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Dancing with Death

The origins and development of the Dance of Death motif and its representation in graphic art:
the Gemmell Collection at the University of Glasgow Library

Introduction | Origins | Holbein| Imitations | Baroque| Modern | The Soldier

The bones of all men: Holbein's
Dance of Death (Gemmell 1)

  " - I love dispatch, I strike at once
  The wit, the wise, the fool, the dunce;
  The steel-clad soldier, stout and bold,
  The miser, with his treasured gold.."

William Combe, The English Dance of Death

This web display focuses on one of our smallest yet most intriguing collections. Its books are all concerned with the Dance of Death. This grisly motif typically features decaying corpses or skeletons who lead the living in a dance to their demise. The dance represents all members of society, from the wealthy and powerful to the innocent and humble, meeting their end at the hands of Death.

Brought together by William Gemmell (1859-1919), a Glasgow doctor, the original collection has been augmented to form a corpus of some 150 items on this theme. These books comprise original works as well as critical commentary, spanning several hundred years of the Dance of Death tradition. With its macabre theme and ghoulish imagery, the Gemmell collection is of potential interest to a wide spectrum of researchers, particularly in the fields of art, history and literature.


Detail from frontispiece to
Rowlandson's English Dance of Death
(Gemmell 21)

Detail from Richard
 Dagley's Death's Doings
(Gemmell Add. 50)

Detail from frontispiece to
  Van Rusting's Dance of Death
(Gemmell 10)

The Gemmell Collection is often overshadowed by one of our more well known collections, the larger Stirling Maxwell Collection of emblem books. Emblems are a Renaissance form of didactic illustration and text designed to impart a moral message. The Dance of Death, however, may be said to be a subset of emblem art; the two collections therefore complement each other to form a wonderful resource for students of the text/image genre.
The 76 items in the original collection were bequeathed to Glasgow University Library upon the death of William Gemmell in 1919. Gemmell, a respected doctor and magistrate, was raised in Glasgow and graduated from Glasgow University. He practiced medicine at the Royal Infirmary, as well as City Fever hospitals. He later set up a practice in London and retired early after 17 years in the medical profession. With his leisure time, he returned to archaeological and historical pursuits. He investigated local history, and was active in several esteemed historical societies. He even found time for local politics, where his interest in literature and history saw him selected for the Convernership of the Libraries Committee.

It is not known why Gemmell originally chose to build up his Dance of Death library although, as a doctor, he was obviously intimately preoccupied with trying to prevent Death. Whatver his motivation, he remembered his alma mater in his will with his bequest of the collection to the University. The collection has subsequently been augmented by selective purchases, including some secondary source material on the topic.

Dr. William Gemmell (Gemmell Add. 59)

Detail from S. M. 1655 Rentz's
Dance of Death

Detail from Gemmell 13 Meyers'
Dance of Death

An illustration to Gemmell Add. 50
 Dagley's Death's Doings

This exhibition examines the origins of this captivating theme and its journey into print format, from its original conception at the hands of Hans Holbein, through its many reincarnations. The following pages bring together some of the highlights of the Gemmell collection for the first time, covering almost 500 years of the Dance of Death in print.

Janet Barnes Hans Holbein's Dance of Death (Exhibition Guide) Sheffield: Ruskin Gallery [c. 1994] Not available in library

Andrew Breeze "The Dance of Death" Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 13 (Summer 1987) pp. 89-96 Level 8 Main Library Gen Hum Pers CA550  vol. 13-16

James Midgley Clark Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and Renaissance Glasgow: Jackson, 1950 Level 11 Main Lib Fine Arts A7720 CLA

Marcia Collins The Dance of Death in Book Illustration, Catalog to an Exhibition of the Collection in the Ellis Library of the University of Missouri-Columbia 1978 Not available in library

Frances Douce The Dance of Death London: William Pickering, 1833 Level 12 Spec Coll Sp Coll Gemmell 34

Fritz Eichenberg Dance of Death: a graphic commentary on the danse macabre through the centuries New York: Abbeville Press, c. 1983 Level 11 Main Library Fine Arts A7720 EIC

William Gemmell Gemmell Collection on the Dance of Death, Chronological List with full descriptive and biographical notes 1919 Level 12 Spec Coll Sp Coll Gemmell Add. 59 [this includes a biographical note signed "R.M.B." from which the information about Gemmell above has been taken]

Werner L. Gundersheimer "Introduction" A Complete Facsimile of the Original 1538 Edition New York: Dover Publications, 1971 Not available in library

Patrick Pollefeys Dance of Death web pages 1998-2006 [pages accessed November 2008]

This web exhibition was researched and created by Aimee Cook, Graduate Trainee on placement in Special Collections; work was originally undertaken in November 2008 and the completed web exhibition published in April 2009.

Go to next section: The origins of the Dance of Death