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.