the way The Gentlemen do their business—by making sure no one can scream before they start—could be read as a metaphor for the way evil spreads. When dissent is stifled, or people fail to tell the truth, or when we’re just distracted by other concerns, things can get out of hand.”

During the episode a news bulletin announces the events in Sunnydale are caused by side-effects of a flu vaccine leading to a laryngitis epidemic. In response to this Rhonda Wilcox writes:

“[H]ow many times will we see those in power maintain such a silence while evil proceeds? It is not surprising that [The Gentlemen’s] attendants wear straitjackets; their garb suggests the insanity of such behaviour—the pretence of civilised politeness while killing is accepted is a matter of course.”

Topical, much?

Thankfully the show also uses people’s silence to comedic ends, with the scene below being particularly memorable.

Buffy’s prophetic dream ends by showing a little girl holding a small, wooden box and (eerily) singing this rhyme:

Can’t even shout.
Can’t even cry.
The Gentlemen are coming by.
Looking in windows, knocking on doors…
They need to take seven and they might take yours…
Can’t call to mom.
Can’t say a word.
You’re gonna die screaming but you won’t be heard.

So, who are The Gentlemen and what are they after?


L0003916 Carved ivory upper and lower denture

Late 18th century dentures. They’d fit right in on The Gentlemen.

In the show these demons are said to come from fairytales, roaming from town to town to steal the voices of their inhabitants in order to collect seven hearts, presumably to sustain themselves. There are the tall, floating Gentlemen dressed in smart, black suits; they have bald heads and an unnervingly cheery permanent grin, flaunting silver teeth.

Whedon based them on Victorian men, their eerie politeness and grace terrifying. Their silver teeth were also inspired by the Victorian era, the industrial and medical advances of the time manifesting in these ghouls as a sort of “cavity-defeating” breakthrough. They were inspired by a nightmare he had as a child; in fact, he specifically wanted them to be frightening to children (Whedon suggests the most scary thing to us as children is the fear of getting old).


Various positions for holding a scalpel when performing an incision. All the harder to look at after watching ‘Hush’.

Accompanying these Gentlemen are footmen of sorts: bumbling, shuffling figures wearing straitjackets who do the heavy lifting. They’re the ones who grab and restrain the victims, allowing The Gentlemen to claim their hearts. Some Buffy scholars suggest The Gentlemen and their minions represent class disparity: The Gentlemen in dapper Victorian suits move effortlessly to accomplish their skilled, technical task while the footmen do the hard labour.

Despite the town of Sunnydale beginning to crumble into silent chaos without their voices, The Gentlemen are masters of silent communication, employing graceful hand gestures and nuanced head nods. They understand each other clearly and their rhythm and physicality are both exquisite and dreadful to witness. This is especially true in the way they collect hearts.

I’m sure having your heart cut out of your body while you’re conscious and incapacitated will chime with the fear many of us have of not being fully under anaesthetic during an operation (or waking up during). But the addition of being wide awake and unable to scream, staring at their maniacal grins as they lower the glinting scalpel towards, you just adds to the terror. It certainly gives me the wiggins.

The clip below gives a sense of The Gentlemen’s uncanny grace, the way their hands move so precisely, almost dainty, as well as their heart retrieval method (word to the wise: although there’s no gore or graphic scenes, there is mild peril and extreme spookiness).

The clever amongst you will have noticed that I’ve chosen an episode of Buffy that doesn’t even feature vampires. Although a mainstay of the series (obviously), we have written about vampires before.

The  only thing that can harm The Gentlemen is a human voice, specifically a scream. Once the voices have been returned to people, Buffy lets out an almighty and sustained shriek, resulting in The Gentlemen’s heads exploding violently.The irony that the voice used in such a primal way, without language, saves the day. This resolution is more similar to traditional or folkloric fairytales than is often used in Buffy. The majority of demons across the series are bested through physical means, while magic is also commonly utilised.

“Bunch of wanna-blessed-bes”

Willow bad

Willow is consumed by dark magic.

Although Willow has been exploring and using magic since the end of season two, by the time Hush takes place she has an increased hunger for it. She seeks out a Wiccan group on campus, hoping to meet other witches and flex her growing power.

The use of magic is a stand in for a variety of themes throughout the series, such as love, power, relationships and addiction. There’s no moral judgement offered by the show regarding magic or witchcraft generally, but the results of its uses are often tied to the intention of the user. Willow is frustrated in Hush because the Wiccan group is more interested in bake sales than exploring true magic. But it’s an important meeting for her character nonetheless, because it is here she meets Tara.

When in trouble later in the episode, Tara seeks out Willow. Escaping The Gentlemen, they end up in a dead end room and try to push the vending machine against the door, but can’t shift it. Willow attempts to move it with magic, but only manages to make it wobble. Tara tentatively touches Willow’s hand with hers, slowly locks fingers and with a sharp turn of their heads, they launch the vending machine against the door. Watch the video below for the full, powerful scene.

Whedon talks about his vision for this moment:

“…we wanted this to be a moment that was very physical and very empowering and very beautiful between the two of them. It’s a very empowering statement about love. Two people together can accomplish more than when they’re alone. A great deal more…It really is one of the most romantic images we’ve put on film.”


Willow and Tara.

It marks an important milestone: this is the beginning of one of the most genuinely realised same sex relationships on television. And this relationship is inextricably linked to Willow’s magical abilities from the first moment.

In earlier seasons, when Willow is in (unrequited) love with Xander, she is powerless. Her later relationship with Oz brings her out of herself a lot and her powers start to manifest, but with many false starts. It’s only when she meets Tara that her full capabilities are hinted at, and it’s Tara (or rather, tragic things that happen to her) that inspire Willow’s full power to be realised, terrifyingly, in later seasons.

L0019609 A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts. Etching by J.

A witch at her cauldron surrounded by beasts.

This burgeoning of her powers can be seen in relation to her sexual awakening. Both magic and sexuality are empowering for Willow. The focus is always on their relationship, as opposed to them coming out; watching two people find each other,  fall in love and empower each other after years of never fully feeling “themselves”.

Despite other (straight) characters being much more physical with each other on the show, Willow and Tara’s magical connection was sometimes used as a proxy for their physical one, since there was only so much the network was be able to show of the latter. But still, as someone unsure of my own sexuality growing up, seeing strong, loving, well-rounded characters whose alternative sexuality is bound to magic (making them the most powerful individuals as a result!) was inspiring to fifteen year old me.

“The hardest thing in this world…is to live in it.”

The episode ends shortly after Buffy saves the day, restoring everyones voices. Finally able to speak to each other, she and Riley sit in her dorm room and agree that they need to talk. They sit in silence. A bit too much time passes to be comfortable and…the credits roll.

“Here endeth the lesson”


What would Buffy do?

So what have we learned from Buffy and the amazing Hush episode? Speak to each other, but don’t just talk: communicate. In the face of evil, don’t let silence or miscommunication (or alternative facts) get in the way of action. Always ask yourself “what would Buffy do?”

And finally, let’s not forget how librarians, and their charges, are often our last line of cultural defence.

The Adamson Collection: 5 Women Artists

On International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating #5WomenArtists. Russell Dornan and Ania Ostrowska look at the work of women artists and the role of art as therapy in the Adamson Collection.


Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

The National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington D.C. asks us again this year: “Can you name five women artists?” This simple question should be much easier to answer than it is for many people, highlighting the lack of recognition faced by both contemporary and historical women artists. Last year tens of thousands of posts answering the question were shared on social media. This year, more than 200 institutions across the world are taking part to draw attention to work by the 51% of artists who are woefully underrepresented.

Until last Sunday, London Whitechapel Art Gallery hosted the exhibition ‘Is it even worse in Europe?’ by iconic feminist art activists Guerrilla Girls, who are currently throwing a spotlight on the European art world and in the 1980s famously asked: “Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into The Met. Museum?”.

Today is International Women’s Day and we wanted to look at five women artists from the Adamson Collection, assembled by the British artist Edward Adamson (1911-1996). During more than thirty years as Art Director at the long-stay psychiatric hospital at Netherne in Surrey he pioneered the idea of art as therapy, and eventually came to consider the work of patients in the wider context of outsider art. His collection of works by patients has travelled internationally and provides valuable insights into the private worlds of patients stigmatised by mental illness. Diverse and original, the collection holds a great number of works by female artists, including the sculptor Rolanda Polonska.


Courtesy of the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Adamson believed that exhibiting works by patient artists educated the public about the creativity and humanity of those living with mental illness, thus diminishing the stigma associated with these conditions. Confronted with the direct message of the works, ‘sane’ onlookers hopefully become less hostile and prejudiced and develop compassion or even a degree of identification with the artists.

For Adamson, artistic self-expression itself was healing and in his studio he created a civilised space, enabling otherwise restricted people to experience a certain degree of freedom. His style was crucially non-interventionist: as a facilitating ‘artist’, he did not teach the patients how to draw or paint, did not suggest their content and did not interpret their works as a psychiatrist or therapist would have. His outlook was profoundly humanistic and he made provisions for the people who preferred to work alone or required unusual materials.

Margaret P

In the 1930s, the work of people compelled to live in asylums became inspiration for Expressionists and Surrealists, who declared war against classical form and abandoned naturalistic representation.


Untitled by Margaret P, 1967. (Courtesy of the Adamson Collection Trust)

Mary Bishop

According to Adamson, Bishop (who spent more than 30 years at Netherne) was a quiet and retiring person. The thousands of pictures she painted during this time depict the feelings of depression, anger, isolation and persecution that she experienced. Bringing to mind Edvard Munch’s iconic ‘Scream’, they share the horror felt by a persecuted person stuck in a hopeless situation.


Cri de coeur by Mary Bishop. (Courtesy of the Adamson Collection Trust)

Because many of Bishop’s paintings show a piercing ‘cry from the heart’, they were prominently featured in the hospital gallery, the original purpose of which was to invite nurses and doctors to imagine the patients’ feelings. Her work was also used by the mental health charity Mind in an effective poster campaign. A cry for help recorded in these images addresses not only a professional audience but also viewers outside the psychiatric hospital, asking them to feel compassion for the patients.

Gwyneth Rowlands

Rowlands abandoned the smooth pebbles on which she began painting for the jagged irregularity of flints, discarded by local farmers tilling the fields; she transformed them into people and animals.

The Skull, by Gwyneth Rowlands. (Courtesy of the Adamson Collection Trust)

The Skull, by Gwyneth Rowlands. (Courtesy of the Adamson Collection Trust)

Her medium-specific sculptures responded to the flints’ shapes and showed amazing sensitivity to minute details of depicted objects. She was a prolific artist and produced two or three works a day. Rowlands had access the studio at weekends so she could work there when Adamson was not around.


How do you name an anonymous artist? We wanted to include one of the many currently unknown artists in the Adamson Collection; not knowing their names does not erase the work and emotion that went into their art.

Much has been written about the eye as a recurring motif in psychiatric patients’ art and its possible meanings, although the eye is not infrequent in modern art and may have no psychiatric significance in some cases. One interpretation associates it with feelings of guilt, whether it is thought of as the ‘eye of God’ or the all-seeing eye of secular authority.

You are getting in my hair! by currently unknown Artist. (Courtesy of the Adamson Collection Trust)

You are getting in my hair! by currently unknown Artist. (Courtesy of the Adamson Collection Trust)

The Adamson Collection contains numerous works featuring eyes, by various creators. This image is a variation on the theme, with many surveillant eyes planted in the subject’s hair. She strikes back, both with an exclamation of the title (‘You’re getting into my hair!’) and with her powerful locks, reminiscent of Medusa’s snakes.

Rolanda Polonska

Polonska (who preferred the Polish feminine version of her last name but is usually known as ‘Polonsky’) was a gifted sculptor, painter and poet, who spent more than 35 years at Netherne having been diagnosed with schizophrenia. During this period she produced hundreds of paintings and drawings, some of which were studies for sculptures.

Untitled, by Rolanda Polonska. (Courtesy of the Adamson Collection Trust)

Untitled, by Rolanda Polonska. (Courtesy of the Adamson Collection Trust)

For Polonska, music was an inducement to creative activity. From close study of her drawings in the collection, one can see many examples of the surrealist automatic drawing exercise where a piece of music would be played and she would place the nib of a pen or point of a pencil on the paper and allow the music to move through her as she created the picture.

Some of her more impressive works were the Stations of the Cross for the hospital chapel, which – because of financial restraints- have never been cast in bronze, only plaster. After leaving Netherne, she lived and exhibited in Paris. She died in 1996, the same year as Adamson. Towards the end of her life she wrote to the Collection’s Secretary, saying: ‘Art was my salvation’.

Join the National Museum of Women in the Arts throughout March to share stories of women artists using the hashtag #5WomenArtists on social media.

The phenomenal Dr Price

This portrait of William Price may seem out of place in our gallery, surprising visitors with its bizarre imagery. His fascinating story, one of medicine, religion and pushing boundaries, is even more unexpected. Sarah Bentley tells all.

V0018010 William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893) MRCS, LSA, medical

William Price of Llantrisant (1800-1893). Oil painting by A C Hemming, 1918.

He looks down on all but the tallest visitor to our Medicine Man gallery, austere expression at odds with his flamboyant dress. A string of accolades and accusations usually follow the name William Price of Llantrisant: physician; eccentric; radical; Welsh hero; Archdruid; inexorable litigant; Chartist; costumier; pioneer of cremation. We don’t know quite so much about the two dappled goats at his feet.

The setting is South Wales, in the uplands familiar to me from childhood: sheep-cropped tussocky grass; flowers of gorse, rock rose and foxglove; the ruined grey tower of one of the Marcher castles that sweep this flank of Wales.

The artist A C Hemming was most likely commissioned by Henry Wellcome to depict this scene. If unable to ‘collect’ a significant historical moment in the form of an object, Wellcome would instead procure a picture of it. The flaming torch represents Price’s druidic kit, but it’s also a nod to the moment when the population of Llantrisant came out of chapel one winter’s evening in 1884 and saw William Price in full regalia on the hill above, setting light to a pyre containing the dead body of his infant son Iesu Grist, Druidic messiah.

This event, with its far-reaching consequences, has overshadowed everything in Dr Price’s life, but there are other stories to be told before we get to it.

Medical training

Scarificator with six lancets used for blood-letting in the 19th century.

William Price’s father left Oxford a sane man and was set to become a parish priest in Glamorgan when he developed what is usually described as a ‘psychotic illness’. Eccentric behaviour – wandering naked, bathing fully dressed, pocketing adders – was accompanied by violent rages that his wife, Mary Edmunds, had to cope with. She had been a servant and their match had alienated her struggling family from the comfortable Price gentry; there was little help from them as William grew into an exceptionally bright young man with an interest in medicine.

He was fortunate to be apprenticed for five years, aged thirteen, to a local young and talented surgeon, Evan Edwards. After a year at London hospitals, William became one of the youngest ever Members of the London College of Surgeons in 1821.

Skilled surgical techniques, as practiced by Edwards, formed a significant part of nineteenth century medicine, but Joseph Lister’s developments in antiseptic surgery were some forty years away and contemporary accounts of operations carried out without anaesthesia chill us today. Medicine in general was still dominated by the Four Humours and treatments aimed to achieve their balance, such as purging or blood-letting.

The future looked promising for a highly skilled physician returning home, yet, sixteen years later, William is on the run with a price on his head, in exile in Paris.

The progressive Dr Price

Price was scathing of many of his fellow physicians, referring to them as peddlers of poison. Voltaire’s epigram “the art of medicine consists in amusing the patient while nature cures the disease” comes to mind. His horror of smoking and meat-eating would have seemed as amusing to patients then as his theories about the ill effects of sock-wearing and the benefits of naked rambles.

The Glamorgan he returned to was changing: its growing Industries largely owned by English ironmasters; its workers in overcrowded and insanitary living conditions.

Price became physician to the Brown Lenox Chainworks and instituted a system whereby workers paid him a small regular fee when well and were treated ‘for free’ when sick: a prototype medical aid society. A later example, the Tredegar Medical Aid Society, became famous when Aneurin Bevan, introducing his 1948 legislation that established the NHS, said “All I am doing is extending to the entire population of Britain the benefits we had in Tredegar for a generation or more. We are going to ‘Tredegar-ise’ you.”

William Price at Y Maen Chwyf. Colour lithograph by Newman & Co, 1861.

William Price at Y Maen Chwyf. Colour lithograph by Newman & Co, 1861.

It seemed natural that Price, with his radical views and the trust of working men, would become a local Chartist leader, campaigning for the extension of the franchise.

Dean Powell describes how Price held meetings about the people’s charter at Y Maen Chwyf, a significant stone formation in Pontypridd: where Iolo Morganwg had organised a Gorsedd (convention of Druidic bards) many solstices ago.

Price didn’t trust the local Chartist leaders enough to take part in the 1839 March on Newport, but when the rebellion failed he was implicated and fled the country, £100 on his head.

In exile in Paris, Price would have an epiphany. 

Enter the Druids

Greek and Roman accounts of Druids are somewhat contradictory and vague, frequently portraying them as frightening and barbarous. So it is surprising that, from the late seventeenth century, they start to be portrayed as wise, cuddly, nature-loving figures.

Ronald Hutton has described how growing nationalist sentiments of the period, together with revived interest in the classics by humanist scholars, piqued interest in the mysterious Druids. Wales, its language and sense of identity on the wane, needed Druids.

“The druids; or the conversion of the Britons to Christianity”. Engraving by S.F. Ravenet, 1752.

Just as John Aubrey, out hunting one winter’s day in 1648, had ‘seen’ as if for the first time the massive stones surrounding the village of Avebury and came to ‘read’ them as sacred druidic sites, self-proclaimed bard Iolo Morganwg believed he could decode lost knowledge about the Druids from medieval Welsh verse. Unfortunately, some forgery and quite a lot of laudanum were involved in Iolo’s method.

We don’t know exactly what the exiled Price saw at the Louvre that led to his epiphany, but he described it as a stone containing an ancient Welsh script that only he could decipher; its message was, in part, that he would father a Druidic messiah.

Left: Image from Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, 1719. Right: William Price in the costume inspired by it, on stage in 1884.

Left: Image from Bernard de Montfaucon’s L’Antiquité expliquée et représentée en figures, 1719. Right: William Price in the costume inspired by it, on stage in 1884.

Dean Powell speculates that the stone might have been part of a temporary exhibition and notes that Price set great store by an engraving depicted above. This image is an Abraxas stone, a Gnostic amulet. Note its influence on the bardic ‘onesie’ William Price designed!

End times

In the 1880s, we find a still vigorous Price living in Llantrisant with local woman Gwenllian Llewellyn, some sixty years his junior. When she gives birth to a son, they name him Iesu Grist (Jesus Christ). The child is sickly, however, and dies at five months old. So we find Price high in his goat field one winter’s night in 1884, lighting a pyre. The intervention of horrified villagers and local constabulary prevents the child’s cremation and leads to Price’s arrest.

Price was fortunate to come before a judge sympathetic to the aims of the The Cremation Society of Great Britain. This was set up in 1874 to campaign for the legalisation of cremation, a practice the Church objected to on a number of grounds, not least because of how cremated bodies would fare at the Resurrection. Price would echo some of the Society’s arguments in his defence:

“It is not right that a carcass should be allowed to rot and decompose in this way. It results in a wastage of good land, pollution of the earth, water and air, and is a constant danger to all living things.”


Chapel and crematoria at St Johns, Surrey, 1889.

Price was found not guilty and the verdict set a precedent. A crematorium at St John’s in Surrey, built in the 1870s but never used, was able to open, followed by the passing of the Cremation Act of 1902. Price himself was cremated in 1893. National Cremation Statistics show that in 1960 34% chose cremation over burial; by 2013 the figure was 75%.

In 1966, Price’s daughter, Penelopen, sister to a second and surviving Iesu Grist, unveiled stained glass windows in Glyntaff crematorium chapel near Llantrisant. The image of Christ’s resurrection was conventional, but “…to one side…was a pane containing a peacock, a creature whose flesh was, according to ancient myth, incorruptible. On the other was a phoenix, the legendary bird that rose again from its own ashes. The windows were a bid to make sense in coloured glass of the Church’s teachings about death, teachings in need of a new metaphor now that cremation was, for many, the gateway to resurrection and eternal life.” (from Carl Watkins’ The Undiscovered Country: journeys among the dead)

Sarah Bentley is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.