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Death: A Self Portrait Exhibition

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by Sandra Lawson (subscribe)
To paraphrase Dorothy: 'There is no place like London.' I hope I can convince you of that here. Also check out my blog at and my theatre reviews at
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Harris's Celebration of Death at the Wellcome Collection
It's been said that there are only two certainties: we are born and we die. We usually don't remember very much about coming into the world, but most of us probably spend a great deal of time contemplating the way in which we will shuffle off this mortal coil. Should it scare us, or should we plan for it and embrace it as just another rite of passage?

death a self portrait

A thought provoking exhibition at the Wellcome Collection called Death: A Self Portrait has been put together by Richard Harris, (not Dumbledore from the Harry Potter stories) whose collection of art and artefacts dating from the Middle Ages concerning death fills five rooms on the Euston Road. These rooms are divided into five different categories.

Contemplating Death contains pictures and prints that include a Vanitas painting, a Book of Hours, Memento Mori, Netsuke figures and even Robert Mapplethorpe's skull headed walking stick.

Vanitas: Still Life of a Bouquet and a Skull
Vanitas: Still Life of a Bouquet and a Skull by Adriaen van Utrecht 1643. This reminds us that pleasures of the flesh are not eternal.

The Dance of Death is a mixture of items, some gruesome and others comical, of pieces, mainly from Japan and Tibet: skeleton puppets, wood engravings, etchings and hand coloured prints.

Tibetan Dancing Skeletons
An 18th century Tibetan Painting of Dancing Skeletons

Violent Death is mainly concerned with war and its consequences. Here you will find a sixteenth-century engraving of knights riding into battle, with Death bringing up the rear; a print of Dürer's Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and a series of Goya prints detailing the abuses, tortures and killings that took place after the Napoleonic invasion of Spain. This room also includes Harris's collection of prints created by Otto Dix in 1924 following his experiences as a machine-gunner on the Western Front during the Great War. This wall is a nightmarish reminder of the effects of war: there are soldiers, some more dead than alive, corpses, rapes and a horrendously affective skull crawling with corpses and maggots.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
A Print Taken from Durer's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, made in 1497-8

Eros and Thanatos reminds us of the connections between love and non-violent death, and also that surgeons once learned from dissecting dead bodies.

Adam and Eve
Hans Sebald Beham's 1543 Engraving of Adam and Eve with the Tree of Life Intertwined with a Skeleton: a Reminder of the Fall of Man

Commemoration shows how different societies remember and celebrate the deaths of those they have loved. Here you will find photos by Marcos Raya of clothed skeletons, human skulls from Peru and from the Incas, as well as a series of twelve papier-mâché skeletons created for the Twelve 'Days of the Dead'.

Wedding Portrait by Marcos Raya
Wedding Portrait by Marcos Raya from 2005, Reminding us of our Deaths and the Deaths of those we Love

When you reach the end you can pause to watch a short video of Harris explaining how his interest and collection grew and you will also be able to examine a giant wall chart showing the ways in which death deals with us at the end of our allotted span on this earth.

If your interest has been piqued ever further and you're not in the slightest bit squeamish, you may even want to attend a day of feature films on 19 January dealing with the interpretation of death in the cinema.
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Why? To learn that death is more intriguing than fearful
When: Until 24 February
Where: The Wellcome Collection
Cost: Free
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