Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Encounters with the Spirit World

On 18 August 2016 my wife and I went to the College of Psychic Studies (CPS) at 16 Queensberry Place in South Kensington to see the exhibition drawn from its archives which was put on between 14th and 20th August.  It followed a smaller-scale one held over a weekend in January to celebrate the 90th birthday of the College’s ownership of the building.

It was the first time I had been to Queensberry Place and I was immediately impressed by this finely-preserved town house with its spacious feel, its extensive library, and particularly by its historical associations.  To visit the top floor where Harry Price had had his National Laboratory of Psychical Research, and the room occupied by College President Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (a position commemorated by a recently added blue plaque outside), was a privilege.

According to CPS publicity, there were over 500 items to look at.  In addition to portraits of eminent individuals which normally adorn the walls, displays of objects dating back to the 1850s filled virtually every room and corridor – 13 rooms on four floors – together providing a remarkable insight into Spiritualism’s history and culture.  Clearly-presented information panels guided the viewer.

The walls and cases were stuffed with treasures.  On the top floor I was pleased to see the guidebook and pages from Light and other newspapers relating to the May 1925 Exhibition of Objects of Psychic Interest at Caxton Hall organised by Harry Price which, alongside a successful bazaar, helped to fund the purchase of 16 Queensberry Place.  The final accounts on show indicate that the net profit from the entire enterprise amounted to £1,001, a handsome sum.  Price’s 1926 tenancy agreement could be seen alongside pictures associated with some of his activities.

Elsewhere there was mediumistic art from the Victorian period to the present day (this is a collection that is still growing) and some of the contemporary work was for sale.  There were large numbers of spirit photographs, with famous names such as William Mumler, Richard Boursnell, Édouard Buguet, Frederick Hudson and Madge Donohoe mingling with the less-well known such as Stavely Bulford, F. M. Parkes and Craig and George Falconer (the last set only recently donated).

There were notebooks of trance writings produced during the 1870s and 80s by Rev. William Stainton Moses, one of the founders of the London Spiritualist Alliance (the CPS’s original name) and its first President. His own library has been preserved intact as well.  It was nice to stand next to the ‘Henry Slade table’; according to a brass plate set in the top, John Nevil Maskelyne claimed it was a ‘trick table’ in the court case Regina v. Slade in October 1876.  Harry Price later used it in experiments with Stella Cranshaw.

Some of the most intriguing objects were the smallest.  A cabinet held ‘Hair from Miss Showers’ spirit’ next to an ‘Autograph of John King, the materialisation spirit of medium Charles Williams’ and ‘Drapery from a materialised spirit form through the medium Miss Florrie Cook’, plus a collection of apports.

Add photographs of mediums, artefacts such as trumpets and planchettes, slates and crystal balls, Captain Bartlett’s Glastonbury pictures, a large page of automatic writing by Matthew Manning and a great deal more, and it can be appreciated how much there was to savour.  It was a pleasure to become reacquainted with Ethel Le Rossignol’s glorious paintings which I had seen in 2014 at the Horse Hospital.  There were examples of Georgiana Houghton’s spirit-inspired watercolours, though not the large album owned by the CPS as it had been loaned to the landmark exhibition of her work currently on at the Courtauld Gallery.

 I was fortunate to be introduced by College archivist Leslie Price to Principal Gill Matini and curator Vivienne Roberts.  Their enthusiasm for this clear labour of love was palpable.  That it was an enormous effort could perhaps be gauged by the way all three narrowed their eyes at me when I innocently suggested they might consider repeating the exercise at some point with other parts of the collection.

Leslie told me the event had been very popular and in particular there had been significant attention from artists, so perhaps its influence will appear in artworks in due course.  He also said that new discoveries are still being made and fresh avenues for study opened up, as should happen in all good archives.  Hopefully interest generated during the week will help to stimulate further research, and perhaps donations.  It was certainly an opportunity to educate as the displays were supplemented by tours and talks given by staff.

The CPS has an outstanding archive and it is to their credit that they opened their doors to let the public have a taster of its riches.  It was shame it was on for a short time, but it involved suspending other activities which would have made it difficult to extend.  Entry was free, however the CPS have created a number of greetings cards from pictures in their possession so it was possible to give something back and come away with attractive mementoes of the visit.

I would have liked to have stayed longer and was sorry we had to leave when we did, but we were going on to the Courtauld to see Georgiana Houghton’s spirit works.  The good news is that while sadly the bulk of the Houghton paintings will be going back to their home in Australia in due course, everything on show at the CPS will be available to the serious researcher to examine in South Kensington.  It is an exceptional collection of which the CPS is justifiably proud.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Stereoscopy: an Introduction to Victorian Stereo Photography

I’ve just undertaken a free online course on Victorian stereo photography which was put together by the University of Edinburgh and run by FutureLearn.  It grew out of a major exhibition held at the National Museum of Scotland last year, Photography: A Victorian Sensation, and was designed to last from 1-14 August 2016, taking about six hours.  Those completing the course could purchase a certificate, but it was not compulsory.

Examples of stereograms were drawn from National Museums Scotland, in Edinburgh, and there was a decidedly Scottish bias to the presentation.  The Howarth-Loomes Collection featured prominently, and the course was a fine advertisement for this remarkable holding.  Containing about 18,000 objects which Bernard Howarth-Loomes had gathered from the 1960 onwards, after his death in 2002 it was loaned to National Museums Scotland by his widow Alma and is promised as an eventual bequest by her.  While his collection covers a lot of ground, it did guide the course’s direction; it was noted that the most popular stereo card ever produced was one of Blondin crossing Niagara Falls by tightrope, taken by William England, but it was not shown, presumably because Howarth-Loomes had not acquired a copy.

The course was also a good advertisement for the London Stereoscopic Company.  Brian May and Denis Pellerin, both directors, gave interviews, and there were references to the LSC’s books and its OWL stereoscopic device, which is a relatively cheap way to view stereo cards.

Learners began with the principles of stereoscopy and its origins before moving on to how it related to early photographic processes, the technical development of the stereoscope, and the various methods of taking the pictures.  Some of the significant pioneers and practitioners were introduced, such as Sir David Brewster, Louis Jules Duboscq, Thomas Richard Williams (focusing on his ‘Scenes in our Village’, of which Brian May has made a particular study, and his still lifes), and George Washington Wilson.

As well as the work of individuals, industry, technology and landscapes (unsurprisingly many from Scotland) were covered.  We could follow our Victorian forebears’ armchair travel, with the work of Francis Frith in the Middle East and William England on the Continent looked at in detail.  Closer to home there was much on fashion, with crinoline hoops providing opportunities for satire.  There were ‘ghosts’, capitalising on the fact that when someone leaves halfway through a long exposure they will be transparent on the finished image; even melodrama (‘Broken Vows’).  There were wonderful ‘French tissues’, a term which sounds vaguely pornographic but in fact describes the adding of translucent paper to enhance the effect of a stereogram, transforming it from ordinary monochrome to a magical scene when backlit.  A series of lunar stereo cards by Warren de la Rue concluded the course.

The content comprised clear text, plenty of examples of stereo cards (though one had to make one’s own viewing arrangements), and a number of videos and audio recordings, plus links to supplementary sources of information.  The two weeks were divided into 53 bite-sized chunks, making them easy to dip into, and there were occasional self-tests to check progress.  In addition each topic had a comments thread to which participants were encouraged to contribute, something they did with enthusiasm.  FutureLearn will leave the materials online for the foreseeable future, which will allow many more people to engage with this amazing aspect of photography, and learn about the Victorians and their world in the process.

Monday, 8 August 2016

‘The Camera Exposed’ at the V&A

Photographer unknown, source V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum is currently holding an exhibition of photographs – ‘The Camera Exposed’ – each of which features a camera in some way or other.  Drawn from virtually the medium’s entire history, they include snaps and professional images and show cameras both accidentally caught and deliberately foregrounded.  Portraits, including self-portraits, abound, but there are cameras in still lifes, technical documentation, reportage, fashion shots, and artistic treatments.  The camera turns up in all kinds of photography, whether casually or to the point of fetishism.

Of the 140 examples in the gallery, some are by named photographers, many by unknown amateurs.  The well-known practitioners include Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Margaret Bourke-White, Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lee Friedlander, André Kertész, W. Eugene Smith, Paul Strand, and last but definitely not least, Weegee (perhaps overrepresented).  The most recent works are photomontages from 2014 by Simon Moretti, in which images are combined using a scanner.

The Cameras can be on their own, isolated from their users, or en masse, as in the hands of ranks of paparazzi.  They may be used as a prop, or by artists to highlight the mechanics of the process.  You get the sense that for some photographers their cameras are barriers against the world (Bill Brandt peeping diffidently, head turned, over his large format camera); yet at the same time showing us the tools of their trade allows them to emphasise their identity as photographer.

Occasionally the camera melds with the holder until they almost become a single android being, the kit part of the personality.  The camera eye accentuates the voyeuristic power of the technology, while photographs of people taking photographs (or pretending to) inject a reflexive aspect.  But the camera itself is not always seen: sometimes it is merely the shadow, underlining the point that photographs depend on light to exist; in one picture a cable release stands in for the camera itself, stretching the exhibition brief somewhat.

Conversely it might be the photographer who is absent.  Charles Thurston Thompson was the first official photographer appointed by what was then the South Kensington Museum and in 1853 he captured a Venetian mirror at Cumberland Lodge.  The camera is prominent, detracting from the required objectivity of the record, but Thompson walked away during the long exposure and cannot be seen, thereby managing to suggest that the camera had taken it without intervention (in another example of his mirror photographs from the same year he is standing behind his equipment).  His are reluctant self-portraits, and the same is true of Eugène Atget’s photographs of shop windows, in which Atget and his camera are ghostly presences, half-hidden among the items in the display. 

‘The Camera Exposed’ is full of interest, but the emphasis is overwhelmingly western European and American, probably a drawback of having to rely on the V&A’s own collection.  A self-portrait using a mirror by Jamaican-born but London-based Armet Francis is a graphic reminder that the net has not been case wide geographically.  Surprisingly there are no smartphones – they must appear frequently in pictures simply because of their ubiquity, but here they are ignored in favour of older technology, creating a glow of nostalgia but not telling the entire story of the camera exposed.

This is then only a thin slice of a huge and fascinating theme.  There is a lot that could have been included and, rather than reduce the number of exhibits to fit the small space downstairs, using Room 100 on the first floor would have allowed the curators greater freedom to explore the topic.  It is fine as far as it goes, but leaves the viewer conscious that it is far from the last word.

The exhibition runs until Sunday, 5 March 2017.  Admission is free.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

The Library Committee of the Society for Psychical Research

Part of the new SPR library

On 4 August 2016 I was elected chair of the Society for Psychical Research’s Library Committee, the previous incumbent, Guy Lyon Playfair, having stepped down (though he remains a member).  Guy had held the position for many years, and I was honoured to be asked to take his place.

I have been on the committee since 2010 though I had originally been invited to join it in the mid-1990s by the then chair, Andrew MacKenzie.  Unfortunately I had recently moved out of London and didn’t think I would be able to attend meetings regularly enough, so declined.  These days a lot of our business is done by email, though we do have occasional meetings at the SPR’s London premises.

Being chair ties in well with my role as Reviews Editor of the SPR’s Journal. which involves keeping my ear to the ground for suitable new books.  I add details of these, plus others of a more popular nature, to a section of the SPR website devoted to publications of interest.

The SPR’s collection is among the best of its kind in the world.  Its formation was one of the first acts of the new Society in 1882, and it has continued to grow.  It is split between London and Cambridge University Library, where the rare books (designated ‘Z’) are housed in secure conditions, along with the archives. 

The Library Committee’s primary responsibility is to procure new books and periodicals, either by purchase or donation, exercising quality control over what goes onto our shelves.  Its members have considerable expertise between them and are able to ensure that researchers have access to as wide a range of material as possible within psychical research and parapsychology.  Suggestions for potential purchases, and of course donations, are always welcome.

With the move from very cramped quarters at Marloes Road to our own premises at Vernon Mews earlier this year we have extra space to house acquisitions, and the reading experience is much improved.  While the Library Committee may not have the cachet of some other SPR committees, such as those devoted to spontaneous cases or survival research, it is nevertheless a vital component of the Society’s organisation, and I am pleased to be able to play a significant part in its activities.