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Ithell Colquhoun, Unbound booklet titled ‘Bonsoir’ (1939)
Ithell Colquhoun, Unbound booklet titled ‘Bonsoir’ (1939). Cut-outs and collage on paper
 21×16Courtesy of Tate Britain

Unearthing the hidden history of magic and the occult in British art

Victoria Jenkins’ Visions of the Occult: An Untold Story of Art and Magic excavates Tate Britain’s underground archive to trace the art world’s fascination with all things esoteric

Beneath Tate Britain, in a vaulted space below the water level of the Thames, a vast archive of sketchbooks, diaries, correspondence, photographs, and ephemera throws light on the lineage of some of the famed works of art displayed in the hallowed gallery spaces above. The objects and materials stored on these shelves of files and archival boxes present an alternative story to the one presented in the institution beneath which they’re stored; an underground world of unexcavated tales that offer a new perspective on the history of British art. 

One of the submerged stories permeating the archive is the influence of magic, supernatural and occult on the work of generations of British artists. Visions of the Occult: An Untold Story of Art and Magic  [Tate Publishing] by archivist and writer Victoria Jenkins is a new book unearthing the unexpected esoteric items from the archive and tracing the manifestations of myth, ritual and occultism in some of the gallery’s canonical works. 

In a conversation over email, we spoke to Victoria Jenkins about the most surprising stories and objects contained in the Tate Britain archive, William S. Burroughs’ vengeful psychic attack on a cafe for its disappointing hospitality [and cheesecake], and why magic is fundamentally transgressive. 

In what ways do elements of the occult, magic, and mysticism manifest themselves in the archive? 

Victoria Jenkins: The range of material in the archive is vast, and the collection is primarily related to post-1900s British art and includes drawings, sketchbooks, posters, photographs, letters, and so much more. 

Occult and magical themes manifest in an array of ways, both subtle and bold. Some artists represented in the collection lived a life permeated by magic, such as surrealist Ithell Colquhoun. Her archive includes drafts of her magical writings, correspondence with various occult, druidic, and masonic orders as well as artworks laden with occult and mythological references and meaning. 

There are also archives where these otherworldly topics are curious undercurrents, surprising finds, and a source of imaginative inspiration, such as a photograph of painter Bryan Wynter sitting outside of his home ‘Eagles Nest’. The now derelict cottage on the Cornish rocky moors near Zennor is rumoured to have once been the residence of one of the most notorious occultists Aleister Crowley.

The book taps into this archive collection as its main source, although artworks from the gallery collection predating this, and from the international collection are also featured in the book.

“While there appear to be periods of intensity in occult interest, these currents never cease; they are entwined in our experience of reality” – Victoria Jenkins

When was the artistic curiosity about magic at its peak? And what would say accounted for the rise in interest? 

Victoria Jenkins: When researching for the book, I initially felt there were clear periods of peak magical artistic interest; the symbolism and mythological sources of the 19th century pre-raphaelite brotherhood, early 20th-century abstract artists’ engagement with, and in some case membership of, theosophical teachings and organisations, and then explorations of feminist mysticism catalysed during the radical political movements of the late 1960s. 

These are often referred to as magical or occult revivals – but people have been continuously working with and interested in magical practices, including artists. I hope the book demonstrates that while there appear to be periods of intensity in occult interest and engagement associated with particular cultural or political events, these currents never cease; they are entwined in our experience of reality. Perhaps it's more a case of waves of acceptance or sensitivity to these elements or how much credibility cultural gatekeepers allow them at any given time.

In what ways do you feel this kind of art was transgressive or rebellious? 

Victoria Jenkins: While slippery to define, the occult is often described as secretive and sitting outside of a society’s dominant religious beliefs, and so in that sense, it is intrinsically rebellious. This may have been the source of appeal for some artists.

There are particular motifs that artists have turned to, for example, the witch, who, of course, has now been adopted as a feminist figure and appears in the work of artists such as Kiki Smith as a celebration of the outcasts of a patriarchal society.

Please could you share some of the more surprising stories and objects you found in the archive? 

Victoria Jenkins: There is a file from the archive of art critic and historian Joseph Paul Hodin which contains astrological horoscope charts and palm prints relating to Austrian artist, Oskar Kokoschka. Hodin turned to occult techniques as a strategy for biographical research, using the prints and charts in a process of character analysis he referred to as ‘psychography’.

Another box holds a cache of photographs taken by William S. Burroughs which include repeated shots of the exterior of a café in Soho, the Moka Bar. These photographs appear pretty innocuous, but they are in fact part of a hex using his well-documented cut-up process. Burroughs wished to avenge the Moka Bar for ’discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake’. The cafe closed later that year, could this possibly have been a result of his psychic attack?!

“Burroughs wished to avenge the Moka Bar for ’discourtesy and poisonous cheesecake’. The cafe closed later that year, could this possibly have been a result of his psychic attack?!” – Victoria Jenkins

What alternative tales do you tell about the artworks on display in the gallery above? 

Victoria Jenkins: This book tells a tale of the occult imagination and curiosity, often found in surprising places. Tate Britain’s 19th-century neoclassical architectural style is often associated with philosophies of the enlightenment, where magical practices and supernatural beliefs were discredited as superstition and something to be consigned to the past. Yet even the building’s walls are flanked by sculptures of sphinxes, mythological creatures associated with riddles and protectors of secrets. A great many artworks in this book are also very much at odds with the myth of a British sensibility that is reserved, stifled and prosaic. There is much wonder and weirdness to be celebrated!

Can you tell us some of the ways in which these artworks transform our understanding of the canon?

Victoria Jenkins: I think the greatest canonical myth these artworks undermine is that there has been a turn away from magic, mysticism, and the supernatural as a result of modernism. While this book includes many artworks predating this period, it is clear to see this lineage continues with artists throughout the 20th century into the present day. Artists continue to seek magical influence as a source of creative inspiration, to imagine new possibilities and to enact change. Rather than being discredited as foolish superstition, these beliefs offer potent repositories for knowledge and generate new narratives outside established powers.

Visions of the Occult: An Untold Story of Art and Magic written by Victoria Jenkins and published by Tate Publishing is available now