The power of the witch has always gripped the artistic imagination. This is the first exhibition at the British Museum to present a survey of the subject in this rich and innovative exploration of the representation of the witch and malevolent female figures in the graphic arts. Spanning from the 1400s through to the end of the Victorian age, ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ will delve into the origins of the traditional image of the witch and how this developed as artists fed off public attitudes and current events. Prints and drawings will be shown alongside additional objects that illustrate that the imagery of sorcery and magic extends back to antiquity. Some examples of Greek vases and oil flasks with paintings of sirens, harpies and the famous classical sorceresses, Circe and Medea are included to emphasise this link.

Efforts to understand and interpret seemingly malevolent deeds – as well apportion blame for them and elicit confessions through hideous acts of torture – have had a place in society since classical antiquity and Biblical times. Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery. The magus, or wise practitioner of ‘natural magic’ or occult ‘sciences’, has traditionally been male, but the majority of those accused and punished for witchcraft, especially since the Reformation, have been women. They are shown as monstrous hags with devil-worshipping followers. They represent an inversion of a well-ordered society and the natural world.

While historical broadsides document the long and cruel history of witch persecution in Europe, advances in print technology created a burst of disturbing imagery and literature from about 1500. Witch trials intensified during periods of social unrest and religious conflicts in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries when Protestants and Catholics alike were preoccupied with religious heresy. Striking single-sheet prints were first made by the Renaissance printmakers Albrecht Dürer (1471 – 1528) and Hans Baldung Grien (c.1484 – 1545) and rapidly became a niche market for collectors. ‘The Witches' Sabbath’ by Hans Baldung Grien is a colour woodcut print from 1510 that depicts four nude female figures sitting on the ground with a cauldron. The cauldron is emitting big plumes of smoke and traces of a potion with frogs round the figures, the ground is littered with bones, pitchforks and to the right of the image a cat is sitting with its back turned. In the night sky, another two witches, one barely visible, the other riding a goat and carrying a pitchfork with another cauldron and animal bones. The figure of a witch riding backwards on a goat in Baldung’s work is said to have been inspired by Dürer’s engraving of the very same name. Made in about 1500 ‘A witch riding backwards on a goat’ depicts how witchcraft was thought to reverse the natural order of things, so the hair of the witch streams out in one direction, while the goat and the trail of drapery indicate the opposite direction .

Witches were also shown as bewitching seductresses intent on ensnaring their male victims, seen in the wonderful etching by Giovanni Battista Castiglione of Circe, who turned Odysseus’ companions into beasts. By contrast, Francisco de Goya (1746-1848) turned the subject of witches into an art form all of its own, whereby grotesque women conducting hideous activities on animals and children were represented in strikingly beautiful aquatint etchings. Goya used them as a way of satirising divisive social, political and religious issues of his day.

During the eighteenth century, Henry Fuseli’s (1741 – 1825) ‘Weird Sisters from Macbeth’ influenced generations of theatre-goers, and illustrations of Goethe’s Faust were popularised by Eugène Delacroix (1798 – 1863). By the end of the 19th century, hideous old hags with distended breasts and snakes for hair were mostly replaced by sexualised and mysteriously exotic sirens, seen in the exhibition in the work of Edward Burne-Jones (1833 – 1898), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828 – 1882) and Odilon Redon (1840 – 1916).

The exhibition at the British Museum has been co-curated by the artist and writer, Deanna Petherbridge, and adapted from her book ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ which was first published in 2013 to accompany a display at the National Galleries in Edinburgh. Works from the British Museum collections are supported by loans from the V&A, Ashmolean, Tate Britain and the British Library. The display will show a dramatic range of imagery that is seldom viewed except by historians or collectors, and it will draw attention to the longevity of the iconography associated with witchcraft as a predominantly female manifestation, depicted either as vicious perpetrators, or forlorn victims of Church and State. The power of such images continue to intrigue and fascinate us today.