ISABEL DE STEIGER (1836-1927) This part of my life-by-dates begins with the death of Isabel’s friend Dr Anna Bonus Kingsford in February 1888; and ends at the end of 1889. It includes the early period of Isabel’s time as a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.
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.
22 FEBRUARY 1888
Isabel received a telegram at her house in Bedford Park telling her that Anna Bonus Kingsford had died during the night.
Source for the incident though not the date: Memorabilia p168-169.
Source for the date: Biography of Anna Bonus Kingsford and her Founding of the Hermetic Society by Samuel Hopgood Hart. I bought a Kessinger Legacy Reprints in 2013 but originally the Biography was only the introductory essay to Hopgood Hart’s edition of Kingsford’s writings, The Credo of Christendom published 1930; p52.
Anna Bonus Kingsford died of TB. For more on Isabel’s close friendship with Anna, see my life-by-dates files for the 1880s.
10 MARCH 1888
A letter from Isabel was published in Light, following up on its obituary of Anna Bonus Kingsford’s death; criticising the obituary for not focusing on Dr Kingsford as “one of the most excellent seeresses of modern times” and calling for people to come forward who were willing to take Dr Kingsford’s place in the struggle against vivisection.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume VIII January-December 1888. London: Eclectic Pubg Co Ltd of 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Issue of 10 March 1888 p119.
Comment by Sally Davis: it was natural that in the first few weeks of her grief for the loss of her great friend, Isabel should feel that Anna Bonus Kingsford was not being done justice. She praised The Perfect Way in particular, as “unequalled and most remarkable”, its doctrines “too pure and high...for the general mind to grasp”. Isabel also described how Dr Kingsford’s face had looked in the hours after her death. She had not looked as if she was only asleep, she had looked very dead, as if her spirit had left her body completely and absolutely. Dr Kingsford’s “long trained” soul had known exactly where it should go, and had gone there very soon after the death of the body.
9 JUNE 1888 and subsequent issues
A letter from Isabel appeared in Light, commenting on the first of a series of articles by the writer Dum Spiro Spero which looked forward to a time when all religions would be united; and on a letter from a Mr Evans on Christian Science’s idea of Healing by Faith.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume VIII January-December 1888. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Issue of 9 June 1888 pp271-72.
Comments by Sally Davis: Dum Spiro Spero was the GD motto of Henrietta Paget. I’m assuming firstly that Light’s Dum Spiro Spero is Etta; and secondly that Isabel knew that’s who the writer was – she calls her “she” in the letter. Etta Paget was an artist, though she had a family and did not paint many works; it’s possible that Isabel had known her and her husband, the artist and illustrator Henry Marriott Paget, for many years by 1888. Dum Spiro Spero’s series on the unity of religions were published in Light over two months or so in the spring of 1888.
Isabel did not share Dum Spiro Spero’s optimism that a unity of religions could be achieved. She thought that disagreements between individuals over doctrine; and the continuing power of institutional religion, were both against it. She also felt that the path to Truth or self knowledge was “a lonely one”, not to be followed in a group.
On the question of Healing by Faith, Isabel shared Mr Evans’ enthusiasm about Christian Science’s approach but felt that Christian Science had a tendency to over-simplify the Mysteries; in what she had read, she hadn’t found anything about the “hidden side of nature”. She mentioned the Christian Scientist teacher and writer Frances Lord in particular, hoping that her English education would make her understanding more complete; mentioning Böhme and Swedenborg in particular as authors Lord should read. I think Isabel must have been reading Frances Lord’s Christian Science Healing: its Principles and Practice which had been published recently.
Finally: there was no address on Isabel’s letter; so she must have been between addresses again.
On Henrietta Frances Lord, born London 1848. She had studied Christian Science in the USA at the Theological Seminary run by Emma Curtis Hopkins, who in her turn had studied with Mary Baker Eddy but had then been excommunicated by her. By 1889 Lord had returned to England as a Christian Science missionary.
Sources for Lord: freebmd. Google responses showed her as an early translator of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; and as co-translator with Emily Lord of Fröbel’s Mother’s Songs, Games and Stories.
America’s Alternative Religions by Timothy Miller 1995 p326.
Women’s Suffrage Movement: A Reference Guide 1866-1928 by Elizabeth Crawford; couldn’t find a page number for Lord’s entry.
Website archive.org had Christian Science Healing: its Principles and Practice by Frances Lord. London: George Redway 1888. There’s a lovely painting of a white lily against a lime green background on the title page.
7 JULY 1888
A second letter from Isabel was published in Light, responding to Dum Spiro Spero’s series of articles in a more positive way.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume VIII January-December 1888. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Issue of 7 July 1888 p329.
Comments by Sally Davis:
Dum Spiro Spero’s series of articles had continued into June 1888. There was also a letter from her in the issue of 30 June 1888 which addressed some of Isabel’s criticisms. DSS emphasised the importance of ritual – specifically Christian ritual - in achieving higher spiritual awareness. She also believed that Christ had left Mankind a framework for spiritual development; and that a denial of Christ – a belief that you were your own Creator - led to Black Magic.
Isabel had been humbled by the generous spirit in which Dum Spiro Spero had received her earlier criticisms: she now admitted she had been “unduly opinionated” in her original letter. However, she still felt that in bringing together all the religions in unity, it would be important that everyone understood exactly what it was they agreed on; and what they didn’t. And individuals could not come together as a group until they understood what to worship, in what way and when. Contemporary public worship was now wide of the mark; but as Man’s understanding of God developed, the old forms of worship would fall away naturally. Until that point had been reached, individuals could only agree to differ on the question of what “form” unity should take.
Dum Spiro Spero’s sequence of articles ended in the issue of 28 July 1888 p375 with Sorrow and Strength: Teachings from the Over-mind.
Isabel spent at least part of the summer in Switzerland.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume VIII January-December 1888. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Issue of 18 August 1888 pp411-412 which has a long letter from Isabel written at Mürren.
18 AUGUST 1888
Light published another letter from Isabel, this time as part of the ongoing debate in spiritualist circles about whether the soul or spirit could be reincarnated.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume VIII January-December 1888. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Issue of 18 August 1888 pp411-412.
Comments by Sally Davis: Isabel had read recent letters in Light on the subject from W B Yeats, A F Tindall and Edward Maitland; she thought Maitland’s the most helpful of the three to those whose spirits were less advanced. Brought up an Evangelical Christian, Isabel now had an instinct that reincarnation did happen; though she had no proof. However, she did not think that those who argued for reincarnation of an immortal Divine Ego could be correct: it showed that they were not as spiritually developed as they could be, to value their own Ego so greatly as to think it must survive their death. Believing in reincarnation, Isabel wrote, had helped her to look more generously on human behaviour. She saw reincarnation as “the source of true socialism” (note no capital letter on ‘socialism’), the “true leveller”. Reincarnation and Karma were two different things though; and Karma was not a necessary feature of reincarnation. As an aid to her reflections on reincarnation, and perhaps also to help herself come to terms with Anna Bonus Kingsford’s death, Isabel had been re-reading George Sand’s novel Consuelo, whose hero – Count Albert – had been reincarnated many times. Isabel had first read Consuelo when she was young and had, even then, felt that the idea of reincarnation must be true.
See 1878 for Isabel’s painting of Consuelo.
Isabel showed one painting at the Walker Art Gallery’s autumn exhibition: Celebration of the Mysteries.
Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of Modern Pictures 1888. On p51a catalogue number 1261 - Celebration of the Mysteries which was an oil painting. Isabel was asking £100 for it, one of the highest prices she ever demanded.
Comment by Sally Davis: the drama at the heart of the painting was going to be unfamiliar to virtually everyone who saw it, so Isabel included an explanation of what was going on: “Celebration of one of the Mysteries in the Temple of Isis. The Roman lady, having no Pass-word, is refused admittance by the Priestess. Roman Period.” As with the modern web, so with the occult world - including the GD, which Isabel was just about to join - passwords are important in keeping out those who have no business to be there.
PROBABLY AUTUMN 1888
Isabel was commissioned by her friend Isabel Cooper-Oakley to paint something to be displayed on the day Mrs Cooper-Oakley would be opening her new café. Isabel painted The Spirit of the Crystal for the occasion; in pastels.
Source for the commission and where it was to be displayed: Memorabilia p159 and p161 but Isabel dates the commission at 1880-81 which is several years too soon.
Comment by Sally Davis: Isabel Cooper-Oakley, a theosophist who had been at Girton College Cambridge, was already in business as the owner of a hat shop. The projected café was the first of the Dorothy Restaurants – women-only affairs which offered a plain lunch for a fixed price. Mrs C-O hoped that by keeping the fixed price low the Dorothys would be used by the working women of the West End, but they also became popular with wealthy women shoppers. Isabel’s painting was reproduced as an illustration in the occult journal Unknown World volume 1 1894. Below the reproduction was a note that Isabel had painted the original in 1890 (which wasn’t right); it was signed.
29 SEPTEMBER 1888
Light published another letter from Isabel on the subject of reincarnation; one entitled Karma and Heredity. Again she was commenting on something she had read in Light; this time it was an article on reincarnation by a writer calling him or herself Eochen. In this letter, she praised Francis Galton’s work on heredity.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume VIII January-December 1888. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Issue of 29 September 1888 pp485-486.
Comments by Sally Davis:
On Francis Galton: see his wikipedia page and elsewhere for more details of his work on heredity and many other aspects of physiology. He was the first person to study heredity through work on twins. 1822-1911; cousin of Charles Darwin and hugely influenced by Darwin’s The Origin of Species (1859).
Isabel was probably thinking of Galton’s Hereditary Genius, published in 1869. Isabel may have seen Galton at work in 1884 in London, at the International Health Exhibition: he set up an anthropometric laboratory in the exhibition to demonstrate how he measured human physical characteristics. In 1909, Isabel joined the newly formed Eugenics Society; the word ‘eugenics’ was first used by Galton.
And on the letter from Eochen, who had been puzzled by the way those who believed in reincarnation could accept two contradictory arguments: heredity; and rebirth. Isabel replied that occultists had always seen that there were three laws: heredity; karma; and reincarnation. They were inexorable, but subtle; and Iamblichus, at least, had said that no one should be allowed to discuss any of the three until they had been initiated into the Mysteries. What was learned by initiates into the Mysteries had been written down in Classical times - by Iamblichus for example - and also recently, by Anna Bonus Kingsford in The Perfect Way. It was also taught now by Christian Science. Being initiated into the Mysteries gave the initiate an extra choice above the ‘body or spirit’ choice of the ordinary person; they had a choice of body, spirit, or rising above earthly laws. Isabel could see in the people around her an unhappiness in those not aware of that third choice. The effort of realising that it existed was painful. Taking the path to that realisation would enable them to see things with new eyes. The decision whether to follow the path was made for each individual before their birth. A letter by Eochen in reply to this one of Isabel’s was published in Light’s issue of 13 October 1888. And Isabel replied to the reply:
27 OCTOBER 1888
This letter of Isabel’s was entitled Kabbalists. She tried to explain in more detail what she did and did not believe about reincarnation.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume VIII January-December 1888. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Issue of 27 October 1888 pp533-34.
Comments by Sally Davis: perhaps Isabel’s letter of 29 September 1888 had brought the wrath of some members of the TS down upon herself: she was at some pains, in this letter, to make it clear
that what she had said in it were her own views, they weren’t the official position of the Theosophical Society, many of whose members would disapprove of them. Isabel had long thought that there were many paths to the Truth; but life is short and one person can’t study them all. Each person must study the occult knowledge that they decide is right for them. Each person’s path is their own though they may meet others on paths crossing their own. Mysticism was a path that was not like other knowledge: it had to be experienced, fully, before anyone could know what it was, and even then, each person’s understanding of it would be influenced by their personality.
Isabel defined theosophy as a search for divine wisdom which comes from God but which rejects any idea of an “Anthropomorphic God”; if you accepted that definition then she was a theosophist. She preferred the path of western hermeticism, though she was also influenced by A P Sinnett’s Esoteric Buddhism and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled. The paths of eastern philosophy and western esotericism were equally valid. She urged Eothen to study theosophy more closely: he or she could not have done so if he or she supposed that theosophy gave a criminal equality with the Apostles. She also told Eothen that all esoteric systems hold all Truth; the different names the different systems gave to things were just useful tools. Kabbalism was a study that required particularly scholarly minds and “gifted perception”. Samuel Liddell Mathers would have been delighted with the implied compliment, though he would have been less pleased to find Isabel saying that studying the Kabbalah didn’t necessarily advance anyone along their path. She mentioned Eliphas Levi’s work on the Kabbalah particularly; I couldn’t find any publication by him on the Kabbalah until after 1888 but there’s no doubt his ideas were circulating in manuscript.
Iamblichus 245-325AD, neoplatonist philosopher, biographer of Pythagoras. See his wikipedia page for a full list of his works. The publication Isabel has in mind is only attributed to him on that page: De Mysteriis Aegyptiorum. Isabel could have read an English translation of De Mysteriis… by Thomas Taylor, published in 1821; or a version edited by Gustav Parthey and published by Teubner in 1857.
Isabel was initiated into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn at the Isis-Urania temple in London.
Source for the initiation: R A G The Golden Dawn Companion.
Source for Isabel as a GD member: Memorabilia p117, p135.
Some comments on Isabel in the GD by Sally Davis: the GD’s founders, William Wynn Westcott and Samuel Liddell Mathers, had started to move towards setting up the GD in the first few months of 1888. They were both members of Anna Bonus Kingsford’s Hermetic Society so Isabel would have been well-acquainted with them. I wonder if the GD would have been founded at all if Dr Kingsford hadn’t died. Helen Petrovna Blavatsky was increasingly hostile towards western esotericism being studied by Theosophical Society members. The GD was a place that the Hermetic Society’s members could go to, after Anna Bonus Kingsford’s death, to pursue their western-oriented occult interests.
Isabel mentioned the GD several times in Memorabilia though never by name. She thought of it as a Rosicrucian order and referred to it as such. She saw being initiated into the GD as part of a sea-change in her life, as she moved from spiritualism, through theosophy, to being “a Rosicrucian”; and then on again to anthroposophy. At least in its early days, the GD was a Rosicrucian organisation. Members of the Societas Rosicruciana in Anglia (of which Westcott was a very senior member) were asked to advise on ritual and texts for initiates to study. It only began to move in new and exciting directions - Egyptian magic, Celtic myth - later in the 1890s.
While she was an active member of the GD she took the duties of initiates very seriously: “my studies were restricted to the manuscripts of the Order”. When I was beginning to investigate Isabel’s life I saw several messages on the web saying that she never mentioned the GD in Memorabilia. This is true, in the sense that the words ‘Golden Dawn’ are never used in it. But I think the message-posters forgot to allow for the occult habit of always referring to things obliquely, not directly, and never by name; and also for the oaths of secrecy that members took at their initiation.
BY LATER IN 1888
Isabel had moved to 58 Blomfield Road.
Source: see the next entry - Isabel at the Grosvenor Gallery. Isabel called Blomfield Road Maida Hill, but these days we’d call it ‘Little Venice’.
Comment by Sally Davis: she was still there on census day 1891.
24 NOVEMBER 1888
Isabel’s The Spirit of a Crystal won her £5 on the opening day of Mrs Cooper-Oakley’s Dorothy Restaurant.
Source for the date:
Shopping for Pleasure: Women in the Making of London’s West End by Erika Diane Rappaport. Princeton University Press 2001: p256, re footnote 146. This first Dorothy was in Mortimer Street.
Source for Isabel’s competition win: Memorabilia p162.
Source for the interior design of the first Dorothy; and the opening of the second: Constance: the Tragic and Scandal Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle. London: John Murray 2011. I saw this via google and couldn’t find a page number.
Comment by Sally Davis: Isabel was one of four women artists Mrs Cooper-Oakley asked to paint works for the opening day. Customers at the Dorothy on its first day were asked to vote for which of the four they liked best: and the vote went to The Spirit of the Crystal. Mrs Cooper-Oakley won’t have gone to Isabel for the interior design of the Dorothy, I suppose. The walls were done in cream with crimson dados; and the room was decorated with Japanese fans and umbrellas.
The first Dorothy’s opening was a relatively quiet affair but by 21 June 1889, the Dorothy in Mortimer Street had become fashionable, so that the opening of Mrs Cooper-Oakley’s second café was an occasion for a big turn-out by the ‘aesthetic’ group. Constance Wilde attended it; and though the Dorothys were women-only an exception was made this once for Oscar. Other well-known guests included the art critic Lady Colin Campbell. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Countess Wachtmeister were also there; but Isabel probably wasn’t.
POSSIBLY END OF 1888; DEFINITELY EARLY 1889
Isabel showed some paintings done in pastels in an exhibition - or possibly two exhibitions - at the Grosvenor Gallery at 135 New Bond Street in London.
Comments on the sources by Sally Davis: this is a tricky one as the evidence I’ve found conflicts with Isabel’s own recollections; and I haven’t tracked down as yet (that’s September 2017) a copy of the Grosvenor Gallery’s first Pastels Exhibition which took place just before Christmas in 1888. Isabel’s recollections are on Memorabilia p159 in which she says that four of her works were all shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in one exhibition: her portraits of Patience Sinnett and Mabel Collins; Phaedra; and The Spirit of the Crystal. She doesn’t give the date of the exhibition and the evidence from exhibition catalogues I’ve found so far suggests there were only three paintings not four; that they were not shown together; and two were not shown until 1890. The Spirit of the Crystal was included in the group on the back of its success at the Dorothy Restaurant. It didn’t sell, though.
Sources I’ve found so far:
Grosvenor Gallery [etc] exhibitors; compiled by Algernon Graves and covering exhibitions at the Grosvenor to 1894. This is a set of handwritten entries, leather-bound in 3 volumes; in the collection at the National Art Library in the V&A. In Volume 1 A-F there’s no entry for Isabel as ‘de’; and in Volume 3 Q-Z there’s no entry for her as ‘S’ either. However, I think Graves didn’t have any better luck than I have done, finding copies of the exhibitions in which works by Isabel were shown.
I have found copies of Grosvenor Gallery exhibition catalogues for:
- Summer 1880, which was the first ever held. Future GD member Florence Kennedy exhibited a painting this time. There was nothing by Isabel in the exhibition but she may have gone along to see it, to see works by Lady Anne Blunt, whom she had met while she was living in Egypt.
- Summer 1882. GD member Henry Marriott Paget had paintings in this exhibition; but again, Isabel didn’t show anything.
- Summer 1888. No works by Isabel.
- Autumn 1888. No works by Isabel.
I haven’t tracked down any other catalogues from the 1880s yet.
- First Pastel Exhibition. I haven’t found a catalogue yet, though I did come across evidence that the exhibition definitely took place, around November/December 1888.
- (definitely the) Second Pastel Exhibition 1890: p118 in the list of exhibitors: Isabel, at 58 “Bloofield” (sic, it’s Blomfield) Road Maida Hill.. There was one work by Isabel in this exhibition: p67, catalogue number 302, “A Portrait” - which could be either Patience Sinnett or Mabel Collins.
For Isabel’s works in a Grosvenor Gallery pastels exhibition in 1890 see below.
?WINTER 1888 TO EARLY 1889
Immediately after exhibiting at the Grosvenor Gallery, Isabel and a friend left England by P&O steamer. They went first to Alexandria before taking the popular boat-trip up the Nile, spending the winter at Aswan. Isabel describes her friend as “my comrade in spiritual investigations” but during this long period spent together, the friend’s nit-picking behaviour strained their relationship severely.
Source for the trip and the problematic friend: Memorabilia p159 in which she doesn’t give a specific date. However, she associates the long trip with the four paintings she exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery. She doesn’t give the friend’s name.
Cautious comment by Sally Davis: I do wonder if the comrade in spiritual investigations, who proved so irritating as a companion, was Anne Judith Penny.
5 MARCH 1889
Back in London, Isabel went to a meeting of the London Spiritualist Alliance, held in headquarters at 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Mr E Dawson Rogers gave a talk: Some Personal Experiences with a Sensitive. During the discussion after Mr Rogers’ speech, Isabel asked him how you could distinguish between a normal state of consciousness, and a clairvoyant one.
Light: A Journal of Psychical, Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi: p130.
2 APRIL 1889
Isabel was at the London Spiritualist Alliance’s rooms again, this time to listen to Edward Maitland on The Probable Course of Development and Ultimate Issue of the Present Spiritual Movement.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Pubg Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Issue number 432 Saturday 13 April 1889 pp179-182. On a list of the more prominent spiritualists in the audience was a “Miss Bates” who might be the GD member and vigorous proponent of spiritualism Emily Katharine Bates.
9 APRIL 1889
Isabel was the speaker at a meeting of the London Spiritualist Alliance at 2 Duke Street Adelphi. Her talk was on Spiritualists and Public Worship.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Issue number 433 Saturday 20 April 1889 p191-193.
Comment by Sally Davis:
Isabel’s talk was her contribution to an ongoing debate in spiritualist circles, about whether there should be a building where spiritualists could worship, in public, as a group. In her talk, Isabel described her own spiritual views, which encompassed both the Pantheism mentioned by Maitland in his talk the previous week, and a conviction that students of spiritual science should follow “the law of Christ” (quoting Isabel on p193). As to whether spiritualists should gather together in public to offer public acknowledgement and thanks to “the gracious Father of the universe” (quoting Isabel on p191), she didn’t think the time had yet come for such a move. She restated her view that students of spiritual science such as herself each needed to follow their own path, in private. Coming together to worship as a group might suit some, but not all. Edward Maitland was at this talk and he led the discussion that took place afterwards.
Clothed with the Sun was published; Anna Bonus Kingsford’s last work.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi: pi (the small ads) of issue of Sat 22 June 1889 as “just published” by George Redway; editor Edward Maitland.
10 AUGUST 1889
For some weeks, Light had been publishing extracts from the papers of Anna Maria Howitt Watts the spirit painter. Isabel sent in to Light a letter explaining how Anna Bonus Kingsford viewed spirit painting. She also set out her own, rather different opinion.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Issue of 10 August 1889 pp380-81.
Comments by Sally Davis: Isabel’s conversation with Dr Kingsford about spirit painting had taken place several years before, but Dr Kingsford had never changed her opinion of it; and neither had Isabel in the years since. In Dr Kingsford’s view, spirit drawing and painting took their inspiration from the astral plane, a place of confusion rather than order, whose spirits were “emanations from man”. Consequently, Man could learn nothing from them about the higher planes beyond human existence. Anna Kingsford, of course, approached spirit painting as its audience. Isabel, on the other hand, looked at it with the eye of a painter who believed that order was “the key-note of all Heavenly things”. Although she had seen some very beautiful spirit paintings full of extraordinary levels of detail, for her they were all “spoiled by a sort of cross purpose of idea”. She found the study of them “aggravating” and thought it likely to have a bad effect on the brain.
Isabel had written the letter in Shrewsbury. She did not give a more exact address, as she was only there for a few weeks.
7 SEPTEMBER 1889
A second letter from Isabel appeared in Light. Called ‘Drawing Mediumship’ it replied to criticisms of her first letter on spirit painting.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Issue of 7 September 1889 p433.
Comments by Sally Davis: Isabel was back at her house in Bedford Park when she wrote this letter. Her first letter had been criticised by a writer calling herself* ‘Pencil’ but Isabel stuck to her belief that as the symbols in a spirit drawing have no context, their meaning could never be clear. Spirit drawings might have “a surface symmetry” but that apparent unity didn’t survive closer inspection. A spirit painter called Marie Gifford had also written to Light to point out to Isabel that spirit drawing was not an easy thing, it required effort and was exhausting. But for Isabel, Gifford’s comment backed up her own argument: making art should never be an ordeal.
*Vivienne Roberts, who has charge of the art collection of the College of Psychical Studies, tells me that Pencil was the writing name of a woman spirit painter.
Over the next couple of issues of Light, Isabel’s letter of 7 September 1889 received replies from Pencil, Marie Gifford and a writer calling him or herself Leo. If Isabel replied to any of these, her letter wasn’t published.
Isabel showed two paintings at the Walker Art Gallery autumn exhibition: The Flight of Aurora; and The First Blush of Spring - Capri.
19th Liverpool Autumn Exhibition of Modern Pictures 1889. List of exhibitors p135. List of pictures p54 in Room VI which was given over to watercolour drawings; catalogue number 936 - The Flight of Aurora, described as a pastel and available at £15/15. And p43 catalogue number 722 which was an oil painting - The First Blush of Spring - Capri, price £10/10.
Comments by Sally Davis:
Firstly on The First Blush of Spring: I suppose this must be a second outing for the one Isabel had shown in 1887 at the Society of Lady Artists as First Blossom of Spring: Almond Blossom, Capri, Italy.
Secondly on the Aurora paintings - I think there are two, possibly three. In Memorabilia pp110-112 Isabel writes of a painting called “Aurora Clothed with the Dawn”. As it was “a picture after my own heart”, she never exhibited it. She took it with her as she moved from new address to new address, until it was destroyed by fire in 1900.
Perhaps Isabel’s memory was playing tricks - she was writing Memorabilia decades after many of the events in it, and without being able to use her diary entries from the time. Because not only was there a painting by Isabel called The Flight of Aurora, in pastel, exhibited in 1889; there was also another one with the same name, done in oil and shown in 1893, probably as a pair with one called The Chariot of Venus. It’s all very confusing. Or am I just making things too complicated?
19 OCTOBER 1889
Isabel went to a meeting of the Bedford Park Society to hear a talk by T L Henly. The talk was an introduction to Spiritualism.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Issue number 463 Saturday 16 November 1889 pp554-555, a letter from Isabel in response to one from T L Henly about the way he was treated that evening.
Comment by Sally Davis: editions of Light at around this time have a lot in them by T L Henly - he was a very keen proselytiser on spiritualism’s behalf. But he was the type to take umbrage very easily. He was so upset and annoyed by how the audience had behaved both during his talk and in the question-and-answer session afterwards, that he wrote a long, irritable letter to Light about it, which was published in the issue of 2 November 1889. Isabel wrote in response, trying to tell Henly, in the gentlest manner possible, that she at least thought he hadn’t tailored his talk to fit his rather unusual audience. His talk, she thought, had placed too much emphasis on spiritualism as a release from the fear of death: such an argument was not likely to weigh as much with a group of bohemian intellectuals as with the audiences Henly was more used to. Isabel’s letter was her last word on the subject. Henly didn’t like her criticisms and wrote to Light to say so; provoking one or two other people to write in, arguing on one side or the other.
It’s really interesting to discover that Isabel knew people in the Bedford Park Society in 1889. I haven’t ever found a list of its members but many people who later joined the GD were living in Bedford Park at the time and were likely to have been members, if not founders, of the Society. In fact, the sequence of letters in response to Henly’s complaints was closed, in Light’s last issue of 1889, by a short, rather brusque one from W B Yeats saying that Henly should have been prepared for robust debate, lecturing on such a controversial subject. Yeats’ letter doesn’t say so specifically but I think he must have been at Henly’s lecture himself; perhaps he was on the Society’s committee. Other people who lived nearby, were members of the GD at one time, and may have gone to Mr Hely’s talk were: Florence Farr; Henrietta Paget and her husband Henry Marriott Paget; John William Brodie-Innes and his wife Frances; John Todhunter; Frederick Leigh Gardner; and Dorothea Butler. Yeats’ letter was in Light number 469 Saturday 28 December 1889 p619.
26 NOVEMBER 1889
Isabel went once again to a meeting of the London Spiritualist Alliance at 2 Duke Street. This time the speaker was Morell Theobald, a very active member of the LSA. His talk, Gleanings Abroad, was an account of his recent round-the-world trip.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Issue number 466 Saturday 7 December 1889 p587.
Comment by Sally Davis: Morell Theobald’s brother Robert Masters Theobald, a doctor and homaeopath, was a member of the GD. He gave one or two talks at the LSA on medical matters but probably wasn’t a spiritualist as he didn’t go to many other LSA meetings.
7 DECEMBER 1889
There was another lecture at the Bedford Park Society, this time on theosophy, given by Colonel Henry Olcott. Isabel may have gone to this too - though she hardly needed an introduction to the subject and I haven’t found anything specifically saying that she was in the audience that evening.
Source: Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Issue number 467 Saturday 14 December 1889 p603 and number 468 Saturday 21 December 1889.
Comment by Sally Davis: T L Henly might have been slightly cheered to find from subsequent issues of Light that the Bedford Park Society gave Colonel Olcott quite as hard a time as they had given him.
10 DECEMBER 1889
Isabel gave her second talk of the year at the London Spiritualist Alliance: Spiritualism Amongst the Poets - The Epic of Hades.
Source: Light: A Journal of Psychical Occult and Mystical Research volume IX January-December 1889. London: Eclectic Publishing Co Ltd of 2 Duke St Adelphi. Issue number 468 Saturday 21 December 1889 p610-612.
Comment by Sally Davis. Because poetry is something that I have never got the hang of, I had never heard of the author of The Epic of Hades, Lewis Morris. Although I think he is not read much now, Morris was very well-known in his lifetime and has his own wikipedia page. Isabel’s argument during her talk was that Lewis Morris was a spiritualist poet and the The Epic of Hades a spiritualist work. Amongst a number of characters mentioned in the poem as spending time in Tartarus learning from mistakes they made in their lifetimes was Phaedra. Isabel described the Phaedra of the poem as still wanting revenge; and she may have been inspired to start her own painting of Phaedra by Morris’ work. The discussion which followed Isabel’s talk was led by Alaric A Watts; and by Professor George Chainey of Boston Massachusetts who was in London on a lecture tour. While she was preparing her talk, Isabel had been lent the 30 November 1889 edition of The Agnostic Journal (I wonder who the lender was, perhaps a member of the Bedford Park Society) which had in it an article by George Chainey on Dreamers of Dreams.
Lewis Morris’ The Epic of Hades was first published anonymously in London by Henry S King and Co in 1877. In 1878 Kegan Paul took it up, and published it with Morris named as its author. Kegan Paul’s publication was into its fourth edition by the end of 1879; but I don’t quite understand why Isabel had chosen it as a subject for a talk over a decade later.
For further on George Chainey, a convert to spiritualism who had been a Christian minister:
New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America by Mary Farrell Bednarowski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press 1989: In the Notes Section p141 note 4.
Whitman and the Irish by Joann P Krieg. Iowa City: Univ of Iowa Press 2000 p148, which covers Chainey’s decisive intervention when the Boston city authorities were trying to censor Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass on grounds of obscenity. He read out Whitman’s poem To A Common Prostitute in one of his sermons to force a decision on the matter - and the obscenity case was dropped.
COPYRIGHT SALLY DAVIS
3 April 2018
Email me at
Find the web pages of Roger Wright and Sally Davis, including my list of people initiated into the Order of the Golden Dawn between 1888 and 1901, at: