Tuesday, 25 March 2014

A Goodly Company: Ethel le Rossignol at The Horse Hospital

‘Ye say ful sooth,’ quod she, ‘that is no nay;
I see coming a goodly company.’

From 22 February to 22 March 2014, The Horse Hospital in London, situated a hoof beat from Russell Square tube, showed a number of paintings by the medium Ethel le Rossignol.  Possessing mediumistic abilities, she created forty-four paintings between 1920 and 1933 which depicted her interpretation of the world of Spirit.  Twenty-one of these painting belong to the College of Psychic Studies (CPS) and were loaned for the exhibition, which was mounted in association with Mark Pilkington’s Strange Attractor.

The exhibition was called A Goodly Company: Ethel le Rossignol, and the accompanying leaflet was subtitled ‘A series of psychic drawings given through her hand as an assurance of survival after death.’  The words were taken from her book the full, very full, title of which is A Goodly Company: A Series of Psychic Drawings Given through the Hand of Ethel le Rossignol as an Assurance of Survival After Death this Sequence of Designs is Shown to Open the Eyes of All Men to the Glorious World of Spiritual Power Which Lies About ThemA Goodly Company was published in 1933 by The Chiswick Press, and a copy was on display at the exhibition. (1)

Le Rossignol does not seem to have had much of a profile while she was alive; details of her life are sketchy, and those here are lifted from the exhibition leaflet.  She was born in Argentina in 1873, her father hailing from the Channel Islands (Rossignol is French for ‘nightingale’) but her family had moved to Kensington by 1891.  She studied art and married Arthur Beresford Riley in 1930, somewhat late in life.  A number of of her artworks and copies of her book were donated to the CPS in 1968, with the request that the paintings be displayed in the College’s premises.  She died in London in 1970, aged 96.

Her pictures were designed to represent a ‘story’ of spiritual evolution, as indicated in the book’s conclusion:
To those who have followed the story of these pictures to this final page it can only be repeated that they were given as a joyful reassurance of the spiritual spheres, showing the archangels, the angels and the different creations – lower and higher – as man has slowly evolved through animal to man, from man to spirit, from spirit to angel and from angel to participator in the unveiled purpose of God.
The pictures certainly are joyful, and while access to their meaning might be restricted to adepts of some kind, even those among us who are unenlightened can obtain a great deal of pleasure from these remarkable images.  They are gaudy in the extreme, hypnotically so, vibrant, exuberant, intense, eye-popping, a kind of pop art before pop art, a celestial circus.  Rainbow-coloured shapes are prominent in them.  Psychedelic in their boldness, they are a harbinger of the New Age movement that she predated by a third of a century.  The pictures represent a mystical admixture of spiritual traditions, with a significant Eastern component.  They are filled with acrobatic nudes flying against a blue background, and some figures are caught making synchronised movements, like a Busby Berkeley film still.  Many wear weird headdresses, have distorted and multiple body parts.  While some of the paintings are square or rectangular, a good proportion are circular, which adds to the strangeness as they seem to have no beginning and no end, no anchoring point for the eye.

Perhaps that is part of the point le Rossignol is making.  The difficulty with the ineffable is that by definition even the attempt to depict it is bound to fall short as the artist tries to evoke that which cannot be translated into terms we can comprehend.  That is why, while strangely timeless in one sense, in another they are very much of the period of their creation, the faces having a lipsticked 1920s look about them.  According to le Rossignol a spirit referred to as ‘JPF’ was the actual artist while ‘JPF’ claimed in turn to be acting as intermediary for another discarnate group which wished to convey spiritual truths.  Le Rossignol as medium forms a continuum with the mediumistic communications of the spirits and the medium of the painting.  No wonder meanings struggle to emerge, with multiple layers of transmission.

The book is rather more restrained visually, with black and white reproductions of the paintings.  Le Rossignol was an automatist and the book is partly written in the form of a diary, the first entry dated 20 February 1920, only just over a year after the end of the Great War.  She is clearly impatient at the beginning because a spirit reproves her by saying: ‘you are still far from being a perfect secretary.  You are like a restive horse – always trying to start off without knowing where you are going’, which makes the Horse Hospital as a venue even more appropriate.  She got the hang of it though, and the messages, from a friend who had passed over, came through with a high degree of fluency.

These initially offer a standard view of a Christian-oriented Summerland, a place of beauty, one where ‘we see our friends in their new bodies – everyone much younger and happier.’  Living in a place intertwined with the ‘earth sphere’, but under a ‘higher rule’, there are opportunities to study and develop as an individual.  Objects are created by thought, including clothing, though judging by the paintings most choose not to bother.  The communications are clear that there is a limit to what can be conveyed to those still in the earth sphere, and that the higher spheres represent a qualitative change of existence.  As the scripts move into the 1930s, Eastern influences appear, they become more opaque and symbolic, and include an emphasis on breathing exercises in order to increase mediumistic receptivity, talk of masters, initiation and spiritual enlightenment as humanity follows a path of gradual evolution towards ‘the unveiled purpose of God.’

Le Rossignol's work does not fit neatly into any artistic currents, though echoes of Art Nouveau's sinuous lines and lively use of colour can be detected.  The artist she most puts one in mind of is the later Marc Chagall, who also painted colourful flying figures.  While Chagall is clearly not a direct influence, there are similarities stemming from their spiritual preoccupations.  The publisher Leon Amiel produced a book on Chagall in 1975, with text by Marie-Thérèse Souverbie.  She concludes her brief examination of Chagall's career by stating that he existed outside the main currents of modern art, an artist 'for whom time and space are not important'.  Most tellingly, the jacket blurb cuts even closer to their similarity:
... he followed his own path and, in the last analysis, he was faithful only to himself and his own vision.  The figures in his paintings seem to be telling us that truth lies elsewhere, beyond the world of appearances, of convictions and ordinary certitudes.  That is why they are not held down by gravity; their weightlessness lifts them above the sphere of our values.
Exactly the same could be said of le Rossignol.  This is not to say that she is an artist on the same level as Chagall, merely that she deserves to be taken seriously.

The exhibition at The Horse Hospital was the first occasion these paintings had been displayed outside the College.  Let’s hope it is not the last.  The Horse Hospital’s strapline is ‘providing space for underground and avantgarde media since 1993.’  How le Rossignol’s work fits into that mission statement is still to be decided, and it is to be hoped that the exhibition will stimulate interest in her life and work, and discussions of her place in the history of Spiritualist and esoteric thought.  If you missed the paintings this time round, try to seek them out at the CPS.  They possess a strange luminous beauty, even if the technique and subject matter seem limited to the uninitiated.  Whatever one’s opinion of their contents, there is purity in the intention behind them; if le Rossignol was a nightingale, she sang high, and sweet, and strong.

(1) According to the British Library catalogue, Eyre & Spottiswoode republished A Goodly Company  in 1958, but I have not examined their copy.

Update 17 April 2015:

Ethel le Rossignol’s paintings do not come onto the market often so it was interesting to see one for sale on eBay this month, with a starting price of $8,500 plus $240 shipping.  The seller is in Sterling, Colorado, USA, and one wonders how the painting came to be there.  It dates from September 1951 (the date can be seen in a diamond shape near the bottom right-hand corner) and according to the seller’s description is number five of a series of eleven made during the period 1947-1953.  The medium is watercolour and gouache on Bristol paper board, and it measures approximately 7 1/2" x 11 5/8", including a lower margin of about 3/8".

The seller has helpfully included a photograph of the text on the back of the painting:

Sep. 1951
The astral sphere above the city has many presences who have striven for the welfare of the remainder of their fellows.  They are shown, shedding their light upon the world.  They, as spirits emancipated from their earthly bodies, have realised the pursuit of the Way followed by all those who seek.    The man holds the flaming torch of fulfilled aspiration in the embodiment and loving participation of Power, and the woman shows the flower & seed of the golden fruit gathered from the conception and perception of harmony which arrays her, and every individual aspirant who faithfully essays to find the goal of perfect ideal love.

There are no surprises in terms of style and it is immediately identifiable as coming from the hand of le Rossignol, though the seller notes that the colours have faded, which means it does not compare well with the luminous paintings that were on show at The Horse Hospital.  What is certainly noteworthy is the late date compared to the pictures owned by the CPS, and work needs to be done to determine the length of her working life as a painter.

I don’t know how the price was arrived at, but it seems rather a lot for a small watercolour by a fairly obscure artist, however infrequent opportunities to buy her work are.  That this was not my opinion alone is evident by its failure to sell when the auction closed on 15 April.  Le Rossignol is becoming better known, but she clearly has some way to go before she can command even that kind of figure.