A skull surmounting two crossed bones, and surrounded by three flames

Prints of darkness

Publication date: 31 October 2018

Our curators have picked 10 of their frightening favourites from the Museum's Prints and Drawings collection – from ghosts to ghouls, and a witches’ Sabbath to skeletons…

Prints of darkness

This Halloween, curators Olenka Horbatsch, Susannah Walker and Isabel Seligman have been searching for the supernatural, the scary and the spooky in the collections of our Prints and Drawings department. Scroll down to discover the 10 petrifying prints and disturbing drawings they found.

Wicked witches

Four nude female figures sitting on the ground with a cauldron, which is emitting big plumes of smoke.
Hans Baldung (called 'Grien', 1484/5–1545) Witches' Sabbath. Colour woodcut printed from two blocks: tone block orange-brown and grey, 1510.

In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, German audiences were captivated by the bestselling book Malleus maleficarum (The Witches' Hammer), first published in 1487. It contained vivid descriptions of witches' rituals and powers, and advocated for their extermination. This striking image seized on this popular subject, showing witches preparing for a Sabbath (witches' meeting) with potions, smoke, various instruments of divination and an unholy offering on a platter. A witch can be seen riding a goat backwards overhead. Artist Hans Baldung made many representations of witches that explore the sinister connections between women, sexuality, and death.

Doom and broom

St James approaches the magician Hermogenes who sits hunched over a book in a chair; around them swarm demonic creatures
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525–1569) St James and the Magician Hermogenes. Engraving, 1565. The story of St James derives from the apocryphal Golden Legend.

This engraving is one of the earliest depictions of a witch on a broom (seen on the right, flying up through the chimney). Here Pieter Bruegel is referencing an earlier Netherlandish artist, Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450–1516), best known for his paintings of devils as hybrids of animals, humans, and inanimate objects symbolising chaos and corruption. Bruegel designed this print to be sold on an open market, and his images are often more comical or gently satirical in tone.

Under a full moon

A witches on a broomstick emerges from a fireplace and chimney, a woman climbs onto a table with cats around her.
Frans Francken II (1581–1642), Witches' Gathering. Pen and brown ink with blue-grey wash.

Lit by a ghostly full moon and the glimmer of candlelight, both witches and wizards are hard at work in this busy drawing, showing gatherings intent on different kinds of incantations. This wonderfully spooky and chaotic drawing was in fact carefully composed and, as it is not related to any known painting by the artist, was perhaps intended to be collected as a finished work. Some witches read grimoires (books of magic) and brew potions using ingredients such as skulls and dead babies. The nude figure at lower left rubs her body with 'flying salve' – a toxic and potentially hallucinogenic concoction reported by some to allow witches to fly. The figure on the broom disappearing up a chimney, and the other flying out the top, is borrowed from the Bruegel print above.

Skull and crossbones ☠️

The skull is an instantly recognisable symbol of death. This woodcut, made in the 18th century, was intended to serve a particular function, possibly in funeral ceremonies. But a similar plaque hints at another function – this print might have been pasted on doors to warn others that someone in the house was suffering from the plague or other dangerous disease. Popular prints like this are very rare as they were made to be used, not collected. These prints were cheaply made – in this case, the black background was filled in by stencil, a time-saving alternative to cutting out the background from the block.

The Headless Horseman

The cover of two editions of The New Casket, featuring illustrations of the devil and a headless horseman
Anonymous illustrator, The New Casket. Published in London, 1832. The distinctive style of these examples suggests they’re by the same artist who made regular contributions to the weekly journal.

19th-century Britain saw a revival of interest in folklore and fairy-tales, providing rich subject matter for authors and illustrators. The Gothic genre of fiction gained in popularity at the same time. These trends influenced ephemeral literature as seen in the Arm of the Devil and the Headless Horseman published in the weekly journal The New Casket in 1832. The eerie and suspenseful subject matter was often set in earlier times and/or other countries, and offered an accessible format for supernatural tales. The stark images, sharp lines and intense contrasts of darkness and light in the wood engraved illustrations catch the eye, set the scene and encapsulate the stories.

A friendly ghost?

A ghost formed by a carved pumpkin on a stick with a white sheet below, and an angry cat with teeth bared and tail up
George Cruikshank's 19th-century illustrations have a touch of the Tim Burton about them.

George Cruikshank's gathering of ghosts calls to mind the affectionate response to macabre subjects in modern works by Edward Gorey, Chris Riddell and Tim Burton. Cruikshank's comic illustrations make light of the home-made ghost, fashioned from a sheet and turnip, who stalks the churchyard with visible legs and shoes!

A man surrounded by ghosts and demons. Another man startled by a ghost in a graveyard. A woman and a cat startle thieves.
George Cruikshank (1792–1878), Illustrations from George Cruikshank's Omnibus. Steel and wood engraved illustrations, 1842.

Cruikshank's series of Frights make fun of irrational fears experienced in everyday life. Examples include the midnight noise on the stairs, which a terrified family convince themselves must be thieves, and the harmless cat which gains the proportions of a tiger in the imagination. Although lighthearted in tone, these prints can tell us about the fears and anxieties of the refined Victorian home.

Memento mori

Clockface with skull in the middle surrounded by numbers with sun, crescent moon and stars in corners
Luigi Conconi (1852–1917), Ruit Hora (The moment rushes away). Etching with monotypic surface tone, c.1893–1896.

This macabre etching was originally intended to decorate the face of a clock. The result of a collaboration between a printmaker and a sculptor, the hands were intended to protrude through the small etched circle in the centre of the skull's nasal cavity. Although the clocks were never actually made, they were intended as a daily memento mori (literally, 'remember death' – a reminder of the fleeting nature of life). The clock's outer perimeter is formed by a snake eating its own tail, or ouroborus, an ancient symbol of Egyptian origins. Originally signifying renewal it was later taken up by magical and alchemical traditions.


A woman with long hair embraces the head of a man
Edvard Munch (1863–1944), Vampyr II. Colour lithograph and woodblock, 1895/1902. Munch envisioned this composition as a pendant to his famous Madonna.

This dark and sexually charged subject preoccupied Edvard Munch in the period 1893–1895, when he made six different painted versions and one print. Known as Love and Pain by the artist, it was first described as a vampiric embrace by Munch's friend, the critic Stanislaw Przybyszewski, who described 'a man who has become submissive, and on his neck a biting vampire's face.' Munch used a combination of lithographic stones and sawn woodblocks to build up the coloured shadows, offsetting the couple's pale flesh and the vampire's blood-red all-enveloping hair. Stay tuned for a special exhibition on the work of Edvard Munch coming in spring 2019!

'A drum, a drum! Macbeth doth come.'

Design for a poster for Macbeth. Three witches are below a rock on which stands Macbeth, steam rising.
In the Prints and Drawings Study Room: Edmund Dulac (1882–1953), Design for a poster for Macbeth. Watercolour and gum on paper, 1911. Bequeathed by Eric George Millar.

The Three Witches from Shakespeare's Macbeth are prophets of doom for the fated king, and are some of the most famous witches in literature. Edmund Dulac designed this poster for a production of Shakespeare's play in London in 1911. The artist's dark, sombre tones and use of Celtic lettering are in keeping with the period and mood of the tragic drama. With his arms folded, Macbeth challenges the three witches as they cast their spells from a steaming cauldron below a rocky ledge on the 'blasted heath'.

Baa Baa Black Sheep...?

A large black ram, seated, embraces a pubescent girl. The girl gestures to a figure behind the ram’s back.
Paula Rego (b. 1935), Baa, Baa, Black Sheep from Nursery Rhymes. Etching and aquatint, 1989. © Paula Rego. Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Paula Rego's Nursery Rhymes offer a gothic twist on familiar stories and explores the underlying horror and sexual menace of tales originally intended for children. Rego uses these commonly known stories as the framework for her imagined scenes, bringing out their hidden darkness. In this case the 'black sheep' has become a towering ram seated to embrace a pubescent girl, who in turn gestures to a figure behind the ram's back (possibly the 'little boy' of the song) hinting at a strange love triangle.

You can now buy custom prints from our online shop – we've got a huge selection of works from the collection and you can pick the right size and frame for your home. Browse the range.