Tuesday, 16 August 2016

The Vampire Rabbit

Gargoyles are familiar fixtures on British buildings, glaring down from churches and cathedrals around the country. While gargoyles and grotesque figures have existed on religious buildings for centuries, they became more common within Gothic architecture. Some of them take the form of animals, and one of the earliest recorded animal gargoyles was a classical Greek lion in Athens, found on the Acropolis, that dates to the 4th century. But not many cities can boast a Vampire Rabbit among their watchful figures.

The Vampire Rabbit can be found above the weirdly ornate rear entrance to Cathedral Buildings in Newcastle upon Tyne. The front of the block is on Dean Street, once voted the best street in the UK, while the back faces the rear of St Nicholas’ Cathedral. The building was finished in 1901, designed by architects Oliver, Leeson and Wood. The six storey building is now a mixed-used property, owned and managed by Minel Venues. Inspired by the Sparrowes House in Ipswich, Cathedral Buildings is a strange, rococo confection that stands out among the original buildings and multi storey car park on Dean Street.
But why a Vampire Rabbit?
Truth is, no one knows. Art historian Gail-Nina Andersen proposed several theories during a talk about the Rabbit in April, though none of them can be declared as definitive, and most of them rely on hearsay. One theory posits that he’s actually a hare, and a nod to the work of engraver Thomas Bewick, whose workshop was very close by. Bewick’s work features a range of hares and rabbits, but the connection seems a little far-fetched given the rabbit’s less than naturalistic representation. As far as anyone can tell, the Vampire Rabbit has always been on the building, though he had shorter ears in the past, and he was white at once stage. His current black coat and red fangs and claws are the result of a newer paint job. The longer replacement ears he now has are closer to a hare, so it would seem he was originally intended to be a rabbit.
There are no precedents for vampire rabbits or hares in vampire lore, and while he was referred to as the Demon Rabbit at one point, it’s still not a typical association. Rabbits and hares are usually associated with fertility, madness, purity or, weirdly, cunning and intelligence. You only need to look at Brer Rabbit to see the latter in effect. Renaissance art usually relates rabbits either to purity, and places them with the Virgin Mary, or it associates them with fecundity, and you’re more likely to see them with Venus.

A hare. Coloured wood engraving. Wellcome V0021351
The fact he’s on the back of the building is a key point. The front entrance isn’t actually as grand as the back, and the front certainly doesn’t feature any fantastical creatures. I wondered if the Vampire Rabbit was somehow linked with witchcraft, due to the old belief that witches could transform into hares. He’s opposite the east window of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, so maybe someone associated with the building had a problem with Christianity. Given the cathedral grounds he watches over were once used for burials (it’s now a car park), maybe he’s there to keep the inhabitants in line. There are dark tales of vampirism in the area, and when the unfortunate burials were relocated to make way for the car park, some of the corpses were allegedly discovered buried facing down. This is supposedly a means of keeping vampires in the grave as they’ll just dig themselves further into the earth, instead of out. Is the rabbit a reference to that?

If we want to string out the tenuous links even further, you often find dead rabbits in Dutch vanitas paintings. Their intention was to remind the viewer that death comes to us all. Such ‘cheerful’ work often included memento mori, such as skulls, but rabbits, as prey animals, were common symbols. Given the Vampire Rabbit’s position opposite what was once a graveyard, maybe he’s there to remind us that, like those he watched over, we’re not immortal either?
How famous is he?
I’m not really sure when he became ‘famous’ as such, but he’s definitely become an object of fond associations for locals. In 1998, the Vampire Rabbit even made an appearance in Tinseltoon, a children’s fairytale set in Newcastle. In it, the historic statues of the city come to life one Christmas Eve, including our infamous bunny. Here, he’s not so much a vampire as a vegetarian, trying to munch on some grass in the churchyard. It certainly brings to mind characters such as Count Duckula, or Bunnicula.
I first came across him while on a ghost walk around the Castle Garth area in around 2008, where he featured prominently within the history of the locale. The Vampire Rabbit was the cover image on a tourism brochure, and he also appears on posters to advertise the area. He was also spectacularly lit up during the Glow festival in 2006. For a novelty gargoyle, he’s proved to be quite the tourist attraction.

No matter what the reason for his being there is, I’m very glad to live in a city that features vampiric bunnies as ornamental decor!

Say 'hello' to the new specter of your nightmares
Laura Sedgwick is currently studying for a PhD in Film Studies on the topic of ‘Haunted Spaces in Contemporary Horror Cinema: Set Design and the Gothic’. She is Book Reviews Editor for the Journal of New Zealand and Pacific Studies, and Assistant Organiser for the annual conferences of the New Zealand Studies Association. Her research interests include cemetery architecture, Gothic Studies, horror cinema, Surrealism, art history, and moai culture. She used to do ghost hunts in her spare time but has yet to get a decent photo of Casper!


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