ISABEL DE STEIGER 1836-1927, continuing her life-by-dates: the period from June 1878 to end 1880, with Isabel continuing her career as a painter while also becoming more involved in London’s occult scene.
Update November 2022: quick one with some more sources about Charles Carleton Massey and the formation of the London Lodge of the TS.
Update June and July 2018 after I’d been contacted by Alex Kidson. Thanks, Alex, for the information and the two photos - of the sketch of the Cleopatra painting shown at the Walker Art Gallery in 1879 and Princess Scheherazade, shown there 1880.
Just re-stating the Golden Dawn connection:
Isabel de Steiger was one of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s earliest members, being initiated at its Isis-Urania temple in London in October 1888 - that is, a few months after the last event in this file. She chose the Latin motto ‘Altiora peto’. She took her time over the learning and exams required for the GD’s inner, 2nd Order and was initiated into it in May 1896. She moved out of London in the early 1890s and was a member of the GD’s Horus temple in Bradford for a time; and then (in the late 1890s) of its Amen-Ra temple in Edinburgh.
THE LAYOUT BELOW which I hope isn’t too difficult to read.
What Isabel was doing, tends to be in italics. My comments, and the sources, are typed in my usual Times New Roman.
Lastly, before we start, a quick note on her name: she was baptised with it spelled in the French way - Isabelle - and did return to that spelling from time to time in her life. For most of her life, however, she used ‘Isabel’ and I’ll stick with that.
27 JUNE 1878
Isabel went to 38 Great Russell Street for the meeting which formally founded the London Lodge of the Theosophical Society.
Date of the meeting: The Early Days of Theosophy in Europe by A P Sinnett. London: Theosophical Publishing House Ltd 1922; p11, quoted at the theosophy.wiki on London Lodge. Though Sinnett was not at the meeting himself, he gives a list of some of the people who were there. Sinnett’s list includes Charles Carleton Massey, who was elected its first president; Emily Kislingbury, who was elected its first secretary; Dr George Wyld, a later president; and Dr H J Billing (see below); but not Isabel.
Confirmation that Isabel was there: Memorabilia p141, p243 although she couldn’t remember the exact date of the meeting. She confused it with an event she thought took place in December (see below) but which actually took place in January 1879 – her introduction to Helena Petrovna Blavatsky; other sources show.
Confirmation that Massey was an early member; though he doesn’t mention actually being at the meeting: Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult and Mystical Research. Published London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Volume 11 January-December 1891. The issue of 3 October 1891 p475-76 reproduced a letter by Massey that had been published originally in the Daily Chronicle. Though the Daily Chronicle had published it anonymously, in Light it was printed with Massey’s usual ‘CCM’ at the bottom. Massey’s letter to the Daily Chronicle had been written 20 September 1891 at Massey’s home address,124 Victoria St.
Massey had met both Colonel Olcott and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky during a trip to New York in 1875. Source for those meetings: Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult and Mystical Research. Published London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Volume 12 January-December 1892. Letter from CCM published issue of Sat 16 July 1892 p347, Massey quoting the entry he had made in his diary, 6 September 1875.
At www.tswiki.net there’s a reference to Hollis-Billing playing a part in the formation of the TS’s London Lodge, but not being a member of it herself. Information from: Reader’s Guide to the Mahatma Letters to A P Sinnett editors George E Linton and Virginia Hanson. Adyar Chennai India: Theosophical Publishing House 1972 p219.
Comment by Sally Davis: C C Massey and Isabel became good friends. I presume Isabel joined the London Lodge; though she doesn’t specifically say so in Memorabilia.
BETWEEN 3 AND 17 JANUARY 1879
Isabel met Helena Petrovna Blavatsky for the first time, at Mrs Hollis-Billing’s house in Sydenham.
Comment by Sally: Isabel had been introduced to Mrs Hollis-Billing by Dr George Wyld. Other guests at Mrs Hollis-Billing’s soirée to meet Blavatsky were Charles Carleton Massey; and Rev William Alexander Ayton and his wife Anne, who later joined the GD. Charles Carleton Massey is mentioned in Memorabilia but the Aytons are not.
Best source for the date:
The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 14 January-July 1879 pp41-42 issue of 24 January 1879 has letters from Charles Carleton Massey and George Wyld about Blavatsky and Olcott’s time in England. Massey’s letter gives specific dates for the visit: they arrived on “3rd inst” [3 January 1879] and finally left on “Friday last, the 17th” [17 January 1879] having stayed longer than they had originally intended, at the request of members of the TS’s London Lodge. Blavatsky had spent a lot of her time working at the British Museum. Wyld’s letter says that during her stay Blavatsky had not socialised much except with TS members.
A rather later source though without the dates is Olcott’s Old Diary Leaves volume 2 pp 4-9.
Information on the part played by Mary J Hollis-Billing:
At www.blavatskyarchives.com/hollis.htm there’s a reprint of an article originally published in the journal The Medium and Daybreak issue of 19 December 1879 pp796-97: Madame H P Blavatsky, by Mary J Hollis-Billing. Despite being “in great haste to proceed on her journey to India”, Blavatsky had stayed with Hollis-Billing for several days “at Norwood”. C C Massey was another visitor to Hollis-Billing during Blavatsky’s stay; no other person’s name was mentioned in the article. Mary Hollis-Billing doesn’t give any dates for Blavatsky’s time as her house-guest.
Isabel was introduced to the concept of reincarnation, at seances with Mrs Hollis-Billing as the medium. Mrs H-B’s spirit guide Ski described at least one of Isabel’s past lives to her. Oh dear! - “my record was not agreeable!” - Ski told her that she’d been a nun walled up in her own convent for breaking her vows.
Source for Ski, the founding event and Isabel’s past life: Memorabilia p141, p152, p243. Isabel’s past life as a nun meant that in at least one reincarnation she had been living as a Roman Catholic: a nasty surprise for someone brought up as an Evangelical Protestant.
Comments by Sally Davis: Mrs Hollis-Billing’s seances were known for their focus on the participants’ past lives. Her spirit guide Ski (pronounced sky), had been a North American Indian. Isabel attended several seances at Mrs Hollis-Billings.
Sources for Mary J Hollis, later Hollis-Billing:
Website psychictruthinfo is the web page of the medium Jonathan Koons. It has a section Mediums of the Past with a page on Mary Hollis, later Mrs Hollis-Billing: well-known American medium who visited the UK in 1874 and 1880. Koon’s information comes from an article on Mrs H-B published in Spiritual Notes volume 1 p262.
The www.encyclopedia.com gives Mary Hollis’ DOB as 1837; in Jeffersonville Indiana.
PROBABLY DURING WINTER 1878-79
Isabel did a painting for Mary Hollis-Billing, of Mrs H-B’s spirit guide, a North American Indian called Ski.
Source: Memorabilia p141 and p141 footnote 1; though without a date.
Comment by Sally Davis. This was a painting done at second - if not third - hand. Mrs Hollis-Billing gave Isabel a photograph to work on, a photograph of a rough sketch of Ski supposed to have been done from life. Isabel gave the finished painting was to Mrs Hollis-Billing - that was the whole idea - and it was never exhibited as far as I know.
Isabel was at another address that turned out to be temporary - 63 Bedford Gardens, off Kensington Church Street.
The Society of Women Artists Exhibitors 1855-1996 editor Charles Baile de Laperrière, compiler Joanna Soden. Hilmarton Manor Press 1996. Volume 1 A-D p328 entry for De Steiger, Isabel; painter.
Isabel painted four paintings illustrating dramatic incidents in the life of Cleopatra; and two others based on classical themes.
Source for there being four Cleopatra paintings:
Artist and Journal of Home Culture volume 2 1881 p14. I saw this report via google and I’m not sure which exhibition it was covering - probably that year’s Walker Art Gallery autumn exhibition. The report said that Isabel had “just sold the last of four Cleopatra pictures”; and that she was working on two other paintings based on classical subjects.
Comment by Sally Davis: I’m not quite sure which two other paintings Isabel was meaning when the Journal’s reporter spoke to her: between 1879 and 1886 she exhibited several that might answer to that description. And on the subject of the Cleopatras, I’ve seen quite a few different titles for them:
- Cleopatra’s Deadly Resolve in the Temple of Isis - as exhibited in 1879 at the Royal Society of British Artists
- Cleopatra “Personating” the Goddess Isis (what does that mean??) - as exhibited at the Royal Albert Hall spring show in 1879
I did wonder whether the two above were the same painting; but in May 1879 they were both being exhibited at the same time.
- Cleopatra Receiving an Unfavourable Oracle from the Priestess of Isis - as exhibited in the autumn 1879 at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool
A sub-set of two:
- Cleopatra Before the Battle of Actium; and
- Cleopatra after the Battle of Actium
Which makes five!
In Memorabilia Isabel confuses me completely by referring to I’m not sure how many of them, just as ‘Cleopatra’! For example on p58 she refers to painting ‘Cleopatra’ (sic) in the style of Alma-Tadema. At the time, Isabel was a great admirer of his - as part of her early training, she copied many of his works. Looking back, however, she thought his style was not one she should have tried to imitate. Magazines reviewing the major art exhibitions are no better and maybe some of their critics never did become aware that there was more than one.
Elsewhere In Memorabilia (p278) Isabel says that one of the set of two before/after Cleopatras was bought by her Liverpool friends William and Fanny Crosfield, in 1880, after it was shown at the Walker Art Gallery. Their daughter Dora inherited it and still had it on her walls in the early 1920s. So which painting is it? No painting with either of those titles was ever shown by Isabel at the Walker; so perhaps Isabel means ‘Cleopatra Receiving an Unfavourable Oracle...’ - presumably before the battle of Actium.
However many there were, and whatever their correct titles, for a few years around the time she painted them, the Cleopatra paintings made Isabel relatively well-known.
Bazaar Exchange and Mart and Journal of the Household volumes 20-21 1879 p81 reported on that year’s Fine Arts exhibition at the Royal Albert Hall, which had 1010 works in it. The critic recommended visitors to the exhibition to seek out the Cleopatra painting Isabel was showing; and bucked the general trend by giving it its full title (hooray!) - “Cleopatra Personating the Goddess Isis”.
Building News and Engineering Journal volume 38 1880 p360 another review of the Royal Albert Hall spring exhibition also gave Cleopatra Personating the Goddess Isis a special mention.
The Academy volume 18 1880 number 437 issue of 18 September 1880 p209 put one of the Cleopatra paintings in a list of “notable pictures” being shown at the Royal Manchester Institution. As the list also included G F Watts’ Psyche and Burne-Jones’ The Music Lesson, the magazine was paying Isabel quite a compliment.
The magazine Public Opinion volumes 41-42 1882 p490 mentioned a poem inspired by one of the Cleopatras, calling the four of them “Madame de Steiger’s celebrated pictures”.
The complimentary poem was a sonnet, by a poet about whom I’ve not been able to find anything at all except his name - Henry George Hellon - which might in any case be a writing name not his real one. It was published in Hellon’s second volume of poetry: Daphnis: A Sicilian Pastoral, and Other Poems. London: Kegan Paul Trench and Co 1881. On p76: Sonnet on Viewing a Picture of Cleopatra:
In Isis’ temple sits the mighty Queen,
Draped in a gown of gossamer and gold,
Through which her lovely form, fair to behold,
Peers, sweet as peers the moon through silver sheen
When misty vapours veil the fairy scene!
Yet o’er her brow some mystery seems to fold,
And in her eyes her future fate foretold;
With anger burning, passionate her mien!
Her dreams of death, of Antony, and all
The splendour of the past! her glory gone,
And throne a wreck, where monarch feigned to fall;
Her chiefs and army lost, her power undone!
Seized with despair, she deigns not God to call,
But, woe-worn, seeks a death her legions shun!
The book was reviewed in The Theosophist volume 3, April 1882 pp177-178, though the review focused on the longer poem The Seer, which had a myriad of esoteric references in it. Public Opinion, too, noted that the poems were “deeply versed in the occult philosophy” so perhaps Isabel knew his work.
Also DURING 1879
Isabel met Mrs Going at the British National Association of Spiritualists.
Source: Memorabilia p144.
Comment by Sally Davis: Mrs Going was a wealthy widow who (when Isabel met her) was living in Park Street in Mayfair. As at March 2017 I haven’t been able to identify Mrs Going for sure. It seems as though their friendship didn’t last: Isabel writes about Mrs Going as though she was deceived by her first impressions of the woman, saying that she was not an intellectual, and that her claims of being an accomplished mystic were exaggerated. However, Isabel had cause to be very grateful to Mrs Going: it was through her that she met Anna Bonus Kingsford - see June 1879, with whom she began to explore the world of the occult systematically.
JANUARY TO ?JUNE 1879
A series of lectures were given on Sunday evenings in London by the spiritualist medium William Fletcher, on the place of spiritualism in modern and future society. Isabel definitely went to some of the lectures; probably to all of them.
Source for the lectures: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 14 January-July 1879. The coverage of the first few was minimal – details of where and when, and sometimes the subject, appeared on pi of the weekly issue, the small ads page; from the issue of Friday 3 January 1879. These lectures took place at the Cavendish Rooms. By March 1879 their popularity was causing The Spiritualist to pay them more attention: part of the text of some of them began to appear, eg p118 issue of 7 March 1879 part of Fletcher’s talk on The Heaven of the Spiritualist. Every seat was taken for that lecture so beginning with the lecture on Sunday 6 April, the organisers rented a bigger venue, the Steinway Hall in Lower Seymour Street; pi of issue of 4 April 1879; and though places were still free, you could book yours in advance for 2/6. The full text of Fletcher’s talks began with p153 issue of 28 March 1879: Death in the Transition Sphere, or the Beginning of Immortality. On p185 issue of 18 April 1879 full text of his talk on Origin and Destiny of Spiritualism. By the end of April the organisers no longer needed to advertise Fletcher’s talks in The Spiritualist so I’m not sure when he delivered the last of them; but on p268 issue of 6 June 1879 there’s a reference to his lecture due on Sunday [8 June 1879].
Source for Isabel going to at least some of them: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 14 January to June 1879 p106 when she mentioned having to go home from one of them past pubs “full of reeking, wretched humanity” - such a painful contrast to the atmosphere at the lectures.
Heaven knows, then, what Isabel made of this. She doesn’t mention it in Memorabilia!:
www.oldbaileyonline.org/browse.jsp?div=t18810328-406: prosecution of Susan Willis Fletcher in March-April 1881 for obtaining jewellery under false pretences from Juliette Hart-Davies, “obtaining the said property by witchcraft and sorcery”. John William Fletcher and Francis Morton were indicted with Mrs Fletcher but stayed in America and never stood trial. Mrs Fletcher’s defence was that she and her husband were just looking after Mrs Hart-Davies’ possessions for her. The jury (all men of course) didn’t believe her; she was found guilty and served 12 months’ hard labour.
Some information on John William Fletcher:
Convict Voices… by Anne Schwan 2014 pp98-101 notes that they were both from Massachusetts. John William was a “medium and trance speaker”, Susan was a medium; and they were both well-known on the US spiritualism circuit before moving to London probably in 1877. In London Susan did private mediumship only, John William Fletcher was the more public figure.
An entry at www.encyclopedia.com/people/social-sciences-and…/ has information on John William Fletcher taken from Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology: 1852-1913, was clairvoyant from a child and had a reputation as a trance speaker by the time he was 17. While he was in England he did sessions at the BNAS. He stayed in Boston while Mrs Fletcher was standing trial and serving her sentence; and of course never returned to England. Later he worked as a palmist.
Apologias from the time:
At iapsop.com Memorial to the Home Secretary on Behalf of Susan Willis Fletcher by T L Nichols MD on the grounds that she was unjustly condemned.
John William Fletcher, Clairvoyant: A Biographical Sketch by Susan Elizabeth Gay. Published London: E W Allen 1883.
Comment by Sally Davis: Isabel doesn’t say so, but as John William Fletcher was known as a trance-speaker, I presume he was in trance during the lectures she went to.
3 JANUARY 1879
The Spiritualist published the first of a series of letters and articles by Isabel on The Religious Aspects of Spiritualism. In this first letter Isabel explained that, for her, being a spiritualist meant being someone who was attuned to the “wonders of creation and science”; and someone who worshipped God in spirit and truth. It didn’t mean that she had abandoned conventional religion.
Source: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 14 January-July 1879 pp8-9 issue of Friday 3 January 1879. She’d written the letter on 27 December 1878, at home in Kensington.
Comments by Sally Davis: Isabel had been reading a biography of Thomas De Quincy and come to the conclusion that psychic powers which he had but didn’t acknowledge were the cause of his troubles. She had also read a letter from Emily Kislingbury that had been printed in The Spiritualist just before Christmas, in which Kislingbury had declared that – in her opinion – not everyone could achieve immortality. The letter in particular had set Isabel, and many other readers of The Spiritualist, thinking about the place of spiritualism in the modern world.
Isabel’s view of spiritualism was very high-minded: she believed it had the potential to be an alternative belief system for those no longer convinced by Christian doctrine; it could prevent those people from falling into atheism and sensuality, which Isabel saw as “two deadly sins”. People could use spiritualism to achieve “the real use of our bodies as temples for our souls”. However, she was enough of a realist to admit that most of what goes on in the average séance did not live up to her ideals.
The biography Isabel had been reading:
Thomas de Quincy: His Life and Writings by Alexander Hay Japp writing as H A Page. 2 volumes. London: J Hogg and Co 1877.
The British Library’s copy of The Spiritualist 1878 is now too fragile for anyone to look at, so I haven’t been able to read Kislingbury’s letter. I’ve gathered what it was she seems to have suggested from letters appearing in The Spiritualist in response to it: by Isabel; on pp45-46 issue of 24 January 1879 by “AJC” and others.
28 FEBRUARY 1879
A second letter from Isabel on the subject of The Religious Aspects of Spiritualism appeared in The Spiritualist. In it she talked in more practical terms about what spiritualism needed to do to fulfil the potential she had outlined in her first letter.
Source: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 14 January-June 1879 p106 issue of 28 February 1879.
Comment by Sally Davis: Isabel had been encouraged to write the second letter by reading so many letters along the same lines, in The Spiritualist. She was glad so many people wanted to rescue spiritualism from the “unjust and unfair” reputation it had with the public. She had also heard William Fletcher’s talk on the subject of Mediums, which had laid down a set of procedures to be followed in seances. Isabel wrote that she was sure that despite its limitations, spiritualism had an important part to play in reconciling modern materialism and the equally modern yearning for a new spirituality. She did not think that spiritualism could ever be a religion on a par with Christianity or Islam, having temporal power as well as spiritual.
Isabel showed one work at that year’s exhibition of the Society of Lady Artists: A Daughter of the Gods.
The Society of Women Artists Exhibitors 1855-1996 editor Charles Baile de Laperrière, compiler Joanna Soden. Hilmarton Manor Press 1996. Volume 1 A-D p328 entry for De Steiger, Isabel; painter. Paintings exhibited 1879. Daughter of the Gods was catalogue number 768, for sale at £8.
BY MAY 1879
After several years of not staying anywhere long, Isabel moved into Mrs Charity’s house at 8 Hornton Street, round the back of Kensington Church Street. She had a studio in its basement.
Earliest source for Isabel at that address:
The Royal Society of British Artists 1824-1893 and The New English Art Club 1888-1917. Compiled by Jane Johnson for the Antique Collectors’ Club Research Project. First printed 1975; V&A’s copy is the reprint of 1993: p130.
Comment by Sally Davis: moving in with another woman artist, and meeting lots of new people who shared her interests, Isabel felt that she had found a home for the first time since her husband had died. Looking back on the early 1880s, she saw her years as Mrs Charity’s tenant as the happiest time in her life, and as the time she was finally able to concentrate on improving the way she drew and painted nudes.
Source for Isabel’s recollection of this time: Memorabilia p208.
Isabel began to exhibit her Cleopatra paintings: Cleopatra’s Deadly Resolve in the Temple of Isis was shown at an exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists in London.
The Royal Society of British Artists 1824-1893 and The New English Art Club 1888-1917. Compiled by Jane Johnson for the Antique Collectors’ Club Research Project. First printed 1975; V&A’s copy is the reprint of 1993: p130 with Cleopatra’s Deadly Resolve as catalogue number 21, for sale at £40 - which seems rather cheap. Isabel only showed one other painting at the RSBA; in 1881.
Comment by Sally Davis: Isabel was not a member of the Royal Society of British Artists:
Royal Society of British Artists Exhibitors 1824-1892 and 1893-1910. Both published in a limited edition of 600 copies. Compiler Maurice Bradshaw, secretary general of the Federation of British Artists. 1973: F Lewis Publishers Ltd of The Tithe House, Leigh-on-Sea. Isabel wasn’t listed in either volume. The only GD member who was a member of the Society at this time was Henry Marriott Paget.
Dates of the exhibition: Times Thursday 1 May 1879 p1 in a list of adverts from galleries whose exhibitions had just opened. The Society’s 56th exhibition was being held at the Suffolk Street galleries in Pall Mall. Times Saturday 7 June 1879 p2 didn’t have the advert in it so I assume the exhibition had ended.
MAY TO AUGUST 1879
Isabel showed Cleopatra Personating the Goddess Isis at the Royal Albert Hall spring exhibition. She also showed her portrait of Mrs Patterson.
Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences Catalogue of the Exhibition of Works of Modern Artists 1879 price 6d. I think this was the first such exhibition; there were 1010 works in it. Unlike subequent exhibitions at the RAH, this one did have some paintings by famous artists: Leighton (p5); Alma Tadema (p8). Future GD members Henrietta Farr and her husband-to-be Henry Marriott Paget also showed some work. Isabel’s two were both oil paintings: p23 catalogue number 307 - Cleopatra Personating the Goddess Isis for sale at £15/15. And p29 catalogue number 405 - portrait of Mrs Patterson, which was not for sale.
Comment by Sally Davis: the portrait of Mrs Patterson was getting its second outing - Isabel had shown it at the Society of Lady Artists in 1878. I imagine she was hoping for more portrait commissions, but - judging by the works I know about - that didn’t happen. She painted only a handful more portraits, mostly for friends.
For the dates of the exhibition:
Times Thursday 1 May 1879 p1 and Times Wednesday 6 August 1879 p1 showing that the exhibition was still open, even though the social season was over by now.
Isabel went to dinner at Mrs Going’s house. That evening she ate her first vegetarian meal, and met Anna Bonus Kingsford. Isabel and Dr Kingsford became close friends, Isabel thinking of Dr Kingsford with “regard and even love” and admiring her as “a sort of modern incarnation of Pallas Athene”. Isabel decided that she preferred Kingsford’s focus on western, Christian esotericism to Blavatsky’s increasing emphasis on the occultism of the East. She and Kingsford also agreed that the existence of Blavatsky’s mahatmas was “possible, but not proven”. When Dr Kingsford began to hold meetings at her house in Park Street, to discuss and elaborate her view of western hermeticism, Isabel went to them regularly. Other regular attenders were Charles Massey, Dr George Wyld, and Francesca Arundale whom Isabel got to know well. After Dr Kingsford’s death Isabel was very quick to leap to her defence whenever her reputation as a mystic or as a doctor was questioned.
Source: Memorabilia p144, p146, p168.
Source for Anna Bonus Kingsford as Pallas Athene: Occult Review volume 6 number 5 November 1907 pp296-97. And for both women’s scepticism about Blavatsky’s claims: Occult Review volumer 45 number 2 February 1927 p78.
Comment by Sally: after Isabel’s death, the editor of Occult Review described Isabel as a woman who had achieved (especially for her times) “unusual mental independence”. As she was also “frank and outspoken” and “unsparing” in her criticism when she felt it was merited, she inspired as much dislike and fear as friendliness amongst people she knew. Dr Kingsford was one of the few women in Isabel’s life that she could meet on an equal footing intellectually; and both women derived great benefit from their talks and appreciated the level of their relationship very much.
11 and 18 JULY 1879 plus 1 AUGUST 1879
The Spiritualist published in three parts a long article by Isabel on The Religion of Spiritualism; and a reply by her to some of the issues raised by letters published in response to it.
Source for the article and the letter: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 15 July-December 1879: pp19-20 issue of 11 July 1879; pp25-28 issue of 18 July 1879; pp49-51 issue of 1 August 1879; and pp64-65 issue of 8 August 1879. Letters in response: p28 issue of 18 July 1879 including one from George Wyld calling Isabel his “good friend” but taking her to task on definitions; and one from C Carter Blake of the British Museum. On p44 issue of 25 July 1879 a letter from writer JAC” hitting the nail on the head by describing Isabel’s article as “earnest”.
Comment by Sally Davis: her previous letters and William Fletcher’s lecture-series had encouraged Isabel to consider spiritualism and religion more systematically. She had also been reading a book on The Destiny of the Soul by the French novelist and biographer Arsène Houssaye; and an article in a recent issue of the magazine Nineteenth Century about the need to be passionate about religious belief. In her own article Isabel began by saying that although the Christian church was very prosperous now, it was one-sided and narrow, and not coping well with its modern challenges: Isabel saw evidence of “unbelief” everywhere she looked. She also saw that strides in intellectual education were not being equalled by strides in spiritual education, leaving people out of harmony with Nature and wondering whether such a thing as the soul – Isabel also called it our sixth sense - really exists.
In the second part of the article Isabel argued for spiritualism as a religion, a modern and living one which followed the teachings of Jesus that had been misinterpreted by the Churches for most of Christianity’s history – those that taught that Man could be at one with God. Spiritualism offered proof of life after death; and that higher knowledge is available to us. Through spiritualism people could find the “spark of the Divinity” that Buddhism teaches is in every individual. Isabel looked forward to a time when life would be “a bright resting-place for our bodies” and death not a tragedy but a particular point in a long period of preparation for our soul’s “flight to the next sphere”.
Isabel ended the third part of her article by describing a spiritualist as someone who recognised the divinity of the soul and therefore the right of humankind to “aspire to God”. She urged spiritualists to work for a future in which the soul would be more important than the body; and prosperity would be seen in spiritual terms rather than materialist ones. She spent most of the third part trying to explain the terms she had been using, to readers who had written in asking what she meant by them. She tied herself down to defining a spiritualist as someone who believed in “the spirit world” and who was in constant touch with it; someone who opposed materialism and modern theology and who didn’t believe that the era of divine revelation had ended. She explained that she thought Christianity would have developed very differently if the teachings of Jesus as laid out in the Gospels had been followed literally; the Christianity most people knew was the teachings of his male followers, not of Christ himself. She argued that there was already sufficient evidence of the existence of “supernatural power”, and also that spiritualist phenomena were real. However, mere evidence wasn’t going to be enough to spread spiritualist beliefs amongst the population at large: spiritualists were going to have to do more.
The work Isabel by Houssaye that had been reading. The British Library doesn’t have a copy of a translation into English so I think she will have been reading the original edition, in French:
Des Destinées de l’Ame by Arsène Houssaye. Paris: Caimann Lévy 1879. Subseq eds in 1880s. BL doesn’t have a copy in Engl. Wikipedia: Houssaye orig Housset. 1815-96. Novelist. Poet. Wkp short article without a full list of pubns. Some of those mentioned are lives of famous Fr wmn of letters.
Isabel managed to get away abroad for a few weeks’ holiday.
Source: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 15 July-December 1879 p64 issue of 8 August 1879. She doesn’t say exactly where though.
After a gap of three years, Isabel showed some paintings in Liverpool at the Walker Art Gallery’s autumn exhibition: one of her Cleopatra paintings, exhibited as Cleopatra Receiving an Unfavourable Oracle from the Priestess of Isis; and A Daughter of the Gods.
9th Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of Modern Pictures 1879. The Walker’s autumn exhibition was always one of the biggest in the country: this year there were 1356 exhibits. List of exhibitors p121. And the two paintings which were both in oils: p19 catalogue number 187 - Cleopatra Receiving an Unfavourable Oracle from the Priestess of Isis, for sale at £70 which I think is the highest price Isabel had dared to ask so far in her career. And p38 catalogue number 518 - A Daughter of the Gods for the modest sum of £5/5.
Black-and-white sketch of Cleopatra Receiving and Unfavourable Oracle… from p37 of Notes to the Walker Art Gallery Exhibition Liverpool -1879 by George R Halkett. I don’t think I knew about this book until June 2018 when Alex Kidson sent me a photo of the sketch with Halkett’s praise of Isabel’s painting as a “brilliant little work, forcibly realising the splendours and magnificence of the court of the Egyptian Queen”.
Comments by Sally Davis: until Alex Kidson contacted me, the only paintings by Isabel that I had ever seen were portraits (or supposed portraits) so it was exciting and revealing to look at even a quick, rough sketch of the kind of painting Isabel wanted to be the foundation of her reputation as an artist. The influence of Alma Tadema was clear: it’s a busy design, the action taking place as if on a stage, against a back-drop of solid-looking architecture. Cleopatra lies to the right on a chaise-longue covered in opulent drapes and cushions, staring at the Priestess of Isis standing on the left, holding a staff of office, caught in mid-prophecy. At the priestess’s feet is a figure sitting listening with its arms round its legs, another element very much in the Alma Tadema style. What you can see of the floor is laid out in squares: a Renaissance touch, perhaps? One thing doesn’t seem quite right about the composition: I thought that if you wanted a prophecy, you went to the priestess, she didn’t come to you; yet Cleopatra is definitely the one who is at home. Artistic licence, no doubt, and a palace makes for a more colourful scene than a temple.
A Daughter of the Gods had also been shown at the Society of Lady Artists in spring 1879. It was after this exhibition that the Crosfields bought their Cleopatra painting.
17 OCTOBER 1879
Once again an article by Isabel appeared in The Spiritualist, commenting on items she had read in it during September and October on the subject of Spiritualism and the Church of England.
Source: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 15 July-December 1879 pp184-85 issue of 17 October 1879; below it, a second article by Rev J W Farquhar: The Theosophic (sic) Society and Spiritualism, which Isabel doesn’t seem to have commented on, at least not in The Spiritualist. What had caught her attention was an article by Rev J W Farquhar p151 issue of 26 September 1879: What May Be Known of God; and a reply to that by someone calling himself A Young Clergyman: Spiritualism and the Church of England, pp175-76 issue of 10 October 1879.
Comments by Sally Davis: Isabel had been impressed by the Rev Farquhar’s work, which showed – she thought – evidence of deep study of his subject. She took the Young Clergyman to task for supposing that the search for divine knowledge was a state of (quoting Isabel) “mental passivity and...bodily sloth”. It might look like “inaction” but it was anything but, it was a “profound repose preparatory to great effort, full of joyous life and brimming over with...new thought”. Philosophic calm was achieved when the everyday world was left behind and the soul taken over by higher planes of thought. Isabel acknowledged that the Young Clergyman did know some spiritualist teachings, but thought he hadn’t studied spiritualism thoroughly and clearly lacked personal experience of it. He was also underestimating his flock: he had suggested Rev Farquhar’s arguments were unintelligible to most people, but Isabel argued that most people wanted more food for thought than they got from a modern-day pulpit.
EARLY TO MID 1880s to at least the EARLY 1890s
Christian David Ginsburg’s works on the Essenes and on the Kabbala were being read by those people who later became “members of the Hermetic and Rosicrucian Orders” and by members of the Theosophical Society; though they weren’t well known outside those intellectual circles.
Source: Memorabilia p171.
British Library catalogue for the works which interested members of the GD:
Essenes: their History and Doctrines: An Essay, reprinted from the Transactions of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool. London: 1864.
The Kabbalah: its Doctrines, Development and Literature. London and Liverpool: 1865.
Comment by Sally: by “Hermetic and Rosicrucian Orders”, Isabel means the Hermetic Society and the GD. Just to reiterate: she never mentions the GD by name in Memorabilia.
BEFORE 1882, PROBABLY AROUND 1880-81
Anna Bonus Kingsford was preparing her book The Perfect Way, The Finding of Christ, which was based on her own visions. She asked Isabel to read several chapters of it while they were in preparation.
Source: Occult Review volume 6 number 5 November 1907 pp296-97.
TO EARLY FEBRUARY 1880 FROM ?early 1880 ?late 1879
Isabel was one of a group of people who had a series of seances with Mrs Hollis-Billing and her spirit guides Ski and James Nolan.
Source: The Medium and Daybreak volume XL number 517 issue of 27 February 1880 p137. Isabel says that after the first session the group members stayed the same, no new members were allowed in. She doesn’t give the names of any of the other members and she doesn’t elaborate on what the purpose of the series was; though she does say that the group was brought together by Ski and that in some way, the group was being prepared for great news about the future of Mankind.
11 FEBRUARY 1880
Isabel went to the last of the series of seances with Mrs Hollis-Billing and her spirit guides. For the only time, the group were allowed to see the spirit guide James Nolan. They were also shown a series of faces; the one which appeared especially for Isabel was of someone “very near and dear” to her, though the face looked “younger than when last I saw it in earth-life”.
The Medium and Daybreak volume XL number 517 issue of 27 February 1880 p137: Celestial Photography: “Ski” the Operator (Isabel’s quotes).
Comments by Sally Davis: Isabel was so moved by what had happened during the séance that she sat down and wrote to The Medium and Daybreak later the same evening. The Medium and Daybreak was not a magazine she sent letters to very often; she said she chose it because it had always supported the mediumship of Mrs Hollis-Billing. Isabel struggled to explain how the faces appeared to her and the other members of the group. She settled for accepting the explanation that the spirit-guide gave the group: that they were photographs taken in the spirit-world. Quite sure that they couldn’t have been faked, she was thrilled to think of spirits having their photographs taken to allow humans in the physical world to see how they looked, adding another link to the chain between the living and the dead.
Ski seems to have been quite talkative: he told the group that their minds were being prepared to be told the “still more advanced thoughts” of the spirit guide called “James Nolan” (Isabel’s quote marks). However, I don’t think they ever actually heard them. On p101 issue of 27 February 1880 The Spiritualist told its readers that Mrs Hollis-Billing had left England “last week” to return to the USA. If she and Ski and James Nolan ever held any more seances with this group of people, Isabel never said so. But then this whole series of seances, and the face Isabel was shown, are not mentioned in Memorabilia.
I suppose Isabel was shown something that she understood to be her husband’s face. I suppose she might have taken it to be her mother or her father; but her husband seems the most likely candidate.
12 APRIL 1880
Isabel gave a talk at the British National Association of Spiritualists, at its rooms in 38 Great Russell Street. Her subject was: Some of the Religious Aspects of Spiritualism.
Source: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 16 1880: p211 issue of 30 April 1880. The full text of the talk appeared on pp211-15; and on pp225-26 issue of 7 May 1880.
Comment by Sally Davis: Isabel’s remarks at the beginning of her talk suggest that she had been strong-armed into giving it by Rev Stainton Moses; and was very nervous of dealing with a subject in front of an audience that spent so much time considering it. However, she had rather set herself up for it! - sending all those articles and letters to The Spiritualist over the past year had obviously established her in the eyes of the BNAS as something of an expert.
In fact, the gist of Isabel’s talk was that spiritualists in general didn’t spend enough time considering how modern spiritualism could become the means by which Mankind could free his or her spirit from the bounds of the human body, rescuing Man from the consequences of the Fall; nor the importance it could have in showing people the way towards the religion of the future. She thought that modern spiritualism was wasting its potential, being too focused on outward signs and physical manifestations: it wasn’t offering enough to those longing for something more in their lives than materialism.
MAY TO AUGUST 1880
Isabel exhibited two works at the Royal Albert Hall spring exhibition: Athyrtis... and one called The Dismissal of Hagar.
Comment by Sally Davis: I’m assuming that ‘the dismissal of Hagar’ was the same painting Isabel had shown in 1875 at the Walker Art Gallery as ‘Hagar in the desert’. The Athyrtis painting was based on a story in Diodorus in which the daughter of the pharoah Sesostris acts as priestess for her father, and predicts his future.
Comments by Sally Davis on Athyrtis... I haven’t seen it, of course, but maybe this painting was the closest Isabel came in her admiration of Alma-Tadema before she began to change her mind about him. A report (see below) says the figure of Athyrtis was in the classical style; and even the subject might have been inspired by a work by Alma-Tadema: his A Nigger, Grand Chamberlain to King Sesostris the Great, which was shown at the Royal Academy in 1871.
Sources for Alma-Tadema’s painting:
Royal Academy Exhibitors 1769-1904 compiled by Algernon Graves. Volume 1 A-D pp28-29 though the original words “A Nigger” have been left out.
The Biography and Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema by Vern G Swanson. London: Garton and Co 1990: p38 says that the Grand Chamberlain painting had been shown in Europe before its 1871 appearance at the RA.
Sources for Isabel’s Athyrtis:
Royal Albert Hall of Arts and Sciences Catalogue of the Exhibition of Paintings, Sculpture, Architectural Drawings and Wood Carving 1880. Included in the works on show was a group of paintings from the royal collection. Isabel’s two, which were both oil paintings: p1 catalogue number 9 - full title Athyrtis, the Divine Daughter of Sesostris, Showing Herself at the Gate of the Temple, price £75. And p2 catalogue number 24 - The Dismissal of Hagar, also £75. There were so many exhibits in the wood carving display that there were fewer paintings on show this year; I noticed too that there were no paintings this year by the big contemporary names.
The Building News and Engineering Journal, which had given a special mention to Isabel’s Cleopatra painting in 1879, gave Isabel another boost in its report on this year’s RAH exhibition in its Volume 38 1880 p360: its reporter picked out Isabel’s Athyrtis from “the general collection of oil-pictures”, recommending it as a “decorative, classically-rendered figure” and printing the catalogue number so that visitors could search for it specially.
On the tale of Sesostris and Athyrtis:
Google’s first responses were all etymological: athyrtis is a genus of butterflies. However there were also web sites featuring three different pharoahs, the Greek translation of whose name is Sesostris. See www.britannica.com for the most likely one to be mentioned by Diodorus: the III, of the 12th dynasty, reigned 1836-1818BCE - he expanded the amount of land he ruled over and improved the administration of his kingdom.
Thera and the Exodus by Riaan Booysen 2013. Winchester: O Books 2013. In a section on Karnak, Booysen notes that both names are Greek in origin. A modern transliteration of the hieroglyphs for Sesostris would be Sesoösis.
Some references to the pair of them that Isabel might have read:
Ancient History, Containing the History of the Egyptians, Assyrians...from Rollin and Other Sources. No compiler’s name given. Published London: Religious Tract Society 1842 and subsequent editions. On p72 in the section History of the Egyptians: a reference to a work by the Greek writer Diodorus claiming that Athyrtis had acted as priestess for her father Sesostris and had foretold his successful military conquests.
Israel in Egypt: Egypt’s Place Among the Ancient Monarchies by Edward Lord Clark. New York: New York Methodist Book Concern 1874. On p323 in section The Exodus Clark also says that Athyrtis was “versed in divination”, only Clark adds that she was like so many who were learned in the “mysterious arts”.
Isabel went to a reception at 88 Boundary Road St John’s Wood. Her hosts were Francis and Florence Lean.
Source: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 16 January-June 1880 p234 issue of 18 June 1880 though without a date.
Comments by Sally Davis: Mrs Lean was Florence Marryat – 1833-99, novelist, actress, journalist, and spiritualist. See her wikipedia page but also www.florencemarryat.org which uses original documents, for her extraordinary life. Florence had been involved with spiritualism since the mid-1870s and later published two spiritualist works: There Is No Death, in 1891; and The Spirit World, in 1894. However, I don’t think she and Isabel were more than acquaintances: I didn’t recognise many other names in the short guest list The Spiritualist printed, and she’s not mentioned at all in Memorabilia. An amazing woman, but rather notorious!
TUESDAY 15 JUNE 1880
Isabel was elected a member of the BNAS’ ruling Council.
Source: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 16 1880: p234 issue of 18 June 1880 gives the results of the election. On p226 issue of 7 May 1880 a report mentioned the decision of the Council to dissolve its Council at the coming AGM; and hold a vote for a completely new Council with far fewer members - 36 people. On p245 issue of 21May 1880: report on the AGM, which only 24 people attended.
Comment by Sally Davis: I can’t tell from the evidence I’ve found whether Isabel was a member of the Council before the vote of June 1880. She didn’t attend the AGM, so perhaps she wasn’t. She did stand in the election of 15 June. 91 people out of a total membership of 300 voted in the election and Isabel – getting 46 votes – was one of those who became a Council member.
Isabel spent the summer in Brittany, possibly doing some painting but definitely visiting its ancient sites.
Source: The Artist and Journal of Home Culture volume 2 1881; issue of 1 March 1881 p93 in its regular column The Roving Artist: short piece on Brittany as a possible destination for British artists, signed by Isabel.
Comments by Sally Davis: Though Isabel doesn’t specify exactly when she was in Brittany, I think the summer before the article was published is the most likely time.
Isabel betrayed quite a lot of her prejudices in this short article. She wasn’t actually all that struck by Brittany as a place to paint, though she reported it to be “cheap and agreeable” and a place where the locals “do what artists most prefer - leave them alone”. Landscape artists would find the coastline and some of the cathedrals worth it, she felt, but there was nothing in Brittany for figure painters: “searchers after ideal beauty will only be revolted”, she thought, by the local peasants. Isabel was definitely a seeker after ideal beauty in her art.
What excited her most about Brittany were her visits to Carnac, “the mysterious sea of the Morbihan” and - particularly - the “mystic cave of Gavr-inis, where she studied the carvings on the walls and pondered the meaning of their “wandering lines where the eye loses itself”. She saw all those places as retaining a powerful aura of “dramas...enacted long ago...mysterious corners of the world, the sealed books to science”.
A letter from Isabel appeared in The Artist, the first of several pieces of writing she had published in that magazine.
The Artist volume 1 1880 p250 issue of 1 August 1880; I saw it as a snippet on google (March 2017) and haven’t been able to read what the letter was about.
Some information on The Artist, which by its volume 2 (1881) was called The Artist and Journal of Home Culture.
The first issue of The Artist was published in January 1880. It was founded by William Reeves, a bookseller and supplier of artists’ equipment. Reeves published it and probably edited its first two volumes and some of its third. While Reeves was its publisher, the magazine actively courted women readers, and also encouraged artist readers to send in short articles for publication - an invitation Isabel responded to several times. Reeves sold the magazine in time for the October 1883 issue, to Gardner, Wells, Darton and Co.
Sources for The Artist, none of which specify who was its editor before 1882, when Reeves appointed Wallace L Crowdy for his first stint in the post. I think that it’s reasonable to assume that Reeves had done the job himself up to that point.
Publishers’ details from www.victorianperiodicals.com.
Dictionary of 19th Century Journalism published Ghent: Academia Press: p25 entry for The Artist and Journal of Home Culture.
Isabel showed one of her Cleopatra paintings at an exhibition organised by the Royal Manchester Institution.
The Academy volume 18 1880 no 437 issue of 18 Sep 1880 p209 pntg by Isabel just ((unfort)) called “Cleopatra” is one of a list of “notable pictures” in the ((aut)) exhn at the Ryl Manchester Insttn ((soon to bec the corp art gallery)). Also in the list: G F Watts’ Psyche; Burne-Jones’ The Music Lesson; and R Spencer Stanhope’s The Waters of Lethe; so she’s in good company. This exhn had 1168 works in it. Long rvws over sevl issues in this mag but no fur mention of Isabel.
Isabel showed her painting Princess Scheherazade at the Walker Art Gallery autumn exhibition in Liverpool. A sketch of the painting was featured in that year’s guide to the exhibition.
10th Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of Modern Pictures 1880. List of exhibitors p82. P35 catalogue number 494 - The Princess Scheherezada, daughter of the Grand Vizier, thinking of the Story She is going to relate at Night. Arabian Nights.
And the sketch: Notes to the Walker Art Gallery Exhibition 1880 p60, with a slightly different subtitle.
Isabel was asking £125 for Scheherezada; I think it was the highest price she ever demanded for one of her works. The sketch in the exhibition guide shows the figure of Scheherazade sitting with her hands round one knee, filling the painting, in which the space is very compressed. She’s dressed in a sleeveless flowing robe tied with a wide belt. Her hair looks to be loose, beneath an embroidered cap. At the bottom right is part of a low table; behind her is a wall – in the painting it would have been clearer whether there was a window in it, or just a set of decorative tiles, above a dado.
A group within the new BNAS Council waged a campaign to be rid of its Secretary, Miss Burke. They succeeded in ousting her at a meeting in December. Isabel didn’t attend the meeting, but she resigned from the Council shortly afterwards.
Source: The Spiritualist and Journal of Psychological Science volume 16 1880 pp284-85 issue of 10 December 1880; p297 issue of 17 December 1880; p306 issue of 24 December 1880; pp311-12 issue of 24 December 1880.
Comments by Sally Davis: the BNAS Secretary lived over the offices, so Miss Burke was made homeless as well as jobless by the decision of the BNAS Council. In a breathtaking piece of thick-skinned-ness or incompetence or both, Miss Burke was being offered her job back at a lower salary at the same time as her replacement, Thomas Blyton, was being approached with a job offer. “Public feeling is running high” commented the report in The Spiritualist of 10 December 1880. Though Isabel didn’t attend the meeting that finally lost Miss Burke her job, she must have known all about what went on, because her friend George Wyld was one of Miss Burke’s most active supporters against the pro-Blyton faction headed by William Stainton Moses and Georgiana Houghton (so it wasn’t necessarily an anti-feminist decision, to replace Miss Burke).
Isabel resigned from the BNAS Council in time for the resignation to be announced in The Spiritualist on 17 December 1880. Some people resigned from the BNAS altogether, but I think Isabel didn’t want to leave herself with no real option but to keep away from its meetings. Not a pleasant way to go into the Christmas and New Year break.
The next file in the life-by-dates of Isabel de Steiger covers 1881 and 1882.
BASIC SOURCES I USED for all Golden Dawn members.
Membership of the Golden Dawn: The Golden Dawn Companion by R A Gilbert. Northampton: The Aquarian Press 1986. Between pages 125 and 175, Gilbert lists the names, initiation dates and addresses of all those people who became members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or its many daughter Orders between 1888 and 1914. The list is based on the Golden Dawn’s administrative records and its Members’ Roll - the large piece of parchment on which all new members signed their name at their initiation. All this information had been inherited by Gilbert but it’s now in the Freemasons’ Library at the United Grand Lodge of England building on Great Queen Street Covent Garden. Please note, though, that the records of the Amen-Ra Temple in Edinburgh were destroyed in 1900/01. As far as I know, the records of the Horus Temple at Bradford have not survived either.
Family history: freebmd; ancestry.co.uk (census and probate); findmypast.co.uk; familysearch; Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage; Burke’s Landed Gentry; Armorial Families; thepeerage.com; and a wide variety of family trees on the web.
Useful source for business and legal information: London Gazette and its Scottish counterpart Edinburgh Gazette. Now easy to find (with the right search information) on the web. Very good on bankruptcies!
Famous-people sources: mostly about men, of course, but very useful even for the female members of GD. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Who Was Who. Times Digital Archive.
Catalogues: British Library; Freemasons’ Library.
Wikipedia; Google; Google Books - my three best resources. I also used other web pages, but with some caution, as - from the historian’s point of view - they vary in quality a great deal.
COPYRIGHT SALLY DAVIS
20 November 2022
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