Blog post by Jessica Watson, an MA Honours History of Art student on placement in Special Collections.
I was selected to undertake an eight-week long placement with the Special Collections department of the University library as part of my art history course. My contribution was to run alongside the new project, Popular Occulture in Britain from 1875 to 1947, run by Professor Christine Ferguson (University of Stirling) and Dr Andrew Radford (University of Glasgow) to investigate the influence of occult beliefs, themes, and figures, in British culture at this time. My assignment was to source images of occult practice and interest, specifically from the Ferguson Collection found within the Special Collections, in order to create a bank of images for the University of Glasgow Library’s Flickr resource. The images that I sourced came under general terms of magic, alchemy, cults, gypsies, and illustrated covers of popular novels. As these are themes and parts of history that I personally find fascinating I was very excited to begin.
The Ferguson Collection contains a vast number of volumes on these themes, with everything from accounts of witchcraft trials in Scotland to freemasonry to theories of alchemy in contemporary chemistry. John Ferguson (1838-1916) was a Regius Professor of Chemistry at Glasgow University, and the collection was bought by the University in 1921.
The library website has an an excellent resource in the rare books search catalogue which I was advised to use, typing key terms to source the relevant books for the project; however, being a massive bookworm and history nerd, I was eager to explore the collection for myself and pore over every spine, and undertake my inquest for the literature in the very traditional manner.
The closed access area of the Special Collections department (or “the stack” as it is colloquially known) is a treasure-trove of antique books and manuscripts and coveted first editions, which I could only access due to my placement. Had I the leisure time I could have easily spent days exploring the entire collection, looking through all the rare items. The Ferguson Collection itself spans three long rolling stacks shelves, with ancient, leather-bound tomes that went up to my knees, and tiny little volumes that fit perfectly into the palm of my hand. On first browsing the collection I was met with plenty of books with pentagrams and other occult symbols printed on the spine; thus, my search began.
Occult belief and spiritualism had an ascent of interest during the Victorian period in Britain, particularly for the upper classes, with séances and tarot card readings being popular distractions at parties. The publication of Darwin’s On the Origins of Species in 1859 created doubt for some about the place of religion in their lives and began to explore science and consider other spiritual possibilities of explaining the mysteries of the universe. Positive response to Stoker’s Dracula published in 1897 and later editions of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams also reflect the interest of the population in the metaphysical and the mysterious.
With all this in mind, I found myself inundated with tomes on magic (white and black), alchemy, Kabbalism, demonology, freemasonry, witchcraft, Rosicrucianism, as well as books trying to explain the “mystery” and history of the gypsy people of Britain (although none of these books were written by the Roma or Travellers). In regards to illustrations or visual representations of occult interest, The Book of Black Magic by AE Waite proved to be invaluable. Providing detailed explanations on Goëtic theurgy (not to be confused with German writer, Goethe) the book attempts a systematic approach to occult practice, filled with illustrations and descriptions of the talismans and rituals required for necromancy, summoning demons, and banishment. The book also contained an impressive full-page plate depicting the instantly recognisable Sabbatic Goat by Eliphas Levi from 1856, which today is commonly known as Baphomet and associated with Satanism. Whilst the rituals for summoning the dead and the devil prove to be very complex and require specific items (such as the skull of a parricide) and the author himself stating that any who attempt them must be mad, it is nevertheless an entertaining and enlightening read, and surely scandalous for its time.
The Secret Symbols of the Rosicrucians by Franz Hartmann is another visually stunning tome, a gigantic volume filled to the brim with full-page full-colour illustrations of Rosicrucian symbols and mysteries. One could spend hours researching the significance of every symbol and shape and inscription as they are so intensely detailed that it is somewhat overwhelming for the eye to absorb all of it. A mixture of Christianity, Kabbalism, Occultism, and Mysticism, the symbols of the Rosicrucian are guaranteed to ensnare the attention.
Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling by Charles Godfrey Leland is complete with many beautiful illustrations made by the author albeit being problematic in its reading for contemporary audience due to its culturally insensitive material and its perpetuation of stereotypes. Our Gipsies in City, Tent, and Van by Vernon S. Morwood contains more anecdotal material and is also beautifully and fully illustrated, but as it is also written from an outsider’s perspective it is somewhat problematic in its reading. Both are very telling of British perspective towards the Roma and Travellers in this era.
The Ferguson Collection is a fascinating archive reflecting the alternative interest and history of the British people, and anyone interested in occult theory or spiritualism would find themselves very much at home indeed within its dark pages.
The Flickr set contains images from twelve illustrated volumes of occult literature from the Ferguson Collection and is available through the following link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/uofglibrary/albums/72157678071430133.