Ann Bridge Davies:
The Art of Spirit
From the inception of Spiritualism, those who saw, felt or heard communications from the spirit world experimented with supernatural energies in their dark séances, thus generating the first type of spirit art. These pioneers were highly creative artist-mediums who were willing for the ‘forces’ to work through them, producing paintings and drawings created by allowing the physical body to succumb to spirit control. This resulted in a form of automatic mark-making, using the mediumistic techniques of automatism and trance, which in the mid-nineteenth century was a unique creative process both in terms of art and spiritualistic method.
There are written testimonies about some of those working in this way at that time. The first such artist was John Murray Spear (1804-1887) who began to draw as spirit controlled him.
“In May 1852, his hand was seized with the compulsion to draw. He said he had ‘never had any taste for drawing’ and ‘never drew the first thing in his life’, but he gave his hand a pen to work its will. His hand drew a picture of itself, and then other parts of his body, and then labelled the pictures with diagrams, emblems and mottoes: ‘open thine hand to the poor’ was written in the palm of his hand… The spirits were preparing him for a new mission… Soon he began other spontaneous, abstract and automatic drawings, very singular and sometimes beautiful diagrams of things which he and no-one else on Earth… ever saw or heard of before.”
John Spear was probably not aware of his own achievement at the time but, by putting a graphite pencil in his hand and “asking for God’s guidance”, his experimental action began a new movement in both art and mediumship. Beginning by simply letting his hand move and to be taken over by an impulse that he believed was from a spirit, within a few seconds he created drawings from what he believed to be God’s messengers, the angels of the spirit world. This action defined the future of spirit art…
Considering these drawings as quasi-religious manifestations of God’s hand through His spirit helpers, John Spear’s example of allowing the hand to move independently from the mind influenced early protagonists of Spiritualism in England, furthering the movement throughout Great Britain. Here, others among the first to create drawings without conscious thought were the Quakers William Martin Wilkinson (1814-1897) and his wife Elizabeth. There were also the Plain Quakers William Howitt (1792-1879) and his wife Mary (1799-1888), who were writers to the Victorian court. Their daughter Anna Mary Howitt (1824-1884), who would prove to be one of the great pioneers of spirit art, described these beginnings in Pioneers of Spiritual Reformation (1883):
“One Sunday, January 31st, 1858, my father much to his astonishment gained the power to write, and also to draw. He and my mother a day or two previously had visited Mr and Mrs W Wilkinson at Hampstead to inspect the remarkable and beautiful spirit-given drawings of Mr Wilkinson, the origin and production of which caused Mr Wilkinson to publish his valuable book…”
Anna Mary also described her experience at a séance held in 1872, of how William Wilkinson had created his first spirit art:
“The influence [of spirit] becoming stronger and ever stronger, moved not alone the hand but the whole arm in a rotary motion until the arm was at length raised and rapidly – as if it had been the spoke of a wheel propelled by machinery – whirled irresistibly in a whole sweep, and with great speed, for some ten minutes through the air. The effect of this rapid rotation was felt by him in the muscles of the arm for some little time afterwards.” (Spirit Identity, Appendix, 1872.)
These passages are invaluable for understanding the manner and process by which spirit art was first created. The hand seemed to be held in a tight grip by the spirit; the arm rotated so fiercely that it could not be stopped by the person affected; and those influenced by the unseen spirit force did not try to stop the procedure, believing that they were being guided by the world of God and the departed.
Today, it would be thought that the discarnate spirit does not actually grip the hand of the artist but affects the part of the brain that causes involuntary movement of the arm and hand. But those first artists relied upon what they believed about how a spirit connects, communicates and physically uses their human body to write and draw. Each séance was a time of experimentation and investigation, as each would-be artist in their own way attempted to link with whomever (or whatever) wanted to use their physical body.
Spear was a pioneer and forerunner to the techniques future artists would use: the ‘hand of spirit’ finding a way to trigger the medium’s brain into moving the hand, arm or whole body automatically. These mediums must have had a great deal of faith in what they were doing and creating, at a time – let it not be forgotten – when women were often placed in mental institutions for any form of odd behaviour. Women took the risk of being marked publicly with madness each time they visited a séance room and allowed themselves to be controlled by invisible forces who drew, wrote and spoke through those present.
Two women in particular independently facilitated and evolved spirit-inspired art as a tool for their religious belief and in the development of their artistic talent. From the mid-nineteenth century until 1884, the year they both died, Anna Mary Howitt (whose married name was Watts) and Georgiana Houghton dominated spirit art in England. Although they probably did not realise it at the time, they became the most significant of the Victorian spiritualists to explore both the supernatural, through paranormal experiments, and the art techniques they had learned in their education. They used spirit energies and art materials to create paintings and drawings, their supernatural methods requiring a conviction that they could achieve communication with the spirits of the dead, who controlled the artists’ bodily movements as a form of automatism.