Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Dracula Arrives in Whitby

On a recent holiday in North Yorkshire I found myself in Whitby. And what's not to love about Whitby: Captain Cook, Dracula, Whitby Museum with its Hand of Glory, renowned fish and chips and scampi, a ruined gothic abbey... the list goes on.

And whilst I was there I managed to buy two books from a series of collections of photography by the Victorian pioneer Frank Meadow Sutcliffe who was based in the town. He is best known outside Whitby for his  photograph "Water Rats" and a couple of similar ones where local urchins were posed naked on the sea shore as though about to enjoy a frolic in the hypothermia-inducing North Sea. But Sutcliffe's photography is far more important than some mildly salacious snaps. His portraits of working people and their lives in and around his Whitby home are some of the best and more emotionally invested images seen in Victorian photography anywhere. Though often posed, they were done so with an empathy and understanding of his subjects and their lives that means even posed photographs had an air of the naturalistic about them.

This photograph above doesn't fall into that category but is a dramatic image nonetheless of a shipwreck at Whitby in 1885. It is a stirring tale of daring-do. The Estonian (though reported as Russian at the time) ship Dmitry was seen approaching the harbour in a strong gale. One ship had already been lost that night and a lifeboat was got ready in case the same should happen. There were thousands of spectators on the shore and for a time it looked like the ship would be blown onto the treacherous rocks to either side of Whitby harbour. In fact, through sheer good seamanship she was steered into the harbour. The crowds cheered and went home to their warm suppers and the ship was beached on Collier's Hope which is a small slice of beach inside the harbour and directly beneath the winding steps that lead up to the great abbey on the cliff above. It was thought that the ship would be safe there but when the tide rose again the next day the seas were still so rough that even within the harbour walls the waves pushed her over and essentially beat the ship to its death on the beach. It was a sad end to a heroic tale. So that is what we see in the photo above. The post-storm and, by the look of it, post some salvage disposition of the wreck.

But of course, those familiar with Whitby's literary heritage will recognise elements of this story from their reading. The arrival in a storm of the Dmitry from Narva was dramatised yet further by one Bram Stoker. The ship became the Demeter from Varna and it is on this ship that, towards the beginning of the novel, Dracula arrives in the UK. The ship fights valiantly against the weather and eventually makes it way into the harbour only to be found to be empty of life, the steersman has lashed himself to the wheel with a rosary and hangs from it dead. A black dog is seen to leap from the ship and scurry away up the steps towards the Abbey. The height of gothic, for sure, but nice to know that it at least begins in fact and images of real events.

1 comment:

J said...

By coincidence, the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, which holds Stoker's working notes for DRACULA, is having a special event tomorrow where visitors will be able to view these papers up close...

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