Discover The Mysteries of Haunted Paintings

Discover The Mysteries of Haunted Paintings

What makes a painting well known? It could be the subject or the artist who created it. It may be part of a notable collection or have a historical significance—however, some paintings are well known because there are mysterious circumstances surrounding them. Read on to learn about some fascinating pictures people believe are haunted - with one painting's mystery revealed in a very ordinary explanation. 

Discover The Mysteries of Haunted Paintings  

What makes a painting well known? It could be the subject or the artist who created it. It may be part of a notable collection or have a historical significance—however, some paintings are well known because there are mysterious circumstances surrounding them. Read on to learn about some fascinating pictures people believe are haunted - with one painting's mystery revealed in a very ordinary explanation. 

Why is 'Man Proposes, God Disposes' Considered Haunted?


Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) is an oil-on-canvas painting by British artist Edwin Landseer. The painting is housed in the collection of Royal Holloway, University of London, and has become a part of urban folklore due to superstitious claims that it is haunted.

According to urban legend, a student at Royal Holloway died by suicide after stabbing a pencil into their eye and writing "The polar bears made me do it" on their exam paper. Although there is no university record of the student's death, generations of students have believed this painting to be unlucky. People say anyone who sits an exam in view of the painting will fail it. As such, a college tradition has emerged requiring that the painting was covered with a Union Jack flag during exams. This custom was born from an experience from the 1970s where an invigilator had to quickly cover up the artwork after a student refused to take their test alongside its uncovered state—using a Union Jack flag as the covering piece was simply a matter of convenience as it was one of the largest items available.

What Inspired the Painting 'Man Proposes, God Disposes'?  

The painting focuses on two polar bears among the remains of an ill-fated expedition. Here we see scattered wreckage such as a telescope, the tattered remains of a red ensign, a sail, and human bones. This image illustrates the power of nature prevailing over man and civilisation. It was inspired by the disappearance of Sir John Franklin and his crew when they attempted to chart the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic is one of the most mysterious tragedies in maritime history. In 1845, Franklin set sail with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and 129 officers and men. Their job was to visit the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic to record magnetic data and help improve navigation methods to create a shipping route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to bolster Britain's imperial power. The title, 'Man Proposes, God Disposes,' means that humans can make plans, but God determines the outcome. 

Engraving of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror departing for the Arctic in 1845

Unfortunately, their journey ended prematurely when both ships became icebound near the Canadian territory of Nunavut. After more than a year trapped in the icy waters, Franklin and nearly two dozen others had died, and the survivors decided to abandon their ships in April 1848. They set out for mainland Canada. Evidence from interviews with Inuit people who encountered them and evidence from found belongings, medical studies (including evidence of cannibalism) and records written by the crew suggested that a combination of cold, starvation, disease, pneumonia and tuberculosis killed everyone in the party. 

The Painting and Ghostly Presence of Henrietta Nelson 


The portrait of Henrietta Nelson, sitting in her blue dress and wide-brimmed bonnet, depicted the former inhabitant of Yaxley Hall in Eye, Suffolk. Miss Nelson met her unfortunate demise in April 1816 when she tumbled down a flight of stairs at Yaxley Hall and passed away at eighty-two. Before her death, she made it explicitly clear that she wanted to stay for eternity at her countryside estate, so a mausoleum was built on the grounds so that she could rest peacefully.

However, when new owners moved into Yaxley Hall, they demolished the mausoleum and relocated Miss Nelson's corpse to the family vault in the village church. Since then, it is said that her spirit roams around the premises of Yaxley Hall, desperately searching for a way to return home and find solace there once again.

After Mr Bryan Hall of Banningham Rectory purchased the painting, a ghostly figure was spotted walking in the grounds of his home, wearing the same outfit she wore in her portrait. Curiously, her likeness in the painting was said to morph and evolve. Read an interesting article and interview with Mr Hall here (via The Eastern Daily Press), and see the listing for the painting's sale at Bonham's auction house

Why Did People Think This Painting Caused Fires? 


In the 1980s, several house fires seemed to have a mysterious commonality: prints of The Crying Boy by the 20th-century painter Giovanni Bragolin were found undamaged amidst the ruins. In response, some began to believe that the painting had something to do with the cause of these fires.

This suspicion caused Steve Punt at the BBC to investigate, and he worked with a UK body, the Building Research Establishment, to investigate. They concluded that the surface of the prints was treated with a fire retardant varnish, which protected them from the flames. The wall mounting method of the image also afforded protection - strings holding the painting to the wall would quickly deteriorate in the heat of a fire, causing the picture to land face-down on the floor and become insulated from further damage. Check out the video clip below to see Steve's experiment in action - you may notice that the painting in the video is slightly different to the image we have included - that's intentional, as there are numerous alternative versions of the work, all sharing the same theme. 

We've included links to pieces relating to each painting in the article above, but if you want to discover more, check out Olivia Cal on Medium and Wikipedia

Interested In Learning More?

Get Death and Mortality: An Image Archive for Artists and Designers in paperback or eBook. This is a brilliantly curated pictorial archive of copyright-free images exploring one of the most prevalently studied subject matters in art, death. This book features an extensive range of 17th and 18th-century etchings and engravings of skeletons, the Grim Reaper, death masks, ghosts, corpses and as extensive pictorial collection from The Dance of Death and much more.

Image Download Included:

We have carefully restored the artwork and provided a download link within the publication where you will locate high-resolution files in JPEG format to speed up your workflow. No scanning necessary! Follow the instructions found within the book and instantly access all images.



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