Posts Tagged ‘Alice in Wonderland’


Turn off your mind, relax and float up to the Wellcome

Turn off your mind, relax and float up to the Wellcome

London was swinging long before the Sixties. At the start of the 19th century, the drawing rooms of Regency London were thronged with smart people dancing their wigs off after sniffing hits of dephlogisticated nitrous air, or nitrous oxide as it is nowadays known.

Hardly had the gas been discovered than it was being snorted by the likes of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who declared that it afforded him “more unmingled pleasure than I have ever before experienced”.

Humphrey Davy, who recommended it for use as an anaesthetic, described “a sensation analogous to gentle pressure on all the muscles, attended by an highly pleasurable thrilling, particularly in the chest and the extremities. The objects around me became dazzling and my hearing more acute.”

“Laughing gas” parties were so much the rage that they were even satirised by cartoonists, as in this 1823 example from Thomas Rowlandson.

rowlandson-nitrous

Two years before this cartoon appeared, English society had been shocked by a little-known translator of German texts, one Thomas de Quincey who burst on the literary scene with his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, which contained some of the most brutal and brilliant prose ever written.

Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlights, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Indostan. G From kindred feelings, I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms: I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia: Vishnu hated me; Siva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris: I had done a deed, they said, at which the ibis and the crocodile trembled. I was buried for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.

De Quincey’s descriptions of the pains and pleasures of opium influenced writers from Poe and Baudelaire to Arthur Conan Doyle, whose The Man With The Twisted Lip, is about a wealthy man driven to filthy opium dens by his addiction. The theme found expression also in art, as in this pair of oriental gouaches on rice paper from the Wellcome collection.

risch-smokers-poorsmokers

The success of De Quincey’s Confessions ensured that the fascination with chinoiserie and all things Egyptian and oriental would gain momentum. This watercolour of a Constantinople (Istanbul) bazaar was made by J F Lewis in the early 1840s.

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Hookahs were a favourite subject for ‘orientalist’ painters, and soon replaced dephlogisticated nitrous air in the water pipes of the fashionable set. Byron’s publisher John Murray was often to be found, wrapped in a silk dressing gown, gurgling on his narguileh. By the middle of the century the hubble bubbles were still chortling away. Lewis Carroll’s caterpillar on his mushroom in 1865 is perhaps happily dreaming of two sorts of hallucinogens. Mervin Peake’s 1946 drawing has a rather phallic caterpillar, adding a link between psychedelic experience and sex that spoke more of his own time than Carroll’s.

caterpillar_peake

As the nineteenth century grew old, the once innocent enthusiasm for things eastern acquired darker undertones. After the 1857 Indian Mutiny, things could never be the same. Queen Victoria’s glorious Kohinoor diamond, acquired in 1849 and literally the jewel in the crown of empire, has by the late sixties become a cursed moonstone, hunted by fanatical and vengeful natives who will murder to regain it. The theme recurs in Conan Doyle’s Sign of Four, who makes his fanatic a blow-pipe toting Andaman islander. (The Andamanese did not use blow pipes, and the story is one more undeserved stain on their character).

The opium pipe, if not the blow pipe, continued to claim victims in the upper echelons of English society. Conan Doyle’s The Man With The Twisted Lip saw light in 1891, and the opium dens were still going strong in the East End, every bit as squalid as they had always been. This engraving was made in the 1870s.

opium_den_london-1870s

Drugs had the power to intoxicate the imagination as well as the body, and the tradition of Coleridge and de Quincey passed on through a long line of artists, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Dali, Manet, Gautier, Redon, Magritte. Aleister Crowley, as recorded in his Diary of a Drug Fiend, combined drugs and sex and orgies when he could get them. But he lacked rock and roll, and not until the sixties of our own era (well, I am old enough to remember the sixties), did the three great ingredients of the high life come together.

Through Timothy Leary by way of Aldous Huxley, the Beatles found a place where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies, and everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers that grow so incredibly high.

Blotting paper, little squares soaked in LSD were the tickets to Lucyland, postage stamp sized pieces that melted on the tongue. The blotting paper came in peforated sheets. Some were printed with miniature works of art, like these signed examples from the collection of psychedelic researcher Thomas Lyttle.

 

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This note was originally written to flag the Wellcome Museum’s exhibition “High Society: the rich history of mind-altering drugs” in February, 2011. All the pictures came from the Wellcome