An Australian Spiritualist’s personal carte-de-visite album

my chapter from:

Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850 – 1920

Edited by Anne Maxwell and Josephine Croci

Australian Scholarly Publishing

Melbourne 2015

At first glance it’s an unassuming album, barely twelve by fifteen centimetres in size and about six centimetres thick. The anonymous owner purchased the blank album for three shillings in Melbourne in the early 1880s. The thirty-six carte-de-visite portraits that she slipped into it were taken in Australia and overseas from the late 1850s onwards.

So far there is not much to distinguish this album, which is in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, from the hundreds of other carte-de-visite albums that were assembled in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Such albums visually located their owners within widening concentric circles of immediate family, social groups and political classes. They were oral, as well as visual, documents because their owners narrated them as they were shown to family and friends in the parlour. But, although they were domestic objects, the images they contained opened out onto the whole world.

In most nineteenth century albums portraits of intimate friends rubbed shoulders with portraits of famous personages, but in this album these images also rubbed shoulders with portraits of spirits. The album documents one person’s passion for the religion of Modern Spiritualism. Its owner was probably a member of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, and her album uses cartes-de-visite to map the spiritual, social and political world the Victorian Spiritualists created for themselves.

Looking through this album now we are missing the owner’s all-important narration, but it is possible to recover some of the knowledge she would have recalled about each subject as she slid their photograph into its pocket. The portraits were inserted into the album in no particular order and most are, in themselves, visually unremarkable. However analysing the album as a complete object is still worthwhile, because, when we know some of the things the album’s original owner knew about each portrait, the disparate images begin to network together into a complex world-view made up of succeeding spheres of the local, the famous, and the disincarnate. Biographical information can be found for all but one of the portraits in the album. Of these only a couple are Melbourne locals. Of the rest, approximately a third are of Spiritualist mediums and lecturers who visited Melbourne on their round-the-world tours, another third are international luminaries of Modern Spiritualism, and a final third are of well known spirits returned from the dead. A description of even a small representative sample of the these four groups gives an indication of the extent of the album’s reach, all the way from Melbourne, to Britain, to the United States, and on to the Beyond.

The Network of Portraits

The album contains a couple of portraits of Melbourne spiritualists who its owner probably would have known personally. Perhaps she even obtained their portraits in exchange for her own. Most significant is a portrait of William H. Terry by the Melbourne photographers Stewart & Co. Terry was Melbourne’s most prominent Spiritualist. A vegetarian teetotaller, Terry was a spiritual healer, diagnosing ailments through what he called a ‘spiritual telegraph’ with the Beyond. Throughout the 1870s, popular interest in Spiritualism and séances continued to grow so that by 1878 a reporter for the Melbourne Age was confessing:

Though I do not profess to being a Spiritualist, I own to having been infected with the fashionable itch for witnessing ‘physical manifestations’ as they are called, and accordingly I have attended several séances with more or less gratification[1]

By 1881, at about the time this album was being compiled, the membership of the VAS had climbed 853 members, at a time when Melbourne’s population was barely 300,000.[2]

The VAS sponsored the visits of many prominent international spiritualists to Melbourne, and their cartes-d-visite were placed into the album. The glamorously bearded American lecturer, Dr J. M. Peebles, who came to Melbourne in 1872 and again in 1878, visited the same Melbourne photographer as Terry, Stewart & Co, to have his portrait made. He lectured to standing-room-only crowds of up to 3000 people every Sunday for three months about progressive vegetarian diet reform.[3]

One of the most high-profile mediums to visit Australia was J. J. Morse. Supposedly an uneducated barman, he suddenly became full of erudition when entranced. He also appeared to be able to withstand fire and physically elongate his body. [4] His carte in the album was taken by the photographer James Bowman of Glasgow. The album also features a Bowman portrait of Morse’s spirit guide, Tien Sien Tie. (Figure 1) Supposedly a Chinese philosopher who had lived on Earth in the reign of the Emperor Kea-Tsing, Tien Sien Tie first ‘controlled’ Morse in 1869. The spirit portrait is in fact a photographic copy made by Bowman of a trance drawing produced by the Glasgow medium David Duguid. Duguid would take a plain card and breathe on it and rub it between his hands in order to ‘magnetize’ it. He would then place it in a sealed envelope in the centre of the séance table, while the sitters placed their hands on the envelope and sang hymns in order to protect the fine mechanisms of the spirits from outside influences as they worked. When the envelope was eventually opened a spirit drawing was found on it.[5] Duguid’s trance drawing is a stilted piece of proto ‘photo-realism’, however it was adapted to being turned into a carte-de-visite, allowing the spirit to take his place amongst the other personages in the album.

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

James Bowman (Glasgow), J J Morse’s Controlling Spirit Tien Sien Tie, c1874, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Conventional cartes-de-visite of many of the senior figures of the international movement, who never visited Australia, were also placed in the album. For instance it contains a thoroughly unremarkable portrait of Modern Spiritualism’s first and most famous medium, Kate Fox, who as a young girl in 1848 had first established a code of raps for communicating with a spirit that haunted her house in upstate New York, thus sparking the growing craze for Spiritualism which spread across the world.

These cardinal figures are supported in the album by a range of lesser known writers, proselytisers and investigators for the movement. However without doubt, the highlights of the album are the spirits themselves. The world’s first spirit photographer was William Mumler of Boston, and his photographs were circulated widely throughout the global Spiritualist community as visual testimony to Spiritualist truths. Perhaps the most famous testimony came from Moses A. Dow. The faded, desiccated spirit we see slipped into the Melbourne album today gives the contemporary viewer little indication of the intense emotions and complex interactions that surrounded the photograph. Dow had taken a talented young woman, Mabel Warren, under his wing and eventually came to regard her as a dearly beloved daughter. She was suddenly taken ill and quietly passed into spirit land, leaving Dow grief stricken. The spirit stayed in touch with Dow through several different Boston mediums before announcing that she wished to give Dow her spirit picture via Mumler’s photographic mediumship. Dow described the result of Mumler’s photographic séance with him:

Her right hand passes over my left arm and clasps my hand. Her left hand is seen on my left shoulder, and between the thumb and forefinger of this hand is held an opening rose bud, the exact counterpoint of the one I placed there while she lay in the casket at her funeral.[6]

For three shillings sixpence for a packet of three, spiritualists living in Britain and Australia were able to order copies of these photographic proofs that the dead lived from Spiritualist magazines, such as Boston’s Banner of Light, and London’s Spiritual Magazine. However in this album all traces of that rose bud have finally leached out of the photograph.

The other key photographer in Spiritualism was the London photographer Frederick Hudson. His 1872 group portrait of two mortals and a spirit is inserted into the album’s first page. (Figure 2) The medium Charles Williams, who is seated, could supposedly produce fully materialized spirits while he sat tied up and entranced in a curtained-off cabinet. He benefited from the patronage of Samuel Guppy who is photographed standing beside him. The wealthy Guppy had married the medium Agnes Nichols in1867and they became London Spiritualism’s ‘first couple’. In this portrait the top half of a shrouded spirit appears to be materializing in front of the two men, assertively looking towards the viewer and raising his hand in a biblical gesture.

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Samuel Guppy (left), the medium Charles Williams, and a spirit, c1872, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Some Spirits were known by name. The best-known spirit of the day was John King, who spoke in direct voice through a floating trumpet and said he was Henry Owen Morgan, the buccaneer. Many mediums claimed to be able to materialize him, including Charles Williams, and with his trademark turban King frequently appeared at séances in London. He even posed behind some studio scenery in substantial form (though with suspiciously similar facial features to Charles Williams himself) for his carte-de-visite, which is in this album. (Figure 3)

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Unknown, The spirit John King, c1870s, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Hudson’s fame quickly grew amongst Spiritualists and he began to accept many clients into his studio, producing draped spirits on the plates for them as well. However his most important collaborator was Miss Georgiana Houghton, an accomplished upper class women who in 1859 found her true passion in Spiritualism and ebulliently developed her own amateur mediumship.

She had read the first reports of William Mumler’s spirit photographs in the Spiritual Magazine of December 1862. She at once believed, and purchased one of the packets of Mumler photographs that the magazine offered to its readers. Ten years later the Guppys introduced her to Frederick Hudson. She recounted her subsequent four years of experimentation with him in a book illustrated with fifty-four miniaturised cartes-de-visite called Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye. In the preface to the book Houghton granted her photographs a privileged role in proving Spiritualism’s truths:

I send them forth in full assurance that they carry a weight of evidence as to the substantiality of spirit being far transcending any other forms of mediumship.[7]

Houghton travelled across London every Thursday to Hudson’s backyard glasshouse studio, meeting Mrs Guppy for a regular appointment at which Hudson would coat, sensitise and expose three plates of her. Hudson wholesaled his photographs of Houghton back to her, and she retailed them to her Spiritualist correspondents around the world, thus increasing his clientele as well as making enough profit for Houghton to cover her own costs. Miss Houghton and Mrs Guppy took turns to be photographed after mesmerizing the other in a ‘cabinet’ — a curtained-off part of a room which supposedly collected and concentrated the psychic energy of entranced mediums. The mesmerized women acted as batteries of stored-up spirit-power which could be drawn upon by the spirits to supplement their own spirit-power as they materalised themselves. To Houghton the draped figures could not possibly be Hudson’s collaborators dressed-up, they were too flat and unfilled-out. Their draped appearance was the result of the spirits using the women’s spiritual power with wise economy. Spirits told the lady experimenters to preserve their magnetism by wearing clothes that they had had about their person for a considerable time, and to avoid wearing clothes that had just been laundered. Houghton went a step further, using one of her black satin petticoats to construct her own dark-cloth for Hudson to cover and uncover the lens of his camera.

For Houghton, what was most genuine about the shrouded figures in her photographs was the simple, unassuming modesty of their attitudes (poses we would now see as stilted eschatological theatrics). In contrast, she noted, living people usually wanted their portraits taken in order to exhibit their ego, and photographers were paid to make the most of any good feature. For her, the hundreds of cartes-de-visite displayed in shop windows, where the sitters were full of self-consciousness and had an air of self-gratification, contrasted badly with the air of peaceful repose of the spirits that she saw in Hudson’s photographs.

In a photograph taken in May 1872 a spirit appeared whom she recognised as her Aunt Helen who had died thirty years before of heart disease brought on by grief at the loss of her husband. Aunt Helen had left half her fortune to Houghton who had gratefully spent it all on her Spiritualist enthusiasms. She appeared now standing right behind Houghton to indicate that she continuing to support her from beyond the grave. The Melbourne compiler of this album purchased this double portrait for her album. (Figure 4)

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Miss Houghton and spirit of her aunt, c1872, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

A key Hudson portrait from the album is of Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson, father of the future famous Australian author Henry Handel Richardson who based her book The Fortunes of Richard Mahony on him. Richardson was a successful doctor in Ballarat and became the first president of the Victorian Association of Spiritualists, while also holding other eminent posts in colonial society such as on the Senate of Melbourne University. He was so successful in business he was able to return to Britain for a tour of the Continent with his family in 1873 and 1874. Whilst there, he wowed British Spiritualists with an address that connected progressive Spiritualism to the manifest destiny of the colonies. He said:

I come from a far country where […] the Teuton and the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon are founding a new republic and […] the great wave of modern Spiritualism is spreading over the length and breadth of the land. It is sapping the foundations of ecclesiastical Christianity; it is splitting asunder corporations based on self-interest and human greed […] It is, amid much ridicule and denunciation, proclaiming the brotherhood of the human race and the absolute and unconditional freedom of each immortal soul.[8]

When in London Richardson also attended séances with London’s leading mediums including Charles Williams, Mrs Guppy and Miss Houghton. He witnessed the materialization of London’s most celebrated spirits as well, including John King. In early 1874 he visited Frederick Hudson, as so many others were doing. After cleaning the plates himself and followed every stage of the process through to development, he received spirits on three out of the four plates, sending prints back to William H. Terry in Melbourne. The most remarkable of the three successes is in the album. (Figure 5) Terry, writing in his magazine the Harbinger of Light, tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Dr Richardson and spirit of his sister, 1873-74, carte-de-visite in album page, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

…a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form.[9]

So, Terry reasoned, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization…..

As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium, and but few Media (sic) have the necessary emanation to enable the spirits to complete the process.[10]

Richardson also sat in on several séances with the leading matron of London Spiritualism, Mrs MacDougall Gregory, who was also the widow of his old Chemistry professor. Hudson’s carte-de-visite of Mrs Gregory is also in the album. (Figure 6) The shrouded spirit who has joined her, identified in the caption as the sister of her departed husband, has eschewed the self-conscious formal poses of the standard carte-de-visite, and instead sits comfortably cross-legged on the floor beside her, imitating the sitting conventions of the American Indians and Orientals who were often Spirit Controls for British mediums.

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Frederick Hudson, Professor Gregory’s wife and spirit of his sister, c1873, carte-de-visite, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Spiritualism and Nineteenth Century Science

For us, merely knowing bare facts such as these about the subjects of the portraits may have only succeeded in filling the album with bewildering chatter from the procession of grifters, hucksters, naifs and idealists who crowd its pages. But, if we could hear how its owner would have narrated it in the 1880s, this silent collection of now-faded cartes-de-visite would become full of the urgent discourse, the very presence, of all of the key protagonists in the Spiritualists’ world. These personages formed themselves into series of conceptual concentric circles around her: local campaigners such as Terry and Richardson; celebrity proselytizers and mediums who had visited and performed in Melbourne such as Morse; famous mediums and writers from overseas who she had only read of or heard about; and finally, in the outer circle, the spirits themselves, such as Charles Williams’ tall and turbaned John King or Georgiana Houghton’s stalwart Aunt Helen.

This structure of progressive elevation and etherealization was also how, in a cross-pollination of their Swedenborgian and Copernican cosmologies with progressive ideas of political progress and social evolution, the Spiritualists conceived of this life and the afterlife — as a series of concentric spheres through which mortals and spirits gained more knowledge as they continued their ascent towards God.

Not only were developments in politics and social philosophy shaping the movement’s progressive social agenda, but developments in science were also structuring its metaphysical imagination. Nineteenth century advances in evolutionary biology, geology, physics and chemistry, which emphasised that matter and being changed incrementally over time, were crucial to Spiritualism. The new technologies arising from these sciences not only provided tangible evidence that science was progressing and opening up hitherto unknown worlds of knowledge, which the Spiritualists were confident already contained confirmed examples of spirit communication, but they also provided enabling metaphors and analogies which were joyfully inhabited and extrapolated upon by the Spiritualist imagination — an imagination which had the capacity to stretch far beyond the breaking point of incredulity other people had.

The reigning metaphors were electricity and the telegraph, the wonders of the age, which allowed communication over vast distances. For instance in the 1850s two separate magazines called themselves The Spiritual Telegraph. Spiritualism was therefore a theory of communication as much as it was a conventional religion. It was not a faith in a deferred redemption, but an active belief in the current opportunities provided by supposed communication with those who already had higher knowledge — the spirits.

Mediated Intimacy

If Spiritualism was a theory of technological communication, can contemporary theories of the media cast any light on the activity of this anonymous compiler of carte-de-visites? In his 1995 book The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, John Thompson argues that, because of today’s new technologies such as TV and the internet, our social relationships and sense of ourselves are increasingly characterised by what he calls ‘mediated intimacy’, an intimacy exemplified by the real sense of closeness many fans feel with the stars they idolize. He says:

It is this new form of mediated, non-reciprocal intimacy, stretched across time and space, which underlies, for example, the relationship between fan and star. It can be exhilarating, precisely because it is freed from the reciprocal obligations characteristic of face-to-face interaction. But it can also become a form of dependence in which individuals come to rely on others whose very absence and inaccessibility turn them into an object of veneration.[11]

Fans create their own customised worlds by taking up, transforming and incorporating media products into a structured symbolic universe inhabited only by themselves. Because of media technologies, Thompson says, we are all living in a mediated world in which we are increasingly unconstrained by our location or our time, but only at the cost of the displacement of immediate ‘lived’ experience:

If we compare our lives today with the lives of individuals who lived two or three centuries ago, it seems clear that the structure of experience has changed in significant ways. […] While lived experience remains fundamental, it is increasingly supplemented by, and in some respects displaced by, mediated experience, which assumes a greater and greater role in the project of self-formation.[12]

Perhaps we can see the owner of this album, who lived a mere one hundred and thirty years or so ago, as a pioneer of both the pleasures, and the pitfalls, of this use of mediated experience for a project of self formation. She probably never left Melbourne, but through the global interchange of cartes-de-visite, and through the global reach of Spiritualist networks, she assembled a coherent world for herself out of fragments of photographically mediated experience.

She probably did this by sending money overseas to spiritualist magazines, as well as to individuals like James Bowman from Glasgow, and Georgiana Houghton from London. In addition she brought cartes-de-visite off visitors to Melbourne, and probably exchanged her own image for cartes-de-visite of her fellow Melbourne Spiritualists. They all come together in her little parlour album — from Melbourne, from London, and from Boston — all assembled in the ready-made pockets of her album.

These cartes-de-visite constructed an entire world, with the compiler’s firm place at the centre of it implied, but never stated. Some of the images were drawn from lived experience in the colony of Victoria, and some were drawn from the higher planes of the spirit world, where celebrity spirits such as John King perpetually hovered, intimately near, but yet always out of reach — very much like a contemporary fan’s relationship to their favourite celebrity. As media objects they were all flattened, delocalised and mobilised by the globalised conventions of the various photographic studios around the world, which produced cartes-de-visite in a standardised format, in standardised glass-house studios, with standardised photographic conventions. (The Glasgow photographer Bowman even transduced trance drawing of supposed spirits into conventional cartes-de-visite.) They were all brought together into the compacted space of the album, where they were available for instant retrieval and sharing. In many respects they are like a page on a contemporary social networking site such as Facebook. In these virtual spaces close intimates, social acquaintances and favourite celebrities are all similarly flattened into ‘friends’, which orbit around the empty centre of us, constructing what we now call our ‘profile’ through our connections, rather than our innate selves.

Conclusion

Thompson warns us that there are both strengths and dangers in mediated intimacy, both pleasures and pitfalls. Did our compiler experience any of these pitfalls? Was this album, and the extraordinarily intimate, yet mediated, world it constructed simply the product of a passing enthusiasm? Did the owner, perhaps with too much money and time on her hands, simply jump on the bandwagon at the height of the fad, collecting cartes-de-visite indiscriminately before eventually getting bored with Spiritualism’s breathless rhetoric of progress and revelation, or perhaps disillusioned with its charlatans? Did the interpenetrating spheres she built up in her album all suddenly collapse in on her like a house of cards? Or, did she remain one of the social, spiritual and technological pioneers of Australia, expanding on the conventions of the portrait album to describe both the palpable and the evanescent world she lived in. Did she seriously manage to incorporate the worlds she constructed in her album, although they were ultimately built only within her imagination, into a sustained, and sustaining, personal commitment to her new religion?

We will never know.

Martyn Jolly

[1] Emma Hardinge Britten, Nineteenth Century Miracles: or Spirits and their work in every country of the earth: A complete historical compendium of the great movement known as ‘Modern Spiritualism’ (New York: William Britten, 1884), 238.

[2] Alfred J. Gabay, Messages from Beyond, Spiritualism and Spiritualists in Melbourne’s Golden Age, 1870-1890, ( Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001), 70.

[3] Ibid, 83-86

[4] Nandor Fodor, Encyclopaedia of Psychic Science, (London: Arthurs Press, 1933), 246.

[5] ibid, 97.

[6] Martyn Jolly, Faces of the Living Dead: The Belief in Spirit Photography, (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006), 19.

[7] Georgiana Houghton, Chronicles of the Photographs of Spiritual Beings and Phenomena Invisible to the Material Eye, Interblended with Personal Narrative, (London: E. W. Allen, 1882), np.

[8] Dorothy Green, ‘Walter Lindesay Richardson: the Man, the Portrait and the Artist’, Meanjin Quarterly 29.2 (March 1970): 5.

[9] William H. Terry, Harbinger of Light, 1 July 1874, 651.

[10] ibid, 651.

[11] John Thompson, The Media and Modernity: A Social Theory of Media, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995), 208.

[12] ibid, 233.

One thought on “An Australian Spiritualist’s personal carte-de-visite album

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